By my reckoning, Romelu Lukaku, is the biggest enigma (literally and figuratively) in the Premier League. Up until last summers World Cup, his career had gone by with a distinct lack of criticism and an enviable upward trajectory. Indeed, if you follow his career step by step, it is somewhat akin to a realistic ‘fantasy career’ you’d imagine for yourself.
1st step – Start off at your local club (Anderlecht) in your home country (Belgium). Debuting as a 16 year old, you score goals for fun and win two league titles in two seasons.
2nd step – You move to your favourite foreign club (Chelsea) and the side where your idol (Didier Drogba) became a legend and still plays.
3rd step – You’re still only young so you spend a year bedding in at the club, training everyday, alongside some of your heroes.
4th step – You take the next step in your development and have a loan to a smaller yet established side in the league (West Brom). In your first season of regular football, in your new country, you impress almost everyone and score regularly.
5th step – You take the next step the following season, playing out on loan again for a side with European aspirations (Everton). Again, you score goals regularly and are adored by the fanbase.
6th step – Go to the World Cup and excel as the main goal threat of the most talented and lauded squad your country (Belgium) has fielded in decades, perhaps ever.
7th step – Return to your parent club (Chelsea), aged 21, and become the main striker and goalscorer that they’ve been crying out for. Assuming the mantel from your hero; that they never really managed to replace.
It almost sounds too good to be true, and that’s cause it is. Steps 6 + 7 never materialised. From last May onwards, small cracks began to form in this master plan, cracks that some would say, have become clean breaks in recent weeks. But perhaps the warning signs were there all along?
At the end of the 2012/2013 season, many were speculating that Lukaku would become Chelsea’s main goalsman off the back of his successful loan spell at West Brom. With Mourinho coming in and Drogba departing, Romelu had the chance to establish himself as an important member of the side. His only competition would be from Demba Ba and the comic figure that Fernando Torres had become; all the pre-season chatter was positive and Lukaku was adamant he would not be leaving on loan again.
Then, Chelsea signed Samuel Eto’o, and Lukaku played just 62 minutes in their first four games of the season. 24 hours after missing the deciding penalty in their European Super Cup defeat to Bayern on the 30 August, Lukaku had confirmed a season long loan move to Everton. Did Jose not rate Lukaku or was this simply another casualty of his perpetual ‘win now’ mentality?
Mourinho’s comments that November, about Lukaku requesting a transfer shed some light on the situation and made it clear that Lukaku wanted first team football rather than being marginalised. With Jose unable to guarantee him this, the Everton loan made sense for all parties, the tone of his comments were significant though. It was clear that Mourinho was not delighted with events or with the way Lukaku had approached the challenge.
The 2013/2014 season progressed, Lukaku again scoring goals in an exciting and ambitious Everton side. He was performing exactly as we had come to expect based on his 12/13 performances. Internationally, things were not going so swimmingly and impatience had began to build, unbeknownst to most non-Belgians, regarding his performances with the national side. This was not limited just to fans, Christian Benteke was resoundingly favoured, by Coach Wilmots, over Lukaku in World Cup qualifying. Significantly, in ten qualification games, Lukaku spent six riding the pine of the substitutes bench for their entirety.
Benteke’s injury prior to the World Cup gave Lukaku the chance to jump into the national side’s starting line up and establish himself on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, the World Cup only saw him regress further down the pecking order. By the time their Quarter Final v Argentina and potentially the nations biggest ever game came around, Lukaku had been relegated back to his familiar position on the bench, behind the rookie Divock Origi.
Following this disappointment, Lukaku went on his holidays and before July was out, had signed for Everton on a permanent transfer worth £30m. Never even returning to Chelsea or indeed speaking to Mourinho. Their relationship was undeniably strained, further comments from Jose, indicating that a permanent move away from Stamford Bridge had always been on the cards.
Everton have always been a pretty thrifty club, only thrice spending over £10m on a single player. As you’d expect, signing a player who technically doesn’t improve the side you already had (as he was already there, albeit on loan, the previous season) leads to heightened demands and expectations. If you thought Lukaku was good before, then he’d have to be great. He’d have to add more than he did previously, a big fee carries certain responsibilities and also increased critiques. After all, would that £30m have been better spent on improving multiple positions; in what is a fairly thin squad depth wise?
First and foremost, Romelu Lukaku is a physical specimen. Even when he broke through at Anderlecht aged only 16, he was usually the tallest and strongest player on the pitch. Standing somewhere around 6’3 and built like a cruiserweight boxer, he looks like he was sculpted in a lab somewhere, to be the next great powerful centre forward or ‘Targetman’. Possessing an extremely powerful left foot, he has proven, in his first three years as a starter in English football, that he can score goals. If supplied with chances, he is powerful enough and a talented enough finisher with his feet and head to be effective in the last twenty yards of the pitch. He’s like Andy Carroll on steroids.
With this skillset, he will always be capable of scoring goals in the Premier League. Therefore, Everton’s regression as a team can explain why his goalscoring has dropped off this year. They’re creating fewer chances, having less possession and it would be unfair to blame him entirely for their drop off from last season. He’s the same player he’s always been. Therefore, should he be excused from criticism? Obviously his stock must take a little bit of a hit, but it probably boils down to how much weight you personally put on the contributions on a goalscorer aside from actually scoring goals.
What you can’t deny, is that there a fundamental areas of his game that must improve. For instance, Lukaku’s movement often leaves a lot to be desired. Too often his chosen ‘move’, is to loiter in or on the edge of the area, pointing to his feet with both hands. It is not a huge leap to suggest that Lukaku’s underdeveloped movement is a result of how dominant his physique is. Lukaku was not a late bloomer, and his phenomenal youth record is well documented. Due to this superior size and athletic advantage, he simply did not need to develop a well rounded game to get the results that he wanted.
Whilst playing at the youth levels, Lukaku could simply stand around on the spot in the area and was simply too big and strong for anyone to mark. With his feet or head, he would pummel goal after goal in past his opposition without answer. His alternative was to just pick up the ball on the halfway line and arrow for the goal, with the opposition bouncing off him; helpless. Mainly though, if the ball came into the area, no matter where he stood, he’d stand a chance at converting it. This lead to big gaps in his game, if you’re capable of winning every 50/50 challenge, there is less emphasis on having a tight first touch. If you don’t even need to lose your markers, then you have less need to learn where to move to open up space.
You’d presume that this would need to change as he entered the senior ranks, but even aged sixteen, he was bigger, quicker and stronger than any defenders that the Jupiler League had to offer. The setting may have, but the story didn’t change, bullying his way to goals without having to work particularly hard or cover much ground. Even in the ‘Best League in the World™’, he can get by and score goals, simply because he’s an incredibly rare blend of height, clean striking, power and speed.
I don’t mean to be disingenuous, Lukaku is by no means an awful player with the ball at his feet. In his current guise however, his physical attributes do make up for his shortfalls to an extent. His movement and first touch is simply not what you’d come to expect from a £30m pound player.
I guess the first question is if Lukaku has settled with his attributes, or if this first lull in his career will kick start a much needed development in certain skills. I have no doubt that his youth coaches were well intentioned, talented coaches, but perhaps they neglected some of the long term fundamentals as they admired the short term successes. Simply from a psychological outlook, it must be tough to tell a child scoring 45+ goals a season, that he must improve his movement and first touch. How would he put it into effective practice? What would be his goals and motivations?
It also begs the question of whether it’s too late to change bad habits? Fundamentally, how easy is it to teach someone who has stood still and seen results; to make a run to the near post in this situation or to loop back a run to the back post in another scenario. The easiest contrast in styles and ‘feel’ for the game is with his fellow Belgian striker Divock Origi. Although he lacks the elite physicality that Lukaku brings to the table, he moves and carries the ball incredibly intelligently, and seems to possess the fundamentals that Lukaku possibly lacks. This was no more evident, than in Belgium’s game v Bosnia in October. Starting alongside eachother for the first time, Origi was relentlessly making clever runs and putting pressure on the defence with the correct run into the box. By contrast, Lukaku remained in the same spot, pointing at his feet like somebody playing a first person shooter for the first time.
Now, I know you can’t teach height or size so Lukaku’s ceiling will always be higher than Origi’s. But I know which technical skill set i’d personally rather work with and which skill set i’d rather have to teach to a 21 year old. ***Spoiler*** It’s not Romelu’s.
I’m aware that many may think this appraisal of Lukaku is pretty bleak. But be aware, I think Lukaku’s basement is him being a player, capable of scoring 15-20 a season in a top league for the next ten years. That’s an incredibly rare thing. But is he ever going to be the difference maker in the biggest games, or even capable of playing in the biggest games?
Daniel Storey, amongst others (Kevin McCauley) have come on strongly in the defence of Lukaku with good pieces in the most recent weeks. It was this particular one, and his repeated tweets, that interested me most though. Daniel’s argument in it’s most basic form, is that Lukaku is only 21 and has proven he can score goals at a rare rate. Due to his young age, he’s destined to improve; Daniel is backing potential. My counter to this may sound odd, but how young is Lukaku really? I don’t believe for a minute he’s an age cheat, but that his ‘footballing age’ is actually much higher.
How close to their final form is a player at 21 years old? Is there any room for improvement after a player has played 250 professional games? Now, usually these questions would have no link. Only a handful of professional players reach such an amount of appearances at such a young age. After 250 games, you would usually have a good grasp of a players talent as they would be plateauing as a footballer and you would not expect any particularly great leaps. Their bad habits would be fairly established and there would be a large enough body of evidence to assess their definitive strengths and weaknesses. Lukaku is an exception, and that is what makes him such an interesting player to evaluate. Perhaps we are currently witnessing Lukaku in his full form, with minimal room for improvement or perhaps he will ascend further and become a destroyer of worlds.
From just watching him play, I think i’ve made it fairly clear where I stand on Lukaku as a footballer. My interest was however piqued by the idea of Age v Experience, and whether there are any obvious patterns or common threads that some of the top strikers of the past 15 years have shared.
Inherently, these stats are flawed. The ability to score a goal, is a tiny part of football and a players performance, and can not be used to totally judge what they add to a side or bring to a game. In addition to this, there are also so many variables that alter the data in ways that can not be accounted for. An example of this, is the simple fact that many of these players have played in various positions and roles within sides; not limited to just lone strikers. Nevertheless, this will at least provide some simplistic quantitative data which will show the vast differences in career progression and opportunities that a variety of players have experienced.
This first table shows the statistics from each player from when they were approx (should be accurate to at least week or two) the same age that Romelu Lukaku is now. The information is taken from all Domestic League Appearances, European/Contintental Appearances and International Appearances*. I chose not to use Domestic Cup data due to variance in the quality of games that it can provide.
*Unfortunately the information available for the International Appearances of the African players involved was not as readily available or accurate enough to warrant inclusion.
GP = Total Games Played aged 21 years and 9 months
GS = Total Goals Scored aged 21 years and 9 months
MP = Total Minutes Played aged 21 years and 9 months
MPG = Average Minutes per Game aged 21 years and 9 months
MPGs = Average Minutes per Goals Scored aged 21 years and 9 months
For me there are several especially particularly interesting figures to take from this table –
- Romelu Lukaku has made 242 eligible appearances aged 21 years and 9 months. A phenomenal amount of games for one so young, and ties in with the fact that from the age of 16 he had a body that was up to the rigours of professional football. Of the 39 players evaluated, only 3 others have made over 200 appearances (Rooney, Aguero and Ronaldo Lima).
- Lukaku has scored 95 goals at this age. To put this into context, only Ronaldo (172), Aguero (102) and Neymar had scored more (99).
- At this same age, Daniel Sturridge had only played 2754 minutes of senior football. A shockingly low amount considering their current standings in today’s game.
- Similarly, Didier Drogba has only played 735!!!! minutes of football. I knew he was a late bloomer, but that is still a staggeringly low amount of professional experience.
- Cristiano Ronaldo was averaging a Goal Scored ever 386 minutes. This is not surprising due to the position and role he was playing at this point in his career, it was Cristiano himself who would eventually bring the goalscoring wide attacker back into vogue.
- Ronaldo Lima. 210 games. 172 goals. A goal every 101 minutes. **Drops Mic**
I thought the next logical step, would be to see how Lukaku stacks up against the rest of the field by the time they had also reached the 242 game mark. This will still be affected by outside variables, but will provide a simplistic overview of how Lukaku measures up.
Diff = (MPGS@21.75-MPGS@242GP)
- As you can clearly see, and for obvious reasons, things have become much more uniform in the Goals Scored column as players have matured and established themselves through experience.
- Having scored the 4th most goals by the age of 21 years and 9 months, Lukaku now ranks 23rd after 242 games. His MPGS currently seeing him in 20th place.
- Lukaku’s fall in MPGS is easily explained by the increased game time all the other players have seen. Not all players on the list were able to play 30+ game seasons from 16 years old and onwards.
- The great decreases in MPGS in players such as Llorente and Ruud Van Nistelrooy shows the effect that this increased game time has had.
- Interestingly, players who aged 21 years and 9 months had scored or played similar amounts to Lukaku have all seen their MPGS drop slightly. Specifically Neymar, Aguero and Ronaldo Lima.
- Worryingly for English football, Welbeck and Sturridge’s figures are found wanting. Neither have played the 242 games that every other player has and the 25 year old Sturridge has played 50 less games than the 21 year old Lukaku.
Lukaku’s first two seasons took place in the Belgian Jupiler League, where he had a record of 73 games played and 33 goals scored. Without meaning to completely demean the achievement, the Jupiler League is not an elite league. Therefore, there are caveats when it comes to assessing the validity of these statistics when comparing them to other players who may have played at higher levels. Subsequently, I decided to see what the numbers were for games at an ‘Elite’ level.
Now, this system is subjective and will never be perfect. I needed a loose and easy to interpret criteria, therefore my criteria for an elite level is such;
– A league appearance in either the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A or Spanish La Liga.
– Any Continental Tournament, i.e the Copa Libertadores or Champions League etc
– Any appearance for a Senior National Team.
This criteria left Romelu Lukaku with the following statline –
As Lukaku is the control in all these results, each table will represent their stats from the first 169 games they’ve played at an ‘Elite’ level (EL). As with the last set of results, the ‘Diff’ column represents the difference in their Minutes Per Goals Scored after 169 games at an Elite level v their results from 21 years and 9 months old.
- Lukaku’s difference in MPGs is a tiny (+0.46). He is scoring goals at a similar rate to how he did when the Jupiler League results were included.
- You’d presume it reflects how certain players began playing ‘Elite’ level football as they were reaching their peaks. For example, Ruud Van Nistelrooy who has the 2nd largest difference (-148.03), enjoyed the majority of his first 169 games at an EL upon joining Manchester United; at a time where he was at his optimum powers.
- Olivier Giroud, a player who will be 29 years old at the beginning of next season, has a curiously low amount of minutes at an EL. Despite the 8 year age difference, Lukaku has played 39 more times than him.
- As has been a common trend throughout these tables, Romelu Lukaku’s MPG have ranked among the lowest quartile. I was slightly surprised as I felt like in his two, almost three, years as a first team player in England he’s been playing full games. It would take more investigation, but 18 of his 37 Belgium appearances have been from the substitutes bench. This is compounded by 15 of his 35 West Brom appearances coming in a similar manner.
The final piece of the jigsaw, is to compare both their records at 21 years and 9 months and their records after 242 games, to their total career records. Is there any patterns or significant information we can gleam from that? Can we predict if Lukaku’s numbers are likely to improve further, or has he already plateaued?
Diff 1 = MPGS for Total Career – MPGS at 21 years and 9 months old.
Diff 2 = MPGS for Total Career – MPGS after 242 career appearances.
- The average Diff 1 is -47.94. Essentially, this means that a players minutes per goals scored for their career is on average 47 minutes less than the amount it is when they’re 21 years and 9 months old.
- Interesting, Diff 2 is only -11.78. I.e – a players minutes per goals scored for their career is on average 11 minutes less than the amount it is after they’ve played 242 games.
- As a general rule, this would suggest that after 242 career games, a footballer is approaching their career average. We know that this is an incredibly watered down analysis though and each case will differ.
- For example, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Diff 1 and Diff 2 are -264.67 and -152.38, respectively. We know he is an outlier, as due to a positional role change, he became a much more effective goalscorer later in his career. These numbers just go to highlight what a drastic evolution this was. Indeed, if you remove Ronaldo from the results, the average Diff 1 = -42.24 and Diff 2 = -8.08.
- This is not news to anyone, but when you see the actual numbers, you can’t help but be taken aback by how historic Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo Lima are.
- Cristiano Ronaldo was averaging a goal every 274 minutes after 242 games. After 643 games, that average is down to a goal every 121 minutes.
- Lionel Messi scores a goal ever 99 minutes and could hit the 400 (by this criteria) goal marker by the end of the season.
- Ronaldo Lima at 21 years old was scoring goals at a rate (172 in 210 @ 101 MPG) rivalled only by Lionel Messi. As our ‘Elite’ Level tables shows, he was able to transfer his Dutch and Brazilian league record seamlessly to two of the four Elite leagues in Europe.
The fact that i’m including Romelu Lukaku in these results, and comparing him to some of the greatest goalscorers of the past 15 years is testament to the fact that he’s a unique talent. There are very few goalscorers ever who have achieved as much at such a young age. Despite this, questions about his fundamental skills and ability to transcend his current level of play remain. The difference between Diff 1 and Diff 2 in comparison to Total Career stats surely prove that Lukaku is destined to only marginally improve in the future, right? Well, no. Lukaku is a unique case. Not many people in the world have been physically equipped to play regular first team football from the age of 16, therefore there is very little precedent set for a player of Lukaku’s ilk. In the same vein, there have been no controls on any of the other players careers. Some have always been lone strikers, expected to score goals, some have been converted wingers or No.10s, arguably some have never even been ‘proper’ strikers at all. Injuries, tactics, management, standard of opposition have all positively and negatively affected each and every one of these players – any attempt to find ‘the answer’ is futile but I think these statistics provide a valuable context to Lukaku’s achievements so far.
If in five years, Lukaku’s standings on my spreadsheet are improved then that’ll be a plus, but it’s undoubtedly how his general gameplay improves out on the pitch that will define his ceiling and career.
So 4,000 words later – how good is Romelu Lukaku? I have no idea.