Chelsea have needed a forward who scores goals this season. Romelu Lukaku has scored goals at Everton. The decision to allow him to leave Stamford Bridge on-loan was therefore foolish.
It seems to make sense, right?
No, it’s an over-simplified evaluation of a complex problem.
All season we’ve heard this argument and many people – from fans to pundits to journalists – have expressed incredulity over the dichotomy of Lukaku’s goalscoring form and his parent club’s limitations in that department.
The first point here is that Chelsea don’t just need a forward at the top of their formation, they need a particular type of forward. Goals are important, of course, but Jose Mourinho’s tactical structure is dependent on an attacking pivot who has the physicality or nous to hold the ball up, the technique and vision to use the ball economically around the box, and the work-rate to continually press defenders in their own half – and that’s all in addition to be able to put the ball in the net.
On the surface, Lukaku would appear to have all of those credentials already; he looks physical, he seems capable of bringing his teammates into the game, he seems energetic enough, and he has thirteen goals in twenty-seven appearances this year.
Look a little deeper, though, and you see him for what he really is: a very talented, but very raw player. Lukaku at his best is very impressive, but his best isn’t indicative of his average. For every game in which he looks like a world-beater, there are three in which he struggles to involve himself in the play and appears to be operating outside of his side’s structure – he is not a tactically aware player, and he is still prone to looking very naive at times. That’s absolutely what you would expect from someone of only twenty and who has fewer than sixty Premier League games to his name, but that’s not a rawness a Mourinho has ever tolerated. He likes structure and discipline from one to eleven, and he is not the kind of coach who allows players to learn as they go along.
This situation isn’t unique to Lukaku. When Willian arrived at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, despite being a seasoned international and an experienced Champions League player, the Brazilian was given a restricted role until Mourinho felt confident that he could trust him tactically. Even though Chelsea were very much in need of the Brazilian’s attributes, the integrity of the side as a whole came first and the winger didn’t start in the Premier League until the end of October – nearly two months after his transfer from Anzhi was completed. If that was the learning curve for a twenty-five year old, imagine what it would have been for Lukaku?
Samuel Eto’o may be past his best, but he perhaps provides the clearest indication of why Lukaku has spent this season at Everton. Eto’o is not an explosive forward anymore, yet Mourinho has – when able to – selected him in Chelsea’s biggest games of the season. He has faith in Eto’o to carry-out instructions and, having managed him before at Inter Milan, knows that the Cameroonian understands that playing as a forward in a Mourinho system is a multi-faceted occupation. It’s not just about scoring goals, it’s about being one of the spokes on a wheel.
Romelu Lukaku’s current reputation is as reliant on football’s highlight culture as it is his goalscoring record. Watch him in isolated moments or during his very best games and you can be convinced that he’s ready for the very top of the game, but increase the sample size and you get a more accurate impression. When he’s able to run onto passes and into space he looks unstoppable, yet ask him to receive a pass into his feet with his back to goal and he looks less than convincing. Similarly, while he may be capable of linking the play when easy passing options are available, more subtle, creative touches are still beyond him and so his distribution tends to either be very formulaic or inaccurate.
These are very natural issues for a young targetman and none of this criticism is meant to detract from what a good player Lukaku could become. However, the provision of regular football is a key part of his development process and that’s a continuity Chelsea would have been unable and unwilling to give him at this stage of his career. Far from being a mistake, the decision to loan him – and to loan him to a club of Everton’s size and style – was inspired and it will actually hasten his progression into the player he’s projected to become.
The perception is different to the reality here and Chelsea are being far smarter than most people realise.