Romelu Lukaku – He's Ours!
Everton's faltering start to 2014-15 has over-shadowed the coup of landing Lukaku over the summer but he is as much an investment for the future as the team's Talisman for the here-and-now.
23 September 2014
Maybe with the benefit of hindsight, Everton's record-breaking acquisition of Romelu Lukaku at the tail end of July feels almost like it was pre-ordained.
From Roberto Martinez's unceasing determination to land his number one target; the positive noises dancing along the grapevine, especially in the weeks after Belgium's elimination from the World Cup; the mounting speculation as our most daunting competitors faded out of the picture; right down to Lukaku's endearing grin when asked whether he knew deep down at the end of last season that he would return to Goodison, the signs were all there.
I'm sure I wasn't alone but despite whispered assurances from sources that the club were confident he would choose Everton over staying at Chelsea or making a leap outside the Premier League, I couldn't let myself truly believe until it the deal was done. After all, we exist in a footballing world where clubs like Everton don't usually get to sign top-class players of Lukaku's ilk. Historic television broadcast revenue notwithstanding, Everton don't spend the best part of £30m in an entire transfer window let alone on one player. Indeed, it wasn't all that long ago that the Everton "transfer clock" – a one-page website chronicling the time elapsed since the club had spent any money on a senior-level signing – was bemoaning the Blues' frustrating inability to compete with the then "Sky Four".
So you could forgive a hopeful but not expectant Blue faithful for its scepticism as the striker travelled to the World Cup Finals with dreams of lighting up the big stage and securing a move that would guarantee him immediate Champions League football.
Of course, few Blues are under any illusions that the course of our summer might have very been different had Lukaku's star shone as brightly in Brazil as he dreamed it would. Without question, had he played the kind of starring role for Belgium that his pre-tournament form and goals suggested, he might have put himself out of Everton's reach and propelled himself to the stratospheric levels where only Europe's elite teams can operate.
A typically muscular run and emphatic finish having come off the bench in extra time against the United States aside, though, Lukaku endured a fairly frustrating time in Brazil. Two performances in his first two Group H starts ended before an hour had elapsed, hooked by Belgium manager Marc Wilmots after struggling to make an impact where service was minimal and opposition defences were dug in and refusing to allow space in their defensive third. It all seemed very familiar to Evertonians who had seen the then 20 year-old striker battle in similar circumstances in a Blue shirt last season. But, whether any of us were hating ourselves for secretly wishing for it or not, his iffy World Cup augured very well for Everton's chances of signing him.
And so it proved. Lukaku did indeed come "home" and Martinez was able to deliver not only his statement of intent but also demonstrate the power of prudent money management. Having kept his powder dry in January – somewhat controversially given the failure of his gamble on the fitness of Lacina Traore and the Blues' eventual failure to secure a top-four finish – the Catalan was able to work within the club's self-imposed financial straitjacket and land a huge target during the summer window. It's a strategy that will, should it bear fruit, be one of the most satisfying stories of the Premier League era and it also illustrated the power of the much-maligned – and now over-abused? – loan market: Martinez was able to confirm over the course of last season his belief in what Lukaku could bring to his Everton side and then complete the signing of a player who was already bedded into the team and a darling of the terraces. Finally, Lukaku was ours for keeps.
Now, of course, he has to deliver with the weight of Evertonian expectation on his shoulders amid the team's faltering start that has not gone to script after all of the optimism that carried over from last season. Not surprisingly, in the modern age of instant gratification – or, at the very least, the desire for it – his own slow start to 2014-15 has already prompted grumblings from some quarters about the enormity of the fee the club paid for him and renewed scrutiny of his movement and first touch.
Little allowance was made for the fact that he was thrust into the opening-day fixture at Leicester City with just a behind-closed-doors practice match under his belt. Or that he played the next two matches with a toe injury that forced him to hobble out of the draw with Arsenal when he could continue no longer. Or indeed, his deceptively young age relative not only to his team-mates (Ross Barkley, for instance, still regarded as raw and under-developed is only a year younger) but also to his peers in the game. At times his inexperience shows and there is unquestionably much he has to learn.
Lukaku's goalscoring record for a 21 year-old is impressive, matched only by Sergio Agüero's at the same age among active players in Europe, and it suggests that Martinez will be vindicated in his belief that he will only get better as he matures. 17 goals for West Bromwich Albion, many of those coming off the bench, and 16 in all competitions for Everton, despite missing two months with an ankle injury, mean that his tally in England's top flight in the last two Premier League seasons was bettered only by Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie and Daniel Sturridge.
Able to fashion a goal out of nothing on his own – witness his single-minded charges toward goal and emphatic finishes against Manchester City at the Emirates, and at Goodison against Arsenal and Manchester United – poach goals from close range, provide aerial threat from crosses and set-pieces, and lay on goals for his team-mates, Lukaku is, arguably, as close to the complete striker as Everton have had in the Premier League era, certainly since prior to Yakubu's Achilles injury. And it's those abilities in front of goal that largely mitigate the criticisms of his first-time control, ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the play, much of which he can improve as he develops in the coming years.
In that sense, the £28m Everton paid for Lukaku is a wise investment and his comparative youth reduced much of the risk in shelling out so much of the summer budget to secure his services. Should he be as successful as his ambitions suggest, he will repay that hefty fee in revenue for the club and, serious injury notwithstanding, he will always represent a highly saleable asset should things not work out.
As if all of that weren't enough, the Blues have on their hands a player who is fiercely ambitious, articulate, grounded, and passionate about Everton FC. He is also already settled in a team boasting international team-mate, Kevin Mirallas, and a shining example of the goalscoring arts in the form of Samuel Eto'o. All of those factors bode well for a successful future at Goodison where he can, fingers crossed, fire us onto the Champions League stage for which he so clearly yearns.