Is Romelu Lukaku the Real Deal?

When the name of Romelu Lukaku is dropped into a football conversation, there are several words that follow suit. Mercurial. Beast. Overrated. World-class. The selection of adjectives there should give you a quick taste of the status of the Belgian striker amongst the mindsets of football fans; Lukaku divides opinion. The Premier League’s top goalscorer is having his best season to date at Everton, and is starting to consistently produce the performances – and statistics – that often lead to Lukaku’s name being thrust into the dazzling spotlight of the transfer window. With an apparent refusal to sign a bumper new contract at Goodison Park, it seems that 2017 could be the year that Lukaku moves up a step in his career and continues his path to the top, but is he the real deal?

As a regular of the ‘Marmite Club’ – players that constantly divide opinions among fans – any transfer talk regarding Lukaku is going to be controversial. Is he good enough for the Champions League? Is he worth over £60million? Does he think too much of himself? Well I thought it was time to take a look at the facts and try and come to a conclusion myself. As a Chelsea fan, I’ve been following Lukaku’s career since 2011, when rumours of the big money move from Anderlecht started to formalise. We’ve had high and low moments, but it’s been an interesting few years watching a young prospect become one of the best strikers in England.

Where does he stand now though? Romelu Lukaku’s name may sit at the top of the goal-scoring rankings, but any fan knows that this statistic is only part of the story. We’re in the middle of a hot period for Premier League strikers with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Diego Costa and Harry Kane all battling out for the title of the best striker. It’s for this reason that it’s contentious to label Lukaku the best without a solid, water-tight argument to back it up. I’ve compared a plethora of statistics (courtesy of whoscored.com) between the top striker/attacker of the top 7 teams in the league: Lukaku, Costa, Kane, Agüero, Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez and Roberto Firmino.

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There’s no doubting that every striker in this list is unique in both their playing styles and subsequent roles and value within their respective teams. Lukaku, Kane, Ibrahimovic and Costa are the more ‘traditional’ number 9 players, acting as a direct focal target of attacks, with Sanchez and Agüero offering more agile mobility and a preference to pick the ball up deep and run with it and then Firmino being deployed as a ‘false 9′ by Klopp in a more interchangeable attacking system. This is very generally speaking, but might explain why Lukaku (3.7) and Zlatan (3.1) have the most aerial battles won per game, and then why Sanchez (3) and Agüero (2.8) top the list for most successful dribles per 90 minutes. You can’t compare them on styles but you can compare them as their teams’ principal attacking outlet.

Supposed experts within football often isolate the physical productivity of a striker as the only relevant statistic that they should be judged upon. Personally, in the modern game, I don’t necessarily agree with that and when you look at strikers such as Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski – the best two strikers in the world – their link-up play and tactical functionality is just as crucial to Barcelona and Bayern Munich as their goal productivity. Regardless, I made up a quick graph to please the old-school scholars of the game – comparing the Average Touches per Game to the Average Goal Contributions (goals and assists) per Game. In this context, the numbers facilitate a potential idea of the attackers’ levels of efficiency. When they get an opportunity to create or finish a chance, how often do they to take it?

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As you can see, Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane are in their own league when it comes to this comparison. They are both the players with the fewest touches and yet the most contributions, which would make the likes of Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker – advocates of the traditional role of a striker – stand up and applaud I should think. As previously mentioned, Lukaku does play an obviously central role for Everton, and is rarely seen drifting wider than the penalty box nor deeper that 30 yards out. When he gets the ball, minimal touches are needed before a decisive pass or goalscoring opportunity arise. With an average of 0.96 goal contributions a game, it’s evident that Lukaku has been a reliable source of productivity for Ronald Koeman and Everton.

Another urban myth about Lukaku is his ball control. Does Romelu Lukaku have a bad first touch? It’s often the first line of defence for the Belgian’s critics, but is there any substance? In terms of statistics, ‘Unsuccessful Touches’ is the closest we can get to measuring this, and provides a bit of physical evidence to fight or support these claims.

Romelu Lukaku has an average of 2.2 unsuccessful touches per game in the Premier League this season. This is less than Diego Costa (2.9), Harry Kane (2.8), Alexis Sanchez (2.5) and Paul Pogba (2.7). Bar maybe Costa, the others in this list are regarded as having a good touch on the ball, yet Lukaku gets the stick because of his less aesthetically pleasing control. Considering how Lukaku’s complete game has come on, I think the first-touch agenda against him is wearing thin and certainly isn’t something to judge him on.

The first touch aurora around Lukaku is representative of his career development. A player that can do the job but is rough around the edges and requires improvement. For one reason or the other – personally I’d point the finger at his self confidence and not so discrete opinions on his career – fans have never laid out stepping stones for Lukaku and any criticisms of his game have been magnified and been made to be heard loudly, often moreso than his strengths. With this in mind, I thought it relevant to have a browse over Lukaku’s stats in some key areas over the last few seasons and see whether he has improved his all-round game….

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It doesn’t take a statistical genius (thank God for my sake…) to point out the trends in this table. Taking into account the fact that this season still has 7 or so games left, it’s difficult not to be impressed by Lukaku’s improvement this year. In terms of his productivity, creativity, aerially and mobility on the ball, the Belgian is wiping the floor with the ‘old him’. He’s almost halved his ‘Shots per Goals’ from last season which is extraordinary, and a sign of a striker that’s really been working on his finishing. The ‘wasteful Lukaku’ is seemingly no more.

Aerials is something you would expect Lukaku to always have produced similar stats for – considering his mammoth physique from a young age – yet he’s showed another impressive improvement going from 1.9 to 3.8 in the 5 years. If anything this exhibits Lukaku’s maturity in his battles and in choosing them. Over-enthusiasm is something he was accused of early in his Premier League career, and this would potentially explain the lower figures in this statistic during his West Brom days. This is behind him now though and he’s developing into a more effective complete forward – in the air as much as on the floor.

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So the stats are proving that Romelu Lukaku is on the rise. Critics are finding it harder and harder to pick holes in his game and he’s shaking the monkey off his back with relative ease. I saw an ‘interactive’ interview that he did with Jamie Carragher the other day in which he exhibited his technique when he battles with a centre-back. What really stood out to me was the combination of self-assurance – which isn’t new – and the analysis and thought-process behind the approach that he takes. He’s combining his obvious natural talent with a new-found maturity and intelligence of the game. The demonstration of turning the former Liverpool ‘legend’ and burying it in the corner was also pretty good…

This did get me thinking though. If a striker is top scorer in the Premier League, exhibiting clear mental and physical improvement and seemingly at the peak of his self-confidence it all points towards a world-class striker. It’s a term that causes intense, often bitter, debate among fans and anybody that lurks around the term is in danger of an army of football sceptics’ snipes. With the transfer window approaching all ‘top clubs’ are linked with ‘top strikers’ and Lukaku is well within the scopes of Europes powerhouses. The vultures are well and truly circling.

How does Lukaku stand up against his fellow targets though? I’ve put him up against the other ‘in fashion’ European strikers that would be considered in the tier below world-class (Suarez, Lewandowski etc.). They’ve all had good seasons and are all appearing on the back pages of the tabloids around the continent with extortionate numbers alongside their faces. This Fight Club consists of Lukaku, Andrea Belotti (Torino), Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan), Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon) and Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) . The latter is a controversial choice and, talent-wise, is clearly superior. However he’s a name taht is constantly discussed alongside Lukaku to fix the striking issues of either Chelsea or Manchester United, and subsequently a comparison would not seem such a waste of time.

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Obviously the variety of leagues in this list need to be taken into account. Arrogant Premier League advocates would demand that it is impossible to compare our ‘darling’ with France’s ‘pub-league’ but there’s no denying Lacazette’s quality and his recent Europa League performances are more than enough to warrant his presence on this list. In term of comparison,

Lukaku fares well in every category in this table, with an impressive superiority in ‘Aerial Battles Won’ and ‘Successful Dribbles per Game’. Once again, his functionality in his teams forward attacks is clear, and in a world where tactical roles are valued almost as much as goals, the number next to his name keeps on rising. His middle-of-the-pack placing in ‘Goals Scored’ and ‘Minutes per Goal’ also put into perspective the quality of his season so far – especially when compared to the numbers put up by Griezmann.

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Whether Lukaku is worth northwards of £70million is obviously debatable. With the ingrained trait of valuing players on the continent higher than those on domestic shores, it’s likely that people would place a far brighter spotlight on Lukaku after a big-money move than they would on a lesser known prospect like Belotti or Icardi. This makes no sense on paper but it’s the world we currently live in. As a Chelsea fan, any big money fee for the return of Lukaku would be a slight concern. We’ve seen Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres ‘fail’ after big money moves, and whilst Lukaku’s profile is much better – especially physically and age-wise – the intense attention can get to even the most confident of players (cc: Paul Pogba).

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Lukaku is in good company for total Premier League goals – and he’s only 23…           (Credit: Stat Bunker)

Saying that, my tether with Diego Costa is at an end and I would welcome Lukaku with open arms. As this article has proved, the statistics are building the blocks of his reputation and his confidence is finally proving to be quite hard to criticise. There’s elements of his game to improve, no doubt about that, and whilst his consistency is improving there are still games where he goes missing, yet, believe it or not, he’s only 23. At 23, some strikers are only starting their career and yet Lukaku already has 84 Premier League goals; the same as Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez and which is more than Eric Cantona, Luis Suarez and Gianfranco Zola. If he continues his career in England, I have no doubt that we’re looking at one of the league’s greatest ever strikers.

Thanks for reading. I shall re-share this when Lukaku breaks Alan Shearer’s Premier League goals record in 10 years time.

Everton v Sunderland - Premier League

Stats credits – whoscored.com (before the weekend of the 15/04/2017)

Image credits – 101GreatGoals, The Metro, Stats Bomb, The Bubble, Goal.com, Evening Standard, The Daily Mail, Sky Sports, CaughtOffside, The Royal Mersey Blue

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