I first saw new Chelsea signing Romelu Lukaku play last summer on the team’s US tour stop in Seattle. My initial take was mixed. On the plus side, he’s obviously gifted physically and is going to make a nice living for himself playing somewhere.
I wondered, however, if that place was Chelsea. The Blues were moving in the direction of a tika-taka, Barcelona-inspired style of play (because in sports, everybody copies whatever is winning at the time), populating the squad at every opportunity with twinkle-toes Brazilians and Spaniards and Eden Hazard, a Belgian who plays like he thinks he’s a Brazilian or Spaniard. How could you possibly shoehorn a player like Cool Hand Luke into this kind of system? He’s as un-tika-taka as they come. While he’s fast, he’s not especially quick-footed in the Barca/Lionel Messi fashion, which features players who can go from zero to top speed in one step. He’s adept with the ball at his feet, but he’s not exactly built for the precision give-and-go game that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich so desperately wants to see from his side.
So off he goes for a year at West Brom, where he performs fabulously. 17 goals and four assists in 35 appearances, 20 of them starts – not bad for a 20 year-old kid making his debut in the biggest league in the world.
Then, last night, we saw Lukaku on display in the Belgium national side’s friendly against the US, and all I can really say at this point is wow. Chelsea fans are fond of comparing him to Blues legend Didier Drogba, but I’m not sure that doesn’t undersell the kid’s talent. Lukaku is bigger than Drogs, he’s faster than Drogs, and in terms of polish and readiness for EPL competition he’s a good five years ahead of Drogs, who was in his mid-20s before even arriving in the Prem, where it took him a year or two to settle and really become a dominant force. In his first year in the league Drogba tallied 16 goals and five assists in all competitions (at the age of 26) – not bad at all, but it also shines a light on Lukaku’s impressive debut (and it should also be noted that Drogba was surrounded by a substantially better team that year than Lukaku was this year).
The Belgian squad is positively terrifying. They have a tough road to qualify for the World Cup, but they’re obviously favored, and if they get there there is absolutely no reason they can’t win. And Romelu Lukaku not only looks like he’s good enough to contribute, he’s beginning to look like one of the stars of the team. Against the US (I know – that’s hardly the ultimate test of a striker) he was a dominating presence. His shot set up the first Belgium goal (yes, he was offside) and he had a beautiful move and finish nullified later on an offside call (no, he wasn’t off on this one and it should have counted). Throughout the course of the game the US defenders looked completely outmatched by him at every turn, like Yorkies trying to bring down a Bigfoot. Even the famously fleet DaMarcus Beasley had all he could do to match Luke’s pace and skill when he ventured down the right side.
In other words, while I think I was justified in asking some of the questions about how Lukaku might fit in the Chelsea system at the time, 2013 Sam is looking at 2012 Sam and saying bitch, will you STFU.
Contexts change. Yes, Chelsea is still going to be built around the technical, possession-oriented precision of Juan Mata, Hazard and Oscar, but with a new manager coming in – and the expectation from all corners is that it’s going to be Jose Mourinho – you can forget about a blind commitment to Pep Guardiola style football. Mou is a tactical master, and I have no doubts about his ability to mold Lukaku into an absolute beast up top. Indeed, there were times this season when the Blues could have used a hammer like him. All those quick little guys are great, but when teams park the bus and commit to playing physically (ie, bullying) I’m not sure Fernando Torres is the answer. Nobody – nobody – is going to push Lukaku around, and it’s now more than evident that he possesses the on-the-ball skills to hold his own in a finesse attack.
I’m expecting the new manager, whomever it may be, to call Lukaku back into the side. It’s too early to say whether he’ll be a featured lone striker or whether they’ll bring in someone else (like an Edinson Cavani) to be the main guy and use Luke as a backup/change of pace player. Or maybe they’ll deploy two strikers.
In any case, look for Romelu Lukaku to be a significant piece of the Blues puzzle sooner rather than later, and for years to come.