Neither Kevin de Bruyne or Romelu Lukaku seemed to be under that much pressure to leave Chelsea. The Belgian duo weren’t forced out of the Stamford Bridge door, rather it was their own respective willingness to play regular first-team soccer that prompted the pair to seek pastures new.
And while the achievements of both players in the Europa League this week—accumulating three goals and two assists between them in two games—have been put into sharp context given Chelsea’s exit from the Champions League, both players deserve major credit for not resting on the laurels and seizing control of their own destiny.
Months down the line from their moves for each player, it looks like an easy decision to make, with De Bruyne and Lukaku thriving at Wolfsburg and Everton respectively. But once a young player doesn’t quite cut the mustard at an elite club and is subsequently moved on, there is a stigma that naturally materializes: not quite good enough at the top level.
For the majority of the soccer stratosphere, moves to Wolfsburg and Everton would have been considered a step back for these two players. But both stars have now emerged as talismanic figures for their respective sides and look capable of hauling them to glories come the end of the campaign.
Lukaku remains a divisive striker amongst supporters. Billed as a back-to-goal target man because of his robust somatotype, there are often misconceptions about when he’s at his best. But if you fizz the ball in front of him instead of into his feet, there are few forwards better equipped to exploit a stretched back-line.
He’s already a thoroughbred goalscorer too. A brace against Young Boys in the previous round of the Europa League pushed him to 100 career goals, an extraordinary accolade for a 21-year-old and a landmark he reached faster than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
The burly frontman still has improvements to make to his game, something that is massively encouraging for Everton supporters. But De Bruyne already looks very much like the real deal. The 23-year-old has been one of the standout players in the Bundesliga this season, turning in arguably the finest individual display seen anywhere this campaign in Wolfsburg’s 4-1 mauling of Bayern Munich.
He’s been handed a key role in this team ever since signing back in January 2014, with Dieter Hecking allowing De Bruyne to wreak havoc from his favored No. 10 position. The former Blue has done exactly that, helping himself to 13 goals and a staggering 19 assists so far this season.
The on-field refinements made in the game’s of each player have been obvious and encouraging since their switches. But perhaps the most positive thing about each of these Belgian internationals is their admirable temperament. Being the driving force behind a supposed lesser side seems to have stirred something in both, as they each now seem to relish the big occasion.
Both teams fell behind in their Europa League ties Thursday against Internazionale and Dynamo Kyiv, but De Bruyne and Lukaku hauled their teams up by their bootstraps. The former picked and probed at the Nerazzurri defence before gobbling up two chances, while Lukaku was a battering ram at the forefront of the Everton attack, laying on one goal and bagging the winner himself.
Given the quality Chelsea have within their ranks and the substantial fees they received for each, there’s probably not many of a blue persuasion who will look on at each player with too much envy. Indeed, Mourinho seems to encourage a competitive mentality in his squad, something that neither De Bruyne or Lukaku could conquer as they looked to kickstart their respective careers.
“He [Mourinho] told me things about competition, training hard and there’s always a chance that you will play,” said De Bruyne upon signing for the Bundesliga side, per Jason Burt of The Telegraph. “And he told me he wasn’t keen to let me go on loan, saying: ‘You’re a good player’. But what could I do more?”
Lukaku was seemingly of a similar mindset. “Romelu was always clear that in his mentality and his approach he was not highly motivated to come to a competitive situation at Chelsea,” said Mourinho, per The Guardian. “He wanted to play for Chelsea, but clearly only as first-choice striker – and at a club of our dimension it’s very difficult to promise a player that status.”
Competition is vital to any great squad but in the case of these two players, to look after their own interests, playing time was vital. They each will have been acutely aware of that following respective spells on loan at Werder Bremen and West Bromwich Albion in the 2012/13 season.
With Cesc Fabregas, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Willian all vying for the attacking midfield roles, would De Bruyne have seen the requisite game time he needed to flourish? With Diego Costa, Didier Drogba and Loic Remy in situ at a club that typically deploys one striker, would Lukaku have reached a century of goals while playing in Chelsea blue?
Almost certainly not and while this is no call to arms for young players to up sticks and walk out on their teams should they find themselves out of favor, the developments of both illustrate that time on the pitch is the most significant factor for up-and-coming stars. Both players realized that and will surely make their way back to the very top of the game as a result.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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