Monday night in Lyon at the grand Stade des Lumieres was the stage Romelu Lukaku would have been itching to perform on for a long time.
Having toiled at the point of an Everton team that had downed tools on its manager Roberto Martinez in the final weeks of the 2015-16 season, the Belgium international seemed disillusioned with life at Goodison Park. He has been happy enough to tell plenty he feels he is ready for the “next step” in his career too.
“I’m 23 next summer and I think it would be nice to play in the Champions League from next season,” he said in the same interview in March. “I’m among the best,” he told World Soccer magazine earlier this month. Against Italy in the European Championships, he had a perfect chance to validate these statements.
Yet the 23-year-old was labored in his movement, ropey with his first touch and when the clearest chance of the game fell his way, he fluffed his lines.
Plenty would have pointed to those aggrandizing comments and scoffed, but it was a performance indicative of a footballer that still has a lot to learn in the game.
Granted, a haul of 25 goals for the season in a poor Everton team is a healthy return and earlier in the campaign there were spells that Lukaku was the outstanding forward in the Premier League.
Yet for the second season in a row, the striker’s form atrophied alarmingly as the final weeks of the campaign rolled around. Lukaku netted 18 goals in the Premier League last term, with a meagre three coming after the turn of the year; in Everton’s biggest game of the season, the FA Cup semi-final, he missed a clutch of chances, including a penalty, as the Toffees lost to Manchester United.
Of course, in the career of a young player there are oscillations, something Lukaku won’t be immune to. Yet, there’s a festering sense this is a footballer who has been focusing a little too much on his future and cracks have started to appear in his present game.
Lukaku’s performance against Italy hauled the frailties that have blighted his career on the domestic stage under the critical eye that accompanies major tournaments.
It was a harsh lesson up against the tuned defensive trio of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, who pounced upon every poor touch with razor sharp instincts. That capricious back-to-goal play has long been one of major flaws in the forward’s skill set and one you anticipate was the key reason behind Jose Mourinho letting the player leave Chelsea in 2014.
That erraticism previously seemed to be the pertinent flaw preventing Lukaku from pushing on into the world-class category, although during his stint at Everton more have emerged.
For a No. 9, the Belgian is too reactive. At times Lukaku can be overwhelmed in matches like the one against the Italians, with tactically savvy and intelligent defensive players not affording him the space he needs to be at his devastating best. That, in turn, means the Everton man is prone to lapses in concentration and dwindling focus.
At times, there seems to be a distinct lack of appetite for the game too. Lukaku is reluctant, or simply unable, to press opposition defenders and when it comes to physical battles, a man of his burly somatotype is peculiarly timid. More fire in his belly would make the Anderlecht graduate a much more fearsome proposition.
Lukaku needs to ensure he’s more of a nuisance in matches. The finest strikers in the game, a standard the Toffees goal-getter evidently thinks he can reach, never allow defenders to relax; they make runs, close down, gamble in their movement and have a little bit of nastiness. The Belgian can make improvements in all of those facets.
Goals will always come for Lukaku. He can boast searing pace, is a fine dribbler and can get into dangerous positions due to his somatotype. A footballer who possesses the natural gifts he does shouldn’t be content with being a great goalscorer, though; if skills are aligned correctly, he can be even more.
In the latter stages of the last two seasons, there have been worrying signs that multifaceted player may never materialize. Lately Lukaku has looked like a 23-year-old who, having broken into the first team at Anderlecht at the age of just 16 and played a lot of football since, has a lot of miles on clock for one so young. Already there are small signs of wear and tear.
Whether he’s with Everton or elsewhere at the start of the next campaign, he must be humble, recognize his flaws and work hard at them. If Lukaku makes even small refinements in all of those categories aforementioned, he’ll be transformed as a footballer. If he doesn’t, it won’t be long until the football cognoscenti stop listening to his bold claims.
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