Lukaku deal signals rich Everton future
Everton supporters, so accustomed to disappointment, found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having had their prayers answered this week when the permanent signing of Romelu Lukaku was confirmed.
After manager Roberto Martinez's excellent debut campaign ended with a Champions League near miss, Goodison Park regulars might have feared that Lukaku would prefer to roost upon a loftier perch. Instead, the Belgian striker has been convinced to sign a five-year deal.
It's only three years since Lukaku arrived at Stamford Bridge lauded as the most sought after young striker in Europe. After a first season in which he was barely seen, he spent two years on loan, first at West Bromwich Albion and then at Everton where, over that period of time, he scored more Premier League goals than Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Eden Dzeko and Daniel Sturridge. In fact, from August 2012 to May 2014, only Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez have hit more league goals than Lukaku.
With the signing of Gareth Barry secured at the beginning of the summer and the capture of impressive Bosnian midfielder Muhamed Besic all but done, this is looking like a very successful summer for the Toffees. Everton haven't won a trophy since 1995 and haven't played in the full stages of what is now called the Champions League since their run to the quarterfinals of what was known in 1971 as the European Cup, but hopes of changing all that have never been higher. And rightly so.
Martinez, far from being daunted by predecessor David Moyes' transformative 11-year spell at the club, promptly exceeded the standards few had expected him to even match. Lukaku was a huge part of that success, not only because of what he could offer to the cause as a footballer but also because of the shrewd way that Martinez was prepared to use him. A shared high point for both men last season was arguably the 3-0 victory over Arsenal in April when, pushed out to the right flank of an unexpected 4-4-2, Lukaku absolutely monstered left-back Nacho Monreal.
Yet there are some who are rather unmoved by the development, considering this an expensive way to have essentially the same squad as last season. While that point is valid enough, Everton's only "real" addition so far is the promising Besic, it's negated somewhat by the day-to-day realities of those teams that haven't been fortunate enough to squeeze their snouts into UEFA's cash trough.
You only have to look at Southampton to see what generally happens to non-Champions League clubs when they have the temerity to overperform. The South Coast side has been ravaged this summer, losing five key players and watching in horror as its departures demoralised the others in a hideous domino rally of depression.
With the Saints' fate in mind, the idea that Everton have spent heavily just to stand still suddenly doesn't seem so bad. It's also worth taking a glance at West Bromwich Albion to see what happened when they failed to retain Lukaku. Without all those goals, albeit with a few other factors at play, they plummeted from eighth to 17th.
The key for Everton now is to make sure that Lukaku fulfills his potential in a manner that Jose Mourinho obviously believes is beyond him. The Belgian striker certainly offered little in the way of contradictory evidence at the World Cup. His barnstorming extra-time cameo against a tiring United States notwithstanding, Lukaku was a huge disappointment in Brazil, sluggish and ineffectual. Mourinho, whose decisions to snub Iker Casillas at Real Madrid and sell Juan Mata from Chelsea were fiercely criticised but have thus far been vindicated, will watch on with interest. What price the hat-trick?
At his best, Lukaku can dominate any defence in the world. For a 21-year-old, his movement is strikingly intelligent and his pace and power make him far more than just another bulky target man. At his worst, his touch can desert him, his head can drop, and that movement, as we saw this summer, can grind to a halt. He is a long-term project, but given the way that Martinez has developed players like John Stones and James McCarthy, it would seem that he's in good hands.
Ultimately, Everton have landed themselves a potentially world-class player on a long-term contract and clubs outside of the Champions League don't get to do that often. That in itself is cause for celebration. Nothing is guaranteed in football, but with Lukaku on board, Everton's best chance of continuing a steady progression under Martinez has been secured.
Iain Macintosh is a writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.