Everton must tread carefully on Lukaku
Approaching the end of the season, Everton can reflect on a job well done: a club record Premier League points total in the bag, and European football back on the agenda, albeit Europa League rather than Champions League.
Inevitably, with this campaign in its final act, thoughts begin to turn to pre-season and beyond. Supporters will watch keenly as manager Roberto Martinez attempts to bolster his squad, making it strong enough for the demands of regular midweek football.
Aside from the pursuit of new signings and the retention of prized assists, Martinez must decide over players nearing the end of their time at the club. Some are out of contract, while others have loan deals expiring. Tony Hibbert and Apostolos Vellios are the former, with player of the season candidate Gareth Barry, Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku and Barcelona youngster Gerard Deulofeu the biggest loan losses.
The biggest, most expensive decision centres on Lukaku. Should Martinez break the bank, with Chelsea seemingly prepared to invest in alternatives, or look elsewhere? Is Lukaku worth the kind of money that Chelsea would surely demand for his services?
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One of three additions on a hectic deadline day in August, with Barry and James McCarthy the others beating the clock to sign on the dotted line, Lukaku arrived on the back of a standout loan season at West Brom.
The pressure was on, whether Lukaku felt it or not. The latest player tasked with leading the line had to hit the ground running, provide the goals that would fire the Blues toward the upper reaches of the division. After all, no Everton striker had managed ten or more league goals since Louis Saha (13) in 2009-10.
Used more as a substitute at West Brom, with 15 of his 35 appearances from the bench last season, Lukaku has featured from the start in 28 of his 30 league matches under Martinez thus far.
Turning 21 on Tuesday, Lukaku certainly has time on his side, though the inconsistency readily associated with players of a young age has surfaced on occasion, serving as a reminder that the Belgian international is not quite the finished article.
Nonetheless, 14 league goals, the best return by a forward in royal blue since Yakubu notched 15 in 2007-08, and six assists put the burly striker atop the club scoring charts and second only to Kevin Mirallas (eight) on assists.
As mentioned earlier, the biggest obstacle in front of Lukaku is himself. At times unstoppable, there are still matches when the youngster looks a shadow of his best, letting his frustrations get the better of him.
His form over the course of the season perhaps best illustrates this. Goals and performances have alternated between feast and famine. There has been no steady flow of goals, which is the level Lukaku must aspire toward. Bursting onto the scene as a second-half substitute at West Ham, a match in which Everton were floundering in the final third, Lukaku grabbed the winner and went onto register eight goals in his first nine matches.
The other side of this, however, was a run of just one goal in his next nine outings, compounded by injury in the heavy defeat at Anfield. Returning from injury, though, ironically as a scoring substitute against West Ham, Lukaku scored five in seven matches. Checking his progress, though, was a subsequent four-match scoreless streak that ended against Manchester City this past Saturday.
Quick, strong on the ball, adept with either foot, Lukaku has all the technical traits to justify the big-money price tag accompanying his 2011 move to Chelsea. It is the so-called "uglier" aspects that require fine-tuning. Work rate often pales in comparison to the industry displayed by teammates, and there is a tendency to throw the toys out of the pram when a forward run goes unrewarded.
Still, if there is a manager capable of getting the best out of Lukaku on a regular basis in the long-term, you would put good money on it being Martinez. Lukaku's reaction and celebration with his manager after scoring, following Martinez's tactical tweak against Arsenal, is testament to that.
One of many highly-rated youngsters in European football, and ambitious to boot, Lukaku has all the necessary tools to reach the top of the game. The problem facing Everton, in their summer pursuit, is how much all this raw ability and potential will cost them. The deal is a no-brainer for any sum in the region of 15 million pounds, but with Chelsea sure to want a profit on their original outlay, that seems improbable. Twenty million, eating a considerable hole in any summer budget, may not be worth the risk. Any higher, Everton should look elsewhere.