Ever since Chelsea purchased Romelu Lukaku in 2011, it seems like he's had a lot to prove. Just 18 years old at the time, the Belgian arrived in London with sterling goalscoring record in the Belgian league and a not insignificant initial price tag of roughly £10 million, rising to £17 million. Never quite able to break through into the first team at Stamford Bridge, Everton shattered their transfer record for him two summers ago after successful loan spells both with the Toffees and at West Brom.
Fast forward a year-and-a-half, and the big Belgian is in the midst of third straight season of production in Everton blue. His form has undoubtedly has been one of the salient highlights of an otherwise frustrating 2015-16 campaign. 25 tallies in all competitions is a monstrous return at this stage, and with 10 league matches and and least one cup tie left to go, it can only be bolstered from here.
Whenever a player bangs in goals at such a rate, any thinking fan will wonder how much of it is due to actual skill, and how much is down to other less repeatable factors such as luck. Fortunately for Rom, underlying numbers this season as well as his historical record are both encouraging in this regard.
Technically Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy are currently leading the race for Premier League Golden Boot, but Lukaku is tops in non-penalty goals (NPG). His 17 league NPG currently rank him ninth amongst Europe's top leagues, tied with Neymar. These goals are backed up by some hefty raw shot numbers--only Kane has tried for goal more often in the Premier League--as well as as a respectable fourth in the shots on target rankings. Importantly, those shots have been of a high quality: according to Paul Riley's expected goals model, Lukaku is second in the league (behind Kane, again) in total xG from shots on target. All of this is to say that compared with his peers, Rom takes a ton of shots in dangerous areas and puts a high amount of them in the back of the net. He is a high-volume, high-output striker. This nice little graphic from Sander Ijtsma aka @11tegen11 about a month ago sums things up well:
In the modern game though, being a good forward is about more than scoring goals. In addition to the above xG model, Paul Riley also has a nifty expected assists model, which attempts to judge a player's chance creation independently of how well his teammate actually finished the chance. By combining xG and xA, we can get a rough idea of a players overall contribution to his team's attacking output. Here is the top ten in xG + xA from open play in the Premier League thus far:
As the clear focal point of one the league's best attacks, Lukaku has been both scorer and provider this season. And as most of us know, this is no flash in the pan--as has been noted elsewhere, Rom's Premier League record since his first loan season away from Chelsea is absolutely magnificent:
(shoutout to Suárez for being on this list despite not being in the league since 2014)
What's perhaps most impressive about any of this is that Lukaku is only twenty-two years old. In November he became just the fifth player to score fifty Premier League goals before his turning twenty-three. His company? Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney. Of the players in the graphic above, only Kane is a similar age; all others are at least twenty-five. Indeed, he's scored the most non-penalty goals of any under-23 players this season in Europe's top five leagues. Furthermore, his experience belies his age; recall that this is a man who scored 17 goals for West Brom as a 19-year old. In fact, he's played more league matches in than any other players born in 1993 in any of Europe's top-5 leagues.
Despite having one of the world's top young forwards in their ranks raking in goals with regularity, certain Everton fans have not always been satisfied. As with seemingly any striker, accusations of "drifting in and out of games" have lingered, and the dreaded "l" word has even been thrown around. While no player should be completely immune from criticism, it's hard for me to see how anyone could fault Lukaku's this season. For one, he's played 96% of league minutes so far as well as making key contributions in both cup competitions. His hold-up play has improved notably this year. Often the hallmark of lethargic forwards, offsides have not at all been a problem either. He's been caught half as many times as each of Kane, Agüero, and Vardy, which is fairly remarkable given that he is almost always Everton's furthest man forward. In this context, supporters probably ought to direct their frustration elsewhere.
In short, Lukaku is already among the elite strikers in England and he seems to only be getting better. He is the rare 22-year-old proven commodity. Still, he may yet be shy of his peak, which is a ridiculous thing to say about someone who has consistently scored about a goal every two games for almost four straight seasons. His injury record is fairly clean (in fact, he has had no off-field issues, he hugs fans that he hits with wayward shots during warmups, and he does things like this in cup quarterfinals:
All of which leads me to this summer. I couldn't help but agree with Mike Goodman when he tweeted the below a few weeks ago.
If Everton's "ambition" with Stones last summer ends in them selling Lukaku this summer Im probably going to be unfollowable for a few days.— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) February 20, 2016
Farhad Moshiri's investment has brought a lot of excitement to the club, especially with additional transfer funds apparently on the way. With the injection of cash as well as the steadfast refusal to sell John Stones still fresh on the memory, it would be absolutely indefensible for Everton to let Lukaku leave during the next window. For his part, he has been silent on the matter of a transfer, but you'd be naïve to think that with his age and his performances that big clubs won't come calling. It's up to Everton then to convince the player to stay and/or ward off potential suitors. If they could do it for a mostly unproven center back, they better be determined to do it for one of the best young strikers in Europe.