It seems that Romelu Lukaku has finally realized what many Everton fans have feared this season: the big Belgian striker is too good for Goodison Park. Lukaku told Sky Sports News HQ this week that "it would be nice to play in the Champions League from next season." There are reasons (a possible FA Cup victory, language barriers) to believe that this claim is not as dire as it seems for the Toffees, but an observer over the month weeks has seen both the glory that Lukaku has brought to Everton, in the form of two superb goals in the FA Cup Quarterfinal against Chelsea, and the reasons that he wants to leave, as the supremely frustrating loss to Arsenal showed.
Everton have developed their tactics to fit Lukaku, and Lukaku his skill set to fit the scything counter-attack and stagnant midfield of the Toffees. When he arrived at the club in 2013, Lukaku resembled a brick wall with an eye for goal, with an awkward first touch and the consistency of a teenage hormonal cycle. However, in the two years since, Lukaku’s feet have gotten better and he has grown into his powerful frame, allowing him to keep the ball with his back to goal while Everton sprint into the counter-attack. His strength was on show against Chelsea.
Ross Barkley and Aaron Lennon are the perfect compliments to Lukaku’s hold-up game. Barkley provides the killer ball and driving runs, while Lennon’s lightning pace ensures he’s always a threat in the final third. Countless times against both Arsenal and Chelsea, the Everton defense hits a long pass to Lukaku, who holds it up before combining with Barkley and Lennon. His barnstorming goal against Chelsea was a prime example; as the Belgian peeled away from Cahill into the channel, Barkley slid through a pass and Lukaku did the rest, powering through the defense and finishing clinically.
Everton’s counterattacks follow a rote pattern that often works to perfection: press, win, outlet to Lukaku, run, score.
However, in Arsenal’s masterclass at Goodison, Toffees supporters glimpsed why Lukaku longs to leave for a top-quality team, and saw dark omens for the post-Lukaku era. In fairness to the rest of the team, Lukaku was well marshalled by Gabriel throughout the match, and reading into the young man’s frustration is searching for problems where there may be none. No one had a good game, but Lukaku must play well for this team to play well, not in the sense of smashing in a goal a game (though that hasn’t hurt this season), but commanding central defenders and allowing space for the Everton midfield.
The service to Lukaku was poor, but that understates the stagnation of Everton’s midfield; rarely was there support once he did get the ball. Most of the balls played into Lukaku were from 30+ yards, either clearances from defense or goal kicks (Everton completed only 26 out of 63 long passes, though of course not all were directed to Lukaku). Once he was in possession, Lukaku was only able to complete 7 passes in Arsenal’s half, despite the fact that this hold-up play is a staple of Everton’s attack.
Against Arsenal, Everton’s lack of midfield fluency was exposed. Everton’s two main methods of getting the ball forward – running down the flanks through Lennon, Baines, Coleman or Barkley, and playing into Lukaku’s feet – work against most teams, but when Lukaku has a bad game Everton struggle to make space in midfield. Some will put Everton’s stagnation to the absence of Gareth Barry, though I’m not quite sold. Barry has a nice range of passing and reads the game well, but does his movement facilitate the flow of Everton’s attack? A trio of capable midfielders (Besic, Barkley and McCarthy) should be able to rotate through the midfield and at least combine going forward. Everton excel at passing backwards; of the top passing combinations, none are between attacking or midfield players (Jagielka to Stones, McCarthy to Jagielka, Stones, to Jagielka, Funes Mori to Robles, Baines to Cleverly, McCarthy to Coleman, McCarthy to Funes Mori, and finally Coleman to Lennon).
When Lukaku was available as a midfield outlet (or Barry was playing, take your pick), the fluency was astounding. Everton exchanged passes at will in midfield against Chelsea, displaying calm buildup that was nowhere to be found against Arsenal. Lukaku held up the ball superbly, and was able to release Coleman, Barkley and Lennon on multiple occasions.
I worry, then, what will happen when Lukaku (almost) inevitably departs in the summer. The two solutions would seem to be either sign a Lukaku-esque replacement or assemble a cohesive midfield five and pursue different types of strikers. Watching the games against Arsenal and Chelsea, it is hard to judge which of Everton’s five natural central midfielders would form the best combination. Besic, Barkley, Cleverly and McCarthy are all on long-term contracts, while Barry looks set to factor in for at least one more year.
Mohamed Besic, a speculative buy by Martinez in 2014 after his influential performances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, is far from the finished product, but has the makings of a steely defensive midfielder. He sniffs out danger and tackles well, but his decision-making and passing still needs work if he is to contribute to a flowing midfield of the kind that Everton fans will expect next season. Ideally, he could play along a more dynamic, forward-thinking ball-player.
James McCarthy strikes me as a strange in-between midfielder, not quite tough enough in the tackle and without the ball skills to contribute significantly in the final third. He functions competently as Everton’s pivot, positionally sound and switching play with a strong passing range. Barry has similar skills, albeit more experienced and a better reader of the game.
Meanwhile, Ross Barkley has come leaps and bounds this season and last, in one of the biggest pluses of the Martinez era. He is Everton’s best creator and has great feet; a low center of gravity and clever turns often put the young England international in goal-scoring positions. He sometimes gives the ball away in dangerous situations, and sometimes dallies too long on the ball, reasons why he has been correctly deployed further forward this season.
Perhaps due to a lack of left midfield players, Tom Cleverly has never really been given a chance in the center of the park despite that being his original position. Probably the most dynamic and forward-thinking of the five, aside from Barkley, Cleverly can be seen sprinting back to defend in the last five minutes; sometimes his enthusiasm carries him too far inside or too far forward. However, his endless supply of diagonal switches to Lennon and Lukaku demonstrate that he might have the passing ability to play in the middle, and I would love to see Everton sign a left midfielder and test out Cleverly as part of a midfield trio.
I won’t address the 3-4-3 that Everton tested in the second half of the Arsenal game; it seemed a desperation move that did little more than to increase Everton’s similarities to Martinez’s Wigan of relegation/FA Cup fame. A similar fate could well be in line for Everton: massively underachieving in the league while struggling to redeem the season through the cup. This strategy may be for the good of the club; convincing Lukaku, Stones and Barkley would be somewhat easier with Europa League football on the table next season. Don’t count on it, though, as Everton will be hard-pressed to hang onto their top talents this summer. Martinez’s successor (for he will surely go this summer) will be tasked with building a midfield that can hold its own in possession and in defense. Martinez has been able to achieve one or the other, but rarely both.