Height: 1.91m Weight: 94kg Age: 24
Games: 37 Goals: 25 Assists: 6
As the 2016/17 season comes to a close and the collective focus of the footballing world turns to the transfer season, the central storyline at Everton is the future of Romelu Lukaku. This is for good reason—he is the club’s best player, and probably has been for the last four years. In this article we will take a look at what he accomplished this year, what his critics say, and, most broadly, how we ought to feel about his Everton tenure.
First, the obvious stuff. Lukaku was Everton’s top scorer this season, an honor he has achieved for each of the four years he has been at the club (and achieved the season before that at West Bromwich Albion). He took more shots than any other Everton player and led the team in expected goals. On the creative side, only Ross Barkley exceeded Rom’s tally in both key passes and assists. He was also the team’s most prolific dribbler, with one more successful dribble than Barkley. He did all of this while accruing a team-leading 3267 minutes on the pitch and appearing in all but one league match.
In other words, Romelu Lukaku is Everton’s attack. This is obvious to anyone who watches the team, and it’s confirmed by the fact that he scored 42% of Toffee goals this season.
If you need some visual stimulation, go ahead and watch all of his non-penalty goals this year:
And here’s his shot map, courtesy of Ted Knutson:
Interesting to see Lukaku's shot map this year leans center-right. Doesn't really have that in previous seasons. pic.twitter.com/5PVmDKQJhh— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) May 6, 2017
There’s a ton to like here: good total xG, solid shot locations, a bit of variety, and even some over-performance/finishing to ice the cake (he even scored a beautiful free kick). In terms of output, it looked like this (fancy stats on the left, more traditional stuff on the right):
Ladies and gents, it’s time to acknowledge that we’ve got an elite striker on our hands. Lukaku put in yet another really good season in an already really good career and he just turned 24.
What’s remarkable about this is that it’s not new. Lukaku has bagged 79 non-penalty goals in the league over the last 5 years, a tally which puts him in some pretty serious company:
He rises even higher if we just focus on the last 2 seasons:
Lukaku’s consistency at such a young age is remarkable. It’s extremely rare to have a 24-year old with this kind of track record at the highest level. Of the above players, only Harry Kane is younger. If the signs weren’t already there when he scored 17 goals for West Brom as a teenager (!!!), he was worth every penny when Everton made his deal permanent in the summer of 2014:
DONE DEAL RADAR: Romelu Lukaku, Everton 13-14. Can't do keepy-uppies, but he's an outstanding young scorer. pic.twitter.com/vVUu59pwwb— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) July 30, 2014
Furthermore, there was evidence in the underlying numbers that—even if you were unimpressed with the output—the upside was considerable.
While Lukaku’s production and longevity has been rock-solid, his style has also evolved somewhat and he can no longer be pigeon-holed as the classic big target man he was as a 19-year-old. As I alluded to above, his dribbling this year has been a welcome addition to his game that is backed up by the numbers:
In terms of Ronald Koeman’s usage of him this season, he shied away from the right-wing deployment that Roberto Martínez often opted for, but did often use him in a strike duo alongside Enner Valencia. In such situations Lukaku often shades to the right so that he can cut in on his favored left foot. It also allows him to drop deeper when necessary to become more involved. These developments partly explain why his dribbling numbers were up this year, and why, as Ted noted, his shot map shaded a bit to the right.
In the context of his career, 2016/17 marked yet another step forward for the Belgian, both in terms of doing what he’s always done and becoming a more multi-dimensional player.
Okay so that’s a lot of good stuff. Surely, then, we can all just agree that Rom is dope and move on. What’s that, Phil Neville?
“I have watched Lukaku and I am a big fan, but I see him in the big games and I don’t see a player that grabs and wins a big game on his own.”
Ah yes, there we are. Thanks for the take, Phil. This is something you hear a bit about Lukaku: he bottles it against the bigger sides, he’s a flat-track bully, etc, etc, ad nauseam. Let’s talk about that.
I think we should first remember that we’re discussing someone who plays for Everton. What is a big game for Everton? During Lukaku’s tenure they’ve never played a Cup Final, and they’ve only sort of come close to qualifying for the Champions League once. They’ve finished 6th, 11th, 11th, and 7th in the league. They were in the Europa League and were in the semifinals of both domestic cups last year—we can talk about that in a moment.
I assume that what the Phil Nevilles of the world are talking about here are league matches against the big teams, a.k.a. the top 6. I take a bit of issue with this simply for the fact that with or without Lukaku, Everton historically don’t do well against these teams, mostly because they go into every single one of those matches as the underdog and perform as such. Few supporters need reminding that Everton haven’t beaten Liverpool in almost 7 years. I suppose the argument is that Lukaku, being the best player on the team, should be dragging them to results in those games. I’m not sure that’s in any way realistic given the squad around him.
Here’s a good bit from Match of the Day’s analysis of Everton’s 0-3 home loss to Chelsea at the end of April. All who have watched this team over the last few years know that this is a reoccurring theme:
MOTD analysis on Lukaku against Chelsea pic.twitter.com/RUr4BOJvoS— CFC Tweet (@CFCTWEET__) May 18, 2017
I think about this too when folks knock Lukaku’s hold-up game. How often did we see him flick the ball onto a runner who never came? Or control a long ball but lose it as he was waiting for help to arrive?
With all of that being said, even if we grant that games against the top 6 are “big games”, it’s instructive as usual to look at actual numbers. So I took the Premier League’s five most prolific strikers over the five years and looked at how their numbers change based on their opponents:
Surprise! Everybody produces less against the best teams (because they are the best teams!). Now, you could point out that Lukaku’s differential is a hair above his competitors here. With the exception of Agüero, though, the differences between the players are marginal. Also, I think that this more than understandable given that they all play for top teams and Lukaku has played for friggin’ Everton and West Brom. Being alongside David Silva/Eden Hazard/Christian Eriksen/Mesut Özil is objectively different than trying to get Ross Barkley to look up and see that you’re open, especially against the best squads in the league.
I suspect that what’s happening is here is that a lot of supporters see Everton as being a better club than they are, as a club that should be challenging the top 6 on a regular basis. When they fail to do so, the natural inclination is to ask why your best player, if he is so amazing, isn’t changing that. The reality is that Everton haven’t been that kind of a club in a long, long time, and one player will never change that without a significant upgrade to the supporting cast, including management.
It’s also possible that some Evertonians will never forgive him for having his penalty saved by the league’s best ‘keeper in last year’s FA Cup semi-final. Indeed that was a big game, and indeed Lukaku missed. He did score in the first league of their League Cup semi against Manchester City, but I suppose my bigger point here is twofold.
First, what data we do have (see above) doesn’t really backup the claim that Rom bottles it in big games. If you want to instead cherry-pick examples like the big penalty miss last year, you have to also note his 7 goals and 1 assist in Everton’s only 4 European knockout matches of the last 7 years, his incredible goal and performance against Arsenal in April 2014 with a Champions League place in sight, and his solo goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup in 2016. More recently, here’s Lukaku not “grabbing a big game” at the Etihad this season:
Secondly, Rom cannot develop a reputation as a big game player as long as Everton aren’t a team that plays a lot of big games. Look again at the company he keeps:
And think again about the fact that he plays for a team that rarely challenges for anything meaningful. The “big game” criticism is missing the point completely and the time has come to let it go.
Also, the dude once scored the winning goal in a World Cup quarter-final.
I have to admit that it really does look like Lukaku is finally on his way out this summer. If he does go, he will be sorely missed not just by his team but hopefully by the supporters as well. The post-David Moyes era at Goodison Park has been defined not just by Lukaku’s presence on the scoresheet but on the team sheet as well: he has played close to 90% of possible league minutes in 4 seasons at Everton, which is absolutely bonkers.
This season was a fitting send off: plenty of goals and an improved league position. He never went more than 4 matches without scoring and never missed a start after being injured for the first match of the season. Players like that don’t grow on trees, especially not around here. The best parting gift he could give us is a fat transfer fee to get a few replacements, and it looks like he’ll do that.
Less tangible than the lump of cash will be his legacy as the best Everton player of the Premier League era, a feat achieved before hitting his mid-twenties, which are typically the peak years of a forward’s career.
What is your grade for Romelu Lukaku’s 2016-17 season?
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