At only 23 years of age it already seems as though Romelu Lukaku has been around forever. He broke in to the first team at Anderlecht at just 16 years of age he already seemed to be a fully grown adult. There was never any doubt in the minds of those that followed his fledgling career that the Belgian striker would become a star, indeed it just remained to be seen which European giant would snap up the precocious striker.
The answer came in 2011 when Lukaku made the move to Chelsea in the English Premier League for a fee reported to rise to £20M. Still only 18 Lukaku was still raw albeit with a lot of potential and in his first season in England he found first team football hard to come by. That prompted a loan move in his second season to West Bromwich Albion that saw the Belgian striker start to show flashes of his real ability with 17 goal in 35 matches.
These performances were not enough to allow Lukaku to break in to the first team at his parent club and the following season Lukaku again found himself on loan at Everton. He impressed again with 15 goals in 31 appearances and once again he found his path to the first team at Chelsea blocked on his return. This led to a permanent move back to Everton where he has gone on to score 52 goals in 105 matches at the time of writing.
Raw potential has manifested itself in to genuine ability in Lukaku with the striker developing in to a true modern striker with the physical strength to hold off any defensive player in the game and the insitinctive movements to find space in the penalty area. His performances so far this season have led to a nomination for the PFA player of the year award and you cannot help but feel that this is just the start for Lukaku.
Unfortunately for Everton Lukaku has made it clear that he sees his future away from Goodison Park with a move back to Chelsea again looking likely as he feels as though he has unfinished business in West London.
What kind of player has Lukaku developed in to though?
Strength and awareness in the penalty area
It goes without saying for a player with over 100 professional goals at the age of 24 but Lukaku is an impressive presence in the penalty area. Standing well over 6ft tall he has developed the ability to manipulate his body to hold off the most attentive of defensive players. Combine that with an innate ability to find space in the congested penalty area we often see Lukaku receive the ball with his back to goal before twisting in to space and finishing.
Given his physique you would expect Lukaku to be awkward with the ball at his feet. That however is not the case as the Belgian has a soft first touch and the capacity to beat a player in a one on one situation whether inside or outside the penalty area.
In this video we see an example of the strength of Lukaku in the penalty area as he pins a defender in pace controls a difficult ball and then finishes efficiently.
When the ball is shifted out to the wide player we immediately see Lukaku begin to position himself at the edge of the six yard box. You see him use his arms to isolate and pin his defender and as the ball is crossed in to him the defender is not in a position to make an effective challenge on the ball.
The striker is then able to control the ball on his chest before spinning and finishing well.
Again here we can see Lukaku use his strength to hold off the defensive player. As the ball is worked in to the wide area we see the Belgian back in to the defender to assert his position.
When Lukaku receives the ball in this example he still has a lot of work to do. There are two defensive players looking to move in and challenge for the ball but his first touch is excellent as he shifts the ball immediately towards goal before using his strength to move past the closest defender.
As he moves closer to goal the angle with which he has to shoot becomes tighter and there is little in the way of support. Lukaku however has the power and the ability to hold off the defender before finishing with power in to the net.
Ability in the air
Fittingly for a striker who stands at 6ft3 Lukaku is at least as impressive with the ball in the air as he is with the ball on the ground.
He displays excellent movement in the penalty area when the ball is in wide areas which makes it difficult for defensive players to prevent him from finding space within the penalty area in which to attack the crossed ball.
This ability in the air also however manifests itself in the teams build up phase as his teammates are aware that when the ball is played up to Lukaku in the air that they can run off of the striker as he will win the ball and look to flick the ball in to dangerous advances areas.
In the above video Lukaku finds himself isolated between the centre half and the left back as Everton are attacking in the wide area.
Leicester are one of the most impressive sides in the Premier League when it comes to defending balls crossed in to the penalty area but on this occasion they found themselves unable to deal with Lukaku.
As the ball is crossed in to the penalty area Lukaku moves easily in to space timing his run to stay online he gets beyond the defensive line and meets the ball in stride scoring a relatively straight forward goal.
This time we see an example of the direct build up play that is possible for Everton with Lukaku in the side.
As the ball is played vertically from the right back area in to the oppositions half of the field we see that Lukaku has moved deeper to win the ball. As soon as he is going up for the header he has teammates moving in to advanced areas confident that he will win the aerial challenge.
Indeed on this occasion he wins the ball in the air and flicks it on in to the path of a teammate making a vertical run in behind the Hull City defence.
Ability to link play in the final third
As befits a striker at the top level of football today Lukaku has more to his game than simply the ability to finish and win aerial duels. His first touch and spatial awareness are such that he is extremely effective in the build up phase both for Everton and for the national team when he plays for Belgium.
Lukaku tends to play as a lone striker under Ronald Koeman for Everton this season although he has in the past shown that he is able to play as part of a front two with the awareness and intelligence to link with a striker partner.
The willingness of Lukaku to drop back in to deeper areas to give Everton an advanced platform to build from as they launch in to their attacking phase is one of the keys to the attacking system under Koeman.
Here as Everton are attacking we see the Belgian international Kevin Mirallas move across the face of goal with the ball as Lukaku takes up a position on the edge of the penalty area looking to receive the ball.
The striker however recognises that Tom Davies has moved in to space and shifts out to increase the space that the young midfielder has to operate. As the ball is played in to Lukaku instead of trying to take the ball under pressure and drive towards goal the striker simply flicks the ball across in to the path of Davies who has far more space in which to operate.
In this example Lukaku acts as the pivot through which the attacking movement is worked. As the ball is played up and in to the feet of Lukaku he has drawn the Sunderland defence out with him.
Straight away there are two Everton players looking to burst forward from the midfield making vertical runs to access the space in behind the defensive structure.
We see Lukaku receive the ball and turn waiting for the right moment for the ball to be released. He gets the timing of the through ball right and releases the runner from the midfield who has a clear path on goal.
In terms of career development Lukaku has taken something of a circular route to reach the level that he has. Perhaps he would have been better served joining a club other than Chelsea straight from Anderlecht but it is testament to his strength of character that he was quick to push for opportunities on loan when it became clear that his first team chances would be limited.
The Belgian striker has developed in to one of the most complete strikers in Europe and is far and away the best player at the club. His form this season has been reflected in his nomination for this PFA award.
The next step in his career progression could well be the most important and if he does choose to return to Chelsea there are few that would bet against him being a success this time.