Romelu Lukaku 19 Striker Chelsea (on loan at West Bromwich Albion)
With more than thirty goals scored in top flight Belgian football at Anderlecht before he had even turned 18, it’s difficult to imagine a more exciting striker bursting onto the scene anywhere in world football. Nevertheless, when we were compiling this list at the end of 2011, we already had concerns about Romelu Lukaku….
We have a tendency to wince at the ‘stockpiling’ of young footballers at any top club. However when Chelsea hastily agreed a fee - widely reported to be in the region of €22m - with Anderlecht to secure the transfer of Lukaku in the summer of 2011, we were optimistic. Andre Villas Boas had been installed to refresh the West London club and his remit included a reduction to the average age of the first team squad. In summary, Didier Drogba was coming to the end of his career and Lukaku had been identified as his replacement. Now, if you had asked us, with money no option, which young striker would we have earmarked for the role as Drogba’s replacement, we’d have come up with Lukaku. It was a real no-brainer. The similarities in playing style were clear, and while Drogba was something of a late bloomer, Lukaku, with more than 70 appearances for club and country already secured, was the perfect fit to learn from, and then replace, the Ivorian legend. Everything was in place.
But just as Lukaku was finding his feet in English football, making the odd appearance from the bench, Villas Boas, another manager coming to terms with Jose Mourinho’s lengthening shadow at Chelsea, received his marching orders. While the games didn’t dry up quite as badly as they did for Oriol Romeu, Lukaku was very much an emergency back up only.
It’s hard to be critical of what happened to Lukaku at Chelsea. We’d all like to see young talent persevered with, but few managers can afford to offer time to anyone but their most senior personnel. Striker B was brought in to eventually replace striker A, but team is struggling. Manger builds remainder of season around striker A as team begins to win games. When striker A ultimately delivers the biggest prize in club football for a manager that has kept him in the team, what is there to argue about? But having enjoyed such a formidable opening to his career (remember Lukaku was the top scorer in the Belgian First Division whilst still at school), it must have been difficult to take.
And so to the summer of 2012. Chelsea are European Champions and Didier Drogba is no longer at the club. Lukaku time?
With Fernando Torres FINALLY finding his shooting boots as the main striker at Chelsea, and a summer long flirtation with Porto’s Hulk as evidence, things remained unhappy for Lukaku. With a rebooted Chelsea side now utilising Torres, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, ably backed up by Marko Marin, Oscar, Florent Malouda, Victor Moses and Daniel Sturridge as their primary attacking blend, 2012-13 was looking less good for the tall Belgian. With the prospect of duking things out with the hotly tipped Lucas Piazon for a place on the bench, this was looking like a second year of stagnation.
We felt, at the time of the transfer, that if Lukaku was not immediately set for a role in the Chelsea’s first team, he would have been better served to remain with Anderlecht for another season. That Chelsea acted when they did may have been driven by Jose Mourinho declaring Real Madrid’s interest in the striker. Forced into the market early, they effectively parked Lukaku and, just like Gael Kakuta before him, there was a sense of Chelsea buying to prevent anyone else strengthening.
As the 2011/12 Premier League season drew close, things appeared bleak for Romelu Lukaku. But just when things look at their worst, salvation comes from an unlikely source. Enter a White Knight from the Black Country. While a loan move to Stoke was originally mooted not long after Lukaku’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, salvation has come from the West Midlands.
West Bromwich Albion have enjoyed a period of relative stability of late, and a club which became the archetypal yo-yo outfit of English football recruited Lukaku on a season long loan as September loomed. The move has been a success for all parties. In his favour, Lukaku is now involved in first team football again at a wonderful club that does a much better job of developing players than it is given credit for. For the Baggies, results have been positive. Manager Steve Clarke has to take credit for some wonderful performances and excellent results, but his sparing use of Lukaku has been first class. He looks a little better every time we see him. Lukaku, that is.
The rough edges have been very evident, but the young forward is making galloping progress. Lukaku could not be in better hands right now and we’d wager that a very different player will return to Stamford Bridge when the loan period ends.
Not yet 20 and with one of the biggest reputations in world football, Romelu Lukaku was always going to have to adapt quickly. The good news is that he now is.
""He came from Stamford Bridge, he's bigger than a fridge" sing the Albion fans when Lukaku's lurking. Size isn't everything though, and it's the Belgian's anticipation that helps him win so many aerial duels. Saying that, his timing is far from perfect - few strikers are called offside so often." - Jon Holmes (Sky Sports)
"Last season was a complete write-off for the former Anderlecht frontman, unable to make an impact at Chelsea in any shape or form. Being sent to West Brom was a blessing as Clarke is ideal coach to nurture his raw talent. Featuring mostly from the bench to exploit weary defences, Lukaku has settled to life in West Midlands well and expect him to start more regularly soon." - Chris Mayer (Belgian Waffle)
C- It looked grim for a while but things are beginning to happen