Romelu Lukaku’s Claim To Being Player Of The Year Is Being Undersold
Here’s something important to get out of the way early doors: individual awards, especially in team sports, are by their very nature a waste of time and for the most part should be scrapped. Take football for example, and ask how a team’s most important player should be decided: should it be the goalkeeper who makes logic-defying saves to make sure of one or all three points at one of the ‘tough places to go to’ or the striker who plunders 20 goals in a title-winning season? Or perhaps it’s the silky midfielder who knits it all together who deserves the most praise. The process of who gets what at end-of-the-season soirees isn’t an exact science but such is the nature of the beast that these gongs have to be handed out every year in the Premier League and elsewhere.
The nominees for this year’s PFA Awards are in, and with the possible exception of Dele Alli’s exemption, there are no real surprises; Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, N’Golo Kanté, Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez, and Romelu Lukaku make the shortlist. For some reason, it seems to be a straight shootout between Kanté and Hazard; but there’s a strong case to be made that none of them deserve to win the award and Lukaku instead should be named PFA Player of the Year on Sunday.
There’s something really surprising about the league’s leading scorer having just an outside chance of being named its player of the year, yet this is where we find ourselves with Lukaku this term. With 24 goals this season, Lukaku has four goals more than his nearest challenger, and somehow he’s still viewed as a flat track bully, incapable of standing up to be counted against the best sides in the league. This unfair criticism conveniently ignores the fact Everton see less of the ball against the best teams in the division, which undoubtedly leaves him starved of meaningful service to work with as the quality of defending improves.
The received wisdom about the 23-year-old is that the jury is still out on him, that there are legitimate questions to be asked about his ability as a striker. There’s a nagging suspicion Lukaku is held to a different standard than his peers, and is only ever one bad game away for his critics coming out in full force, with his transfer fee, especially in his early Everton days, a favourite stick to beat him with. Yet the statistics paint a different picture; a picture of a player already blossoming into one of the world’s elite strikers at 23 with the scope to further improve as he matures. Lukaku, it must be remembered, arrived in English football as an 18-year-old, and the unfortunate 15-game spell at Chelsea aside has had a seamless adaptation to the Premier League.
The problem with players like Lukaku is that they have been around for so long that it’s quite easy to forget how young they still are, which in turn makes onlookers numb to the idea that a 23-year-old putting up these numbers is still quite an extraordinary feat. Last season Lukaku joined the pantheon of English football greats who netted 50 Premier League goals before turning 23. When you have Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney for company, you’re obviously doing something right.
Before that it was the 17 goals in 35 appearances in a glorious loan spell at West Brom, including that memorably brilliant hat-trick against Manchester United in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game in charge. That year Lukaku was the league’s sixth highest scorer and more surprisingly, Chelsea’s top marksman despite playing for a side five places and 26 points behind his parent club. The goals have continued to flow at a ridiculous pace since the £28m permanent move to Everton, but it is this season under Ronald Koeman’s tutelage that Lukaku has moved up onto another level.
When Roberto Martinez was relieved of his duties last term, there was a sense of a club drifting listlessly and in need of a firm hand, something Koeman has provided since his surprise move from Southampton. Everton look a more cohesive side, playing with attacking verve and confidence, and despite a sketchy patch earlier in the season, have been the best side in 2017. Ross Barkley and Lukaku have been the biggest beneficiaries of Koeman’s tough love and tactical rejigging of the team; with Barkley playing closest to Lukaku, they bring out the best in each other, swatting away hapless defences with consummate ease. The goals have flown in for Lukaku – 24 in 32 starts at the time of writing – and the records have tumbled. Saturday’s goal against Burnley made it his ninth consecutive home game with a goal, equalling the record set by the great Dixie Dean way back in 1934.
That goal also made him the first Everton player since Bob Latchford in 1978 to score 25 goals in all competitions in consecutive seasons. Lukaku has already eclipsed Duncan Ferguson (60) as Everton’s record scorer in the league with 67 goals, despite playing a whopping 126 games fewer than his current coach. In total he has 84 goals – the same as a certain Cristiano Ronaldo who turned out to be alright. Only Lionel Messi (15) has more goals than Lukaku this calendar year, the Belgian is level with Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. These numbers would be remarkable for anyone, but when they are posted by a player on the seventh best side in the league who are dwarfed by the massive resources of those above them, they become even more unbelievable and noteworthy.
Lukaku’s strengths are obvious for all to see: in an era of false nines and complicated formations, the Belgian is a throwback to a different era, manufactured somewhere in a 1970s footballing lab, all muscle and instinctive finishing. He represents a simpler time, when a centre-forward’s job was simply to score goals and discomfort defenders, and perhaps that contributes to why he’s still viewed suspiciously in some quarters. This season, however, has seen an improvement in Lukaku’s range of skills: he brings his teammates more into play, chips in with crucial assists and has a considerably better first touch. By no means the finished product, Lukaku still has scope to improve and he will, but for me, his performances this season which could also include leading Everton to finish above Arsenal means he should be named the PFA Player of the Year.