Writing Off Romelu Lukaku Is Just A Tad Premature

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on SB NATION, 14 March 2012

One of the less acceptable (if minor) consequences of the defenestration of Andre Villas-Boas has been the rush to assume that the entire of the eight-month project has been a failure. Yet unambiguous calamities are as rare as caveatless success, and Chelsea, for all that they have spent most of the season looking like a gently imploding mither of snark and counter-snark, can — and, let’s face it, must — scrabble around for some positives. And the chief among these, it seems to me, has been the recruitment.

Of the purchases for the first team, we can chalk Juan Mata up as a definite good, and accept that Raul Meireles hasn’t quite gone as hoped. But the others that have or will come in — Oriel Romeu, Kevin de Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku — do at least look, from the outside, to be exactly the kind of signings that a club looking to regenerate itself need to make: young, highly-rated, and brimming with potential. Unless your budget is unlimited — and Chelsea’s isn’t, though it is big — then spending money on youth is about sacrificing utility in the present in the hope of greater utility in the future. Romeu has shown signs of being a good investment, while Du Bruyne is still in Belgium. But what is a little puzzling is the criticism being levelled by some people, both Chelsea fans and not, at Lukaku.

Signed in the face of competition from Real Madrid (apparently) and costing a decent lump of cash (also apparently), Lukaku has made ten appearances in a blue shirt, mostly as a substitute, and hasn’t scored any goals yet. That said, he did score two for Anderlecht before completing his move, which means he’s scored as many league goals this season as ‘Fernando Torres‘, who SB Nation can exclusively reveal has been replaced by a performance artist, engaged in a subtle and ultimately tragic parody of the whole desperate business that is modern living football. It’s probably one of the Yes Men. The real Torres is fine, incidentally, and has settled happily into a new life diving for pearls in the Gulf of Mannar. He saw Rafa Benitez in the distance once, on holiday with his family, but decided against going to talk to him. The past is the past, he figures, and best left there.

That, of course, has been part of the problem: if Lukaku was not playing but the team was functioning, then everybody would be much more relaxed. There wouldn’t be as much pressure and there wouldn’t be any space for him anyway. But the extension of Torres’s drought from “hosepipe ban” through “international crisis” and on to “Biblical vengeance”, coupled with the fact that Chelsea spent the first two-thirds of the season battering itself around the head with its own structural and personal idiocies, has had the pernicious effect of making it harder for Lukaku to settle while simultaneously drawing attention to his struggles to do so. Rather unfairly, expectations change in accordance with context: Chelsea haven’t needed a teenager that isn’t ready to play yet; they’ve needed a functioning striker.

But none of that is Lukaku’s fault, which means describing the purchase as having “missed the target”, as at least one Proper Journalist did shortly after Villas-Boas left, is asinine to the point of trollery. If there is a target towards which this transfer arrow has been fired — not my metaphor, don’t blame me — then it’s one, two, three seasons into the future. This is a club that doesn’t know who its manager is from week to week; anybody that says they know how the young players are going to end up is lying, either to you or to themselves. And criticising a player for not developing under a manager who wasn’t doing a particularly good job seems at best a touch counter-intuitive, at worst completely illogical.

There are those that insist that price-tags of a certain size should equate to some kind of tangible return, if not outright explosive impact, which is at least slightly more understandable if ultimately vulnerable to the same objection. When buying raw potential — and that definitely includes Lukaku, for all his impressive Youtube chops — any immediate impact can only ever be a bonus. If the unfinished 18-year-old scores seven in his first ten, brilliant. If he doesn’t, no bother.

It is tempting to break footballing history into convenient chunks along personality lines, stamp SUCCESS or FAILURE onto them, and call it analysis. The eight months of “Andre Villas-Boas’ ill-fated and brief reign” at Stamford Bridge will be stamped FAILURE, and quite right too. But that doesn’t mean that everything that began within those months must also flail, wither and die. Josh McEachran’s loan spell at Swansea could be the making of him. Kevin du Bruyne may turn out to be the Belgian Jairzinho. Even Raul Meireles might finally kick the meth.

Writing off Lukaku for failing to flourish in his first season, at the age of 18 and under a dysfunctional regime, would be like abandoning an over-elaborate concluding metaphor just because you couldn’t quite make it work the first time. For all that he’s eight-foot-four and able to lift Frank Lampard with a single hand, he’s just a baby. It would be a shame to see him thrown out with Villas-Boas’s dirty bath-water.

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