We'll be taking a closer look at Chelsea's top prospects leading up to the new year, and we've now reached the final three players we'll be looking at
We're down to the top three prospects in our ranking now, and the remaining three players are all probably good enough right now to walk right in to a role at Chelsea. Many of us have been calling for Chelsea to recall today's entry, who finished #3 in the WAGNH community rankings as well:
Lukaku joined Chelsea in the summer of 2011/12, after several years of being linked to basically every top club throughout Europe. There is good reason for that interest, as the young Belgian had already racked up 39 goals and 14 assists in the Jupiler Pro League before he turned 18 years old.
His goal scoring exploits weren't the only thing that scouts noticed, as the physical tools that Lukaku has at his disposal are just incredible. He's tall, built like a house, has fantastic speed, good leaping ability, and is surprisingly agile for such a big guy. He was inevitably compared to Didier Drogba, but from a physical gifts perspective, that comparison is more than a little flattering to Drogs.
From a skills perspective, the baby Kraken was far less impressive. Basically every aspect of his game was severely lacking for him to be playing at the Premier League level, and he would be asked to face far more gifted athletes in general at his new home. He was going to have a lot of hard work to do in training if he was going to reach his enormous potential.
Chelsea and Lukaku made the decision for him to remain with his parent club last season, despite them having quite a stockpile of center forwards at their disposal. That was pretty clearly a mistake, as Lukaku managed only about 400 minutes all year. Logging additional minutes at the reserve level did little for Lukaku, as he was just physically dominant to most of the youngsters he'd face.
On top of too few minutes, AVB had him training on the wings (pre-sacking) despite his future clearly being in the center of the pitch. Not only was he not getting time to develop, but he likely wasn't seeing many benefits of training alongside Didier Drogba at center forward. That training routine was changed when Roberto Di Matteo took charge in March, and Lukaku's late season appearances did show positive signs because of that.
With Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, and Salomon Kalou all departing this summer, the odds of Lukaku getting minutes at Chelsea increased considerably. The club still decided the best course of action was to send him on loan to a Premier League side, agreeing to a season long loan spell to West Bromwich Albion with an option to recall him in January.
That decision appears to have been excellent, as Lukaku has been utilized nearly perfectly by Steve Clarke. He got off on the right foot, scoring in his debut against Liverpool and generally creating chaos with his size and strength. For those of you that missed that game, this gif is always worth another watch:
Lukaku has gone on to log over 800 minutes this fall, frequently being used as a game changing substitute. He's logged six Premier League goals as well as an assist this season, and his goals per minute ratio is among the best in the league.
The results are not the only things that have improved though, he's been showing plenty of reasons to believe that he'll eventually develop skills that will make him among the world's best. The most notable improvement has come from Lukaku's work in the air. He's doing much better on long balls with his back to goal, and when he's running he's nearly unmarkable for opposing defenders. His accuracy with those headers still needs loads of work, but I'd much rather have a teenager that wins the battles and struggles to finish them than someone that finishes the rare ball he manages to get his head to.
His dribbling has looked much better this season as well. I'm sure that getting regular minutes has been helping his confidence, but the fact that he's now challenging defenders on his first touch rather than struggling with a decision has led to significantly more shots on goal and chances created for teammates. He's still a bit turnover prone, but he's now creating massive problems for every defense he faces.
There are still plenty of issues that Lukaku needs to work on, most notably his marking on set pieces and his tendency to get caught offside. Both issues are things that should get better with more minutes, as both are problems due to reading the game a bit too slowly. More time playing at the speed of the Premier League should get him more used to making the correct decisions, and at 19, he has plenty of time.
Lukaku's immediate future has been a popular subject of discussion of late. Chelsea need a striker, and there is very little reason to believe he wouldn't get the same type of minutes here that he has thus far at West Brom. He'd also be an absolutely perfect fit in the offensive system that Rafa Benitez seems to be trying to employ, as his speed and ability to provide a target for a cross just dwarf those of Fernando Torres.
I'd personally be in favor of calling Lukaku this afternoon and telling him to pack his things tonight. He's good enough today to come in and push Fernando Torres for a starting job, and there is little reason to believe we couldn't find him more than 800 minutes this spring even in a backup role (especially with Europa). The fact that he's already on the books just makes the decision easier, as it would still leave Chelsea plenty to spend on other players they are targeting.
Romelu Lukaku is perhaps the most interesting teenager in the game today. His physical tools are off the charts, and if he develops his touch and positioning, he's got best center forward in the world potential. There is also a significant chance of Lukaku never becoming more than an average player, as even with his improvement this fall, he's still very raw overall. Regardless of where he ends up this spring, his development will be something most fans will continue to watch closely. I just really hope he's developing at Chelsea.