SEATTLE, WA - JULY 18: Romelu Lukaku #18 of Chelsea FC battles Jeff Parke #31 of the Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field on July 18, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. Chelsea defeated the Sounders 4-2. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The first rule of footballers is that they should be playing football. That's just how it goes. They're not much good for anything else -- Milan Lalkovic's talent for social media and David Luiz's for being a Brazilian happiness factory are rare exceptions -- and that goes doubly for prospects, who need to do the playing football thing regularly in order to get good enough to play more, better, football later. Playing time is essentially the top consideration for prospects, and it only becomes more important the more talented said prospect may be.
It's for that reason that not sending Romelu Lukaku on loan this summer would be a travesty of fairly high order. The teenager was thoroughly impressive during his start against the Seattle Sounders, notching a well-taken brace, but he's not at the level you'd expect from a first-choice Chelsea striker, and is definitely behind both Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge in the pecking order. That's not a bad thing, of course -- Lukaku may have come with a hefty price tag and corresponding expectations, but he's 19 years old. He's not going to hit his physical prime for another few years, and his footballing career should span at least another decade after that. Not being a first choice player for the champions of Europe? He can probably handle that, so long as he's getting regular time.
The problem is that third-choice players don't get regular time. Although Lukaku would present Chelsea with an obvious secondary tactical option, I'd hazard that he's unlikely to get much more time than he did last year, where he was... third choice at centre forward, behind both Torres and Didier Drogba. Everyone wants Lukaku to develop into something approximating the latter, but despite the flashes of brilliance he'd be better served heading off somewhere else where he can actually play. He'll never reach his potential if he doesn't.
And yes, he agrees:
If I can stay here at Chelsea and be part of the starting XI and score a lot of goals for the club and make the team win, that's good for me and for the club as well. But if I can go on loan and play in another team and score goals and then come back and explode it will be good as well. I just keep my feet grounded and work hard each day and then after the tour we will see what will happen.
Source: ESPN Soccernet.
Unless Lukaku can definitively show that he's better than Torres (and despite my supposed anti-Torresness, such a position seems to be fanciful in the extreme) during the summer, there's almost no reason to keep him around. There are dozens of teams across the top leagues in Europe who'd see Lukaku as a starter, but Chelsea need to find him a position where he'll be challenged for that starting spot and in the league itself -- but not to the point where he'll fail at either.
If Lukaku can see off competition for a first-choice place in, say, the Bundesliga, he can come back as a much, much better player in a year's time, and a good season could see him ready to take over as our main striker very soon. There's no way he could make that sort of leap as a backup to Sturridge and Torres. If Lukaku stays at Stamford Bridge, he'll certainly improve. That's what young players do. But he can never establish himself as a star unless he plays, and what Chelsea need out of their purchase is a star.
Find Lukaku a place he can call home. If we really believe in him as the 'next Drogba', doing so could be one of the most important moves of the summer.