Romelu Lukaku can finish. We know this and we have known it for a long time. On Monday night, he scored two good goals in Everton’s comeback at the Hawthorns but, important as they were, they probably weren’t the most eye-catching part of his performance.
Instead, it was his role in Arouna Kone’s equaliser.
For a long time, the slight on Lukaku has been his inability to link the play. He may have had all the athleticism and size needed to bully defenders and he may have had the range of finishes required to accumulate an impressive goal tally, but what he’s done outside the penalty box has typically been quite underwhelming.
In the past, he has struggled when receiving the ball in congested areas and his passing, when he has tried to lay the ball off, has generally been formulaic. Consequently, he has been known as a forward who recycles possession rather than one who does anything particularly imaginative with it and as someone who needs to run onto balls and into space to be effective.
And, actually, that hasn’t been a disaster. Lukaku has received a lot of criticism in the past, but only because his potential is so vast and also, during those first few years, he perhaps didn’t mature at the rate he was expected to. Despite that, not many would contest that he is already a very accomplished goal-scorer - the point is merely that he could and should become an exceptional all-round forward and that the world has been rather impatient in waiting for him to evolve.
So, Monday night…
The series of screenshots below show the sequence leading up to the pass which put Arouna Kone through on Boaz Myhill.
He receives the ball ten yards outside the box with his back to goal. As the image shows, he’s surrounded by West Brom defenders and, actually, their overall shape isn’t too bad. In the past, Lukaku would probably have done one of two things in this possession - either he would have tried to roll his marker and burst into the channel, or he would have played a high-percentage pass back to a supporting player (shown by the arrow).
Instead, he holds the defender off and cuts back in-field. At this point, he still has an easy, attractive passing option and it’s one that limited centre-forwards play all the time: (as the arrow shows) push the ball out wide to an advancing full-back or winger, then head into the area to await the cross.
…a split-second later, he still has the opportunity to square it wide. And why shouldn’t he - it’s the percentage play, after all. Lukaku has already scored with a header by this point and it would have been entirely logical for him to release the ball and attack the penalty spot. His manager and the travelling fans may even have applauded him for doing so.
He doesn’t. He sees Kone breaking away from his marker and produces a perfectly weighted ball which, had he wanted to, his teammate could probably have struck without breaking stride. It’s great vision, good execution and, ultimately, the kind of extra dimension that, if he’s capable of adding to his game permanently, will make him lethal.
In isolation, the moment appears to be fairly incidental, but given what has gone before and given the nature of criticism he’s faced, it felt more significant. It was a brilliant bit of play; well done Romelu Lukaku and, almost certainly, well done to the Everton coaching staff who have helped to refine his game.