Why Loaning out Romelu Lukaku Could Backfire on Chelsea Boss Jose Mourinho
Eight. Fifteen. Seventeen.
Those are the number of league goals scored by Chelsea's registered centre-forwards last season, with starter Fernando Torres netting the lower of the numbers. The middle digit was the total scored by Demba Ba, a January arrival—but only two of those came as a Chelsea player, the rest were scored while he was still at Newcastle United.
With the then-19-year-old also appearing in a handful of friendlies and World Cup qualifiers at international level for Belgium, and scoring against Holland in the process, it's fair to say that 2012-13 was one of important—and tangible—progress for the young striker.
To that end, and following a successful preseason campaign, it was expected that Lukaku would return to play a significant squad role for Chelsea this season, but a late loan move in the transfer window means he will once again be unavailable to the boss, now Jose Mourinho.
By all accounts, Mourinho has earned his status as one of the top managers in world football, yet viewers the country and probably the world over are asking the same question: What on earth was the plan there?
Samuel Eto'o, an experienced forward who worked with Mourinho at Inter Milan, was also brought into the Chelsea squad this summer. A proven front man, he will lead the line well and link play, and his clever movement will create spaces for Chelsea's plethora of dangerous second-line attackers to exploit.
His signing was an obvious one and a good one, but he is not the on-the-shoulder poacher-type that many will remember. At Anzhi Makhachkala he has often been used as a second forward, playing deeper, and he no longer has the searing pace of old.
Ten league goals last season was a reasonable return, but he, like new teammates Ba and Torres, cannot and will not match Lukaku's effect in front of goal.
Which once more makes it all the more bemusing that the Belgian has been sent out on loan.
He is the quickest of Chelsea's strikers, he is the most powerful and he is the one with the most potential for the coming years.
Eto'o remains a class act, but at 32 years of age his time at the top is all but done. Torres has been on the wane since joining the Blues, and Ba's time appears all but over at Stamford Bridge. Certainly he is unlikely to be a regular starter, though he is probably a more reasonable impact option off the bench than Torres, who is in turn a better starter option than Ba.
But Lukaku trumps both, at both squad roles.
Even if Eto'o is Mourinho's preferred starter, Lukaku was not the regular starter at West Brom that many seem to believe him to have been, and the Belgian would not have expected to simply jump straight to first-choice No. 9 this season anyway.
Lukaku started only 20 of his 35 league appearances last season and totalled 2,004 minutes of action overall. Spread over the course of a full season, that amounts to an average of barely over 50 minutes per game.
Would playing second-fiddle to Eto'o, with infrequent starts in all four competitions, really have reduced his season game time that much? It's unlikely, and he would certainly bring a more varied option off the bench for Mourinho to call upon than Torres will.
Now at Everton, Lukaku will have a maximum of 33 league matches to feature in, meaning already he cannot make the same number of appearances that he did for West Brom last term. Competing with established starter Nikica Jelavic and fellow new signing Arouna Kone for a starting position, it is also not guaranteed that he will be picked immediately by Roberto Martinez.
Having said that, once he gets into the XI, the odds must be on him featuring regularly, such is his level of ability.
He will not, though, get European experience, become accustomed to working with Mourinho, establish his place in the side along with fellow young attacking talents Oscar, Eden Hazard and the like, or, most critically of all, be available for Chelsea to call upon.
A 2-1 home defeat to Basel shouldn't be telling on Chelsea's European season overall, but it is indicative of their final-third struggles so far. Two league games have also seen them fail to score at all—against Everton and Manchester United—while of their four Premier League goals scored in the other two matches, only one has come in open play so far.
Was Lukaku really that expendable, even if the intention was to benefit his long-term game? Perhaps not. Perhaps, in fact, this was a decision that is going to be rather more costly in the shorter term to his parent club.
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