Category Archives: Lukaku

On possession and risk – Burnley 1 Everton 3

Now what?

Now what?

An early goal can put me on edge – and maybe it has the same effect on the players. There’s so much time for opponents to re-assess, draw breath and then come again with a freedom that might be lacking when there’s the point with which every team starts every match still in the bank.

I felt this unease just before Burnley scored, so the goal came as no surprise. Thinking harder about the source of my that unease (why worry one-nil up to Burnley?), I thought of Jose Mourinho’s reported unease about the merits of possession football. Attributed to him is a view that crystallises my anxiety with an early lead. If goals come from mistakes, then mistakes come when in possession. So the best way to avoid mistakes is to let the opposition have the ball in their own half where they can make the mistakes. Turnover ball, as in rugby and American Football, is a mighty weapon against drilled defences.

After Samuel Eto’o’s brilliantly conceived and executed opener, Everton fell into ten minutes of the nice possession football that we all know Roberto Martinez admires. Triangles formed, one-touch (maximum two-touch) passes beat out a rhythm and neutrals will have enjoyed a style seldom seen in England until ten or so years ago. But, but, but…

Everton’s terrible defensive record this season has many causes with individual errors high on the list. Sure enough, one popped up when Romelu Lukaku misplaced a pass (back into the defensive third) and three Burnley touches later, the scores were level. That sparked some unfair Twitter jibes at the big Belgian, but, well, you know… Twitter…

At his best, Lukaku suits the Martinez way. He’s available for short and long passes from midfield, can get on the end of a move and score (as he did, a little fortunately, to restore the lead he had to some extent squandered) and he is willing to learn. On the downside, he can look very raw, even now, the first touch more flaxen than silken, the ball seldom instantly tamed.

If that’s a technical shortcoming, his error at Turf Moor was, perhaps, rooted in the other challenge possession football sets – maintaining concentration. Creating those triangles in one and two touch combination play demands players run into the right areas and then know what their options are as the ball comes towards them. Smaller players, on the half-turn with a glance or two sideways as the ball arrives, don’t find this so difficult – Leighton Baines gave a fine demonstration of what I mean for 90 minutes and Steven Naismith’s blossoming “in the hole” is partly accounted for by his ability to pick the right options under pressure. Big Rom didn’t do that, passing the ball infield when he had 30 yards space into which to pass the ball towards the left touchline. His concentration had lapsed and he chose a risky rather than risk-free pass.

He is still 21 and he has played a lot of football, particularly since returning from his January injury -so it’s no surprise to see evidence that he’s not absolutely “on it” twice a week, 40 or so weeks a year. Of course, it would help if he had a naturally easy first touch to fall back on, but he hasn’t, something that Jose Mourinho will have noticed in agreeing to the summer sale.

All this is not intended to lay blame at Lukaku’s door (though plenty will, and their fingers will twitch over their Twitter accounts the next time Lukaku makes a mistake). It is a plea that we accept that with possession comes risk and that players are fallible, especially young players on whom big demands are made. Everton enjoyed almost twice as much of the ball as Burnley: twice as many chances to launch attacks and make those three lovely goals; and twice as many chances to cock it up and hand opponents the chances they crave.

 

Romelu Lukaku, opportunities and stats 1 March 2014

About to take the opportunities

About to take the opportunities

There’s a lot made of stats in football, until recently a sport rather neglected by the number crunching geeks. But a combination of Moneyball and football money soon opened the door to the management consultant types and the Football Manager gamers’ spreadsheets and suddenly (or so it seems to the likes of me) stats are everywhere, driving Leighton Baines’ putative transfer value and Sam Allardyce’s coaching.

Stats only really work if they back up the evidence of one’s own eyes and one’s opinion / prejudice about the game. And the stat that I like most now is Everton’s <em>Attempts At Goal</em>. Against West Ham, the Blues piled up 22, of which a dismal three were on target. Now I don’t deny that scoring is the hardest thing in the game – if not, forwards would cost less than full-backs – but is it that hard to get a shot into a space eight yards wide and eight feet high? Well, not 19 fails out of 22 hard.

And this is not a new problem. Even after today’s winner, it’s still only nine goals in the last ten league games with signs that the players are becoming anxious in front of goal, snatching at chances, blasting shots too high, lunging at the ball. There’s evidence of training ground routines all over the pitch: little triangles around the halfway line; Sylvain Distin’s much improved distribution; the interchanges between full-backs and wide midfielders to work space near the touchlines. But the shooting hasn’t come on – in fact, it’s gone backwards. 

Maybe the players believe that the majority of possession enjoyed in so many matches (often a big majority) means that the chances will come (as they did in the Autumn). Opponents have their stats too and know that possession outside the final third doesn’t really matter, so they cede it to the likes of Barkley and Pienaar and challenge them to thread the ball through two lines of four. What results are a series of quarter and half chances that seldom trouble the keeper. One solution would be to practise converting these kinds of chances in training – do they?

Another solution is to play a man capable of finding the full chance where others find only the half. As soon as he stepped on to the Goodison turf, Romelu Lukaku looked like a man hungry for the game’s possibilities – rather different to the jaded figure who appeared a little burned out before his enforced break. A run down the touchline reminded me of a similar surge at Villa Park in October and now, as then, the late winner arrived, Lukaku finding space with an absence of movement to put his foot through Baines’ assist and secure the three points. 

Everton’s late season will depend much on Lukaku’s fitness and renewed appetite. Everton’s 2014-15 season will depend much on keeping him or replacing him – and not on the dear old trier Steven Naismith. 

Everton, Tottenham, Lukaku and Adebayor 9 February 2013

Not a good night

It was not a good night

Tim Sherwood’s appointment raised a few eyebrows (and still does) but he is making a difference by doing the most obvious thing a manager can do – playing his best XI. Andre Villas-Boas had dispatched Emmanuel Adebayor to train with the youth team, but the Mourinho Mini-Me’s sacking opened the door to the big African and he has barged in and picked up a goalscoring record of almost a goal every other match as if he was never away. That awkward talented types are better employed on the inside pissing out rather than on the outside pissing in, is a lesson the England and Wales Cricket Board might reflect on – with the rapprochement behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge another example.

That Everton are playing “without a recognised striker” is the constant refrain in the media, shorn of the obvious man when Romelu Lukaku is sidelined – but that’s just a bit too easy thirty-odd years on from France at the World Cup and ten years or so after the advent of tiki-taka. It’s not a recognised striker that Everton miss, it’s the kind of player who can make a half-chance into a full chance and a full chance into a goal. Tim Cahill was not a recognised striker, but he would have a scored a few in this side wouldn’t he?

The stats back up the subjective feeling the match provoked: Everton had more possession than Tottenham and more goal attempts, on and off target. But Tottenham, with the man who was awake when our 1000 matches between them men, Gareth Barry and Sylvain Distin were not, took a difficult ball on the chest to make a half-chance into a full chance and then buried it. Striker or goalscorer – Adebayor did the job and the three points never really looked in doubt after that.

Gerard Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas both have good scoring records, but are playing a level or two up from those days and, if your best chances are falling to Leon Osman, the conversion rate will not be high. Short of waiting for Lukaku to return, something has to be done to improve on a record of eight goals in eight league games since the Sunderland defeat on Boxing Day. The giant Lacina Traore may provide an answer, but not many forwards arrive fresh in the Premier League and start banging them in. 

Is it time to try something radical? Could Ross Barkley – big, strong with a good first touch – be deployed at the point of the attack and asked to find a yard in the box and shoot? Might Gerard Deulofeu jink and turn twenty yards from goal and not thirty? Even Seamus Coleman might be worth a try up front late in matches – he has the eye.

The early promise of the season is ebbing away and, with little to lose, unorthodoxy comes with little on the downside. But that may be too much even for Roberto Martinez.   

Romelu Lukaku, Jose Mourinho, Everton and Liverpool 23 November 2013

Tottenham or Everton - I don't care Romelu

Tottenham or Everton – I don’t care Romelu

In 11 second half minutes, Romelu Lukaku showed why Jose Mourinho was wrong, then right, then wrong, then – ultimately – right to loan his services to Everton for the season.

Having bludgeoned a free kick through the wall (in contrast to Luis Suarez’s first half perfectly targeted shot through the gap left, so inexplicably, by Stephen Pienaar), the big Belgian showed an opportunism given only to (dare I say) top, top strikers. He got into the box and stood, more or less still, while defenders and team-mates swarmed back and forth. Sure enough, the space and the ball came to him and a cool sidefooted finish was enough to breach Mignolet’s excellent defence of his goal. “Why on earth isn’t he doing it for Chelsea?” must have passed through the minds of every Shed regular. 

Just six minutes later, he was bursting through an open Liverpool midfield, gone missing again on a day in which they did not suggest that they could drive a Title challenge. With time to think, with instinct being pushed back by intelligence, that telltale momentary hesitation bubbled up into his mind and he played a dismal ball to an oncoming team-mate. Mourinho’s desire for the 20 year-old to have plenty of game time to build the experience required to realise his potential, suddenly looked like a smart move.

Roll forward five more minutes and Lukaku is showing another dimension to his game, rising to power a header into the net from a regulation corner. It’s not just his size and strength that makes him a real threat from crosses, but a superb Tim Cahillesque timing in meeting the ball with his head – fearlessness helps too. Jose’s wrong again!

But, in the final analysis, Jose is right. Romelu is raw – he has played 160 senior matches and won’t have played the full 90 minutes in all those. His game is still “natural” relying on imposing physical gifts and instinct. His ceiling is very high, but it’s still a long way off. The Champions League – Chelsea’s primary target – is no place to explore potential: not if you aspire to winning it. And, with Jose’s other options for domestic matches, how much gametime would Lukaku get in the blue of Chelsea – not as much as in the blue of Everton, for sure.

The young man is a quick learner and is working with a manager who has much to teach him and players who are adjusting together to his methods – as much off the field as on it. At 20, Lukaku has responsibility for a big Premier League club, an adoring fanbase and a local press desperate for attention. Deal with that, learn how to think on the ball, play more matches in front of hostile full houses, and, at 21, he’ll be the finished article. And that’s two points denied to Liverpool by the big fella’s goals.   

Not for the first time, Jose Mourinho appears to know what he’s doing.