Romelu Lukaku had made the Everton fans wait. In the closing minutes of the season’s penultimate game, the Belgian finally hit the 20-goal mark for the season. Proof, if required, that the decision to spend big on turning his loan deal into a permanent one was the right one.
Some would argue more is needed from a £28m outlay, that 10 league goals with a game remaining is the bare minimum.
But such is the style of Lukaku, it’s easy to forget the most crucial fact of all: his age. The striker blew out his candles on Wednesday, turning 22 years old. To score 20 goals in a season at such an early stage of his career is an undoubted achievement.
Twenty goals is a significant number, and not just because it feels complete, or even wholesome. In scoring 20, he becomes just the second Everton player after Yakubu in 2007-08 to reach that milestone. On a wider scale, he joins some of the league’s best goalscorers in Premier League history.
Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer were also both 22 when they hit 20 for the first time, while Wayne Rooney was approaching that age when hitting that target. Andy Cole, meanwhile, had just turned 23. Those four make up five of the all-time leading Premier League goalscorers.
Exalted company then, and is not just the past where Lukaku’s 20 goals stand up well. In Europe’s top leagues, few forwards in his age group are as consistent as the Everton man.
Harry Kane of Tottenham has scored more. So, too, some of the continent’s most sought-after strikers such as Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala. Some, like Dybala and soon-to-be Liverpool man Divock Origi, have completed more dribbles. Others are that little bit more accurate in front of goal, like David Selke of Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen’s Josip Drmic.
But Lukaku is a real all-rounder. He can score, he can create, he can make space for others and counter with the ball at his feet. Few others aged 22 or below in Europe measure up as well as him overall – even when taking just league appearances into account.
In the five highest-ranked European leagues – Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 – Lukaku’s 10 goals puts him ninth on the goalscoring list. He also makes the top 10 for shot accuracy (ninth, 56%), shots taken (fourth, 104), and chances created (fifth, 31). He is also fourth in terms of aerial duels won.
That means, this season, he’s scored more than Michy Batshuayi of Marseille, is more accurate than Villarreal’s Luciano Vietto, creates more than Icardi and wins more headers than Kane. All four of those players have been linked with big-money moves elsewhere.
Lukaku has already made his, and with that came pressure to deliver. He has received criticism from some quarters this season – complaints ranging from his hold-up play to finishing ability – but 20 goals in his first season as a full-time Everton player should be enough to quieten that.
There is no denying he has scope for improvement. His 90 minutes against West Ham were a microcosm of his season in general: excellent, erratic, splendid, stupefying. For a lot of the afternoon in East London, he toiled and laboured with little reward. But then came his winning goal in stoppage time, splendid in execution, excellent for the travelling fans who deserved one final moment of celebration after a real slog of a season.
There would be concern if Lukaku was doing the right things for 89 minutes and failing to score the winner when presented in the 90th. But at just 22, it is much better this way; finishing can be an instinctive skill, one that is because of nature rather than nurture.
Ultimately, his 20 goals demonstrates he knows where the goal is – and even in a side that have struggled at times this season, it is a vital attribute to have. Defeats can be turned into draws; draws, like Saturday, can be turned into victories.
He will need to improve further next season. Despite being joint top goalscorer in the Europa League this season, his league tally is down from last season, averaging a goal every 278 minutes – much more infrequent than his minutes-per-goal ratio (171) in his first season at Goodison. He’s also provided fewer assists, albeit with a game to play, takes fewer shots and is dispossessed more often during a game.
But it has been a very tough season for the Blues, and that has affected Lukaku’s overall performances. But they are performances which, it should be noted, have been amongst the very best for his age range.
He must kick on next season once more and solidify his place as one of Europe’s most promising strikers. But with the platform of this 20-goal haul to build upon, and an upturn in fortunes on and off the pitch this summer, expect the all-rounder to get even better.