Consternation. Confusion. Criticism. There were many varied reactions when it emerged that Ronald Koeman was considering moving from sixth-placed Southampton to the relative uncertainty of 11th-placed Everton. Why would one of the most promising managers in the Premier League take such a step down from a position of comfort? Was this not a considerable risk on his part?
Amid the scepticism over Koeman’s career move to Goodison Park, few doubted he was an immediate and vast upgrade on previous incumbent, Roberto Martinez. But for a true reflection of the difference between the Dutchman and his predecessor, examine the situation surrounding one Romelu Lukaku.
A matter of weeks ago, it was a case of when and where regarding the Belgian’s future: When will he leave? Where will he go? “We have a new investor at Everton and out of courtesy I will listen to what he has to say,” said the 23-year-old just last month. “But I have my own ideas. I want to win titles.” His mind, for all intents and purposes was made up. Bigger and better things awaited him.
He admitted as much just days prior: “In my head, I know where I want to go but I’m keeping that to myself.” Martinez had outlined his intentions to persuade Lukaku to stay, but the striker’s revelation that “things had broken” between the manager and his players was damning. The Spaniard was determined to keep his prized asset, but, in overseeing Everton’s underachievement, he had become one of the driving forces behind his imminent exit.
One month, two European Championship goals and one managerial appointment later, and Lukaku’s head has been turned – by his own club. “Something’s changed at Everton – there’s a new project,” said agent Mino Raiola on Tuesday. “If he leaves, it has to be a good deal for all parties involved.” ‘If’, not ‘when’. The power of Koeman.
At just 23, Lukaku stands at an impasse. His raw physical attributes are obvious; his ambition is undeniable; his Premier League pedigree is undoubted. Sixty-one goals in 127 games at Everton have underlined a potential few can match, but signing him remains a risk – one only an ‘elite’ club can afford to make.
“Only a global club can pay him,” added Raiola. “The top clubs in England, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris St Germain and, of course, Bayern Munich.”
Barcelona? They have Messi, Suarez and Neymar. Real? They have Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema. PSG? Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be leaving, but Edinson Cavani has surely earned an opportunity to stake a claim as a central striker. Bayern Munich? They have Lewandowski. Only these clubs ‘can’ afford Lukaku, but at this stage, none of them have a vacancy.
Which leaves the ‘top clubs’ in England. Lukaku is no Troy Deeney, the apple of Leicester’s eye. Arsene Wenger is unlikely to spend £60m on a striker when he can keep Theo Walcott. Manchester United are expected to house the ego of Zlatan. Manchester City have Aguero; Tottenham have Kane. Chelsea, and a chance at redemption, provide the most viable destination for the Belgian. But do the Blues guarantee the trophies he craves any more than a resurgent Everton?
The striker is in a privileged position, but also a difficult one. He has moved beyond the realms of a ‘promising forward’ who should be evaluated based only on potential. Yet he remains an unproven quantity, one who many remain unconvinced by. For the two-goal haul against Ireland, there are the struggles against Italy. For the run of goals in seven consecutive Premier League games, there is the run of nine fixtures without a league goal to end the season. For every match-winning, dominant performance, there is a non-existent, profligate equivalent. A player still troubled with such brilliant inconsistencies will struggle to command the expected £60m transfer fee.
So another season with Everton seems the most sensible conclusion to what once promised to be a tiresome summer saga. The club keeps their first-choice striker, Koeman wins his first battle as manager, Lukaku is afforded another season during which he can prove his credentials beyond doubt, and the growing list of potential suitors have 12 months to decide whether he is worth the risk. By that stage, it might very well not even be a risk at all.