Romelu Lukaku and how footballers get younger and younger

It’s easy to paint Romelu Lukaku as being lots of things that he really isn’t.

On first glance, he may look like a former Chelsea youngster, akin to the dirge shipped out annually to underperforming Benelux clubs. The reality is he moved to Chelsea after two seasons leading the line for Anderlecht. It’s also easy to see him as a hardened, seasoned striker: his 112 top flight league goals belie his 23 years of age.

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It’s easy to forget that Lukaku came to Chelsea’s attention by scoring 33 league goals before even turning 19. It’s also easy to forget that it’s now almost six years since he signed for the west London club, and that he’s still only 23 years old. He should still be considered a young player: it’s just that he’s a young player with over a century of league goals and 54 caps for his country.

And so news of his contract dispute with Everton was always going to create a great deal of noise: after all, when you put it all into perspective, Lukaku is a wonderkid turning into the real deal.

But professional football is not a normal pursuit. The upper echelons of the game exist in a bubble far removed from the rest of the world. In it, money takes on a sort of otherworldly quality. Millions of pounds are exchanged without anyone batting an eyelid, and the sorts of sums we talk about are unfathomable to all but the billionaire classes who run countries from the sorts of buildings where you’d expect to find golden elevators and the fruits of decades of unpaid taxes. Football is the only place where someone is thrown on the professional scrapheap at the age of 35, and where a 23-year-old kid is no longer considered a kid.

That’s the folly in the Lukaku logic. To treat him as the finished article rather than a precocious talent is to make a heinous category mistake.

Few doubt the talent, though. His strength and speed are one reason, but so too is his finishing ability, and those stats speak for themselves. But the good qualities can be tempered with talk of his flaws: a heavy first touch, his propensity to switch off in games, his inconsistency. But they’re problems that all young players have, the sorts of youthful creases that are ironed out by experience.

The stats don’t bear them all out, anyway. Compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic – arguably the biggest bright spot of Manchester United’s season – Lukaku’s ability at converting what the Premier League website refers to as ‘big chances’ is positively stellar. The Belgian has missed eight ‘big chances’ compared to the Swede’s 17 so far this season.

His first touch and his ability to get involved in games where he can often appear isolated should improve with time. One is a matter for the training ground, the other for match experience; one learning by repetition, the other sensing where to be on the pitch in order to exert some influence.

But the key is the time he has to work on these things. Inconsistency is not a fair criticism of a 23-year-old striker – not unless it comes with the caveat that he’ll improve over time.

There seems to be a lust for Premier League clubs to only buy super-talented teenagers. The age at which players are considered old gets younger and younger, and it now seems that young players are not given any opportunity to try and fail, to air their bad habits and flaws. It’s through making these mistakes that we all learn, of course.

In the Basque country in Spain, things are a little different. Aritz Aduriz hit 36 goals in all competitions last season, and at 35 years of age, that’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic levels of goalscoring. Players are given time to mature, and the experience they gain naturally through getting older helps them to flourish later in their careers.

Ander Herrera is another example. At 27 years old, he’s starting to hit his prime, and recently received his first Spain cap. The culture in the Basque region, where Herrera is from, is such that players are encouraged to learn and become rounded human beings in their early years, rather than goal machines or technical wizards.

That might stop the best Basque players from reaching the top with a bang like Lukaku, but it also stops those who fall by the wayside in their early 20s from being out of a career with no discernable skills to build a new one. Herrera was asked by Manchester United’s official website earlier this season if he had any advice for aspiring footballers. He said:

“For me, they should realise that only a few get into professional football. They have to study and study a lot because life is long and they have to get prepared as well as possible.”

It’s the advice of a well-rounded and thoughtful individual, but it also sounds like he’s passing on the sort of advice he was given as a young player, too. Herrera himself went to university before joining Athletic Bilbao and moving on to United, but he was given the time to mature and grow as a player, away from the burning light of the media magnifying glass.

Romelu Lukaku – among countless others – isn’t being offered the same luxury.

It’s easy to paint him as a global superstar, but the reality is different: even if he’s been scoring goals for the guts of a decade, he should still be given the courtesy of being called a young player. We should be treating Lukaku like the Basque country treated Herrera.