There is no doubt Romelu Lukaku made an impression on the Barclays Premier League during his year out on loan at West Bromwich Albion, steadily winning a regular place in the team and ending the season with 17 goals in 38 appearances.
Last week the 20-year-old listed on Chelsea TV the areas of his game he believes he improved with regular experience of top-flight English football, and ahead of Chelsea’s first game of pre-season in Asia, he gives the official Chelsea website more details.
Back-to-goal play is one aspect of centre-forward play Lukaku believes he has developed. His height and build lends itself to holding defenders at bay when the ball arrives, but there is more to it than that, as he explains.
‘Touch is important and seeing the space in front of you and knowing the space behind you,’ Lukaku says.
‘When I first came to England I didn’t like to play back to goal and my best point was playing on the shoulder of the defender, because they would push up and I would just make a little run and I was gone.
‘But back-to-goal play is something that I have learned because before when I was coming to the ball I was always looking behind me, thinking where is the space.
‘Now I go to the ball, I look at the defender, look in front of me, take a picture in my mind and then I focus on the touch. The touch has to be good and the touch always has to be with movement so that when I touch the ball, I take it away from the defender and I create myself the space.’
Then it is all about options. It is a big weapon for a striker when his marker is in doubt as to his opponent’s next move. If there is the chance to turn and run at the defender, then with a trick and a burst of acceleration a centre-forward could be one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Or, with decent hold-up play, the chance is there to pick out a team-mate with a pass and then head for the box and a possible return pass or cross.
‘These are things that I’ve learned and these are things that are important, especially in this team where we have players who like to play a one-two in front of the box,’ he points out.
Importantly, Lukaku is not abandoning his previous policy of exploiting his pace with runs in behind the defence, he is just adding to it.
‘I think I am good at it and if you look at all my goals, most of them are from the ball going wide, a cross near-post and boom! Or you get the ball, I make a run, you give me the ball and I run at the defender and dribble and shoot.
‘I think now I can do a bit of everything and now it is up to me to improve and make it a bit more technical. The technical base has to be a bit better and if it becomes that then I think I can go through a good period.’
It was as a lone centre-forward that Lukaku grew up playing football, until he reached the Anderlecht youth team when he had to play as a second striker in a 4-4-2. That was the case until he broke into the Belgian club’s first team. Then he was back as no. 9 in a 4-3-3.
Yesterday, Lukaku was impressed with the facility used by Chelsea soccer schools in Bangkok when he visited it, and he recalls the schools in Belgium having good sporting infrastructure and coaching too. He was also fortunate to start training with Anderlecht at an early age but playing street football for fun was a big part of life too.
‘That is something that stays in you,’ he says.
‘That is something you grew up with and after the end of the season in Belgium I played games with a lot of players that play professionally now in the Belgian first division. We made our teams for a bit of fun and as football players you know when to make a tackle and when not to make a tackle.
‘Mousa Dembele I played against at birthday parties when I was very young because he is older than me and is the best friend of my older cousin.
‘I also played against many players now in the national team when we were in the junior teams. Players like Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois. Christian Benteke I played against when I was 15, Jelle Vossen too – lots of the team.
‘Because we all played against each other in the youth teams and we know each other that well since we were about 12 or 13 years old, there is no separation now between players in the Belgian national team. That is why we keep winning games. We are one unit and we have the players to do it.’
The World Cup qualifying results back that up with Lukaku, Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois and their international team-mates having taken 19 points out of a possible 21 so far. But for the striker his immediate target is to show his West Brom form in a Chelsea shirt – starting tomorrow against the Singha All-Stars in Bangkok.