England have understandably dominated the headlines over the last few weeks. Whether they performed well, badly, or somewhere in between, the focus of the press was naturally going to be on the national team. Ronaldo and Messi received their usual attention too, of course, as the media continues their odd obsession of turning a 22 man game into a story of one player.
What it has meant though, is that certain players have gone under the radar. While Harry Kane has rightly received many plaudits for his 5 goal haul in just 2 games, and Kylian Mbappe has earned worldwide praise for exhilarating performance against Argentina, there has been noticeably little coverage given to Romelu Lukaku, despite him scoring 4 goals so far, and being one of the most impressive strikers in this World Cup.
The spotlight on Lukaku often seems to be fleeting. The coverage tends to focus much more on his weaknesses rather than his strengths; his sometimes clumsy first touch, for instance, is highlighted and amplified far more than when other strikers make mistakes. It’s true that he has areas for improvement (although he has worked effectively on those weaknesses in the last 12 months), but most, if not all, centre-forwards have some chinks in their armour. That criticism seems more focused with Lukaku though, and it’s a pity his strengths don’t receive the praise they warrant.
His goal-scoring record, for example, is remarkable. He is already Belgium’s record goal-scorer at the age of 25, with an impressive tally of 40 goals in 71 games (10 more than anyone else, and, for comparison, England’s record goals-scorer is Wayne Rooney with 53 goals in 119 appearances). The amount of goals Lukaku has scored at all levels for a player of his age is prodigious. 172 goals at the age of 25 is an incredible record, an achievement that rarely receives the acclaim it deserves. Scoring 26 goals in your debut season at a club of United’s stature is no mean feat either, especially when the team was widely-criticised for becoming too defensive as the season progressed.
While goals are what he is ultimately judged on, his all-round game is impressive too: both powerful in the air and on the ground, he has the ability and desire to dominate defenders. He has routinely been accused of being a flat-track bully, performing against smaller teams while failing to replicate that impact against tougher opposition. A lot of that is down to the to the way his team has played in those games – he is a striker that thrives on good service – but he started to perform better against the top six in the second half of the season. It’s a trend that looks likely to continue, especially as his performances so far at this World Cup are a strong indication that the big stage doesn’t faze him.
His goals in Belgium’s match against Tunisia were particularly impressive. Not only for the assuredness of the finishes, but the smart movement that preceded them, subtlety changing direction to elude the defender and manufacture the space for his shot. He is lauded as a pacey, powerful player but his shrewd movement and tactical awareness should be noted too.
Belgium’s late winner was a glorious example of it: his intelligent run inside before being aware (and unselfish) enough to pull off an outrageous dummy for Chadli to slide the ball into an empty net.
With Belgium looking impressive so far, and now into the quarter finals, Lukaku has an excellent chance of winning the golden boot. Either way, hopefully this World Cup will mean he will start to get the recognition and accolades he deserves.