With the exception of Leicester City, there were a number of contenders for ‘Underachiever of the Year’ last season. To varying degrees almost of all of the traditional powerhouses under-performed, while clubs the size of Aston Villa and Newcastle United fell through the trap-door into the Championship.
Everton however, were one other club who endured a bitterly disappointing campaign; their talented squad amounted to far less than the sum of their parts, with Roberto Martinez suffering the consequences. The Toffees finished 11th, conceded 55 goals and won only six league game at Goodison Park. Under new boss Ronald Koeman however, they have made an unbeaten start to the league season and Romelu Lukaku has embodied this improvement. Using these statistics from Oulala, we analysed the Belgian’s flying start:
The first thing to stress is that four league games is an incredibly small sample size, and Lukaku’s stats might revert to the mean as the season progresses. Nevertheless, these early signs are encouraging. Firstly, the increase in his pass completion rate from 73% to 81% is worth noting (it was as low as 66% three seasons ago). Lukaku’s detractors tend to focus on how he fares in tight spaces against deep-lying defences. As he has shown for club and country, Lukaku can be a devastating counter attacking force.
However, his link-up play when the game is played in smaller spaces has left a bit to be desired, with his first touch one point of criticism. The increase in pass completion rate shows he is tidying his game up and filing away at the rough edges. You expect a few passes to go awry in the last third because the passes attempted tend to be more difficult, and high risks can yield high rewards. Playing as a lone striker though, Lukaku needs to bring others into play and the numbers show he is improving in this respect.
The former Chelsea man has scored four goals this term, including a hat-trick against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. He is taking more shots (four per game compared to three last season) and these shots are more accurate (71% hitting the target compared to 56% last year). You don’t need to work at NASA to know that if you take more shots in a game, and these shots are more accurate, you should score more goals.
The Sunderland game slightly skews the figures, and it is also worth considering the fact that Everton are playing better as a team. When a side controls the game well, they tend to create better quality chances than when each attack is a rare moment of opportunity. Lukaku’s more accurate shooting could be because he is taking efforts from better positions. This is something analytics experts consider when they calculate the now notorious Xg (expected goals) figure.
Moreover, if you are a striker in a team that is playing well then you can be pretty sure that more chances should be around the corner. In a struggling team where chances are rare, there is a tendency to snatch at opportunities. Lukaku could well be more relaxed because he knows more chances will come his way.
Finally, Lukaku is dribbling a lot more (an average of three successful take-ons per game compared to an average of 1.1 last season). Dribbling is the high risk option for any footballer; if a player is dispossessed there will likely be a groan from the crowd. This could be instruction from Koeman, but it also speaks to the fact Lukaku is in better form and more confident. Less confident players want to take the easy option and give the ball to a teammate, while a more confident player is likely to attempt a dribble regardless of the risk.
Moreover, it is worth considering that for the second half of last season, Lukaku was trying to preserve himself for the European Championship. Dribbling is something that invites tackles (ask Jack Wilshere), and by dribbling less Lukaku may have been staying out of harm’s way.
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