If you’ve watched more than a few Everton games this season, you’ve been witness to one of the more exhilarating sequences the Premier League has to offer. That would be Gerard Deulofeu toying with a defender on the right wing, readying a cross with his giant striker, Romelu Lukaku, lurking in the box. You can almost feel the home crowd holding its collective breath right as the ball settles between Deulofeu’s feet, because they know what usually comes next is something like this:
This goal from last weekend’s game against Norwich, featuring a perfectly struck cross from Deulofeu and Lukaku muscling his way through a defender to get his head on the ball, is the kind of scene that’s become a common occurrence for Everton. Deulofeu and Lukaku have hooked up for six goals this season, putting them behind only Arsenal’s Mesut Özil-Olivier Giroud connection in terms of deadliness.
The craziest thing about the Lukaku-Deulofeu’s rapport is how quickly it developed. Deulofeu didn’t even earn a regular spot on the field until the end of September, and the six goals he’s produced with Lukaku have come in just nine games. The pair played a few games together two seasons ago, when they were both at the club on loan, but have looked like lifelong teammates this year.
Deulofeu can fire tight, curling crosses into the box with as much accuracy as anyone, and he does a great job of never telegraphing when one is coming. And that way he has of hitting them so early, making them as much lofted through balls as crosses, is completely unique to him. Sometimes he sends the ball in immediately, envisioning angles between the defenders and predicting the trajectory of his teammate’s runs before they’ve even happened, as if he’s seen the future; other times, he spends 10-15 seconds deploying a series of feints and stepovers before launching it in. This keeps defenders constantly off balance, but can also make it hard for teammates to know exactly when the service is coming. These crosses work partly because of Deulofeu’s innate ability to anticipate Lukaku’s movements—it seems he can pick him out without ever looking up—and partly because Lukaku perfectly compliments the Spaniard’s creative bent by ceaselessly making runs behind and around defenders. The big striker is strong enough and fast enough to fight his way through the box and get onto balls defenders have no chance at reacting to.
Take the goal at the 39-second mark of this highlight reel, for example:
Lukaku is smothered when Deulofeu gets the ball on his feet, but he snaps a sudden, bouncing cross into the box anyway, trusting that Lukaku will be able to power his way onto the ball and make something happen. The Belgian proceeds to shrug his defender off like a gnat, and then send the ball home with a deft, punishing strike. A less rambunctious winger may have never had the stones necessary to send that cross in to being with, and a less powerful striker may have never even sniffed that ball.
It was the same story on this connection from Everton’s 3-3 draw against Bournemouth:
The best thing about this partnership is that it’s giving us a definitive look at exactly what kind of player Romelu Lukaku is. Last season’s frustratingly unproductive campaign had him verging on bust territory, but his struggles had much more to do with how he was being used in Everton’s system than his individual talents.
Before Deulofeu arrived, the squad’s favorite way to get the ball to Lukaku was to thump him long passes over the top, and then ask him to hold up the ball and start an attack while fighting off one or two defenders. Lukaku certainly has the size and strength to execute that scheme, but it exposed his often imprecise first touch and completely wasted his speed, power, movement, and combination play in and around the box. Even when he got the chance to run out on counterattacks, he usually had to rely on Ross Barkley—a pitbull who can rumble through defenders but often overdribbles his way out of an attack—to play him into dangerous areas. That rarely happened, and Lukaku spent whole games doing nothing but idly battling center backs for long-range passes, waiting for incisive passes that rarely came.
Deulofeu’s arrival has solved all of these problems. Not only does his presence on the wing give Everton a reliable source of attacking spark when breaking down a compact defense, he also tends to float toward the center of the pitch in the Toffees’ transition game, supplanting Barkley as the guy who takes the outlet pass and ignites a counterattack. From there, he runs at defenders with an eye towards setting up his striker rather than looking for his own shot the way Barkley usually does. All of this has added up to Lukaku becoming the Premier League’s best striker not named Jamie Vardy.
Unfortunately, the Deulofeu-Lukaku connection probably isn’t long for this world. Barcelona included a buy-back option when they sold Deulofeu to Everton, and there’s every chance they’ll utilize it given how good he’s been. Even if by some miracle Deulofeu does stay at Everton for the long haul, it’s hard to imagine the team keeping a striker as young, talented, and ambitious as Lukaku away from the giants of the sport for too long. For now, though, Everton fans can just enjoy the special thing they have: A dynamic winger who isn’t afraid to ping a cross or through ball from any spot or angle, a thoroughbred striker who is particularly suited to hunt those passes down and turn them into goals, and the chance, on every possession, that they’ll make another highlight.