Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty

It’s not quite the juiciest quote from Romelu Lukaku’s wide-ranging media session with reporters Tuesday, during which he clarified just how serious his desire is to play for a truly great, title-challenging team—be that at Everton or, more likely, elsewhere—but this response to a question about where he sees himself in the hierarchy of the world’s best strikers does show the underlying disconnect that will probably steer him to pastures new in the near future:

I’m close. Close. I’m close. At the minute I am one of the best strikers in the league. I can’t not say that. If I don’t say that I am one of the best? I am shooting myself in the head. At the minute I am one of the best in the Premier League. 100 per cent.

Lukaku is correct there, without a doubt. Along with Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa, and Harry Kane, Lukaku is one of the Premier League’s elite strikers. Not only that, as he mentions in response to a followup question to the answer above, he has a legitimate chance of becoming one of the best forwards in the entire world. Words like “elite” and phrases like “has a legitimate chance of becoming one of the best in the entire world” do not apply to Everton.

This talk about Lukaku’s potentially imminent departure was sparked earlier this week by the news that he had refused the club’s proposal for a new contract. Everton’s board was reportedly shocked at this, though it’s hard to see how. Yes, the club has a new, rich majority owner who has promised to spend big to make Everton great, but that’s all in a hypothetical future. The reality of the present is that Lukaku is a world-class player who right now could start for a handful of the best clubs in the world, and Everton will not be able to build a squad commensurate to his current ability for a long time, if ever. It makes perfect sense then that Lukaku would want to leave for a club closer to his level.

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The most representative quote from the interview that encapsulates Lukaku’s feelings on the matter is probably this:

Q: Do you think in the past the club has maybe accepted it won’t win a trophy and ploughed on instead of having the attitude it can?

A: You have to have the attitude… you have to …

Everton as a football club has a great history right. But the future has to be written. You get me?

Because we always talk about the teams of the 80s and 70s and if you look it was great. But we as players we want the fans talking about us instead of us talking about them. No disrespect but you know what I mean.

You want to be remembered as well. No matter where you play you want to be remembered. You cannot only be remembered by scoring goals, you want to be remembered by winning trophies at the end of the day.

That is what the fans want.

So instead of living in the past, you have to think ahead. How this club has to grow, how this club has to improve, which player does it want to bring in so you can challenge for the big trophies.

Then like sometimes I will speak to Vincent Kompany who was at City when it all happened. He said, ‘Rom, one summer I just came in and boom, boom, boom, boom… Robinho from there, that guy came in, this guy came in, this guy came in (clicking fingers) and then everyone was criticising them but at the end, they had League titles, FA Cup here, League Cups there.

That is what we want as players.

Q: Can’t that happen here?

A: I don’t know, I don’t know what the board’s plan is. I don’t really know.

On the surface, Lukaku appears to be a little unrealistic here. Unlike the lightning-quick rise of Manchester City, Everton are not about to toss out some £160 million every transfer window on some of the best talents in the world. The sport’s landscape—globally and within England—is much different now than it was when City bought their way into the elite. There are too many other extremely rich clubs with a leg up on Everton for the Toffees to go around buying the modern equivalents of Robinho and Agüero and Yaya Touré even if they wanted to.

Also, the transfers Everton have made have been largely astute. The club has bought Idrissa Gueye, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Lukaku’s buddy Yannick Bolasie in the last couple windows, and each of those are the right kind of smart buys for a club in Everton’s position that wants to grow. And it’s hard to imagine what other players who recently came to England Everton could’ve convinced to come to them instead, which is a criticism Lukaku makes of Everton’s transfer strategy a little later in the interview.

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When you think about Lukaku’s words from his personal perspective, though, what he’s actually getting at makes sense, and further demonstrates why he is right to want more than Everton have so far offered him. Lukaku’s not actually criticizing Everton for what they’ve done or failed to do, he’s explaining what the club would need to do in order to assemble a good enough squad that could realistically match his ambitions. He’s saying, “If Everton were doing what Man City did a few years ago, then I could believe that in the near future I’d be surrounded by teammates of similar ability to my own and I’d stay, confident that we could achieve Champions League qualification and push for the EPL title.” It’s not that he actually expects that to happen, it’s that he knows it’s a long shot.

The very fact that Everton making the kinds of moves Lukaku is asking for—say, buying James Rodríguez and Naby Keita next summer—sounds ridiculous on its face is proof that Lukaku is right to reject Everton’s contract renewal and seek a move elsewhere. The unrealistic part is the idea that Everton would be able to sign the kinds of players he wants to play with, not the idea that he’s worthy of playing alongside teammates of that ilk. And this is his entire point.

For a couple of years now, it’s been obvious that Lukaku was the best player with the highest potential on Everton’s roster. Being at the club was great for him, since it offered him all the minutes he could physically withstand, smart coaching (hey, Roberto Martínez is at least a good attacking coach), a team built around getting the best out of him, and top-level competition—all things a young player needs to grow. However, for the past couple seasons it has been clear he had achieved just about everything he could realistically accomplish on a team with Everton’s resources and ambitions and status in the game.

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What wasn’t clear was where Lukaku could go that would offer him anything appreciably better. Most of the world’s biggest clubs which could afford to pay the enormous fee Everton would rightfully demand already had better strikers on the books. The ones on the tier just below, the ones that could offer better odds of Champions League competition, couldn’t afford him. And so Lukaku was sort of trapped in limbo, a little too good for where he was but not yet good enough for the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Manchester City, a world-class talent stuck on a middle class team.

But Lukaku isn’t content with that anymore. He has improved even further this season, and currently is the EPL’s joint top scorer with 19 goals. (And his stats are actually even better than his fellow league-leading goalscorer, Kane, when you take into account that none of Lukaku’s 19 goals have come from the penalty spot, while four of Kane’s have.) As he said of himself, he is one of the best strikers in the world’s most popular league, and deserves to be playing on a team befitting that reality.

As has been the case for the past couple years, there still aren’t any no-brainer solutions out there for Lukaku’s problem. Of the most plausible destinations, teams like Manchester United (if they don’t resign Zlatan Ibrahimović), Chelsea (if their tumultuous relationship with Costa finally does come to a close this season), PSG (if they make good on their long-standing desire to upgrade on Edinson Cavani), and Juventus (if the rumors about Paulo Dybala’s potential exit turn out to be real) each have their own striker issues they’d need to address before it would make sense to go after Lukaku. Atlético Madrid would be interesting, as would Borussia Dortmund if they wind up selling Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and even Roma could be an interesting dark horse if they’re willing to pony up for the fee.

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But Lukaku is smart. He hasn’t demanded a transfer or anything like that. He’s simply clearing the path for the eventual move everyone knew would come someday. Nothing he’s said or done thus far has precluded him from staying another year at Everton, and if he doesn’t find a suitable new partner by this summer, he could definitely get one by the summer after that. And who knows?Maybe Everton will be challenging for the top-four places by that point. If so, he may stay.

All Lukaku is saying at this point is that he is a great player, that he desires and deserves to play on a great team, and that Everton have not demonstrated the intent or ability to become that in the foreseeable future. It might not be what Everton fans and the board want to hear, but they’ll have a hard time arguing that Lukaku’s position isn’t completely justifiable.

[Liverpool Echo]