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PLAYER ANALYSIS: Romelu Lukaku and Overperforming Expected Goals

Stats have always had an involvement in football. Many like to believe that the use of statistics in football has only been relevant since Opta began using them back in 2003. The beginning of statistics can be traced back to after the Second World War, with Charles Reep attempting to prove how the W-M formation should be played, by highlighting how many goals and attacks were scored by 3 passes or less (he’s also seen as the founder of long ball football). It has gained mainstream recognition in the current decade. Shot locations were highlighted, passes in the final third, saves per goal, chance creation. These are some of the stats that have been seen as very useful for proving the strengths or weaknesses of certain players. One statistic that has been revolutionary in the past couple of years has been expected goals. It is a metric that can determine the strength of the chances being created. It can help highlight how well players are doing in front of goal. When you watch a game of football, it can be clear which side deserved to win. Expected goals gives a number to that, making it simpler to understand how some games were played in case you didn’t have the time to view it. While many have some serious dislike towards expected goals, I don’t think it is as impactful as many want to believe, simply a tool to help analyse football even further.

One use of the tool is to analyse strikers, especially their finishing. When a striker underperforms his expected goals, it shows how he is missing chances that he should be scoring. However, if they are overperforming expected goals, it shows how a player is scoring chances that many other players couldn’t, proving they’re elite finishers. We’ve seen this in the past with Harry Kane. He is arguably the best striker on Europe, and consistently overperforms expected goals. Last season, he finished the campaign with 30 goals, but xG predicted he should have scored 26. It just further highlights how good of a finisher he is. Another player who has shown himself to be an elite finisher is Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian forward has been one of the most consistent strikers in the Premier League, never failing to score less than 10 goals a season, since his loan move to West Brom. While he did perform very well under Roberto Martinez, it was his final season for Toffees that showed why clubs were ready to spend huge amounts of money on the forward. He scored 25 goals under Ronald Koeman, but xG showed he should have scored 16. He was scoring chances from very difficult areas. Many of his goals that season were headers too. Headers are always less likely to go in compared to a shot from a stronger foot. Lukaku had a fantastic season, which persuaded Manchester United to spend £75 million on him. However, it is already well documented that Lukaku hasn’t been at his best for the Red Devils. Let’s look at what’s went wrong for him.

Lukaku had a solid debut season. He scored 16 goals in the league and was one of the better performers in a United side that was inconsistent, to say the least. His build-up play was showing improvements and began looking like more than the strong poacher we all knew him to be. The issue he had under Mourinho especially was he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Mourinho has had a history of preferring strikers who are able to hold the ball up effectively and bring others into play. While Lukaku does have the strength and size to match up with some of Mourinho’s most effective forwards, he has never had the technical ability to do so. He is at his best when balls are played through to him, instead of to his feet. He has always used his physical dominance when chasing balls to push opposition players away. He has always been a lethal finisher, with physical traits that gave him an advantage over other poachers in the game. He was being called Chicarito with a gym membership last season, and it can be hard to argue that to an extent. Poachers are something we do not see much of anymore. Managers want strikers who are able to do so much more than score goals. It’s why players like Giroud, Benzema, Costa and Griezmann have earned so many plaudits in recent years.

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While Lukaku’s buildup player will be a criticism for the rest of his career, the most worrying part of his game at the moment is how he is doing in front of goal. United have had a massive creativity issue for years now, with fullbacks being relied on for chance creation, fullbacks like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, players who haven’t been good creators for the last 5 years. it means Lukaku is feeding off scraps to an extent, but the player does deserve some criticism. He has been criticised for not asking questions of opposition defenders and it’s easy to see why. So often in games, Lukaku will drop deep to receive the ball, taking the easy option instead of making threatening runs beyond defenders. It’s why Rashford has been such a breath of fresh air whenever he plays. He is a player with pace and stamina to burn and is constantly making runs into the channels, trying to make defenders uncomfortable. Lukaku isn’t doing the same, and United are losing that bite in the final third, whenever Lukaku starts on his own. There is still some sympathy to be had for the player. After a long season for United, which saw him barely be rested by Mourinho, he then went to the World Cup and played nearly every game for Belgium. Like Kane, he showed a lack of sharpness for the first few months of the season. He was rushed back thanks to Mourinho constantly complaining about his issues with the squad. What Lukaku needs at the moment is a serious break, to recover and come back to his best.

Solskjaer has rumoured to be selling some high-value players in the squad, with Lukaku being among them. Inter Milan are the club with massive interest in the striker, with Antonio Conte wanting the striker while he was at Everton. Do I think he would succeed in Italy? He would fare much better over there than he would at United. Serie A isn’t nearly as demanding as the Premier League, which would put less pressure on elements like pressing and buildup play. Inter have been playing to Icardi’s strengths for years, so it wouldn’t be much of a change in having a similar player. His shot numbers and key passes have been declining since his time in Manchester. A change of scene might be exactly what Lukaku needs. He is still one of the best finishers in Europe but needs a side who is willing to play to his strengths.

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