Shortly after Diego Costa arrived at Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku realised his future lay elsewhere.
Just over two years on, Costa leads his former teammate at the top of the scoring charts. Ahead of Everton’s trip to Chelsea this weekend, here’s a closer look at how both players have improved this season.
Chelsea and Everton are both 10 games into the reigns of new managers. Antonio Conte has injected energy and optimism at Stamford Bridge following Jose Mourinho’s annus horribilis, whilst Ronald Koeman has completely transformed Everton from the shambles bequeathed to him by Roberto Martinez. For both new managers, their strikers have been vital.
In fact, Costa and Lukaku have arguably been the Premier League’s best players so far having been directly involved in 10 goals each, more than anyone else. Costa has scored eight of Chelsea’s 21 goals, earning five of 22 points. Lukaku has seven of Everton’s 15, laying claim to eight of 18 points. But how have their games developed this season?
The rate both players have scored at so far this campaign is significant. Costa’s eight goals have come at a rate of 0.80 per game, almost double last season’s 0.43, and slightly better than both his first Chelsea campaign and final season at Atletico Madrid (both 0.77). Perhaps then Costa isn’t particularly in-form just now, but merely over his bad spell.
Lukaku’s goals per game ratio is also revealing. Five of his six full seasons have seen him score at a rate between 0.42 and 0.49 goals per game. This season however, his seven goals have come at 0.77. That rate will almost certainly decrease, but given this is the best start to a season Lukaku has ever made, it may represent tangible proof of him stepping up a level.
We have also seen a shift in defensive focus for both players. Per game, Costa is making fewer tackles (0.6) and fewer interceptions (0.1) while Lukaku has made none of either all season. Conte and Koeman are modern coaches so will each demand improvement in these areas, but this may hint at a simplifying of roles. Lead from the front yes, but do it first and foremost by scoring.
Conte may have even suggested Costa tones down his antagonism. Just eight fouls committed (0.80 per game, down from 1.54) compared to 29 fouls suffered (2.90 per game, up from 1.75) points to a smarter approach. It’s as if Costa has remembered/ been reminded he’s a good footballer rather than a mere bully. Subsequently, he’s scored two goals from outside the box having gone 54 Chelsea games without one, lashed in a brilliant overhead kick and provided two assists.
Lukaku has also significantly improved in attack. Per game, he is completing more dribbles (2.22), playing more key passes (1.78), getting more assists (0.38), taking more shots (3.22) and scoring more goals (0.77). Everything you want, basically. Everton have been much more direct under Koeman, and this has benefited Lukaku, but with a league-leading 76 long balls per game, this approach should be better tailored to his counter-attacking strengths.
One notable aspect has been the development of partnerships. Although Eden Hazard has only provided one assist for Costa – his long-range effort against Southampton – the pair’s mutual upturn has been crucial in turning Chelsea into an exciting attacking force again. As for Lukaku, the arrival of good friend Yannick Bolasie has been a godsend. Bolasie has already assisted four goals for him, three from unmissable positions.
There is an important distinction to make. Whereas Costa is returning to form, Lukaku is reaching new heights. Long tipped as a world class striker in the making, the Belgian has suited that tag a lot more this campaign. With the hindrance of Martinez gone, at least domestically, and Everton not only balanced under Koeman but with genuine hope of progress, now is the time for Lukaku to prove the hype was entirely justified and his best start to a league season is now representative of his output.
Two years after their parting of ways, knocking Costa off the top of the scoring charts should be Lukaku’s next short-term goal. What better time and place than when the two meet this Saturday evening at Stamford Bridge?