Last Wednesday night against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea were many things. Unfortunate. Sloppy. Underwhelming. And strikerless, at least at the beginning. With Samuel Eto'o injured, André Schürrle was preferred up front to both Demba Ba, who didn't make it onto the bench, and Fernando Torres, whose sad eyes and sloping shoulders were introduced after 59 minutes.
That Chelsea conceded twice after Torres came on is probably not directly his fault, unless it turns out that he shouted "Push him!" at David Luiz and "Don't use your hands!" at Petr Čech. And Schürrle has played that nominal striker/false nine/fourth attacking midfielder role before, most recently at Old Trafford in a 0-0 draw of little distinction. Perhaps it was less a commentary on his striking options, more a considered tactical approach.
But that game, along with the weekend just gone which saw Lukaku devour Arsenal while Torres went scoreless against Stoke City, has breathed new life into a debate that has been rumbling along for most of the season. Was it a mistake to allow Romelu Lukaku to leave Chelsea on loan? After all, the Belgian has scored 14 goals in 28 appearances for Roberto Martinez's entertainers, a flattering contrast with Eto'o (11/30), Torres (9/32) and Ba (5/22). He's also looked generally happy and confident in the process, a contrast with the world-weary broken Spaniard he left behind.
There is an alternate universe where Lukaku — Lukaku2, let's call him — stayed with his parent club, established himself in the first team and scored regularly and reliably. It wouldn't take ludicrous, Ronaldo-style numbers to be an improvement, after all. A few goals here, a few there, and suddenly Chelsea2 have a few more points in the league, another away goal in Europe, and José Mourinho isn't sneering and flailing his way through press conferences like a man doing a bad impression of José Mourinho. Lukaku, for his part, is in the running for Young Player of the Year, and Real Madrid are interested, obviously.
Still, let's assume for the moment that Mourinho and the relevant parts of the Chelsea hierarchy decided to send Lukaku out on loan for good reasons, rather than anything stupid like José taking against his hair. That they thought it would be the best thing for Lukaku and for the club. This can't have been done in the assumption that Torres was suddenly going to rediscover himself, that Eto'o-now was going to play like Eto'o-then, or that Ba was ever going to be anything other than a squad option; that would be a sacking offence. Chelsea's strikers have been underwhelming for title-challengers, but predictably so.
Everton, though. If you sat down and attempted to conjure from thin air the ideal destination for a talented-yet-raw striker, it would look something like Everton at the beginning of the season. A progressive and attacking coach, meaning that the footballing education will be a sound one. A talented squad, meaning that he won't starve from lack of service. A dearth of strength up front, meaning that first-team opportunities will be plentiful. No European football, meaning that recovery time between games will be maximised, as will coaching time.
(As an aside, this seems like one of the less-appreciated benefits that Everton's cross-park brethren Liverpool have drawn from their own absence from Europe. It hasn't just helped with injuries and fitness; it's also meant that Brendan Rodgers has had the time to do all the coaching for which he is being lauded.)
Playing for Chelsea is a different beast. Results are more important, games are more frequent. An undisputed first-choice player has to play twice a week; a squad player has to adapt to rotation, to dropping in and out of the side. Score one goal in two months at Everton, as Lukaku did in December and January this season, and it's an understandable lull in an otherwise impressive season. Score one goal in two months for Chelsea, and the kid might have thrown the title away. And it's probably worth remembering at this stage that Lukaku's only notable contribution in a Chelsea shirt this season was to miss a penalty against Bayern Munich in the European Super Cup; a one-off moment, yes, but hardly something that screamed I AM READY FOR THE BIG TIME, BOW AT MY FEET, DEFENCES OF EUROPE.
For the glorious imaginary breakthrough season of Lukaku2 needs to be set against that of Lukaku3, whose season with Chelsea3 has been nothing short of a disaster. He spent most of the first half of the season making ineffectual substitute appearances; a brace in the League Cup promised much but in hindsight was a false dawn. Injuries and inadequacies have heaped responsibilities on his shoulders, yet his confidence is shot, his finishing has deserted him, and he looks a sad bumbling parody of the striker who was so good for West Brom. The final indignity came on Wednesday night, when André Schürrle ... well, you get the idea. Tottenham are interested, obviously.
Photo credit: Julian Finney
When asked about the loan last week, Mourinho underlined his happiness: "With Lukaku and Everton, that loan is working well for the three: for Lukaku, for Everton and for Chelsea." Perhaps he couldn't say anything else; "We've bollocksed that one right up, I'm an idiot" probably wouldn't play well. But for all that Lukaku is physically able to mix it with anybody, he is still only 20; not quite a footballing baby, but certainly a toddler. The risk of ending up with Lukaku3 rather than Lukaku2 is, surely, enough to commend the path of continued development over the possible immediate returns.
Mourinho is often criticised for ignoring his clubs' young players while gleefully spending his way through problems. Here he is being criticised for being too careful with a kid. Ultimately, clubs like Chelsea get a crack at the league title every year. Lukakus — non-imaginary ones, anyway — are much, much rarer. The only way it doesn't make any sense at all is if they're planning to sell him at the end of the season, and surely only an idiot ... oh. Oh, José.