Romelu Lukaku is one of the best young strikers in the world, but he's become a scapegoat for Everton's current Premier League standing. The Toffees are 12th after Sunday's 2-2 home draw against lowly Leicester, and for long stretches of that game, Lukaku's efforts elicited whistles and groans that players don't hear from their home crowd very often. This reaction from the Goodison Park faithful came just three days after Lukaku scored a hat trick in the Europa League.
A peek at the stats could have you thinking the Belgian is pretty bad. Lukaku took nine shots but hit the target with none of them. A couple of the chances he missed were awful, the type that players of his caliber should be scoring easily. But Lukaku also assisted on Everton's opener, and had a huge part in forcing the own goal equalizer. Even with nine missed shots, he was among Everton's most effective players.
Why this torrent of abuse from his own fans? Mostly because of the amount of money that was spent on him. Everton paid Chelsea a club record fee of £28 million to bring Lukaku to the club permanently after last season's successful loan, and £28 million players are supposed to be dominant. Lukaku hasn't quite been that, but he certainly doesn't deserve to be the subject of abuse. He's having a very good season, and even though it might not seem like it, he's still only 21 years old.
It's likely that Everton fans' frustrations with the team as a whole manifest themselves in screaming at the club's highest-paid player. When there are a whole multitude of things going wrong with a team like Everton, no one wants to concede that the problem isn't easily solvable -- some combination of bad luck and bad performances by veteran players that were out of the organization's control have led to their poor league standing. A simple way to vent frustrations is to shout at the superstar.
So thanks to Lukaku's £28 million price tag, he catches a lot of blame for things that aren't his fault at all. Here's a list of them: Gareth Barry has been poor after a very good 2013-14 season. Muhamed Bešić has played like the inexperienced, but top talent he is, giving away points single-handedly as often as he's won man of the match awards. John Stones has been available for just under half of Everton's games, Ross Barkley not too many more than that, and Darron Gibson has made just five appearances. Leon Osman, now 33, isn't as big of a contributor as he was last season. Tim Howard is seriously showing his age.
All of those issues get people thinking about the opportunity cost of spending £28 million on Lukaku. There's a school of thought that Everton could have found a £10-15 million striker option instead, then used the remaining money to solidify their center of defense, find an upgrade over Joel Robles and bring in a permanent wing option instead of taking Christian Atsu and Aaron Lennon on loan.
Would Everton be better off for this in the short term? Perhaps, but their injury and age issues wouldn't have been mitigated completely. An extra £15 million or so to spend on depth isn't the difference between bottom half and top four in today's Premier League, and there's no plausible scenario in which Everton weren't going to rely on Howard and Barry heavily this season, or where injuries to Barkley and Stones weren't going to screw up a European challenge.
Those injury and age issues also affect Lukaku's ability to be productive. When he scored 16 times in 33 appearances last season, he had Barkley underneath him, performing at a high level, all season long. He had Gibson fit, while Barry and James McCarthy were in much better form than they are now.
And even with all these factors working against him, Lukaku still has 13 goals in 34 appearances. He's probably going to finish the season with the highest goal-scoring total of his career in England. That his three Premier League assists are second on the team to only Leighton Baines, who takes all of the team's set pieces, suggests that Everton's issues in attack aren't all about him.
Lukaku is also likely to get a lot better. He's a few months younger than Harry Kane, this season's breakout star, and West Brom's Saido Berahino. He's a full year younger than Danny Ings. These players are always referred to as 'young players,' full of potential and with time to become more polished, but more is expected of Lukaku because he's been on everyone's radar for so much longer, and because he's looked like a grown man since he was 15. It's easy to forget that he's one of the youngest players in the league that's a lock to start every game he's fit.
This season has not been a hiccup for Lukaku as much as it has been for Everton as a whole. He's still playing exceptionally well for a 21-year-old while providing goals and assists at a solid rate. Fans need to be patient with him, and at this point, they have no reason not to be -- Europe and relegation are both virtually impossible for Everton. He'll live up to his price tag if Everton supporters let him.