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Chelsea’s Lukaku Dilemma: “The Daniel Sturridge Redux”

What has six legs, takes about 200 minutes to score a goal, and will be permanently changing their Stamford Bridge address this summer?

Give up?

The collective skills of Chelsea forwards Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres, and Demba Ba.

Current Chelsea strike force of Eto'o, Ba, Torres (left to right)
Current Chelsea strike force of Eto’o, Ba, Torres (left to right)

That’s probably not humorous to many—but the productivity number is accurate and the forecast is a good bet.

It’s embarrassing that Chelsea’s top scorer is their brilliant midfielder Eden Hazard, with almost as many goals (13) as the total of all three of these strikers (14).

Truth be told, things are so bad that this is the only year in recent memory that the leading EPL club does not have any forward among the top 20 league goal scorers.

It remains a mystery to many, then, why Jose Mourinho has chosen to wait until the summer 2014 transfer window to bring in at least one new forward to support Chelsea’s feeble front line productivity.

Rumor continues that none of the three current forwards will be wearing Chelsea blue come next season and that Jose will be cleaning house by dumping them all, along with numerous others, to finance a major overhaul of the club’s roster.

Now this raises an important issue: didn’t Chelsea recently have better alternatives up front that they have chosen not to play … or at least, not to play very often?

Yes, I think so.

In fact, if we roll back the clock just a bit—hardly over a year—an example comes to mind.

During the January 2013 transfer window, Rafa Benitez sold a young striker to his old club, Liverpool, because the player was very unhappy about his lack of game minutes … and said so.

The young player was Daniel Sturridge. He was allowed to transfer to the Reds for only £12m.

Lukaku - Sturridge

Now Chelsea couldn’t buy him back for £35m.

In fact, Daniel Sturridge has scored 30 goals in the first 35 games he has played for Liverpool! And, currently, he is the second leading goal scorer in the EPL with 19 goals.

How did this happen? How could Chelsea have made such an error in judgment?

Simple. Chelsea had made their commitment to the £50m purchase of Fernando Torres that they had bought from … from Liverpool (is a picture forming?) and there was no looking back: it was sink or swim. They could not have Sturridge attempting to upstage this huge investment. It simply would not look appropriate, so off went Sturridge to Liverpool.

The rest is history. A very embarrassing history.

And now…

Déjà vu

Chelsea has another promising young 20 year-old striker on their hands—but still under contract—in approximately the same situation. His name is Romelu Lukaku. And, like Sturridge, he is unhappy. Very unhappy.

It happens that during his first EPL season of 2012-2013, the then 19 year-old was loaned out to West Brom to get consistent playing experience. So he went, and did he perform! He scored 17 goals—a stunning initial year performance!

Lukaku returned to Chelsea for the start of the 2013-2014 season. He was told he’d have a legitimate shot at first team play this season, but after a disappointing European Super Cup penalty shoot out miss at the end of August 2013 with Bayern Munich, Mourinho only gave him three very brief substitute appearances for Chelsea at the beginning of the EPL season.

Then, Lukaku learned that on August 29th, Mourinho had secured the free transfer of Samuel Eto’o from Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala—a clear message that his place in the playing-time-pecking order was yet another rung lower.

On September 1st, on the last day of the transfer window—only forty-eight hours after learning of the Eto’o transfer, Lukaku received a phone call from Jose Mourinho.  He was going to be loaned to Everton and Roberto Martinez for the season. That was it. No discussion. He was “on the road” for a second straight year.

Even though Romelu was massively unhappy with the news, he has made the best of his second season and to date has scored 11 goals for the Toffees.

Are you thinking he’s on his way back to the Chelsea soon?

Well, he’d like that a great deal and has even made it publicly clear he feels he’s ready for prime time.

Jose, a bit incensed over Lukaku’s comments, said that he would be the one who decides when it would be ready for him to return to the Chelsea roster and that it would not be this season.

Jose Mourinho hears Romelo's opinion
Jose Mourinho hears Romelu’s opinion

This is proof that Lukaku is still very young. He was under the impression that Mourinho wanted to hear his opinion.

Big mistake.

Jose did not want to hear Romelu’s opinion. Truth be told, Jose does not want to hear anyone’s opinion about anything.

In fact, rumour has it that Romelu is going to be part of the aforementioned Chelsea fire sale that will include about a dozen players on the current roster needed to finance the purchase of the new players that Jose Mourinho wants for next season.

To many, this situation is a revisit of the same mistake Chelsea already made with Daniel Sturridge and it seems they’re about to repeat it with a second, talented young striker.

This is a terrific opportunity—while there is still time—to compare Romelu Lukaku with our current trio of Chelsea forwards and with Daniel Sturridge in his last full season with Chelsea (2011-2012).

Is it possible that Chelsea overlooked, and continues to overlook, young, talented strikers they have right under their nose or is Lukaku’s skill set only imagined?

Let’s see what the metrics suggest using the Opta measures from the EPLindex database for a handful of the most pertinent striker measures. Of course, some metrics of interest are reasonably rare events, and due to the small resulting sample sizes, only non-statistical, descriptive observations are possible. With those limitations in mind, here is a performance comparison of the current EPL season performance of Romelu Lukaku with Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres, and Demba Ba of Chelsea and a historic look back at Daniel Sturridge’s metrics from his last season with Chelsea (pre-Torres).

Activity Level

Of course, performance numbers need to be tempered with the fact that, especially in the case of the current trio of Chelsea strikers, game minutes are difficult to acquire. Therefore efficiency metrics—such as events per minute or minutes between events—along with cumulative productivity measures (total events) must be included. In the case of game minutes, Demba Ba is finding it particularly difficult gaining EPL game time and is typically seeing more minutes during domestic cup play.


Creativity: Dribbling and Chances Created

There is no significant difference in dribble performance between four of the strikers (Ba’s numbers are marginal). Even the 6% difference between Lukaku and Eto’o is not statistically significant due to the small sample size. The same conclusion may be drawn from the chances created and assists.


The assists and chances created were surprisingly similar in terms of productivity. A better perspective is gathered looking at the rate of generating this event. In this case, Eto’o was creating a chance (including assists) every 59.4 minutes or about 1.5 per game. Torres was also good in this area creating a chance every 70 minutes while the other three strikers created about 1 chance per game. Again, the small sample sizes eliminated any opportunity to conduct statistical comparisons.

Passing: Final Third

Passing skills for strikers becomes most important in the attacking third of the pitch—where the player is in more frequent contact with the ball. It is also the area more densely occupied by defenders and because of this, it typically has the lowest passing efficiency. In fact, it is not unusual to see a player’s accuracy drop 20 to 30 percent in passing efficiency from the back, to the middle and finally attacking third of the pitch.


Although Lukaku final third passing accuracy (58.0%) is at a higher level than Torres (54.4%) and Ba (47.7%), he is still less efficient at passing overall than both Eto’o (68.5%) and Sturridge’s earlier Chelsea statistics (68.4%). And these differences are statistically significant. How significant?

The chance that the 10.5% difference with Eto’o is accidental is about one chance in 38. This is, in statistical terminology, referred to as a p-value of 0.027. So, it’s very likely that this difference is real—Eto’o is significantly more accurate than Lukaku.

What are the chances that the difference between Lukaku and Sturridge is accidental? Well, you’d probably guess it would be about the same as Eto’o wouldn’t you? Sturridge has almost an identical passing efficiency in the final third of 68.4%, right? Not quite.

The fact is that the 10.4% difference is even more significant because Sturridge has a much larger sample size of passes than Eto’o—301 compared to 168—so the difference is more compelling. More specifically, the chance of the difference between Lukaku and Sturridge being accidental is about 120 to 1 (p-value=0.0084). Sturridge’s passes are more accurate and significantly better than Lukaku.

One final point, however, is that Lukaku’s productivity is impressive. Romelu’s 8.9 accurate passes in the final third per 90-minute game is top among all the players assessed!

Attacking: Goals and Clear-Cut Chances

Lukaku’s performance in front of the goal is very impressive.

His shot accuracy (shots on target/total shots) is the highest of all the strikers (60.0%). He scores at the rate of more than a goal every two games, which is the measure of a good forward—considerably better than Sturridge at a similar point in his career. However, it is not as important as our next measure.


Lukaku’s chance conversion rate (22.0%) is also the best of the group of strikers—and it is an important metric. There is no guarantee that a shot on target will turn into a goal, however, this metric is only concerned with the portion that do! It is an effectiveness measure that indicates the quality of the strike.

The chance conversions are relatively rare events, with Sturridge encountering the maximum of 16 during a full season. Lukaku topped the group with the highest percentage of converted goals (62.0%) from 10 opportunities. This is a reflection of a forwards poise in front of the goal—a very positive quality for a young striker.

However, due to small sample sizes associated with the attacking metrics, it is not possible to determine if the differences between the strikers are statistically significant.


It’s crunch time for Chelsea. Time for Jose to make a decision. In fact, time for Jose to make a great number of decisions.

It’s house-cleaning time along Fulham Road and Jose Mourinho has made no secret that he wants Monaco’s Radamel Falcao along with a handful of other very high profile players to join Chelsea this summer… and it’s going to cost buckets full of money. Money he can’t get from Roman Abramovich with FIFA Financial Fair Play watchdogs looking over the Chelsea accounting journals.

The only way Jose is going to be able to able to finance the purchase of the new players is by selling current inventory such as Lampard, Cole, Terry and, very likely, Romelu Lukaku.  But if Mourinho dumps Lukaku, he will do so in the face of what our analysis has discovered.

The EPLindex analysis conducted in this paper has shown that, in only his second season in the EPL, for most of the metrics used to assess striker performance, Romelu Lukaku has performed near or at the top of the player sample.

Could Chelsea risk seeing this young striker, that many have called the new Didier Drogba, back at Stamford Bridge in a Gunners or, possibly, a Spurs jersey?

After allowing Daniel Sturridge to leave, it’s difficult to understand Chelsea chancing another similar oversight with Romelu Lukaku. This could be a Daniel Sturridge nightmare redux!

Joel Oberstone
Joel Oberstone
Joel Is an avid football and modern jazz fanatic. He sees the connection between the improvisational elements of each ... the connection between Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi as well as Miles Davis and Bill Evans. He wrote a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal Sports Europe between 2010 and 2011 using a demystified style of sports analytics to explain the details of football performance. Joel is a professor of Business Analytics at the University of San Francisco, School of Management. He is also an ardent fan of writers Mick Dennis, Barney Ronay, and Jonathan Wilson and the never-ending word wizardry of former Newcastle United midfielder Ray Hudson in his La Liga match calls and commentary.
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