Roberto Martínez put it rather bluntly, especially for a manager who has become renowned for always unwaveringly pointing to the positives for his team. Instead, here he was, emphasising the importance of a single individual. “[Romelu] Lukaku is an irreplaceable footballer, and that is a reality,” Martínez acknowledged.
It is a perspective that puts a slightly different spin on the perceived reality of Everton’s excellent season. As many of their players have testified, the joy of Martínez’s approach - in contrast to the more conservative coach he himself replaced - is the expansive passing game that is supposed to create a multitude of attacking angles.
Martínez himself, however, is admitting the most dangerous angles still come through one dominant striker - and an on-loan striker at that. That is something of an irony given it is the single position in a solid framework David Moyes struggled to get right, and is also put into further focus this weekend ahead of the visit of Arsenal and Arsène Wenger’s own issues up front. Not that Chelsea would ever have allowed it to happen, but there is a reasonable question to be asked in how Arsenal’s season would have improved with the extra force of Lukaku. It’s difficult not to think they would be a bit closer to top spot; a lot more secure of Champions League football.
That, of course, is impossible to tell for definite. As regards Everton, though, the stats can tell a story. What is the “reality”, as Martínez put it? What are the facts of Lukaku’s season? A few stats are unavoidable, alongside the manner Everton seemed to undeniably stutter during the forward’s recent absence through injury.
The Goodison Park club have a better record with Lukaku in the team than out of it. Martínez enjoys a superior win percentage (59.1% compared to 44%) and loses fewer games (13.6% against 22%). As almost goes without saying, Everton also hit a lot more goals - almost double, at 1.82 per match in contrast to 1. Beyond all of that, Lukaku is the side’s top scorer with 12 league goals.
From that admittedly short sample, it does seem like Everton have become dependent on the Belgian for adding penetration to all that passing. It is precisely that passing, however, which indicates there is something far broader going on than just Martínez being able to bring in precisely the player Moyes couldn’t.
The Spanish coach’s entire philosophy is about developing long-term integration to the point that devastating passing becomes second-nature. Naturally, that is something that takes time to develop, as could be seen from the amount of seasons in which his Wigan team initially struggled after having to selling large tracts of their midfield in repeated summers. In that regard, it was somewhat surprising Everton came to form so quickly under Martínez. The feeling remains the players shouldn’t have quite clicked that swiftly.
It is almost as if, with Lukaku and the Goodison Park club’s superior resources, Martínez was able to find the temporary compromise he never could at Wigan - if not also the player that enhances his philosophy in the long term too. Lukaku has facilitated longer-term cohesion without the cost of short-term results. It is something Martínez has intimated himself.
“We have not got another player than can do what he does, but as a team you find other ways to score goals.” There is evidence in the stats of their actual play. Although Everton still generally persevere with this proactive game regardless of who is in the team, they do play fewer passes with Lukaku there (474 compared to 487.4 per game) and thereby enjoy less possession (54.5% against 60.1%).
The increase in passes also points to a greater regard for safety without Lukaku. It is as if, since they have not yet developed to the point they have found sufficient “other ways to score goals”, they take fewer risks. The number of dribbles per game drop from 12.8 to 11.8, while their passing is slightly more accurate - up from 83.1% to 84%.
The truth of all this will be revealed over the next few seasons, as we get a fuller picture of Martínez’s approach at a wealthier club. This season, however, there is no disputing Lukaku is going a long way to driving them further up that table - and closer to Champions League football.
How integral is Lukaku to Everton's Champions League aspirations? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below