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300 & Counting: Just how “Big” of a player is Romelu Lukaku?

On Sunday, February 14th 2021, at the age of 27 years and 9 months, Romelu Lukaku scored the 300th goal of his professional career. An impressive feat, regardless of your opinion on the player. There has however, always been one prevalent criticism of Romelu, at least since his Everton days, that whilst he is clearly a very skilled and adept goalscorer, he consistently fails to deliver in the bigger games against tougher teams. I’ve always found this to be somewhat of a lazy criticism, but since he’s reached such a milestone at such a young age, I decided I’d do the research and find out if this widely-held belief actually has any weight to it. So let’s dive in.

The Story So Far

Romelu Lukaku made his senior debut for RSC Anderlecht against Standard Liege on May 24th, 2009, and scored his first senior goal three months later against SV Zulte Waregem at the age of 16 years and 3 months. Over the next two seasons, he would go on to make 98 appearances for Anderlecht, and would score a further 40 goals for his debut club, earning himself a 15 million Euro move to Chelsea in the summer of 2011. 

At Chelsea, he would fail to cement a place within the first team, making only 15 appearances that season, 14 of those coming from the bench. He would, however, chalk up his first Premier League goal contribution in his only start that season against Blackburn, providing the assist for a John Terry header. 

The following season saw him secure a season-long loan to West Bromwich Albion, where he would score his first Premier League goal, on his debut, in a 3-0 win over Liverpool. Over 38 appearances in all domestic competitions, Lukaku would score an impressive 17 goals, including a final game-week perfect hat-trick against League champions Manchester United, helping West Brom to an 8th place finish. 

On his return to Chelsea, re-newly appointed manager Jose Mourinho would include Lukaku in his pre-season squad, however decided he was surplus to requirements, leading to Everton securing a deadline day season-long loan for the Belgian’s services.It was at Everton where Lukaku would make a name for himself, at least domestically, where he would score 87 goals over 166 appearances, including 8 goals in 9 games during Everton’s 14/15 Europa League campaign, after transferring to the Merseyside club permanently over the 14/15 transfer window. This would also however, be the time that would shape and define the opinion that Lukaku “struggles to score against the big teams”. Most notably after Everton’s 15/16 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United, in which he missed a number of big chances and failed to convert a penalty, despite veteran penalty taker Leighton Baines being on the pitch. 

Transfer rumours had been abundant during Lukaku’s final two seasons at Everton, and in the summer of 2017/18, he would make the switch to Manchester United for a fee of 90 million GBP plus Wayne Rooney going the opposite direction, returning to his boyhood club. Whilst failing to win any domestic or European honours during his time at United, he would help United to a second place finish in his debut season, only bettered by city rivals Manchester City. United manager Jose Mourinho would go on to claim that United’s second place finish this season was “one of [his] biggest achievements.” 

During his United career, Lukaku would score 42 goals in 96 appearances, and this was enough to attract the attention of Antonio Conte and Inter Milan. Lukaku would sign with Inter Milan during the 2019/20 transfer window, where he has so far scored 56 goals in 80 appearances, including an appearance and goal in the 19/20 Europa League final against Sevilla. Once again however, domestic and European honours elude Lukaku, with Sevilla beating Inter Milan 3-2, and Inter Milan being eliminated from the Coppa Italia at the Semi-final stage, last year to eventual winners Napoli, and this year to Juventus, with Lukaku failing to score in either legs of both years.

What Do The Numbers Say?

Romelu Lukaku’s reputation for failing in the big games has started to eclipse the man’s propensity as one of Europe’s greatest goal scorers, but is there any truth to it? And if so, how does he stack up against the greatest goalscorer’s of the previous generation? Is it common for “big game” players to struggle against the “big” teams, or do these players become players by doing the business when it matters most? 

To get to the bottom of this, I have pulled together the stats of some of Europe’s greatest goalscorer’s, up to the point of their 300th senior goal, the number of appearances they made against their respective league’s “Big” teams, and how often they scored against these teams. The data has been compiled below:

AgeTotal AppsApps in “Big” GamesGoals Scored in “Big” Games%
C. Ronaldo27y 3m522793645.6
Messi25y 4m422846577.4
Zlatan32y 4m671843744
Aguero28y 7m580945356.4
Rooney29y 10m6691164337.1
Drogba37y 7m7391044442.3
Shearer29y 6m536693652.2
Henry30y 1m627823137.8
Lukaku27y 9m5821132925.7

Two things immediately stand out, the age at which he’s reached his 300th goal, and the percentage of games in which he actually scores. Reaching such a milestone as early as he has leads us to believe he should exist in the Messi/Ronaldo bracket, but looking his goals against appearances paints a different picture. Lionel Messi was (and still is) clearly in a world of his own, scoring in 77.4% of the “Big” games he’d played in up to his 300th senior goal, a feat no one else comes near to. The man who comes closest is Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, who scored in 56.4% of big games he played in, during his time at Independiente, Athletico and Manchester City. Romelu Lukaku sits well below Aguero, scoring in just 25.7% of big games he has so far played in. It could be argued that having spent half his career at West Brom and Everton, two teams that, at least in recent memory, haven’t been known for challenging the Big 6 in England, his goal threat was somewhat diminished, but I would disagree. Take Alan Shearer for example, a man who spent the entirety of his career playing for teams outside of the “Top 4”, still managed to score in 52.2% of games against such teams. (I do realise he won the league with Blackburn in 94/95, before anyone complains). What did surprise me was how rarely Thierry Henry scored in big games, considering he’s often featured in lists of the Premier League’s greatest goalscorers, scoring in only 37.8% of appearances against the Top 4.

For further comparison, I compiled all the data of each player’s appearances and goals in European competition, since I would consider every European game, Champions League and Europa League, to be classed as a “Big” game. Once again, up until each player’s 300th senior career goal:

European AppearancesEuropean Goals%
C. Ronaldo884045.5

What I find remarkable looking at this data, is how each player’s likelihood of scoring in European games compared with their likelihood of scoring in their respective league’s big games is pretty similar, except for Lukaku’s. Cristiano Ronaldo, at this point in his career, had an almost identical record, percentage-wise, of scoring in European competition and in big domestic games, whereas Lukaku’s chances of scoring more than doubles when playing in European competition. He’s so lethal in European games, that up to this point in their careers, only Lionel Messi has a better record than him.

So What Does It All Mean?

Like all topics in football, everything comes down to personal opinion. I can throw all the stats and data in the world at you, humble reader, but at the end of the day people will believe what they want to believe. The data shows that on a domestic level, Romelu Lukaku does indeed, tend to score less than the all time greats in big games. In European competition however, the Champions League arguably being the peak of performance in world football, the data shows that Lukaku could potentially be the greatest of all time (behind the freak that is Lionel Messi), should he continue to consistently perform. He could even get better, much like Cristiano Ronaldo did in the later years of his career. 

The fact that Lukaku has reached 300 goals at the age of 27, is an incredibly impressive feat, regardless of who those goals have come against. It is unfortunate that none of those goals have ever brought him silverware, something which could be used as an argument against him. But with at least another 5 to 6 years of his peak to come, and rumours of a transfer to Manchester City this summer, I for one, am certain he’ll go down as one of the greatest goalscorers of his generation and be lifting a trophy at some point in the near future.

At the time of this publication (21/02/21), he will be playing in the Milan derby in a couple of hours, and according to the data there’s a 25% chance he will score. Given that he failed to score most recently against Juventus in the Coppa Italia, and that Lukaku often enjoys proving his critics wrong, I’d be willing to put money on him bagging a hat-trick and making all of this research and effort totally worthless.


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