The £28m striker unnerved Arsenal on their return to Goodison Park, but Everton’s threat disappeared when he went off
There can be few more ominous sights for Wojciech Szczesny than Romelu Lukaku bearing down on goal at Goodison Park. For the second time in five months the Belgium international led a commanding Everton performance against Arsenal, but this time there was regret on all sides. He exited tired and injured in the 76th minute with Roberto Martínez’s side two goals up. Everton’s energy and threat disappeared with him.
Until Arsenal confirmed their FA Cup success has restored belief and resolve in their ranks to draw with two goals in the final seven minutes, Goodison was in raptures. As with April’s 3-0 win against Arsène Wenger’s side, when the Arsenal manager accused his players of “a lack of charisma” as Everton coasted to their biggest win in the fixture for 25 years, Lukaku was the focal point of a vibrant display, albeit one they were unable to maintain for 90 minutes in the second game of this campaign.
Szczesny must have known what was coming when the 21-year-old cast aside Per Mertesacker on the stroke of half-time, leapt clear of Calum Chambers’s challenge and swept inside on to his favoured left foot. Last season he struck Everton’s second of the game into the Park End goal. This time, from a similar position, he opted for a slide-rule pass into the marginally offside Steven Naismith, who converted into the same net. A convincing way for the £28m Lukaku to mark his home debut as a permanent Everton player.
“Romelu has done incredible to last for 75 minutes,” said Martínez, who admitted Everton have only themselves to blame for conceding late goals on successive weekends and collecting two points instead of six. “He had a knock to his toe and did incredible to get himself available for the game.
“I’m really proud of his attitude. We need to get him fully fit. He was immense for someone with a problem in his toe and doesn’t deserve the feeling of having only one point.”
Lukaku spoke of his need to improve as a team player and creator on the night he was presented as the most expensive signing in Everton’s history. Last week, after a meagre contribution in the 2-2 draw at Leicester City, he discovered £28m raises the level of scrutiny far beyond what he experienced while on loan to Everton from Chelsea last season.
For those reasons, he celebrated Naismith’s finish with a delirium worthy of a goal of his own, castigated himself for a wasted pass in the second half and left to a standing ovation after a tireless display. He unnerved Arsenal’s back line while injured and searching for match fitness after a late return to pre-season training from the World Cup.
Landing Lukaku on a permanent basis was fundamental for Everton even though the cost left little change in the manager’s transfer budget to strengthen a squad with European demands this season. “A real football statement,” Martínez said at the striker’s unveiling, and he made another by again deploying Lukaku on the right of his attack to pound away at Nacho Monreal.
“It’s the way we wanted to play,” Martínez said. “With Rom being left-footed and lethal in space, he can bring a lot of positives in the final third. I said it when we signed him. We were prepared to pay a record fee because he’s a unique No9. He’s got a good touch, he’s powerful, a clinical finisher, flexible and good in the air. He’s quite sore at the moment. He was a doubt before the game and it is incredible he played like that for 75 minutes.”
Naismith’s intelligence, and support from Seamus Coleman, the most prolific defender in the Premier League this year, enabled Lukaku to disturb the Arsenal defence. Without him, Everton had no outlet and an Arsenal threat that grew throughout the second half eventually punished Martínez’s side.
“The overall performance dropped with the energy levels,” he said. “We have three players who arrived back later from the World Cup and it’s going to take longer to reach their level. Steven Pienaar’s injury affected us massively because we didn’t have an extra sub for the last 10 minutes, which was always going to be important.
“Had it finished 2-1, it would have been fantastic performance, but we need to be realist, we need to get everyone fit. The first half was as dominant as I’ve seen us at home against a good team for a long time. The dressing room has a real feeling of frustration because we should have six points instead of two. We are the ones to blame for that.”