Romelu Lukaku is a name that's been on the footballing world's lips for more than a year now. The striker burst onto the scene with Anderlecht shortly after his 16th birthday, eventually scoring 15 goals in 33 league games in the 2009/10 season. Despite attracting attention from a rash of huge teams (Chelsea and Real Madrid, for starters), Lukaku kept up his tally for the next year as well, netting twenty times in 2010/11 with seven assists. Fast forward to August, and he's on the verge of becoming a Chelsea player after Anderlecht and the Blues agreed a fee to send him to Stamford Bridge.
What can we expect from the 18-year-old now that he's in Chelsea colours? Well, first of all, we should all appreciate that while Lukaku is indeed very good, he's hardly a finished product. His physical skills are all there - he's 6'3", built like Didier Drogba, and knows how to use his strength, but he's also extremely quick and agile, which will make him a handful for even the centre back pairings you're likely to see in the Premier League.
Obviously, you can't teach physique, which is why everyone considers Lukaku so special. But in order to be effective at the top level, he'll need to improve upon his technique, his finishing and his vision. None of these are up to 'Premier League elite' standards - even his highlight reels tend to show basic errors- although he gets there in fits and spurts, so it's hard to deny that he has real potential there. He's not really shown any of that outside of Belgium, though, so there's certainly room to be concerned about his future development.
Chelsea know that they have a raw diamond on their hands, and will be working with him to get him up to scratch in the areas he needs to improve on. Lukaku will be training alongside Didier Drogba, who's the poster boy in combining ferocious physical play with outstanding technique, and I'm sure the hope is that playing with his idol will teach the teenager some valuable lessons that he couldn't learn elsewhere. It helps that in Andre Villas-Boas, they have a manager who'll emphasise technique and touch. It also helps that Lukaku is hardly a footballing prima donna. He's well-grounded and works immensely hard to improve his game. That attitude will improve his chances of turning into a star, even though it's still no guarantee he'll make it big.
It's been said that this isn't the sort of signing Villas-Boas would have wanted to make, and to a certain extent that's true. Lukaku is hardly going to break through and become a first-choice centre forward from day one. He has both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba in his way, and he's certainly not better than either of them. This signing doesn't improve the team significantly this year, except for adding depth while Drogba's off at the Africa Cup of Nations.
But to paint it in those terms is a little short-sighted. Chelsea have paid a good amount of money to acquire one of the game's top prospects, and this is more or less in line with what they've been doing all summer. Lukaku joins Thibaut Courtois and Oriol Romeu as excellent young players who can contribute two or three years down the line, and that's the sort of project that Chelsea should be undertaking. Better yet, by virtue of buying him now, Chelsea have ensured that when Lukaku turns 21, he'll count as a home-grown player, which Chelsea have been rather low on for the past few years.
This is a buy for the future. I expect a lot out of Lukaku, but I don't expect it yet. There'll be a lot of pressure on him to succeed immediately, but the more sensible approach for Chelsea would be to take things slowly. There's no need to throw him in the deep end straight away. Expect him to spend most of his time on the bench, with the occasional start in cup matches, Champions League group stage games and the like. I wouldn't be shocked if he went out on loan in January, either.
What this means for the rest of the team is another question. Obviously, as a junior player, Lukaku doesn't take up a roster spot, so there's no need to worry about that, but his doesn't exactly alleviate any concerns about the gaps in Chelsea's squad. They still don't have midfield help, and they still have too many centre forwards. If you were concerned about Chelsea's chances this season... well, Lukaku's a great buy, but he doesn't really help.