It’s early afternoon and the De Schorre training complex on the outskirts of Ostende, the Belgian seaside town that was the birthplace of surrealist painter James Ensor, is deserted. Jordan Lukaku is ‘chillaxed’. He has made great progress this season and contemplates his future ahead of Belgium’s Euro 2016 squad announcement.
“Oostende altered its style of play, that has surprised everyone,” explains Lukaku of his team’s success, which saw them finish fourth in the regular season and reach the championship play-offs. “We have improved a lot and master ball possession. In the attack Oostende excelled. Those were the keys.”
The club’s left-back alludes to K.V. Oostende’s deployment of a dynamic 4-3-3 formation. Lukaku has a genial persona, but at the same time is frank and forthright. It is a refreshing variation on the conveyor belt of premeditated platitudes in the contemporary game. The 21-year-old exudes professionalism and positivity. Romelu Lukaku’s little brother neatly fits into a burgeoning generation of new Belgians: self-assured and sexy, but also humble.
Three years ago Anderlecht, where both the Lukaku brothers enjoyed their youth education, demoted the younger brother after several first-team appearances. Oostende recognised his potential and, in 2013, he arrived at the seaside club on loan, wanting to prove himself. Lukaku has done so with aplomb, slowly but surely turning into a thoroughbred left-back.
His marauding attacking style has yielded two goals and seven assists this season. There is steeliness and solidity to his defensive game, with a better positional awareness thanks to the intake of more video-analysis. “This is my best season ever,” he says.
Speed is one of the overarching features of Lukaku’s game. He is an athletics fan and admired Carl Lewis and Maurice Green from afar during his youth. Sprint races with his brother were commonplace – picture a young Jordan at the heels of Romelu in a duel of disproportionate physicality and brimming athleticism. That competitiveness was never constrained.
“When you have the hunger, you want to improve yourself,” says Lukaku. “We are still very young. He [Romelu] is 22, I am 21, so we have plenty of years ahead of us to grow, and in particular my brother. Michael Owen was the last striker to be fully mature at the age of 21, and Ronaldo before him. They were both phenomena. It’s the desire to show yourself at a higher level that makes us better.”
Amid Everton’s mid-table malaise, Romelu has cemented his role as the focal point of Roberto Martinez’s attack. He has scored 25 goals and produced six assists this season despite the club languishing in the bottom half of the table.
“He has bettered his personal goalscoring record in England and that’s nice for a young striker who is playing in a team ranked 12th,” assesses Lukaku. “He has become more adept with his back to goal. He varies his game more. He can drop deeper and demand the ball. He is better in possession and in combinations.”
Despite Romelu’s unquestionable progress at Everton, his position in the national team remains a bone of contention, even though this may seem peculiar. He has repeatedly failed to reproduce his Premier League prolificacy for the Red Devils, inducing much criticism from the local press. In a 4-3-3 system Belgian coach Marc Wilmots prefers the mobility of Christian Benteke, who has had an injury-torn season at Liverpool.
“The Red Devils don’t have a set system,” says Lukaku. “Plenty of one-touch combinations, but no acceleration within the game. What do the Red Devils like to do? [Eden] Hazard, [Dries] Mertens and [Kevin] De Bruyne seek out a double pass so they can cut inside and shoot. You can even do without a striker if you play that way.
“If you play with Romelu – and that goes for any striker in the national team – you need to feed him more, cross more and pass deep more. You can’t just use the strikers to combine. In the last game against Portugal, Romelu showed he has become better with his back to goal.”
That friendly provided an intimate poster moment after the hour mark when Jordan delivered an inch-perfect cross from the left for his brother to head in. Belgium’s sole goal was a Lukaku-production of split-second kindred telepathy. In a way, that strike was a modest crowning achievement of both brother’s careers to date.
“It was an indescribable moment,” recalls Lukaku. “You just zoom out for a few seconds and forget what is going on. It’s for these kind of moments that you play football.”
Much of Jordan Lukaku’s footballing career has been narrated around the rise of his older brother. The Portugal friendly was his second call-up to the national team but, with Belgium lacking a genuine left-back – Jan Vertonghen, who excels at centre-back for Tottenham, fills that role – Lukaku wants to go to EURO 2016 as an understudy.
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This summer’s tournament would be a platform for Lukaku to boost his international profile. Recently, he has been linked with PSG (the influence of his brother’s agent Mino Raiola), as well as Tottenham and Arsenal. When probed and poked about his future, the left-back remains tight-lipped. He admits that Everton haven’t demonstrated any interest and goes as far as saying the Premier League and Bundesliga would be his preference in the future.
“Do I see myself as a Premier League-bound?” asks Lukaku. “I don’t know, but it’s a league that would suit me. I have always been a fan of Arsenal, but I am mad about every Premier League club as long as the club doesn’t have to fight against relegation.”
He does have some candid advice to solve Arsenal’s crisis, which is causing so much weltschmerz among the club’s fans. “Arsenal has to go out and spend,” insists Lukaku. “Arsenal has become a youth academy for other top clubs. When Fabregas became top, he moved to Barcelona. When Van Persie became top and single-handedly guided Arsenal to a top-four finish, he moved to Manchester United. He had begged for reinforcements. Same case with Samir Nasri. He asked for a bigger salary. Arsenal has to be less stingy.”
Lukaku projects a career path similar to Thorgan Hazard, the brother of Chelsea’s Eden, who moved to Borussia Monchengladbach, a Bundesliga club with standing but not a heavyweight. At this stage Jordan Lukaku doesn’t want to a move to a top club – his brother’s side-tracked spell at Chelsea offering a stark warning. Instead he has careful roadmap in mind. Then, one day, he might step out of his brother’s shadow.