Back in August, I wrote this. And it sure seemed that way, as Chelsea utterly destroyed Arsenal, spearheaded by Romelu Lukaku. These were the defending European champions, who had just added the best striker from Italy in Lukaku the previous season, and he seemed like the final piece for Chelsea to stare down Manchester City. They looked an unholy force.
So if you’d told us back then that more than halfway through the season, that if Arsenal were to win all three of their games in hand, they’d be level on points with Chelsea and in the Champions League spots, we’d ask for your dealer’s number and what he was charging. But that’s where we are, and though Chelsea’s problems extend beyond Lukaku, he’s been the loudest one the past few weeks. Whether it’s a strange interview where he proclaimed how much he’d love to go back to Inter and how unhappy he was at Chelsea, or his dissatisfaction with Chelsea’s tactics, and a lack of goals, all is not well in West London.
The numbers are the numbers. While Lukaku’s season has been interrupted by injuries and COVID like everyone else’s, five goals is five goals. This is the same guy who poured in 24 and 23 with Inter the past two seasons. Worse yet, you can’t blame bad luck, because when he has played, his metrics all say his shots, shots on target, chances, and his touches in the attacking third/penalty area are all way down. It’s never good when you’re getting called out by your manager in the press. But one becomes an easy mole to whack when you go public with how much you’d like to go back to your old club.
Perhaps Lukaku’s defining images this season are both games against Man City. In the fall, when City completely smothered Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Lukaku had just 18 touches over 90 minutes, and just four in the City penalty area. Things weren’t any better last week when Chelsea went to Manchester and Lukaku had just one touch in the City penalty area. And he also missed Chelsea’s big chance of the game, one that might have gotten them a point or more. It was hard to miss the symbolism of Lukaku missing his chance from just outside the area, and Kevin De Bruyne burying his a few minutes later (though the difference between shooting at City keeper Ederson and Chelsea’s Kepa has to be noted).
So… what’s the issue? The main problem is that Lukaku has never really been the striker that he looks like. Lukaku is built like a tight end, and it sure feels like he should be the target-man, hold-up-the-play, everything-revolves around him No. 9 forward. And that’s certainly what we highlighted in that first post after the Arsenal match. Which he can do in the attacking third. But that’s not his strength.
Lukaku is more of a sprinter. He wants to spin in behind into space. He wants to face up to defenders and try to beat them instead of having them on his back. His touch has never really been up to the task of corralling clearances and long balls near the halfway line, which was heavily demonstrated in that first game against City. He can hold up the ball when passes are more calibrated into him much nearer the opponent’s goal. Lukaku is actually more comfortable pulling out wide to face up and using his game-breaking speed, and then getting into the box. Lukaku’s game, when firing on all cylinders, actually looks a lot like Timo Werner’s, back when he wasn’t a ballad about ennui.
That was all well and good at Inter, where Antonio Conte played with two strikers and Lautaro Martinez was around to man the center of the field while Lukaku strayed around to find space. But at Chelsea, which only plays with one center forward and two wide men, there isn’t the opportunity for Lukaku to get himself out wide. That’s where Christian Pulisic or Mason Mount or Hakim Ziyech or Callum Hudson-Odoi live. And they’re also the ones charged with running in behind the defensive line, not Lukaku. He’s supposed to come short, hold the ball, and either play in the others himself or lay it back to Jorginho or Mateo Kovačić or N’Golo Kanté to spread out wide or in behind.
It’s also hard to figure out what the answers will be. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel isn’t going to change how his teams play. He’s one of the more stubborn managers around, which is why he tends to burn out with teams pretty quickly (two seasons at Dortmund, two seasons at PSG). He’s so detailed for every player and drills them so heavily that they tend to tire of hearing from him all the time. And that’s how Chelsea like to run things anyway, cycling through managers like underwear. So Lukaku can just wait maybe another year, and there may be a new manager who wants to plan the team’s tactics around him. Maybe even sooner if Chelsea don’t pull out of this mini-tailspin quickly.
Lukaku also hasn’t been helped by the fatigue and absences that have pilfered the entire team. Chelsea have played 15 matches the past six weeks, and the whole team has looked jaded. It’s hard to link up with teammates who can barely move. A freshening up will do everyone some good.
It hasn’t worked out the way we, or Chelsea, or Lukaku thought. At least not yet. But Chelsea still have three cups to play for (League, FA, Champions League) and a Champions League spot to lock down (three London teams are hot on their ass). They’d do well to figure out something to get the best out of each other, even if it’s through gritted teeth.