Well, a problem for anyone who isn’t a Chelsea supporter at least, which the most annoying of my close friends just happens to be. So that’s great. And no, I don’t mean colleague Julie DiCaro, though I’m sure she’ll be rocketing up the list this season. Also great. (Ed. Note: - Blue is the color! Football is the game! - JD)
Chelsea unveiled their prized, $135 million toy in the form of Romelu Lukaku today at Arsenal. And as I was talking with a friend during the match, he said, “Have you ever wondered what it would look like if Chelsea had someone who could bury all the chances that Timo Werner ended up swallowing his fist for last season?” Which is a terrifying thought. And more terrifying is that Lukaku is so much more than just that.
There is one big caveat to today, though it might seem less and less of one as the season goes on. That is that Arsenal, for the first half, were woeful, with Rob Holding looking for his keys around the pitch and Keiran Tiernay constantly pulled out of position, while the Arsenal midfield’s resistance amounted to standing still and saying, “Hey, stop that.” The fear, and suspicion, is that Chelsea are going to do this to a lot of teams, though. Good to see the Fels Motherfuck hasn’t taken a summer break.
The popular method of attack, and one Chelsea used a lot last season, is to have three or four mobile players up front, without a clear center forward, who constantly shift and change positions and create angles and runs that defenses can’t anticipate. It also opens up space for midfielders to charge through. Manchester City went this route last season, Liverpool have seen Roberto Firmino play about everywhere while Salah and Mane roam inside from the wings. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place in today’s game for a straight No. 9, which Lukaku is the very definition of.
One aspect of Lukaku’s play that was on full display today is him posting up on a centre back, much like Shaq, and barely any more movable. Whether it’s in the box, or deeper, as Chelsea play out from the back, once he gets his ass on a defender there’s little that can be done to keep him from getting the ball. Chelsea’s first goal was an example:
Lukaku pins Pablo Marí, holds the ball, draws four Arsenal players to him, lays it off to Mateo Kovačić who sprays it out to Reece James, and Arsenal seemed to be under the impression that James wouldn’t be allowed to touch the ball for the entirety of the first half, such was the space he was granted. Oh and Lukaku is jet-heeled so he motors into the area to finish this off. It’s a chance that even Werner could score, though you can’t completely rule out Werner losing a shoe, whiffing on the pass, and somersaulting into the net in such a way that it would take five minutes to untangle him. It seems simple to get to these spots to finish from a foot-and-a-half out, but if it were, more people would do it. Lukaku will.
This will be either a constant escape route for Chelsea to break a press or an avenue into the opposing box when attacking.
The only way to stop Lukaku from getting the ball while posted up like this is to have a defensive midfielder bracket him along with the centre back, but that allows for even more space for the likes of Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, eventually Christian Pulisic, or Hakim Ziyech to run gleefully around and through just in front of or behind Lukaku. Chelsea’s second goal is a prime tutorial:
Again, Holding isn’t really anywhere, everyone is drawn to Lukaku, who doesn’t even touch the ball, including Tiernay from left back, leaving a national park of acreage for James to run into and Mount to find. But what do you do? You can’t just let Lukaku get possession in the box or right outside of it. And once he has it, it’s impossible to get it off of him given his strength and control.
Oh, and he’s really good in the air and would have had two goals if Bernd Leno didn’t briefly turn into Mister Fantastic:
One feature that Chelsea didn’t have to roll out is the scythe Lukaku turns into on the counter with his speed, for the times that Chelsea are pinned back. Or his ability to pull out wide and create space for whoever feels like using it. And while Arsenal provided a ton of runway, Chelsea didn’t even need to use N’Golo Kanté until late in the second half, and he’s another who will profit from the space that Lukaku’s posting up will create ahead of him.
It’s only one game, it’s a long season, and all those other cliches. But if you’re not a Chelsea supporter, those cliches seem more foreboding than they do beacons of hope.