Romelu Lukaku has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this past week. In an interview with Sky Italy, the Belgian found himself at the centre of a storm of controversy, as he revealed his displeasure at the style of play and tactical approach employed by manager Thomas Tuchel.
As punishment for his indiscretion, not only was Lukaku left out of the squad for Chelsea’s Premier League game with Liverpool, but he has also been fined hundreds of thousands of pounds. Lukaku was recalled to the starting eleven for the League Cup tie with Spurs on Wednesday, but only after issuing a grovelling apology to fans, Tuchel and his fellow teammates.
What makes this situation even more bizarre is the fact that Lukaku has only been back at Stamford Bridge for less than six months. His much-anticipated return to his first English club was secured by a club record fee of over £97 million being spent.
With Chelsea having struggled for goals with Timo Werner leading the line last term, many considered Lukaku to be the final piece of the puzzle. Off the back of Lukaku’s goals, Chelsea were one of the title favourites before the season began.
And Chelsea may very well still lift the trophy come May. However, one thing that’s for certain is that Lukaku hasn’t dominated defences in the same manner that he did during his devastating two seasons in Italy with Inter Milan.
Lukaku’s excellent record in Serie A, coupled with his continued prolificacy for Belgium, suggested that the centre forward was close to fulfilling his potential and becoming one of the best strikers in the world.
Things have failed to play out in this manner. Lukaku has played 19 games for Chelsea, registering just 7 goals and zero assists. Of course, 19 games is far too short a period to deem a transfer a failure or indeed a success, but he hasn’t hit the ground running.
Additionally, Lukaku has been sidelined with injury and Covid for periods this season, which has made settling in a tougher task.
However, some of the criticism that has always followed Lukaku, has risen to the surface once again. At times, the Belgian offers little in open play, can sometimes appear immobile and disinterested, while also seems unable or unwilling to put pressure on defenders. These are all problems that plagued Lukaku during his two-season stint at Manchester United.
At Inter, however, things were different. During his two seasons at Inter, Lukaku evolved from the inconsistent figure that frustrated at United, into a goal-scoring machine.
One look at his record for Inter versus his record for United tells the entire story. In 95 games for the Milan club, Lukaku scored 64 goals and registered 17 assists. At United, he scored 42 goals and registered 12 assists in 96 games.
Many believed that this transformation in Lukaku would result in him bullying Premier League defences and scoring whenever he desired. However, some of his old failings at United have resurfaced. On an alarmingly regular basis, Lukaku’s teammates struggle to get the ball to their centre forward.
During the League Cup game against Spurs, Lukaku registered only four touches in the opening 35 minutes. This was less than both sides’ goalkeepers.
It is hard, however, not to feel some level of sympathy for Lukaku. For much of his career, Lukaku has been misused by his managers. At Chelsea, Lukaku doesn’t appear to link up well with the clubs’ tricky players like Mason Mount and Kai Havertz and struggles to keep up with their intricate passing and movement.
At Manchester United, José Mourinho played Lukaku as an orthodox target man, with United often playing aimless, hopeful balls up the field towards their number nine. Lukaku has obvious physical strengths and on paper appears to be the perfect target man. However, in reality, Lukaku’s strengths lie far away from being an old-fashioned centre forward.
Lukaku is at his best when he has space to run into. Extremely strong and deceptively quick, if Lukaku gets in behind a defender, he is very difficult to stop. In brief flashes down through the years, teams have used a game plan to get Lukaku into these situations.
At Everton, he famously played as a winger against Arsenal, destroying the Gunners as Everton won 3-0 at Goodison Park. Against Brazil at the 2018 World Cup, his lung-bursting break from inside his own half culminated in Kevin De Bruyne’s wonder-goal. And just a couple of weeks ago, his rampaging drive against Aston Villa led to Chelsea’s game-sealing penalty.
Agree or disagree with Lukaku, it is a breath of fresh air to see a player simply speak openly and honestly about his situation. Players often get criticised for giving robotic, copy and paste interviews. In the era of leaks to journalists and Twitter apologies after poor performances, it is extremely refreshing to see a player dispense with this charade.
Perhaps Lukaku should be praised for actually speaking his mind rather than giving answers to questions already approved by the club’s PR team, even if the manner in which he went about voicing these concerns is highly questionable.
While Lukaku may claim that his interview was intended to be nothing more than a ‘love letter’ to the fans of Inter, this is difficult to believe. By all accounts nobody inside the club was aware that Lukaku had given the interview.
Everybody, from Tuchel to Roman Abramovich was blindsided by the statements. If reports are to be believed, many inside Lukaku’s inner circle weren’t even aware that the interview had taken place. This, along with the fact that he’s only been at the club a matter of months, would suggest that he isn’t angling for a move.
The Belgian’s comments were clearly an attack on the manager. By coming out and saying he disagrees with how he’s being used and how the team is being set up tactically, Lukaku tried to undermine his manager’s authority in public.
Perhaps what is most interesting about this entire situation is Chelsea’s response to the interview. For many years, Chelsea has been considered to be a club where player power is very high. Ever since the Abramovich era began, each and every single Chelsea manager has only ever been one fall-out with a big star away from losing his job.
Antonio Conte tried to get Diego Costa out of the club and ended up losing the dressing room. Andre Villas-Boas was disliked by senior members in the squad and was let go midway through the season. Jose Mourinho left behind a toxic dressing room in 2015, after repeatedly calling out his team in public.
Any time a player has questioned a manager’s authority, Chelsea have backed the players and gotten rid of the manager. Any time a manager has had a disagreement with the board, the manager has inevitably lost his job.
All this makes Chelsea’s backing of Tuchel in this episode so interesting. For what feels like the first time ever, the club have supported the manager over one of their players. No issues were raised when Tuchel decided to leave Lukaku at home for the Liverpool game. No objections were made to Tuchel’s request for an unreserved public apology.
Nearly all players backed Tuchel’s decision and supported their manager over their teammate. For the first time since perhaps Mourinho’s first spell in charge, the manager appears to have huge authority and respect throughout the football club.
Lukaku’s comments, while unprofessional, aren’t exactly the worst thing a footballer has ever said or done. The fact that Tuchel dealt so quickly and decisively speaks volumes on the amount of power that he has in the club. Perhaps Lukaku’s comments were meant to destabilise the manager, undermine his authority and force him into making some changes.
If anything, the opposite has happened, with Tuchel’s control over the club stronger than ever. In the past Chelsea players may have felt that they would outstay their manager, and therefore do whatever they wanted.
Under Tuchel, this may no longer be the case.
By: Oisín Doherty / @O_Doherty_99
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Darren Walsh – Chelsea FC