Where Did It All Go Wrong for Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea?
At the time of his second signing, Romelu Lukaku had scored 113 Premier League goals and recorded 35 assists, but none of those numbers had come in a Chelsea shirt. His last known memory in the colors of Chelsea blue was a missed penalty in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup against Bayern Munich. But he had matured.
The poisoned experience at Manchester United may have eaten his confidence, but the rejuvenation at Inter Milan had remolded the Belgian into something more. Working with serial winner Antonio Conte, Lukaku staked his claim as one of the top 5 strikers in Europe during his two seasons in Milan.
He was the focal point for Conte’s ruthless counter-attacks. His size, speed, strength and ruthless finishing made him a force for the Nerazzurri. Despite coming up short in their first season, Inter and Lukaku lifted their first title in 11 years at the end of the 2020/21 season.
Lukaku was the man. That title of flat track bully was gone. He was a striker that had grown into the best version of himself. Chelsea FC, in dire need of goals, felt confident shelling £97 million Pounds on the former Anderlecht man to bring him back to Stamford Bridge.
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The Belgian missed his chance for redemption in the UEFA Super Cup against Villarreal. He also missed the Premier League opener against Crystal Palace. Thomas Tuchel threw him in for his debut against Arsenal, and from the first minute, he was up for it.
In the 15th minute, his power and touch helped to set up the bombing Reece James. Lukaku had powered his way into the box, ragdolling a hapless Pablo Mari on his way before tapping home his wing-back’s cross. Minutes later, he was overpowering Rob Holding to send a header over the bar.
The 29-year-old was involved in the buildup to the second goal. His linkup play was seamless, pulling the attack towards him. In the second half, Bernd Leno produced one spectacular save to keep Lukaku out. Lukaku received the honor of Man-of-the-match.
He produced another impressive performance against Liverpool before thumping Aston Villa with a brace. In the Champions League, he helped Chelsea to a 1-0 win against Zenit on game day 1. Lukaku had gone around the world and returned to Stamford Bridge as the potent number 9 that the blues had been praying for since the departure of Diego Costa. It was at this point things started to go south, and you know how these things work.
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When it rains, it pours. Following those games, Lukaku began to experience his first dry spell. He failed to get on the score sheet against Juventus, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Southampton. After a great start to the season, things were getting iffy.
The ball was no longer sticking to his feet, his movement was not threatening, and his pressing was lackadaisical. Only against Malmo did he manage to impose himself on the game. In the 17th minute, after some good work between Lukaku and Timo Werner, the former tried to dribble and muscle his way in on goal.
Lasse Nielsen was not having it and brought the big man down with a sliding tackle. The Danish defender conceded a penalty and injured Lukaku in the process. Kai Havertz came on for Lukaku. This blank extended the Belgian’s scoring drought to seven games. He would not play again until coming on as a substitute against Manchester United in late November.
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Lukaku had been out for around six weeks and only returned as a substitute against Manchester United. He was beginning to find himself after a long time out when an interview from Sky Italia broke out on the 30th of December, 2021. Now, the interview was exaggerated, but even the most level-headed analysts saw the interview as grossly disrespectful.
In the interview, the striker subtly criticized head coach Thomas Tuchel’s tactics, declared his love for Italy and Inter Milan before claiming he would love to return to the club at some point. Any club fan in the world has a right to be angry when a player signed for 97 million of the queen’s finest pounds gives such an interview, no matter the context.
The timing of the interview did not help matters. After some impressive performances pushed Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table in the early games, November and December brought a plague of injuries/Covid-19 cases, derailing their momentum. The fans watched their title hopes slip away, and their star striker was mouthing off to the Italian media to restore his reputation.
Chelsea fans, God bless their souls, have had enough of Belgians mouthing off once a mic is in their face. This interview was a blatant spit in the face. Lukaku was the hot topic as everyone questioned his professionalism.
Journalists, fans and everyone that has a football opinion tore into him. Even the Inter fans he was trying to appease saw his attempts as appalling. Thomas Tuchel did his best to control the matter, but Lukaku had set off a ticking time bomb, one his egregious performances only helped speed up.
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The message from most of the Chelsea journalists alluded to Lukaku being surprised at the response to the video. There was a feeling that there was no remorse. Even a Chelsea-aired public interview did nothing to quell the damage. The journos, as much as they can be trusted, claimed that Lukaku continued to believe that he did no harm and that the interviews were taken out of context or too seriously. Lol.
Despite adding about four goals between December and January, Lukaku’s records were still not encouraging for a star center-forward signed for a club-record transfer fee. One particularly terrible performance comes to mind. Against Crystal Palace, Lukaku touched the ball just seven(!) times in 90 minutes, including the kickoff touch.
It is the all-time Premier League lowest number of touches for an outfield player. His performances in the Club World Cup were encouraging, but it was not enough. He dropped to the bench for Chelsea’s round-of-16 tie against Lille as Kai Havertz began to pick up form.
Lukaku would play second fiddle to the German for the rest of the campaign. Even when he managed to work his way back into the side, his performances showed why he was on the sidelines.
Now Lukaku has suffered from one common misconception his whole life. People see a tall, big striker and think ‘Target-man’. Lukaku is no target-man. He is just like every other striker. He loves to touch the ball in the inside channels (he favors the right).
The Belgian striker is good with his back to goal, but when Jose Mourinho and Thomas Tuchel tried to engineer their football through his holdup play, they did not get the best version of Lukaku. When Tuchel spoke of Lukaku after his arrival, he spoke of having a striker with a different profile. One that can play with his back to goal.
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That was a red flag. Yes, Lukaku has the physique to play with his back to goal. For coaches, it is a very tempting prospect to explore. However, their dependency on this particular skill set has failed them and Lukaku.
At Everton, Lukaku was the focal point of the Toffees’ attacks. Everyone worked to create chances for him to score. Roberto Martinez’s fluid style allowed Lukaku to touch the ball here and there. But most importantly, Lukaku could arrive in the final meters to finish off the chances.
At Chelsea, with main ball progressor Mateo Kovacic suffering with injuries/Covid and Mason Mount occupying more advanced positions, Chelsea struggled to move the ball forward enough to Lukaku.
The London boys failed to get the ball to Lukaku in areas where he could do damage. It is no surprise that Lukaku played his best games when Kovacic was on the pitch. Lukaku averaged significantly less touches at Chelsea than his time in Italy.
Tuchel’s high-pressing demands also didn’t help Lukaku. The German manager even remarked that his demands (pressing the opposition) were tiring his attacking players before arriving in the final yards to score. Contributing defensively has never been Lukaku’s strong point.
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Havertz puts in a shift when he is pressing despite looking like he is only giving 50%. For a manager like Tuchel, who favors control in every area of the pitch, Havertz, who likes to pop up everywhere and provide solutions to teammates, was a better fit. Lukaku attracts attention and does not possess the sleek/elusive movement of the former Bayer Leverkusen man.
Kai Havertz had sprung into a capable striker as Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League, and Chelsea’s big mistake was not putting more goals around him. Chelsea should have been looking for how to put more potent attackers around him rather than ahead of him.
Mason Mount contributed a career-high 29 goals from the right side of Tuchel’s attacking trident, but they needed someone else on the Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Werner left side to produce. Chelsea, once again, failed to identify the right profile for their squad. A mistake that has plagued the club over the years without a knowledgeable sporting director to oversee transfers.
According to various reports from Italy, Romelu Lukaku is nearing a return to Inter Milan after one year in England. Chelsea will take a significant loss on their 97 million Pound investment. The 19-time Serie A champions are paying only 10 million Euros to take Lukaku back from Chelsea (a financial blow for any club in the world), and the deal does not include an obligation to buy.
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Romelu Lukaku may never be able to restore his damaged reputation unless he turns things around in his 30’s a la Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He tapped out when things began to get tough and ran out on the club he claimed to support. For a man that once spoke about how he would cry if he ever scored at Stamford Bridge, he was quick to abandon ship at the slightest inconvenience.
From all indications, Lukaku has been pushing for a return to Italy. This act of cowardice should not define his career, but it will be a stain. The way he tucked his tail in and pushed for a return to Inter Milan reeks. It reeks of disloyalty and betrayal. His body language never showed he was willing to fight back for his place and make amends. It never looked like he was going the extra mile.
Chelsea fans have every right to feel betrayed. They thought their boy had returned as a man. They thought he had returned a warrior, ready to lead them to glory just like his idol Didier Drogba. But what they got was a boy. A boy they already knew. That same timid boy that looked flustered against Manuel Neuer when he stepped up to take the penalty in 2013. Just like in 2012, he will leave Chelsea again. Once again, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth, and this time adding a slap to the face.
By: Daniel Ochei / @Chukwunwike_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Darren Walsh / Chelsea FC