Sequels are always hard when they have to top what came before it. The more time that passes on from that first instalment, it becomes even harder still. In many ways, Romelu Lukaku’s big money transfer to Chelsea was a sequel in more ways than one. Not just back to the second club of his career but also back to the Premier League. After his tumultuous tenure at Manchester United, he went to Italy to rebuild his reputation. Rebuilt it was, and his game seemingly emboldened. Inter Milan ran into money problems and so presented an opportunity for a club in need of a striker to get an experienced goal getter. The club on Kings Road needed just that and that’s why this marriage occurred when many thought it unlikely. Lukaku returned to Stamford Bridge to finished business he had left when his spell at Old Trafford ended acrimoniously.
But it was a marriage of convenience. Chelsea really wanted the services of Erling Haaland. Lukaku would have stayed if not for the financial turmoil in Milan. Even in his leaving, he sought to be captured by Europe’s elite in Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona. These thoughts of his coloured in the dramatic interview on the cusp of this new year. It showed the problems for all to see about how Lukaku was once again finding life difficult at the premier end of the Premier League.
In preparation for his move to Man Utd from Everton in 2017, I wrote an article about Lukaku that both spoke about him as a player and what way the Red Devil club could get the best out of him. It focused more on the latter. 4 and half years, this is the sequel and the focus will be on Lukaku.
The Top Traits
Outside of Spurs, none of the other big six have that archetypal number nine. Lukaku was brought to rival Chelsea’s North London rivals in that regard. Still now, it looks like Spurs are still that only one. But how? Lukaku has always been a goal-scorer of a good regard and this season, he is currently at 2 goals in 5 games in the Premier League and 1 in 2 in all competitions. It has been a rate consistent with him. But therein lies the problem. It is the same. The fanfare to his return was that it was supposed to be different. More experienced, well-rounded and potent.
It has not been. As with everything in this world, football evolves and evolving with it is imperative to being successful. With each passing generation, the lines between what were once entrenched blur further and further. The evolution of the striker depicts this like no other. A position once predicated on only putting the ball in net has now had its scope widen to much more. The big clubs are finding it harder and harder to get the all encompassing number nine. But what are these traits?
Goal-scoring – This one is pretty obvious. It is the absolute bare minimum for a striker. The level at which you could net will perhaps lessen the burden of the other traits however
Occupation – How well does your striker keep his direct counterpart occupied within the game? The “The centre back knows they have been in a game” ability
Association – The ability to associate with their team mates by bringing them into play, if he holds it up, or linking up with them in combinations in tight spaces
Individualism – The X-Factor. Creating something out of nothing through divinity: a long ranger, a dribble, you name it.
Lukaku’s goalscoring is pretty unquestionable. Well to a degree. Getting 1 in 2 is a ratio that Lukaku has not strayed too far away from his entire career. Since his Anderlecht days, in the league, he has notched up a 0.57 goals per 90 ratio. Without pens, since his West Brom days, it drops to 0.51. A normal expectation of the striker back in the day. A 2 in 3 ratio is expected more now, especially with the outlays being spent on these front man and the fact it is one, rather than two, up top.
Without going into too much ponderous detail, it is interesting to look at his Inter Milan numbers. 47 goals in 72 is a respectable tally. Interestingly though, remove the penalties, it drops to 35 goals. It is important to compare because he was not the primary penalty taker at West Brom, Everton, Man Utd and now Chelsea. So without the penalties, his numbers go back to pretty much what they regularly were in the Premier League. What’s more, if you look at his xG in comparison to the actual goals he has scored from 2014/15, then he has outperformed it collectively by 4.17 goals.
That minor overperformance is all down to the remarkable year in 2016/17 when he managed to get 25 goals from an xG of 16.67. Any other overperformance he has had has been within 2.2 and just 1.3 if you exclude penalties. In essence, Lukaku falls in line with the average shot taker. For a striker billed to acclaim one of the top striking spots in the world from such a young age, for the fess he has moved for and the reputation he has, that is actually not good enough. Take into the account that Lukaku averages about 3 shots a game, which is considerably less than his counterparts, it means he has to be extremely clinical to match their numbers. You then consider Lukaku’s package as a whole, that fact is even more concerning.
It might seem like a trivial thing but the ability to cause trouble to the centre backs without necessarily getting a goal is important. Presence isn’t only felt when the striker touches the ball. Constantly running into the channels to drag the centre backs out into areas where they are less comfortable, backing into them to impose yourself on them, making sharp movements so they are unable to know where you are or at least constantly checking where you are at all times. It is physically tiring as well as mentally fatiguing too. Of course occupying a centre back in all the ways possible is not something that many will master and it is not something to be expected but there is an least an expectation that one part of it be mastered.
Think of Jamie Vardy and how well he has mastered running into the channels constantly to offer a forward pass for his team. Think of Lukaku’s idol, Drogba, and how he was able to stress any centre back, particularly ones suited in Arsenal’s strip. Being able to make the most difficult high ball stick was a consistent theme in his time at Stamford Bridge. Aguero’s light footedness in the box made defenders always have their head on the swivel.
But when I think of Lukaku’s ability to occupy his centre backs, it doesn’t go further than him being able to pin his centre back when they are within touching distance. Pinning a centre back to receive passes into feet to turn them is limited at top team. Opponents will sit deep and drop off so that passes into feet aren’t readily accessible. With Chelsea’s build up being slower and more methodical build up, the early balls in behind are not played often. While Lukaku does make those runs occasionally, he sticks to the right channel and he doesn’t diversify his runs enough. He is hardly perpetual motion as well and often flat footed, not ready to offer an option.
While occupying the centre backs is more to do with when there are less of your team mates around you, being able to combine well once they have joined you or in the attacking organisation phase of the game is just as important as well. Having to constantly reset because loose touches are cannoning off your striker is an annoyance. Being unable to involve them in quick interchanges makes it even harder. When the opposition is sitting in a low block, being able to take it in tight areas and still find team mates is quite imperative.
It has been the most common criticism of Lukaku. Not just the fact that he does not link well with his team mates but he doesn’t trap the ball well enough to even get to that stage. Zlatan Ibrahimovic famously spoke about the fact he bet Lukaku that for every successful first touch he took in training, he would get £50 from the Swede. The Belgian forward clearly took offence from what Ibrahimovic intimated. It was an issue that needed to be solved though. So often in his team at Man Utd, attacks would break down with the poor control of his.
It didn’t suddenly become an issue at Man Utd though. Or should I say, the issue just wasn’t as detrimental to the teams beforehand. It was there throughout his career but at Steve Clarke’s West Brom, the best was made of his transitional abilities. His loan at Everton the next year, they were still direct enough in the 2013/14 season for Lukaku to have some share in the fruits of that as well.
Failure to Link
As Roberto Martinez transitioned more to a possessive style of play however, Lukaku’s influence dwindled but he was still able to put up decent numbers. Ronaldo Koeman went back to a more direct style and added in the propensity to get crosses into the box. A system designed to get the best out of him. Linking up in tight combinations in and around the box isn’t something he has been used to or needed to do before he came to Old Trafford. Similarly, the issue is rearing its ugly head at Stamford Bridge.
The 3-4-3 that Chelsea have played under Tuchel and began the season with, whilst majorly in there for defensive solidity, did allow for a more fluid basis in their attack. The acquisition of Lukaku meant that it had a fixed striker rather than a false 9 in the style akin to Kai Havertz. Such has been the issue with finding the right mix, the German manager has gone through every combination possible with the Anderlecht academy graduate that he eventually sought to change the formation to get the best out of their attack.
Whether it be the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 employed since early January, the fortunes in attack have remained the same. Lukaku looks a clunky fit in and amongst it all. He doesn’t link well with any those around him. It is in stark contrast to what he had at Inter Milan, where Lautaro Martinez was shadowing him. The difference being that it was in a two. Therefore, Lukaku was focusing his energy to link with one player rather than two players outside of him. Additionally, Lautaro’s ilk isn’t found in the roster of attackers Chelsea currently have, an archetypal second striker. Lukaku is also just less intense, both on and off the ball, than those around him. Energized balls into his feet are not preserved when it goes to the next player. He takes the sting out of a lot of passing moves.
This is less learned and just that innate ability that some do and don’t have. Thierry Henry is the shining example but there is also Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, Harry Kane just to name a few in the Premier League years gone past. In moments where the team are down and out or unable to get over the line, they would often come up with that extra bit of quality. Invariably, the games were against those in and around them. The so called big games, now referring to the big 6 games in the Premier League.
Lukaku has a bit of individuality. However, it is usually in transition. Once he has built up momentum and he has space to run into, he is like a freight train. He is actually quite unstoppable. Harnessed time and time again at Inter Milan, through a combination of Conte and Serie A’s playing style. We saw this very little at United and it is following suit at Chelsea. It is something that I alluded to earlier about the fact that Lukaku is incredibly reliant on the service he gets and it is a reason why he doesn’t generate the shot count that other top performing strikers do.
Can he bring it out of himself?
Others combine the service they get with their own ability to find a shot out of nothing or a situation where there wasn’t a shot possible. How many times can you really think of Lukaku doing that throughout his career? Ironically, in the FA Cup quarter final of 2015/16, a mazy dribbling run against Chelsea was that bit of individualism. We seldom see it however. So when you factor that in, the problems he comes with are even more annoying. His lack of presence in the big games are well known. Whilst not the top of the list of his bad traits, it is still a hindrance.
The £100 Million Question?
So what is the solution? As much as Lukaku does have his flaws, they were well publicised before he came. On £300k a week at least and the payment of circa £100m to Inter Milan, Lukaku isn’t a problem that can be pawned off easily. Add to the fact of his status and reputation, it is an uncomfortable situation. The interview didn’t help. Since then, he has not been in the greatest form. He had 2 in 2 at the Club World Cup that Chelsea won but when they were looking to win the game, Tuchel still brought him off. When Chelsea got the penalty in the final minutes, it was Havertz that stepped up. That should be a reserved for the marquee striker signing.
Chelsea’s offensive problems don’t start and end with Lukaku. The system has been agricultural to watch since the German coach was employed mid season. He made an instant impact on the defensive side but it hasn’t translated to the other side of the pitch. Koeman made a system for Lukaku that got the best out of him. As did Conte. Clarke’s system was conducive with the striker’s strengths. It is clear that playing towards him is the best way to make him successful. But Tuchel has a system that has been successful for the team.
A Champions League, A Super Cup, A Club World Cup alongside a FA Cup final and an upcoming League Cup Final. Is getting the best out of Lukaku more important than servicing the needs of the team? Tuchel’s style is more possession based and he has inched towards marrying control on both sides of the ball. His team at Dortmund was less like that. It was a progression from the heavy metal under Klopp in terms of more lateral passes but it was still chaotic enough, in a good way. The fact he went up against Pep’s Bayern and challenged them shows his capabilities. I bring up his time there because Aubameyang is similar in his drawbacks with Lukaku but he was able to get the best out of him up top. He is clearly capable but has the experience at PSG changed him?
Is there an alternative?
The goals that Lukaku scored against Al Hilal and Palmeiras came from crosses into the box. Directly and indirectly assisting him. The all dominating performance on Lukaku’s second debut against Arsenal had every Lukaku hallmark in the goal he scored. Played directly into this feet, he would pass the ball out wide while pinning his CB. Reece James crossed into the box, which he tapped in. His sub appearance vs Aston Villa, his goal came from a cross and he won the penalty by running away from his opponents in transition.
It is clear that Lukaku can be successful and effective. But how many times is he going to get that opportunity when playing for Chelsea and under Tuchel? With Armando Broja’s bursting onto the scene at Southampton and even Havertz potentially being seen as a better fit, Tuchel might not even need to go out and invest again for that better fit. It could be right under his nose.
The marriage of convenience doesn’t look like it is working. This sequel is going horribly in a different way. Lukaku wasn’t playing in his first stint at Chelsea and even if he complained about the lack of game time in that interview, it is still much more than then. Even with his supposed growth, there is still trouble finding Lukaku and the longer we watch him, the more I begin to think he won’t find it at Chelsea long term.