As the old football adage goes: defenses win titles, but goals win you games. Well, Chelsea have the UEFA Champions League title to show for an impeccable defence. But, the fact that Jorginho ended the 20/21 Premier League season as the Blues’ top scorer with just seven, makes it clear that this is a team that needs goals. Flirtations with Erling Haaland have been an open secret, but Borussia Dortmund seemingly will not budge. Harry Kane is a Tottenham player and, given their rivalry with their West London neighbours, highly unlikely to be allowed to move across the city. So, the Chelsea hierarchy’s attention turns to another world class player who is no stranger to Stamford Bridge: Romelu Lukaku.
Romelu Lukaku: Once a Blue
With the spate of departures among the Chelsea youth academy products – Lewis Bate, Tino Livramento, Mark Guehi and Myles Peart-Harris have all recently left – Lukaku is no stranger to the ruthlessness of his former club.
Signed as a prodigious young talent from Anderlecht in his native Belgium, Romelu Lukaku was very much in the mould of his idol Didier Drogba. To this day, he draws comparisons to the great Ivorian. After having spent a season in Chelsea’s youth ranks after signing in 2011, the Belgian was handed his first big break on loan at then-Premier League club West Brom, famously scoring a hat-trick against Man United in Alex Ferguson’s last game as manager. Then came another loan to Everton to follow.
As Lukaku scored goals aplenty for Everton, particularly in 2013/14 when Chelsea were struggling for goals upfront, questions were asked as to why he wasn’t given a chance at the club. This is a player who has proven himself everywhere he has been. Even in his two worst seasons to date, 14/15 and 18/19, he still reached double figures for goals in the league in both.
While treated like many young, former players to once don Chelsea blue, Lukaku is one who has been courted by the club twice since he left: once at Everton at the end of the 2016/17 season as former boss Antonio Conte sought a replacement for Diego Costa and now as Thomas Tuchel seeks a focal point for his attack.
Burdened with the task of proving himself beyond reasonable doubt, Lukaku left Chelsea a raw soon-to-be Evertonian with the potential of world class ability. Perhaps a little burnt by his fortunes at a club he still holds dear, should he return he will do so very much as a world class number nine.
Why Make Lukaku a Blue?
The €100m question on every Chelsea fan’s lip is this: why pay a nine-figure sum for the brilliant Belgian when a certain Norwegian fellow, seven years his junior, costs 50% more and could offer similar attributes?
There are many facets to answering this, but one key factor is this: experience.
In his 252 Premier League appearances, per transfermarkt.com, Lukaku registered 113 goals and 42 assists. Moreover, in 406 career appearances across all domestic football, the Belgian has 200 goals and 68 assists. At one goal every two games, this is an elite operator who has proven himself across leagues, clubs and, most crucially, in the league in which Chelsea play.
At international level too, Lukaku is Belgium’s all-time top goal scorer with 64 goals in 98 appearances at a goals-per-game ratio of 0.65, better than Cristiano Ronaldo’s 0.61.
If there is one thing Chelsea Football Club like with their signings, particularly where the investment is sizeable, it is a sure thing. And Romelu Lukaku is as close to a sure thing as you will get.
Pundits and fans alike may point to Erling Haaland’s blossoming goal return and unfathomable record in the Champions League when talking about Lukaku. The same will also point to Harry Kane’s record in the Premier League too. However, Lukaku is easily comparable to both players and his record stands the test of time across his career.
What Lukaku would bring over Haaland is leadership and dependability. While there is no denying Haaland’s supreme talent, there is still a school of reason that, at 21, adaptability would be an important factor to consider for a player trying their hand at the unforgivable Premier League for the first time. Coming into a group of players like Mason Mount (22), Kai Havertz (22), Callum Hudson-Odoi (20), Christian Pulisic (22), Timo Werner (25) that are so young, Lukaku (28) would be able to provide the level of guidance, consistency and dependability to offset the vagaries and growing pains of having so many young players.
He has been there and done it in the Premier League already. And he has the tools to do it all over again.
A Different Player
When Lukaku left the Premier League at the end of the 2018/19 season, he came off a season where he had one or two niggling injuries. He was in and out of a struggling Manchester United side that were floundering under the self-destructive third season syndrome of a typical José Mourinho-led team. Constantly criticized for a perceived poor touch, for an inability to bring his teammates into play and, most crucially, for not being able to do the one thing he always could – score goals – the Belgian needed a change of scenery.
In came Inter Milan. In came Antonio Conte, the very same manager who wanted him at Chelsea in 2017. Rid of playing in an inhibitive and one-dimensional 4-2-3-1, Conte immediately installed Lukaku in a two-man striker system next to Lautaro Martinez, a diminutive second striker and the perfect foil for Big Rom.
Gone were the shackles of being the source for all the goals. Gone were the stale patterns of play under Mourinho. In came dynamic, well structured attacking avenues from which Lukaku could profit. Using his size, Conte deployed Lukaku as the focal point but not one that was always relied upon to be in a fixed position.
Lukaku was always going to be a wonderful target man. That is his main strength. But, under Conte, he could also drop deep to join in the play with his midfielders when Martinez went long and to relieve pressure. He could drift wide into space vacated by an attacking full back. Or he could sit in the box and wait for the wingbacks to deliver the ball to him after overloading the flanks.
As a result of a combination of the right system, belief from his manager, better levels of physical fitness and greater confidence, Lukaku delivered. In 72 league appearances under Conte, Lukaku scored 47 goals and got 12 assists.
It was not only his goals that improved again, but his overall game developed in leaps and bounds. The first touch is now crisp and assured. The linking ability is world class. His vision and awareness marked. He has also scored goals with his weaker right foot, his head and, of course, his cannon of a left foot. Penalties, tap ins, headers and goals outside the box – he can do them all!
Fits into Tuchel’s System
Antonio Conte is one of football’s foremost tacticians. That fact was demonstrated by his implementation of a three-man defense at Chelsea in 2016, a novel concept at the time. Similarly, Chelsea’s current coach, Thomas Tuchel, is a shrewd footballing mind in his own right. Accustomed to, though not wedded to, a formation involving three at the back, Lukaku has a tactical system that is suited to his talents waiting for him.
While Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 sacrifices an extra midfielder that can be seen in Conte’s 3-5-2, the centre forward role in the 3-4-2-1 allows for similar mobility and attacking license. As the teams are inevitably different, Tuchel’s ideas are not a carbon copy of Conte’s, but there is nonetheless a clear framework in which Lukaku can thrive.
Haaland has very similar traits to Lukaku and would also fit Tuchel’s system well. But it is in the Belgian’s ability to link play to his teammates and not just act as an elite, one-man goal machine, that may prove to be most attractive to Chelsea.
The mobility of forwards like Werner, Mount, Pulisic, Hudson-Odoi and Havertz will perfectly suit Lukaku. The Belgian is a player whose profile checks all the boxes this present Chelsea team need both in output, personality, and pedigree.
Lukaku may have left the Premier League down on himself a little. But if he does return to Chelsea and England, he will do so as the complete centre forward that Chelsea crave.
There is a lot to be said for someone who takes Zlatan Ibrahimovic on in a war of attrition and wins.
Written and Edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)
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