Nobody won the Romelu Lukaku saga, but it’s time Chelsea learnt their lesson ahead of £97 million Todd Boehly challenge

This needs to be resolved quickly for the benefit of everyone because nobody will be the beneficiary of Romelu Lukaku and his future rumbling on, clouding the summer transfer window.

As the various reports reveal the terminal extent to which this relationship is scarred, no plaster looks big enough or strong enough to repair any of the damage between player and club, player and manager and perhaps most importantly, player and fans.

Romelu Lukaku looks set to leave Chelsea for the second time. Image from Getty
Romelu Lukaku looks set to leave Chelsea for the second time. Image from Getty

This was the return of the messiah in many ways, he was the surefire way to send Chelsea on an adventurous title charge like they hadn’t experienced in years. He was the heir to Didier Drogba’s throne, coming back home to be loved, rejoiced and ultimately exploited as a lethal winner on the pitch.

Without wanting to go too much into the standard chronology of what happened with Lukaku, that’s a well trodden path that has been examined enough already, the way he walked onto the pitch at the Emirates, the last man walking out of the tunnel, shoulders back, head high, body ready and mind set. This was what everyone, Premier League defences included, was prepared for.

There were certain portions of the fanbase that could now label themselves as prescient with old thoughts that this wasn’t to be the homecoming it was set out to be. That using Lukaku in Thomas Tuchel’s fluid 3-4-3 wasn’t going to work. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of this failed £97 million transfer though, that shouldn’t have mattered.

Chelsea didn’t necessarily buy Lukaku to fit the system perfectly, he wouldn’t have to. The idea was that he was too good for that to matter. Lukaku was exactly what Chelsea didn’t have, a goalscorer – though the exploits of Tammy Abraham in Italy say differently, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The Belgian was going to score goals due to his very nature. But then it went all so very wrong.

Could the Lukaku saga have been stopped?

This isn’t the time for mournful blaming. It’s time for a moment of deep analysis into why this move didn’t work out, for either party.

Fans have held their own court, deciding that Lukaku is guilty beyond any doubt of misplacing his loyalties, throwing a promising team and dressing room under the bus. Talking out of place and threatening the manager, derailing a harmonious team and unsettling the establishment amidst the toughest off-field season for Chelsea in a long time.

Lukaku doesn’t have many supporters. His witness box is empty. He’s sitting alone facing trial for a crime everyone thinks he’s committed and there’s no way out, except through the back door, but he won’t be going quietly even if it’s best he did.

The one big question for this is how it might have been stopped or blunted. Chelsea can’t go back in time and tell him to not do the interview, Lukaku can’t repay the lost trust in any currency except goals. The barrier has been broken.

Even now, Lukaku continues to talk and make headlines, his agent speaks out for him and the rumour mill is kickstarted again. Even when the striker tried to calm the storm with his apologies it was taken with a PR infused pinch of salt. Nobody bought it.

But the problems started before then. Lukaku’s injury at home to Malmo in the Champions League back in October. He was enduring a seven match goal drought where questions were minimal as the Blues continued to win, but this was the start of the uncomforting public confrontation.

Lukaku never got back from this. He was in and out of the side after injury, struggling to find fitness which is a well covered topic in relation to the Belgian. He needs time to get lean and strong, a midseason injury delays him too much. Say what you may about this sort of characteristic for a seemingly world class striker, it’s the truth with the Chelsea no9.

Then come bouts of Covid-19, more fitness struggles, time on the sideline, Tuchel’s side have their own dip in form as the title charge sinks away before their eyes. Lukaku isn’t much apart of any of this.

He’s also not had the perfect conditions to perform in. With injury to Ben Chilwill starving Lukaku of the best service and surrounding players in the final third, the systematic problems for Chelsea continue. Lukaku doesn’t have the bodies to play with or the direct passes into him. Add in similarly disjointed patches for Reece James on the right flank and now Lukaku’s providers are Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta.

The final nail in the on-pitch coffin is the generic lack of dynamism from the attackers around Lukaku as nothing gels. He’s a dead-man at the top of the pitch, everyone looking to the mentality monster to claw a game from the brinks of nothingness, Lukaku can’t provide it.

Now add in the interview into all of this and it’s easy to see why he’s the villain. There isn’t an alternate universe for us to find out, but even if Lukaku’s heart was never set on Chelsea in summer 2021, it isn’t impossible to imagine a world where he scores 15 league goals despite his personal issues. With a fully fit side around him and the unfortunately timed injuries gone, Lukaku showed he was a goalscorer.

The issue here is not only that there was an apparent reluctance to make things happen from a personal perspective, cutting a frustrated and isolated figure on the pitch whilst not offering the levels of output expected. It’s that for the sum Chelsea paid for Lukaku, these are all excuses, and for that amount of money, nobody can accept the excuses.

Lukaku was supposed to be the man to get Chelsea out of a hole when they were in one, but instead he created the hole, sat in it, burried himself deep beneath the surface, and then questioned by nobody was coming to help.

Chelsea will look hard at themselves when it comes to the transfer in the first place, but to predict what would happen and unravel with Lukaku is near impossible. It still remains a what-if move. Mistakes were made by everyone involved, not least Lukaku, but by targeting a striker that appears a poor tactical fit and giving little to him in terms of footballing style, Chelsea were in a hole that only a happy, fit and firing Lukaku could get them out of. In the end, Blues fans saw around one month of that Lukaku.

So, what next?

For Chelsea, having the possible sale of their record signing looming in the gloomy future is a constant reminder of where they went wrong. As much as it would be better for the attention to turn to impressive youngsters of incoming Cobham loanees, nobody will attract the attention that their current striker will. It’s a story that isn’t going away, and won’t even when a move is made.

How this transfer comes about is now in the realms of make believe. Inter Milan will be trying to pick up a player they owned 12 months on a loan, attempting to pay less wages than Lukaku is currently on and was on one year ago, and they have pocketed £97 million in the process.

Chelsea, whether it is a deal brokered by Marina Granovskaia or not, won’t want to lose face by that much. Even with Todd Boehly being the new owner and having less to lose, in a sense, than Roman Abramovich, when it comes to monetary outcomes, is the new man in charge really likely to allow the record signing to go on the cheap?

That then ponders the question, how much is too much of a loss? Chelsea will struggle to get £50 million back for Lukaku in cash terms, so could they get in one of Inter’s own assets? Or is the loan market the way forward, a loan with a push for an obligation or option to buy in one or two years. European clubs are more creative with loans than Premier League sides, if Chelsea tap into that sector it could bring a bit of final consistency to the transfer, but does leave the Blues open to an older, less valuable Lukaku returning to Stamford Bridge in a year or so’s time.

It’s far from easy to sort out. The clearest indicator is that a return over the summer is unlikely. Even with the promise of a full preseason, Lukaku has already suffered an injury whilst playing for Belgian which again puts his fitness concerns into the spotlight.

A deal being done before the squad meets up for preseason is the best option, but the politics behind that are less than straightforward.

The Lukaku message to Todd Boehly

For the incoming owner, this is more than just a failed transfer. It’s a warning message from Roman Abramovich. It’s a beacon that sums up the Russian’s own policy in the market of buying players. A glamorous, narrative filled signing to satisfy everything but the bank balance.

It’s everything in one go that the future Chelsea, the one that builds and challenges Manchester City and Liverpool, needs to avoid. Whilst there is no doubt that goalscoring has been Chelsea’s weak point since 2017 and Diego Costa’s last 20 goal a season campaign, the wider issue of buying one-dimensional players to fit a manager’s system is still a frightening reality for Tuchel.

The German isn’t scot-free in this either. He reportedly gave the green light to sign Lukaku but then failed to get the best out of him, mitigating circumstances aside. His other signing last summer was Saul, as Aurelien Tchouameni prepares to sign for Real Madrid, it feels like Chelsea missed the trick there as well.

But with a stumbling forward line and the issues posed by Lukaku, a slight glance to Italy would see Abraham in a Roma shirt firing in goals. Now, we’ve already seen that goals in Serie A don’t transfer to England, and Abraham was far from complete when Chelsea let him go last summer, but the precedent of allowing a young striker to leave, only to bring in the minefield of Lukaku, is not a piece of business that Boehly can allow to happen.

Chelsea financially cannot cope with the turnover of a net £60 million transfer cost, plus wages and the slippery slope of amortisation analysis, to end up worse off. No, nobody could have predicted how badly the Lukaku deal could have gone, not just in terms of goalscoring, but feeling at the club, but Abraham wouldn’t and didn’t create any sort of negative feeling in the camp.

If Chelsea don’t learn the lesson to integrate, make space for and use their impressive academy graduates, then they will continue to get hurt.

We don’t know what Boehly’s plans will be, or how much input he will have, but the 12-months of Lukaku’s second Chelsea stint are a blueprint to ignore.

Written and edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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