A dream return to the Premier League in the summer of 2021 turned into Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea’s worst nightmare. Disgruntled, dissatisfied, disenfranchised and some would say, disillusioned, Lukaku returns to Internazionale.
“My heart is full and my door’s always open, you come anytime you want, yeah.
Look for the boy with the broken smile, ask him if he wants to stay a while
And he will be loved, and he will be loved, and he will be loved”
Maroon 5’s blockbuster number from the album Songs About Jane pretty much summarised the sentiments of Chelsea fans towards Romelu Lukaku during the start of the 2021-2022 Premier League season.
Sadly, a year later, he won’t be loved.
Months after winning the Scudetto with Internazionale, Romelu Lukaku, reluctantly yet with a new air of confidence, decided to shift bases from Milan to London.
The boy dubbed as the ‘next Didier Drogba’ a decade ago was returning a man to his first Premier League club as their record signing. Uneasy and ugly memories of his torrid time at Manchester United were wiped out and Lukaku was ready to reign supreme at Stamford Bridge.
The fairytale ends here, unfortunately, and Stamford Bridge, much like its London counterpart from the nursery rhyme, had a mighty fall in the past 12 months.
So did Romelu Lukaku.
A transfer disaster of epic proportions
Welcome to June 2022. Romelu Lukaku is being loaned back to Inter Milan for 6.9 million pounds plus 3.4 million pounds in bonuses.
‘The biggest transfer mistake’ is the Belgian’s new moniker from the supporters of a club that signed Fernando Torres for 50 million from Liverpool and got the returns of Saido Berahino.
Oh, also, they bought Kepa for 72 million, a goalkeeper who will always be remembered for openly defying banker turned manager Maurizio Sarri in a fashion that would put anti-Putin protesters in Moscow to shame.
Surely, it can’t be Lukaku’s fault alone, right? Definitely not. However, a lot of surely is and that has got nothing to do with how much he was loved.
It was purely for footballing reasons. Let’s deconstruct Romelu Lukaku’s time at Chelsea in the Premier League 2021-2022 season.
A debut to remember
The fans of the club were over the moon with this acquisition and expected the Belgian forward to take the league by storm. On his second debut for Chelsea, he scored within 15 minutes and tormented Arsenal’s centre-halves Pablo Mari and Rob Holding for 90 minutes.
He was given the Man of the Match award for his dominant display and Chelsea fans were certain that manager Thomas Tuchel had found the final missing piece of his puzzle that he needed to go toe-to-toe with Liverpool and Manchester City for the Premier League title.
Ah, if only they knew how their dreams were about to fall from the Sky (Italia).
Goal drought & not finding home at the Bridge
After bagging 4 goals in the first 3 games of the season, there was an expectation around Stamford Bridge that Romelu Lukaku is going to be one of the front-runners for this season’s golden boot.
However, he went goalless for 5 consecutive games thereafter. Chelsea lost a crucial game against Manchester City at home during that run and Lukaku did not register a single shot in that game.
He completed just 7 passes over the course of 90 minutes, lesser than any player who started the game including the goalkeepers Edouard Mendy and Ederson Moraes.
Critics have always questioned Lukaku for failing to make an impact in big games. Lukaku played 13 games across all competitions versus the Big 5 (Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal), scored just 1 goal and provided 0 assists. The goal he scored at the Emirates on his second debut was his only goal contribution against the biggest teams in England.
After injuring his ankle against Malmo in a Champions League group stage game on October 20, Lukaku faced a spell on the sidelines. Thomas Tuchel’s tactical setup made the Belgian look out of place and he struggled to adapt in a system that needed him to take more part in build-up play.
Unlike Inter, where he had Lautaro Martinez to support, drop deep and make space, Lukaku had do a lot more at Chelsea by himself.
Tuchel demanded more from Lukaku on the ball and the Belgian clearly couldn’t deliver, forcing the German to bench his superstar signing.
In the four Premier League games played in Lukaku’s absence, Chelsea scored 14 goals while producing free-flowing attacking football with Kai Havertz leading the line.
Cameos, Covid and Chaos
Lukaku’s next game for the Blues came on November 28, an 8-minute cameo against a struggling Manchester United side.
He was made to wait for his first start since return till 8th December in a Champions League clash against Zenit. Shortly after, he contracted COVID-19 and was ruled out once again.
The Stamford Bridge faithful was growing increasingly impatient with the forward’s lack of availability as a string of poor results saw the gap between them and Manchester City and Liverpool widening with each passing matchday.
On Boxing Day, however, Lukaku came on at the half-time mark against Aston Villa and changed the complexion of the game. He scored an excellent glancing header off a Callum Hudson-Odoi cross past an unmoved Emi Martinez to give Chelsea a 2-1 lead and then displayed outrageous strength and pace to earn a crucial penalty that Jorginho converted to seal the game.
Milan homesickness & an interview from hell
Chelsea fans and Thomas Tuchel thought that they had finally seeing shades of the striker they bought from Inter.
It wasn’t to be.
On 1st January, however, Sky Italia released an interview recorded in early December that caused irreparable damage to Lukaku’s relationship with Chelsea.
“I’m not happy with the situation at Chelsea. I really, genuinely from the bottom of my heart hope to come back to Inter, not at the end of my career, but while I am still at the level to win more trophies.”
Lukaku expressed his desire to re-join Inter, only 4 months after arriving at Chelsea and questioned Thomas Tuchel’s decision to not give him enough game-time.
The former Manchester United man gave the interview when Chelsea were trailing Manchester City by just 2 points and Tuchel described the interview as “noise they did not need” at that point in the season.
His decision to give the interview was labelled ‘extremely selfish’ by fans and it plummeted Lukaku’s reputation with teammates and the manager. The Aston Villa performance could have turned a corner for him at Chelsea, but the interview was the beginning of the end for him and the fans were not ready to forgive him any time soon.
An angry Thomas Tuchel dropped the striker from the squad for a crucial game against Liverpool on January 2nd. The fractured relationship between Lukaku and Tuchel went from bad to worse. It became like an almost shattered glass window so broken throughout that a touch was all it needed to make it collapse.
Inter to Chelsea – A study in tactical adaptation
Lukaku enjoyed an absolutely stellar season at Inter Milan before he joined Chelsea. He scored 24 goals and provided 11 assists in 32 starts in the 20/21 league season.
He was the Serie A Player of the Season and he was playing the best football of his club career. Under Antonio Conte, he changed his diet and worked on his first touch by using the help of a ball machine.
Inter played a 3-5-2 in a classic low-to-mid block with Lukaku paired up with Lautaro Martinez. The skillful Argentine forward has the intelligence and ability to drop deep and facilitate play.
This allowed Lukaku to do what he does best, run at goal at frightening pace and use his ferocious strength to outmuscle defenders on his way.
The formations Chelsea used the most during the season was 3-4-2-1 (30 times) and it could be argued against Thomas Tuchel that he did not have a system in place to maximize Lukaku’s strengths. In his defense, though, with Lukaku available, he did play the 3-4-1-2 formation 4 times and the 3-5-2 twice in the Premier League and Lukaku scored in just 1 of those 6 games.
Tuchel to blame? Not really
It would be fair to suggest that Tuchel should have given the duo of Werner and Lukaku more time to understand each other’s game and create a dynamic partnership but in a season marred with injuries, ownership trouble and controversies. However, it is easier said than done.
On 19th February, Chelsea won a hard-fought game at Selhurst Park vs Crystal Palace. Lukaku dominated the headlines after the win, but for all the wrong reasons.
He touched the ball just 7 times during the game, the fewest in a single game in the Premier League for a player playing on the pitch for 90+ minutes since Opta began recording this statistic in 2003. There was a complete lack of interest from Lukaku to get involved in Chelsea’s buildup.
It was a staggering indictment of Lukaku’s will, tactical abilities and motivation at Stamford Bridge.
Thomas Tuchel’s response when asked about Lukaku’s struggle in January was clear. He said “data doesn’t lie” and was unable to defend his performances. Whilst one can argue that Tuchel did not adopt a system that maximized Lukaku’s abilities, it is fair to suggest that the Belgian forward never gave him a reason to do so.
At Chelsea, the problems that were evident during his disastrous last couple of seasons at Manchester United came to the fore again. He was struggling with his first touch and was failing to complete simple passes to his team-mates.
Chelsea were criticized all season for failing to create enough chances after doing really well to bring the ball to the final third and Lukaku’s inability to execute simple passes to team-mates through on goal, or trying to dribble past one too many or shooting too early at times was definitely to blame.
Ego, exaggeration and a need for validation
The modern-day footballer spends a large part of his day on the phone and invariably reading comments from fans, the media and even, critics.
In a world run by TikTok, Twitter and twiddling thumbs, the modern-day athlete’s fuel for survival is self-validation. While most refrain from taking critics head-on, there are those who, fuelled by the people around them, decide to make public claims that often fall flat on their face.
Romelu Lukaku is mostly the latter.
“When people talk about Lewandowski, Benzema, Suarez, Kane, they say it’s a world class level. With me, it was always about ‘good form’. I belong to that group.”
This is what Romelu Lukaku had to say during the Euro 2020 about where he stands among strikers in the world. It is baffling to say the least that a solitary league title with Inter Milan made Lukaku believe that he can be grouped with the crème de la crème of world football.
Now you might say I am attacking Lukaku or targeting him. No, I am not. Here are cold facts.
Luis Suarez scored 31 goals and provided 13 assists in the 13/14 Premier League season and was awarded the PFA Player of the Year. He went to Barcelona and won four league titles, four Copa del Rey titles and a Champions League. He won the European Golden Shoe in the 2015/16 season with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi at the height of their powers.
When there were doubts cast over his ability to perform at the highest level, he scored 21 goals for Atletico Madrid and guided them to their first league title since 2013/14.
Karim Benzema scored the most goals in a single UEFA Champions League knock-out stages (10) and almost single-handedly guided Real Madrid to an unlikely Champions League triumph.
Ballon d’Or winner (yeah we’ll call him that) Robert Lewandowski has scored 30 or more league goals five times in his career and has won 10 league titles and a Champions League title in which he was the top scorer.
Romelu Lukaku, on the other hand, has never scored more than 25 goals in a single league campaign and has won just the Serie A and a Club World Cup (at Chelsea) across his 11-season playing career in the Europe’s Top 5 leagues.
To add to that, Romelu Lukaku has scored just 3 goals in the knockouts of the UEFA Champions League.
He does not sit on the same table as the biggest forwards of this generation, and probably never will.
What next for Romelu Lukaku?
Lukaku’s headed back to where his heart always was, Milan. Simone Inzaghi continued to play the 3-5-2 at Inter Milan when he took over from Antonio Conte and did not change what was already working.
Romelu Lukaku will walk back into the starting 11 and be paired up with Lautaro Martinez. The pair scored 104 goals over the two seasons they played together and understand each other’s game really well.
Lautaro understands the importance of dropping into pockets of space and dragging defenders out of position so that Lukaku finds himself running towards goal and having center-halves compete with him for pace and power. In the Serie A, physically imposing forwards like Vlahovic, Belotti and Osimhen have achieved incredible success and it will not be surprising to see Lukaku back leading the goal-scoring charts.
However, his failure of a homecoming will not be forgotten by football fans around the world. His return was marred with controversies and he failed to cement a spot in the Chelsea lineup, let alone be the man to lead their title charge. Once again, the Premier League proved to be too good for Romelu Lukaku and he simply could not cope.
He won’t be loved.