Romelu Lukaku taking Chelsea to the next level
It was a long time coming. Ten years after he initially joined Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku scored his first goal for the club on Sunday. The Belgian’s goal at the Emirates Stadium came as part of a fine all-round display as Thomas Tuchel’s side eased to victory over Arsenal.
Lukaku, as you would expect, has made huge strides since he first arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2011. He was twice loaned out in subsequent seasons, first to West Bromwich Albion and then to Everton, before joining the Toffees on a permanent basis in 2014. In his three years on the books of Chelsea, he made only 15 goalless appearances in all competition – and just 10 in the Premier League.
Yet while it is no surprise that Lukaku is a different player to 10 years ago, he has also taken his game to another level in the last two seasons. His final campaign at Manchester United was disappointing. Lukaku scored just 12 goals in the league and only three more in other competitions. Few United fans were sad to see him go when the club accepted a £73m offer from Inter for their starting striker.
Two years on and there are no longer any doubts about Lukaku’s status as a world-class centre-forward. His first season at the San Siro brought 34 goals in 51 games, including 23 in Serie A. Lukaku went one better in 2020/21, finding the net 24 times in Italy’s top flight as Inter won the title for the first time since 2010.
Former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte deserves great credit for helping Romelu Lukaku realise his potential. The 28-year-old is a much more rounded frontman these days. He can both hold the ball up and sprint in behind. He can drop deep and encourage runners beyond him, or play on the shoulder of the last defender. Most of his goals come via his left foot, but he can score with his right and his head too. Indeed, Lukaku needs only two more headers to become only the fourth player in Premier League history to score at least 25 goals with each foot and his head (Harry Kane, Robbie Fowler and Andy Cole have already done so).
“As a player, the Italian game is so different,” Lukaku explained recently. “It’s so tactical and technical. You have to make the right run or movement to get another player free. We always had a lot of possession, so we were playing in the opposite half. Most of the time you were back to goal, and everything was going through me.
“I remember having a conversation with Conte about this and he told me if I wasn’t good at that, I wouldn’t play. For me that was an eye-opener. Once I mastered that aspect then for me everything became easier.
“The game would slow down, and I could control the game more and give more assists. That was really something I wanted to do and I wanted to experience that in another country, where I think it would be beneficial for the rest of my career.”
Lukaku demonstrated the breadth of his talent against Arsenal at the weekend. He continually pinned Pablo Mari, receiving the ball to feet and either laying it off to a team-mate or rolling his marker before taking a shot. Mari could not get to grips with the burly Belgian, although the centre-back was afforded scant protection by his team-mates in midfield.
In the second half Lukaku dropped a little deeper into the right-hand channel in which he has wrought so much damage during his career. From there the striker likes to get on the ball and run at defenders, who are often left to deal with him one-on-one. Romelu Lukaku is a prolific goalscorer but he is not a particularly selfish player and, on Sunday, he teed up his Chelsea team-mates in better positions after driving at the Arsenal defence.
Chelsea lacked a focal point at the top of the pitch last term. In a sense it did them no harm. Tuchel was able to win the Champions League while improvising up front, with Kai Havertz as a false nine his preferred choice.
But Chelsea already look a much better team with Romelu Lukaku as the line-leader,and the likes of Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic will all benefit from his presence ahead of them. Lukaku preoccupies opposition centre-backs and that will make it easier for members of the supporting cast to find pockets of space between the lines.
Virgil van Dijk will pose a stiffer challenge to Lukaku on Saturday than Mari did last time out, while Liverpool will also do a better job than Arsenal of restricting the service into the striker. There is little doubt, though, that Chelsea’s title credentials have been strengthened by the re-signing of Lukaku.
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