Romelu Lukaku is returning to Chelsea, ten years after he walked through the doors of Stamford Bridge for the first time. When he first arrived, he was a promising 18-year-old who had scored goals for fun in the Belgian League for Anderlecht. He was fulfilling a dream, playing for the club he supported and with one of his idols in Didier Drogba. Of course, any football fan will know that he never really got his chance first time around at Chelsea. He made twelve appearances in all competitions and failed to score a goal in his first season. Spells at West Brom, Everton, Manchester United and Inter Milan have followed, all with goals to show and a Serie A title to his name. But he left England with his reputation tainted by a lack of form under, and falling out with, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A return to Chelsea had been mooted before in the summer of 2017, when Antonio Conte was looking to replace Diego Costa, after their tumultuous relationship had led the Brazilian-born striker to exile himself from first-team training until he was allowed to move back to Atletico Madrid. But Chelsea were not willing to pay Mino Raiola the same fee United were, and ultimately went for Alvaro Morata, and the less said about that the better. Lukaku returns to England and to Chelsea, however, now rated as one of the best strikers in Europe, having played a pivotal role in Inter’s first Serie A title since 2009-10.
That Scudetto was won under the management of Antonio Conte. And thinking about what might have been had Lukaku re-joined Chelsea, when Conte was in charge at Chelsea and just off the back of a title win kind of makes my blood boil. Because Lukaku would not be moving for the fee he is without Conte taking him under his wing and working with him to improve just about every part of his game. Previously criticised for having a poor first touch and lacking a more all-round game than simply scoring, Lukaku has flourished under Conte’s guidance in a team that was largely built around him. It’s a system that anyone who has watched Antonio Conte over the years would recognise. Conte has always had great success playing three centre-backs with wing-backs providing a lot of the team’s width. He brought this system with him to Chelsea and really has had a lasting impact on the Premier League. Nearly every team in the Premier League was using a back four and it took nearly a whole season for the rest of the league to catch up. But, as a result of Conte’s success at Chelsea, almost every team has a back three formation that they can use if need be. It is also a remarkably flexible formation as well; you can very easily adapt the number of players in midfield or in attack.
At Chelsea, Conte favoured a front three, as that would make the best use of his vital players like Diego Costa and particularly Eden Hazard. At Inter, that switched to a three-man midfield and two strikers up top. This might not have brought out the best in a player like Christian Eriksen, who prefers to play in a more advanced midfield role, but it did bring the best out of the two world class strikers he had at his disposal; Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez. Martinez could drop off and then use his pace and dribbling while Lukaku could occupy opposition defenders and win knockdowns off of long balls forward. It was a remarkably effective combination. In his two seasons with the Nerazzurri, Lukaku scored 47 league goals and made thirteen assists, including eleven last season alone. He has also changed his diet, worked with a new nutrionist and looks much leaner than his time in Manchester.
Ever since Diego Costa left the club, Chelsea have been looking for a striker to take his place; without much success. Morata suffered from injury and a catastrophic loss of confidence that he never recovered from. Olivier Giroud was an exemplary professional who contributed some immense goals in his time at the club, but he was never going to be a long or even mid-term solution. With the arrival of Lukaku, Chelsea will have a proven goalscorer leading the line, who could also bring the best out of the rest of the players there. While Timo Werner struggled to recapture his Leipzig form at SW6, he was leader in combined goals and assists for the club last season with 26. His best form at Leipzig often came when he played in a strike partnership, similar to what Lukaku and Martinez were able to create at Inter. Kai Havertz could be used as a more traditional number ten or even as a box-to-box midfielder, making late runs into the box from deep a la Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard. Bringing Lukaku into the squad only improves Chelsea’s options in attack. Thanks to the flexibility of the formation that Tuchel has implemented at Chelsea, he can switch up his player’s positions to best suit whatever team they face.
Chelsea were a formidable cup team last season thanks to the defensive improvement under Thomas Tuchel, but the number of chances that were created but not converted was a major problem. For that reason, Tuchel put the purchase of a world class striker at the top of his list. Lukaku is a world class striker that turns this Chelsea side into real contenders for a first Premier League title since 2017.