When Roman Abramovich sanctioned the $130 million signing of Romelu Lukaku before the start of the season, Chelsea were expecting an ample return from arguably the most in-demand striker in Europe. Have they got it wrong?
Lukaku scored as many goals in the first two league matches of last season, starting a campaign in which he would fire Inter Milan to the title, as he has domestically since rejoining Chelsea – and he even missed 35 minutes of those two games for Inter Milan.
That is one of the starker facts as his new team heads into the second half of a season that has shown signs of faltering since a win at Watford at the start of December, featuring a single victory in four games, when they needed a last-gasp Jorginho penalty to beat fifth-bottom Leeds at Stamford Bridge.
Thomas Tuchel looked furious after his side labored to a 3-3 draw as part of that run at Zenit, a team who finished eight points behind Chelsea in third place in their Champions League group and had little to play for except pride and the prestige of competing with Premier League title contenders.
Spot kick specialist Jorginho is their second-top scorer on six goals. England midfielder Mason Mount has one more than the Ballon d’Or nominee, bolstered by a hat-trick in the 7-0 win at home to relegation-haunted Norwich.
This is not quite how the season was supposed to go for Tuchel. Even for a team that frequently hangs its hopes on a plethora of attacking midfielders ready to start in advanced positions and repeatedly raid the penalty area, the absence of Chelsea’s two recognized senior strikers – Lukaku and Timo Werner – from a Premier League scoresheet since October 2 is a shock.
Lukaku started promisingly, scoring at Arsenal on his second debut and adding a double against Aston Villa two games later during a sequence of seven starts after the first game of the season.
Thomas Tuchel insists Romelu Lukaku is still recovering from injury & adjusting to English football amid lack of game time, as he admits team have shown more ‘intensity’ without him. pic.twitter.com/233R8ms0Yq
— Frank Khalid (@FrankKhalidUK) December 16, 2021
By the time he was substituted at Brentford in the final game of that run – a match in which full-back Ben Chilwell scored the winner, which shows how Chelsea are, to Tuchel’s likely relief, sharing goals around the team – the drought had entered a fourth game.
Since then, Lukaku has missed four matches through injury, been reduced to a peripheral role off the bench for a further four games and, most recently, been kept out of the 1-1 draw at Everton with Covid.
Half way through season almost who is flop signing of the summer?Lukaku? €115M payout: 5 goals His replacement, Dzeko signed free €0: 11 goals
— Moby (LFC Views) (@Mobyhaque1) December 17, 2021
If nothing else, that should give Lukaku the break which Tuchel admitted he felt he needed in mid-October.
“In this moment, I feel Romelu is a bit overplayed,” Tuchel said at the time, referencing Lukaku’s appearances for Belgium as they failed to win the Nations League finals days earlier. “He is a fantastic athlete and such a competitive guy – he wants to dig in deep and win things.
4 – Armando Broja has scored more goals in the Premier League than Romelu Lukaku (3), Kai Havertz (2) and Timo Werner (1) this season. Loanee. pic.twitter.com/d0OQ6NOS33
— TheSecretScout (@TheSecretScout_) December 15, 2021
“I know how much he wanted to have a good outcome to the European Championship with Belgium and again in the Nations League. It means a lot to him to play for his country. If it does not work well, he always puts it on his shoulders, he thinks about it, he reflects about it.
“I feel he is a bit mentally tired. For me, he’s overplayed. It’s difficult to judge if he needs a break, or is it better to keep him on the pitch? He wanted to play for Chelsea, but clearly only as first-choice striker – and at a club of our dimension, it’s very difficult to promise a player that status.”
I miss having a player who would guarantee you 20+ Goals a season! You create a chance for this beast and you just knew the ball would end in the back of the netLukaku’s season has been hit with injuries & now covid and there isn’t a player who can consistently score for us!! pic.twitter.com/ZGTL6Zgf8c
— Nouman (@nomifooty) December 16, 2021
Those words had echoes of the sentiments Jose Mourinho sent Lukaku’s way when the emerging striker left Chelsea for Everton in 2017. As Werner has found out, Tuchel’s team is as likely to revolve around one player as an army is to rely entirely on bayonets.
Tuchel found himself in the same predicament of not knowing whether to persevere or enforce a merciful break for Werner when the Germany hitman could not seem to find the target despite his endless willing running last season.
Werner is having a better season this time around, scoring comfortably the most goals per 90 minutes of any Chelsea player, even if he would have expected more than five goals and two assists in 16 appearances.
That form will not soothe unease over Lukaku, who commanded a fee well over twice the total Chelsea paid for Werner, a player three years younger than him with a strike rate this season which would yield more than 20 goals across an ever-present run.
An absent figure compounds the doubts: superpowers across Europe are willing to play the long game and wait for Erling Haaland, the unnerring nightmare for defenses and a prodigy with a $90 million contract clause that is widely expected to be activated at the end of the 2021/22 season.
Should Chelsea have waited for Haaland? The question is impossible to answer but ripe for repeat deliberations among fans. For every stretch in which Lukaku struggles, the answer swings more convincingly towards the idea that the club should have saved their financial power and bided their time, rather than making one of their alumni by far and away their record signing over the summer.
Chelsea’s tactics and curious lack of incision have not helped. When Werner and other members of the frontline have dropped deep, Lukaku has often cut an isolated figure in attack, waiting to rampage onto perceptive through balls from all those creative players, too often finding them in short supply.
Critics would contest that the Italian top flight, in which Lukaku finished only behind the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo by scoring 24 goals last season, is a canyon-sized quality away from the demands of the Premier League. That is another argument that may never be settled, the imponderability of the debate showing that Serie A cannot be as inferior as some suggest.
Romelu Lukaku has taken to Instagram to offer an update on his status following his positive Covid-19 test. ⤵️
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 17, 2021
An evaluation of the opposition Lukaku has lined up against hardly clarifies matters: Arsenal were suffering a hopeless start to the season and Villa were on the way to sacking their manager when he scored against them. In the games either side of that Villa brace, Lukaku failed to strike against Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Southampton and Brentford.
Then there are the obvious comparisons with his time at Manchester United, becoming a maligned figure over a painfully prolonged period of struggles and only fleeting excellence, including an almost immediate drop-off in form after he signed and goalless gluts across matches reaching double figures.
The frustrating reality for a striker who arrived with a price tag demanding instant success is that, until he has more time on the pitch, Chelsea will have no greater insight into whether they made the right decision or not.
The word flop has already been bandied about by headline grabbers and cynics who would relish seeing such a vast outlay return what would inevitably be defined as another example of reckless Premier League spending.
Lukaku tends to score in patches. He went on separate barren runs of four and five games despite his destructive brilliance last season, and by the time underdogs Lille turn up in the Champions League in February, it would not be a huge surprise to see him on a hot streak. He has excuses for now; Chelsea’s board may be blaming themselves if their extravagant gamble does not start delivering next month.