He was bought as the cutting edge; without Lukaku, Chelsea are unbeaten in all six games played, scoring 19 in the process, writes Graham Ruthven.
When Romelu Lukaku hobbled down the tunnel after just 23 minutes of October’s Champions League match against Malmo, Chelsea had good reason to be concerned. Signed for a club record fee of $170m to spearhead their attack and give the Blues something they had previously lacked – cutting edge – the Belgian’s absence was expected to be keenly felt.
Since then, though, Chelsea have won five of the six matches they have played in all competitions. What’s more, Thomas Tuchel’s side have played with freedom and fluidity in the attacking third, scoring seven against Norwich City, three against Newcastle United and three against Leicester City.
This is in contrast to Chelsea’s record prior to Lukaku’s injury when Tuchel’s side scored more than once just once in five matches. At the time of Lukaku’s injury, Chelsea held a one-point lead over Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table. Now, with Lukaku still sidelined, they are three points clear of Manchester City and four clear of Liverpool.
All this begs the question – are Chelsea actually better without Lukaku leading the line? Nobody can doubt the Belgian striker’s individual quality, but is it possible that Tuchel’s team are more effective as a unit now than they were before their $170m frontman suffered a moderately serious ankle injury?
Allegri: "Without Lukaku, Chelsea have different characteristics. They’ll have fewer reference points and do more counter-attacks. Lukaku is a reference point. They gain speed without him and defend differently."
— Vince™ (@Blue_Footy) November 22, 2021
Interestingly, Tuchel has stuck with the same system and shape in Lukaku’s absence. Against Leicester City on Saturday, for instance, Chelsea played in a 3-4-2-1 formation with the versatile Kai Havertz deployed as the centre-forward and supported by Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount.
Hudson-Odoi has benefited more than any other Chelsea player in Lukaku’s absence, and in Timo Werner’s absence who has also spent a spell on the sidelines recently through injury. Indeed, the 21-year-old has grasped the opportunity he has been given with both hands, proving his worth in the position that has always been his best – on the left side of a front three.
Havertz has also stepped up as a centre-forward in a very different mould to Lukaku. The German isn’t a ruthless finisher like Lukaku, but he facilitates others around him. Chelsea still haven’t seen the best of the 22-year-old, who has the potential to become one of the best in European football, but with Havertz in the team, Tuchel’s team tend to play with more fluidity.
Lukaku was signed to give Chelsea a sharper edge in front of goal and the Belgian’s first few performances of the season hinted at good things to come. However, Tuchel had publicly confessed that Lukaku has still to be fully integrated with Chelsea occasionally stilted in their attacking play with the 28-year-old on the pitch.
“We are in the process of adapting to each other,” Tuchel explained before Lukaku’s injury in mid-October, also highlighting concerns over the striker’s fitness levels that proved to be prescient. “I feel Romelu is a bit overplayed. I think he played in too many competitions over the summer. I feel him mentally tired. Not that we have a huge concern, just that he does not fully enjoy playing without a second thought. He is overplayed a little bit. It is difficult to judge whether he needs a break or is it better to keep him on the pitch?”
In retrospect, Tuchel should have given Lukaku a rest to compensate for his lack of recuperation time over the summer, but the German coach might have ended up with a better understanding of his team through his mistake. Lukaku might soon become the perfect frontman for Chelsea. Right now, though, other options make them a stronger side.