Ryan Baldi takes a closer look at Romelu Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge.
There has long been a sense of inevitability about an eventual Chelsea return for Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian striker first moved to Stamford Bridge just three months after his 18th birthday, signing from Anderlecht in a $30m deal. And he left three years later, joining Everton for $60m after initially impressing there on loan and at West Brom before that, without ever having scored a Chelsea goal.
He almost went back to east London in 2017, but instead chose a $125m switch to Manchester United. Chelsea ended up with Alvaro Morata for a similar fee. Neither move really worked.
Now, though, after two stellar years with Inter Milan, he is on the cusp of finally sealing his long-awaited comeback and tending to some unfinished business. And as soon as his expected $170m transfer from the Serie A champions is complete, Lukaku will return to Chelsea better than ever, ready to banish the memory of his goalless teenage Stamford Bridge spell and fire Thomas Tuchel’s side to Premier League title contention.
Lukaku certainly wasn’t a flop at Old Trafford. In two seasons, he scored 42 goals – 27 of which coming in a thoroughly respectable first campaign. But the 98-cap Belgian star had just come off the most productive league season of his career to date, having notched 25 times for Everton in the Premier League in 2016-17. Long considered to have the potential to be among the world’s best strikers, he appeared poised to grasp his destiny. League returns of 16 and 12 at United, though, suggested he wasn’t yet at that level.
There were mitigating factors – not least the way he was deployed by then-United manager Jose Mourinho, more often than not, as a target man.
Appearances can be deceptive. To glance at Lukaku and recognize his sturdy 6ft 3ins frame, broad shoulders and powerful lower body, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing he is purpose built to occupy a role in which he is the target for long balls, to hold off defenders, win flick-ons and bring others into play.
The truth of the matter is that has never been his style. Lukaku is at his best as the focal point of a fluid, ground-based attack. His burst of speed can take him clear of any defender. His slick movement in the final third can see him snatch space where none appeared present. And his trusty left foot can find the corner of the goal from any range or angle.
At Inter, he was freed from the shackles of Mourinho’s tactics, and in Antonio Conte he found a manager who believed in him more than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ever appeared to after taking over at Old Trafford in December 2018 – it was Conte, after all, who was in charge of Chelsea when they went for Lukuku, before settling for Morata, in 2017.
Once Lukaku's transfer to Chelsea is complete, he will have the highest accumulated transfer fees of any player in history.
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— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) August 9, 2021
Where at United he ploughed a lonely furrow, at Inter Lukaku was given a genuine strike partner; one who’d happily move deeper in search of the ball and free him to do his devastating work ahead of the play; one with whom he could combine and dovetail. Lukaku and Argentinian centre-forward Lautaro Martinez formed one of Europe’s most productive strike duos, between them providing 104 goals in two seasons and firing Inter to a first Scudetto in a decade last term.
Played to his strengths, Lukaku’s two years in Italy have unquestionably elevated him to the echelon of the elite.
“If I look back, compared to two years ago in England, I have moved up to the top,” he recently reflected. “Now we are the Italian champions and it feels magnificent.”
That is the Lukaku with whom Chelsea are reacquainting themselves. All the potential of the past has been realised. He is at last what he always appeared capable of being. He has proven he can be prolific at the highest level. Past accusations of his being a flat-track bully, incapable of performing against the best teams, have been rendered moot by goals against Roma, Napoli, AC Milan and Juventus.
And he has proven he can be the difference in a title challenge. That, above all, is what Chelsea have invested so heavily to acquire.
Erling Haaland might have been their first choice attacking target this summer, but a Lukaku reunion has clearly never been far from Chelsea’s thinking. His ill-fitting target-man days are over. And while he is unlikely to be fielded in a two-man striker set-up under Tuchel, in the likes of Kai Havertz, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic, he will be surrounded and fed by skilful, creative colleagues.
Having beaten them in the Champions League final last season, Chelsea know they can overcome Manchester City on any given afternoon. Lukaku, they hope, can offer the unrelenting consistency of scoring to pip Pep Guardiola’s side over the course of an entire Premier League campaign.