Back where he belongs, the Prodigal Son is ready to banish Chelsea’s Premier League Blues, writes Graham Ruthven.
There was something natural about the sight of Romelu Lukaku in a Chelsea shirt as he played his first game following his $170m arrival at Stamford Bridge, and not just because the Belgian previously spent three years at the Blues. Indeed, the 28-year-old’s performance against Arsenal on Sunday was so complete, so accomplished, it was hard to believe he’d only signed seven days beforehand.
The widespread argument that Lukaku would give Thomas Tuchel’s side another dimension now has some actual evidence to support it. Arsenal couldn’t handle the Belgian as he dropped deep, spun in behind, took the ball into feet, offered aerial threat and dribbled at the opposition defence. Lukaku produced a demonstration of all that he will offer Chelsea.
Lukaku looked to have struck an immediate understanding with Kai Havertz and Mason Mount as his attacking teammates, but this was nothing compared to the relationship between Chelsea’s new number nine and Reece James, who provided the assist for the Belgian international’s opener.
Nobody made more crosses at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday than James (nine) with many of those deliveries, some in the air and some on the ground, targeted towards Lukaku as the apex of Chelsea’s attack. The 21-year-old even capped his performance with a goal of his own, lashing home a powerful finish after clear build-up play released him into space inside the box.
Romelu Lukaku: Signing of the summer? ⭐️pic.twitter.com/dwIpXdTeCo
— GOAL (@goal) August 23, 2021
Of course, James’ capacity as an attacking threat down the right side for Chelsea has been clear for some time. The England international was a key part of the team that won the Champions League last season, also starting 25 times in the Premier League. Nobody should be surprised by his importance to Tuchel’s team.
However, having Lukaku to play into could take James’ game to the next level. In fact, the connection between the pair might present Chelsea with a route to the Premier League title. Full-backs have never been more important in the modern game than they are now and James is potentially one of the very best.
At Inter, Lukaku had Achraf Hakimi as a supply line down the right side. The Moroccan was a force of nature as Antonio Conte’s side surged to the Serie A title, earning himself a $90m move to Paris Saint-Germain. James can emulate Hakimi by making himself Lukaku’s right-hand man for Chelsea this season.
“Romelu’s a very smart guy and a very democratic leader,” Tuchel said after the win over Arsenal. “I think nobody likes to play against him, everyone is aware of his physicality and his link-up play and ability to attack the space. He gives another dimension to our game. He’s got the whole package.”
Reece James on Romelu Lukaku:
"I’m very happy he’s here. His performance speaks for itself. Everyone saw how he uses his body and bullies players. He showed his strengths and qualities with how good he is and how he scores goals. He’s a great addition to our team."
Beasts! 💪🏼💙 pic.twitter.com/2yAk6fF5qt
— Bawku Naaba cfc 💙 (@BawkuCfc) August 24, 2021
With Tuchel in charge, Chelsea have the coach to make the most of the bountiful talent in the Stamford Bridge dressing room. It’s not just that the Blues’ squad is individually stronger than all others in the Premier League right now, it’s that they have a touchline leader able to forge them into a framework. Tuchel’s vision is clear in the way Chelsea player.
Chelsea are capable of stretching the pitch through their pace on the counter attack and of controlling games through their use of the ball. Lukaku embodies the adaptability of Tuchel’s side in the way he can hold the ball up or drive forward with it at his feet. There was even a spell against Arsenal at which the Belgian was pushed out to the right wing.
There is, however, only so much Lukaku can do on his own. The Belgian was only so successful at Inter because of the relationships he forged with his teammates including Hakimi, Nicolo Barella and Lautaro Martinez. James could be one of the players who helps gets the best out of Chelsea’s new £98m centre forward.