Romelu Lukaku was seen protesting with Hakim Ziyech as the Chelsea and Brighton players headed towards the tunnel at half-time in Tuesday’s meeting at the Amex Stadium.
The visitors had the lead thanks to Ziyech’s long-range effort but it had been another frustrating evening for Lukaku, something he seemed to share with his teammate.
The second half followed a familiar pattern, both for Lukaku, who was substituted late after touching the ball just 18 times, and Chelsea, who have dropped 13 points from winning positions this season after Brighton equalised.
Lukaku started the season strongly, scoring four goals in his first four games after his £97.5million move from Inter Milan in August, but an ankle injury in October hampered his progress and the months in between were not easy.
The Belgian vented his frustration with Chelsea’s tactical approach in an interview with heaven in Italy, for which he apologized earlier this month, but he meets Tottenham on Sunday after scoring just twice in his last 12 Premier League games. His form is under scrutiny, as is Thomas Tuchel’s use of him.
Lukaku’s changing role
Lukakus Interview mit heaven in Italy left him with work to restore ties with Chelsea fans but it was still interesting to hear the striker speak so frankly.
His comments on Chelsea dominated the headlines but there was a lot more to Inter. He said his stay there “saved his career” after a difficult spell at Manchester United. Manager Antonio Conte has been described as a “massive influence”.
Much of the success of his time in Italy, where he scored 64 goals in 95 games in all competitions and helped Inter win the Serie A title for the first time in over a decade, was down to style how Conte lined up his team.
It was designed to play to Lukaku’s strengths. Conte rarely deviated from a 3-5-2 formation and Lukaku formed an impressive forward partnership with Lautaro Martinez. “I could die in the court for him,” Lukaku said heaven in Italy of the Argentine international.
Tuchel’s preferred system is similar to Conte’s in the sense that it also consists of a back three, but there is a fundamental difference in attack, where Lukaku usually acts as a lone striker flanked by two wide forwards, rather than in a front two .
This is problematic for Lukaku for several reasons.
First, it means he must fulfill the duties of a goalman, gaining possession in central areas with his back to goal, holding the ball up and feeding runners on either side of him.
It’s a role he seems physically well suited to, but it’s not one he enjoys.
“The way I’m built – I’m quite tall – everyone thinks I’m some kind of target man: I just hold the ball up and I’m a goalscorer,” he said in an interview with UEFA published in October.
“But I’ve never played like that and I hate it. My greatest strength is that I’m dangerous when I’m looking at goal because then I rarely make wrong decisions.”
Lukaku was able to play this way at Inter, looking towards goal rather than goal, which is partly due to their attacking form, which brings us to the second reason for his slower start in life at Chelsea.
Inter’s lack of wingers allowed Lukaku to spend more time in his favorite inside right position, where he could face the ball and shoot at goal.
Many of the best performances of his career have come from this area. From there he twice destroyed Arsenal, once with Everton in 2014 and again with Manchester United in 2018, and he did the same with Brazil in the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals with Belgium.
At Chelsea, Tuchel’s preference for using two support forwards, one on each side, means Lukaku’s preferred zones are usually occupied, limiting his freedom and leaving him fewer opportunities to gain possession in deeper areas.
Instead, he is often isolated.
This season, the 28-year-old has not only shot fewer shots and scored fewer goals than at Inter, but also fewer touches, fewer passes and fewer chances.
It’s also worth noting that Lukaku struggles significantly despite his reduced commitment more Head-to-head duels – his average of 6.2 per 90 minutes is up from 3.3 per 90 minutes at Inter last season – further evidence of how his role has shifted to that of a goalie.
Lack of service and chemistry
Lukaku is not blameless for his struggles. Costly chances have been missed, including in last weekend’s 1-0 defeat by Manchester City, after which his contribution drew criticism from Tuchel.
“We made eight or nine offensive changes, but we didn’t touch anything in the penalty area,” said Tuchel BT-Sport. Lukaku, he added, has shown “a lack of positioning, timing and composure.”
“Of course we want to serve him,” continued Tuchel, “but he’s part of the team and we can still improve our performance significantly.
“Sometimes Lukaku has to do the service, he’s part of it. He had a lot of turnovers in very promising circumstances and he had a huge chance.”
Lukaku’s missed opportunity that day, when he opted to feed Ziyech early rather than shoot himself, showed his confidence has taken a hit, but circumstances didn’t help him.
In the striker’s 17 starts, Tuchel has used 10 different combinations in Chelsea’s attacking line. Lukaku was used in Front Two at times, but even then his partner’s identity varied. It’s a far cry from the consistency and stability he’s had alongside Martinez at Inter.
Of course, Tuchel’s rotation has sometimes come about out of necessity, with Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz, Ziyech, Mason Mount and Timo Werner all suffering from injuries at various points.
But the bigger problem is that none of these players have been able to play at a consistently high level. In fact, of Chelsea’s attackers this season, only Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi are among the top 50 players in the Premier League in terms of odds.
Reece James is there too, but with he and full-back Ben Chilwell now sidelined through long-term injuries, Chelsea’s creativity in general has waned, as has serving for Lukaku.
He averaged nearly four shots per 90 minutes in his first four Premier League games of the season. Since then, however, he has not scored more than two shots on target in a single game.
There is a lack of chemistry and service.
Opta’s passport data shows that Mount and midfielder Mateo Kovacic are the only players Lukaku plays with regularly.
Remarkably, Hudson-Odoi, Werner and Ziyech have found him on just 12 passes in the Premier League so far this season. Havertz, meanwhile, hasn’t even found him despite starting four games alongside him.
The situation gives Tuchel a lot to think about. The manager downplayed Lukaku’s struggles after the Brighton game – “Romelu is far from the problem,” he said – but until he finds a way to play to his strengths, Chelsea may continue to stutter.
Tuchel: Lukaku is not the only one we rely on
Asked specifically about Lukaku’s struggles ahead of this weekend’s derby against Chelsea, Tuchel admitted he felt much of the limelight was unfair to the Belgian.
“It’s a welcome to reality, that’s it,” he said. “We’re in the limelight, we’re all judged, and it’s like that on a daily basis. If you’re a crucial player or you’re playing well, those people are talking about you, and if you’re not, then the same people are talking about you. It’s part of the business, whether you like it or not.”
Tuchel added that he couldn’t explain Lukaku’s form but stressed that he was looking for other players who could also step up.
“In football very rarely is there a situation or a problem and it’s a one thing solution, it’s always a mix of many influences.
“He’s been more involved and he’s had problems, there are reasons for that, we’ve already discussed them. That’s how it is and he’s not the only one we rely on during games so it’s nothing special.”
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