In Focus: Time for Romelu to Luk the part at Chelsea
Romelu Lukaku must be getting a sense of deja vu — for the second time in his career, the Belgian striker is out of favour at Chelsea.
Thomas Tuchel dropped Lukaku from the matchday squad for last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool as punishment for his comments in the build-up to the game.
At £97.5million, he is Chelsea’s record signing, so the Blues must find a way to get the best from the former Inter Milan striker.
Ahead of the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final with London rivals Tottenham tonight, we explore how Lukaku can come back in from the cold and prove his worth after apologising to Tuchel, his team-mates and the Blues faithful for that controversial interview.
The first thing Lukaku, 28, needs to do is convince Tuchel he is good enough to thrive in this Chelsea side.
Player and manager met earlier this week and Tuchel has been very matter of fact about the situation.
The German said: "He has apologised and is back in the squad. We have had enough time to clear the air and move on.
"For me, the most important thing was to understand and believe that it was not intentional. He did not do this intentionally to create noise in front of such a big game.
"He cannot expect everybody to be super happy the very next day.
"But he's still our player and we have good, good reasons to make him play for us and to convince him to fight hard. We're happy he's our player, we will protect him."
At Inter, Lukaku played as part of a strike pairing alongside highly-rated Argentine forward Lautaro Martinez.
Antonio Conte, now in charge at Tottenham, utilised a 3-5-2 system with the duo creating space for each other.
Martinez assisted five goals for Lukaku in Serie A last season — the second most common assister to goalscorer combination — with the Belgian returning the favour three times.
At Tuchel’s Chelsea, the formation is 3-4-2-1 with two attacking midfielders behind a single striker.
Nudging one of these attacking midfielders slightly further forward alongside Lukaku, and moving another slightly deeper, may be part of the answer.
If Chelsea are to reignite their Premier League title challenge, they will need Lukaku fit and firing.
A striker’s output is not solely reliant on the individual. They need the service from their team-mates whose job it is to create chances.
Chelsea miss the driving runs of crocked duo Reece James and Ben Chilwell down the flanks.
But their most creative player in terms of shot-creating actions per 90 is Callum Hudson-Odoi (4.83).
Along with the delivery of Mason Mount and the threat from stand-in wing-backs Marcos Alonso, Cesar Azpilicueta or even Hudson-Odoi himself, Chelsea have a range of ways they can create chances for Lukaku.
A different type of target man
When a team signs a player of Lukaku’s stature, the temptation is always to launch long balls in their direction.
Although this can be effective in the final third from crosses or set-pieces, it can often be counter-productive.
A lot of the work Lukaku was praised for at Inter — and something that contributed to his improvement under Conte — was his ability to take passes into feet and link play.
He was able to hold off defenders and use his skill to bring others into the game before powering forward himself.
Chelsea are far from a long-ball team but greater emphasis on using Lukaku as a target to play balls into feet — allowing him to face the opposition goal — would make better use of him.
Patch things up with team-mates
Before any tactical changes can be considered, Lukaku needs to be on the same page with his coach and team-mates.
His signing was given the green light by Tuchel, who wanted a focal point No9 to improve his attack, so Lukaku was not brought in over the coach’s head — as has been the case with previous strikers.
The first steps have been taken with Lukaku apologising to Tuchel in private before Chelsea released a video in which the hitman explained his comments.
He said: "The interview was about saying goodbye to the Inter fans, it was not about trying to disrespect the [Chelsea] fans, the football club, the owner, my team-mates and the manager.
"They did a lot of effort to bring me back here and I was on a mission ever since I left.
"I totally understand the frustrations of the fans but it's up to me to show my commitment is 100% and I will."
Chelsea have mounted a title challenge largely without their record signing — if Lukaku can replicate his Inter form, he will be impossible to overlook.