Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea FC–past, present, future

Chelsea FC have broken their transfer record to re-sign Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan. Let’s go down memory lane to revisit his history with the club, define what he will bring in the coming season, and how his game can potentially evolve as he gets older

Past

Romelu Lukaku joined Chelsea from Anderlecht for £10m on August 2011 but he was the 5th striker in the squad. Chelsea had just signed Fernando Torres for a record breaking £50m six months ago, there was the talisman but ageing Didier Drogba, squad player Saloman Kalou and fellow youngster Daniel Sturridge. Lukaku was part of the Belgian revolution led by Michael Emenalo and joined around the same time as Kevin De Bruyne and a year earlier than the Hazard brothers. He was a huge fan of Drogba and the club.

Figure 1: Romelu Lukaku signs for Chelsea, Courstesy Getty Images

2011/12 was largely spent on the bench or with the reserves and wasn’t even in the Champions league squad of 25. Chelsea didn’t do too bad though winning the Champions league title though they came 6th in the league.

For the 2012/13 season Chelsea knew they were going to play a lot of games with their involvement in the Club World Cup in addition to the usual commitments. Drogba and Kalou left as well. However, Lukaku was sanctioned to leave on loan to West Brom. Chelsea only had two strikers in Torres and the untested Sturridge. The 25-man squad included Lucas Piazon (18), Nathan Ake (17), and Florent Malouda who were not expected to play. The club ended up playing more than 65 games that season.

Lukaku at that moment was not a complete striker. He had a weak right foot, could not run with the ball or take players on. He was primarily a poacher, getting into good positions and finishing off moves. He scored 17 goals which was more than all of Chelsea’s strikers.

Jose Mourinho returned to the club at the start of the 2013 season and there was lots of excitement. Lukaku was expected to stay and compete with Torres. He played in pre-season friendlies, and even the Super Cup against Bayern Munich where he missed the decisive penalty in the shootout. The club were chasing Wayne Rooney all summer and ended up with an ageing Samuel Etoo. Out of no where, the last day of the window Lukaku pushed for a loan to Everton which Mourinho granted.

Figure 2: Lukaku with Mourinho in 2013, Courtesy Getty Images

Chelsea ended trophyless that season. Mourinho made a comment after the 1st leg of the Quarter Final game with PSG about his non-existent forward line while Lukaku scored 15 goals in the league even though he was injured for a while.

2014 was supposed to be Lukaku’s year, right? All three of Chelsea’s forwards were let go. Torres loaned to AC Milan, Etoo released and Demba Ba sold to Besiktas. But no Lukaku. Chelsea recruited three new forwards. Diego Costa joined from Atletico Madrid for £32m, Drogba rejoined for free and Loic Remy was bought as a 3rd choice forward. Lukaku tired of going out on loan joined Everton on a permanent transfer for £28m.

In the following years, he further developed his game. He scored more regularly with both feet, ran better with the ball, included more assists in his game. He also had that famous goal against Chelsea in an FA Cup game where he dribbled past two players and lashed a powerful strike across the goal to dump his old club out of the competition.

Chelsea didn’t do too bad. Diego Costa led the front line along with Hazard to two titles in three years and a Carling cup. In hindsight, Chelsea got Diego Costa for Lukaku + £4m. The same Lukaku who had never scored a goal for the club.

There was a telling moment in the corridors of Goodison park three years later in 2017 though where Chelsea won 3-0 thanks to an amazing Pedro goal. Michael Emenalo and Lukaku were having a conversation at the end of the game. It was common knowledge that Diego Costa was agitating to leave and Lukaku had developed enough to potentially lead Chelsea to new heights.

Chelsea, Antonio Conte and Michael Emenalo courted Lukaku in the summer of 2017, and everything seemed done for a £75m move back to his former club. At the 11th hour though, Manchester United offered Everton more money and Rooney for the player. Paul Pogba and Lukaku were seen together at Los Angeles as he went AWOL on Chelsea and joined the Red Devils.

Chelsea bought Morata, then Giroud, then Higuain, then Tammy Abraham took over. Giroud and Tammy were relative successes but Chelsea who have always played with a traditional robust No.9 have missed something up front ever since Costa left. They ended up winning the 2021 Champions league final playing with mobile false forwards in Werner and Havertz.

Figure 3: Chelsea won the Champions league in 2021, Courtesy Getty Images

Lukaku scored goals at Manchester United but was never deemed a success there. He moved to Inter Milan where he took his all-round game to another level becoming a leader in the team leading them to their first Serie A in 10 years ending Juventus’ dominance.

Present

Welcome to 2021 when Chelsea fans salivating about Erling Haaland all summer got Romelu Lukaku. Chelsea have paid top dollar for him as well shattering their previous transfer record with Kepa. So, what can we expect from him this season?

Goals, goals, more goals and some assists. There is so much creative talent in the forward line of Chelsea and Lukaku will be finishing all of those moves. It doesn’t stop there though. His build up play has improved now, and he is going to help players like Werner, Pulisic, and Havertz score more as well.

He is the big center forward that Chelsea have craved but let’s not pigeonhole him into just that. Famously in 2018 against Brazil, he switched to a wider forward role helping Belgium win the quarter finals with De Bruyne playing false 9. In one specific moment, he ran past Fernandinho like he didn’t exist before assisting De Bruyne showing various facets to his game.

Figure 4: Lukaku against Brazil, Courtesy Getty images

The present Lukaku is a poacher. He can head in crosses from Chilwell and Reece James, play cute inter plays with the technically gifted forward players, and run the channels if Chelsea play on the counter against teams like Manchester City. Chelsea will be expected to contest for the title in 2021-2022 and Lukaku will be expected to score 20-30 goals.

Future

Lukaku is at the peak of his game but in two to three years age will start creeping up on him. He already has ten years of football in him, and his speed will reduce. He will not have any resale value and Chelsea are not buying him with the hope of selling him for more later.

Expect Lukaku’s game to adapt in a few years more akin to Olivier Giroud has during his time at Chelsea. The pace to run behind may go away, but the awareness in the box to get into the right positions, the strength to win headers and finally the ability to involve others will still be there. In the future, Lukaku may not be a 20-goal striker, but he can still be a 10-goal impact substitute who comes on against tiring defenses to get late goals.

It could all go down hill though. He could hide in big games as he is accused of doing, not score against the big teams or in the big occasions, miss big chances and be a liability in a year. With transfers, there is always that risk. It’s a risk Chelsea are willing to take though with the potential reward of getting the final piece of the Tuchel puzzle. Yes, Chelsea just won the Champions league but that’s despite not having a proper center forward.

Chelsea and Lukaku have a long history and have crossed paths many times. Here is to hope for a bright future as well. Welcome home Rom.

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