Since Lukaku started scoring goals for Everton, the notion that "teams play differently against Chelsea, therefore striker X would not be as effective here as he is at team Y", has surfaced and become commonplace among Chelsea fans. It's a valid analysis, as teams do tend to utilize a more packed, compact defense against us, as well as other stylistic adjustments.
However, this analysis has taken on a somewhat pernicious character, and has sometimes been used to short-circuit thinking, criticism, and discussion when examining loans (Lukaku), transfers (Sturridge), and the underperformance of our strikers. Someone states, "teams play differently against us", and the analysis or discussion often ends there. Instead of letting that stand as the last word in any argument relating to our strikers, I suggest that the following points, among others, should be considered:
- In principle, we have the best attacking midfield in the EPL. Mata, when utilized properly, is capable of producing dozens of assists per season. Hazard is perhaps the best player in England in running circles around defenses. Oscar offers a good balance between providing an attacking outlet and creativity. Willian is a 30M GBP creative player. The rest are no slouches either.
Is this a midfield that is less capable of providing service to a striker than, let's say, Bolton's was, when Sturridge was playing there, or Liverpool or Everton's midfield is right now? Yes, packaged defenses make things difficult for Chelsea's strikers - however, the potency of our attacking midfielders should at least somewhat mitigate that.
- As player X establishes himself at team Y, opposing teams should become more aware of player X, and his effectiveness should decrease accordingly as they dedicate more defensive resources to that player. Most teams for which a given striker can play do not have the AM/creative/attacking resources of Chelsea - thus, it should be easier for opponents to dedicate defensive resources to a striker when that striker is playing for a team like Everton, where a lone CF is the main attacking outlet, than it would be to do so against a team like Chelsea, where goals can come from anywhere.
To consider Lukaku's case, as defenders wised up to the threat he poses at West Brom, they dedicated more resources to him. In principle, that should have made him less effective than he was previously; however, it did not. It also should have diminished his freedom of movement relative to what he would have had a Chelsea, because Chelsea's opponents would not have been able to dedicate as much of their defensive capacity against a single striker, given the threat that other players pose; if they did, they would risk goals coming from other players, and the CF's presence pays dividends either way.
- Packed defenses will not bring all strikers down to the same level. The kind of defenses against which Chelsea will not suddenly turn Everton or West Brom Lukaku, or Liverpool Sturridge, into Chelsea's Torres. Chelsea's Torres is ineffective for a number of reasons, and many of those reasons should not apply to Lukaku or Dan at Chelsea under any circumstances whatsoever. Some have argued that if Lukaku had stayed, or if Sturridge had stayed, they would be practically as ineffective as our current crop of strikers - this is disingenuous at best.
- Top strikers should have some versatility in their style of play, and should be able to adjust to more packed defenses or other circumstances. The fact that Sturridge may sometimes have to do less work to get a goal playing for Liverpool doesn't mean he's not capable of doing more work and still getting the goal. Again, stylistic factors may somewhat diminish the effectiveness of strikers, but should not nullify it.
- Teams do not always play differently against us than they do against other teams - this is often an illusion that results from watching us underperform (often from lack of motivation, or taking the win for granted) against opponents that should not give us too much trouble. A relegation-threatened team playing away at Anfield or Goodison will be just as compact and defensive as they will be at SB. If a striker is effective playing for Pool, Everton, or whomever against a defense that's similar to what he would encounter at Chelsea, given that he's got a weaker midfield behind him, the "teams play differently against us" argument simply becomes a smokescreen for some cause to which one feels affinity (i.e. justifying a transfer move).
- Consider an extreme example: Teams play differently against Barca as well, becoming more defensive. Put Messi into Everton or West Brom - does he become more, or less effective? I'd bet that he becomes less effective because he has a less effective creative team behind him. I'd bet that the same goes for, let's say, RVP, although the case isn't as clear cut as it is for Messi. Thus, the argument that strikers necessarily become less effective against more defensive teams is compromised when all other variables are not being held stable (i.e. as is the case when comparing how a striker would do at Chelsea as opposed to somewhere else).
Go ahead and add your own to the list above.
The point is that a valid analysis can sometimes be misapplied, used without sufficient consideration, used in bad faith, or used counterproductively to shut down debate. Before fans utilize the "teams play differently against us" argument, it would be of benefit to give that argument (and in some cases, their motivation for using it) some more careful consideration. Those who encounter this argument should not be silenced by it, and will hopefully recognize that this mantra does not tell the whole story.