While we may feel very familiar with Romelu Lukaku from his time at Chelsea and in the Premier League (or watching him on the world stage with Belgium), he had spent the past two seasons at Inter Milan. So, who better than our blog-friends at Serpents of Madonnina, and specifically David (great name!) McFarland, to answer a few questions as our prodigal son comes home?
WAGNH: Although football didn’t “come home” this summer, Romelu has, re-joining Chelsea exactly a decade after the first time. The prodigal son returns, thanks to an offer that was too good to refuse for either Inter or Lukaku. At least that’s the narrative from the Chelsea perspective. But what about the Inter perspective?
SOM: No one is very happy, to put it bluntly. It’s isn’t so much a problem of Chelsea’s €115 million mega offer; you can’t blame anyone for deciding to almost double their investment on a 28-year-old whose value is at his highest.
In fact, I’d even venture to say that perhaps not accepting that offer would have been a mistake. Lukaku isn’t going to be in his prime forever and his value won’t rise much higher. Even though he’s undoubtedly a top-five striker, there’s always the worry that he might not have matched Simone Inzaghi’s style of play as smoothly as he did Conte’s.
As an outsider looking in at you guys, signing Lukaku has the feel of a move to take Chelsea to the next level. While Chelsea won the Champions League, their attack never seemed like the best in Europe and Lukaku is the perfect signing to change that. That just goes to show how good Chelsea were everywhere else but the Premier League title looks out of reach without someone like Lukaku leading the line.
The biggest worry for Inter is how we’ll move forward (hint: we won’t). To go from Scudetto winners to seeing the backs of Conte, Hakimi, and now Lukaku in two months is something only Pazza Inter could pull off. Inter’s owners, Suning, don’t seem very interested in the long-term success of the club and are stripping assets in a fire sale. They have well-documented financial problems but made it clear in May that Hakimi’s sale, which covered the €80 million profit it needed, was going to be the only main departure this summer. Instead, Inter have now gone on to lose two of our best players without signing any replacements. Very little of €185 million made this summer will be going back into the transfer market.
In short, anyone who is brought in will be a downgrade. Hakimi’s exit we could understand. But the sale of Lukaku really signifies that this is the end of Inter’s short spell on top of Italy. He was the face of this project and can never be replaced in that sense.
WAGNH: Inter fans don’t seem to be taking to this development too kindly, which certainly isn’t surprising, especially after Lukaku’s and the club’s promises earlier this summer. What’s the mood in the fanbase and the effect this may have on Lukaku’s legacy at the club?
SOM: I don’t think any fanbase will love Lukaku the way Inter did. Not only did he make his mark on the pitch, but unlike his predecessor, Mauro Icardi, Romelu always put the team first and didn’t cause off-field drama.
For a club that hadn’t won a trophy in a decade, Lukaku was the perfect player and personality to fall in love with. Seeing him drive around Milan during the city’s Scudetto celebrations was the culmination of an incredible two years. Lukaku always seemed to love the affection Milan showed and made it clear he was happy being an Inter player.
But the combination of Suning nudging him to London and a massive contract from Chelsea can change anyone’s mind and I don’t blame him for deciding to test himself in England again. It does mean he’s not quite a club legend and won’t last in the memories of Interisti as long as someone like Javier Zanetti. But we’ll always have last season and Lukaku has a special place in my heart for bringing silverware back to the blue side of Milan.
WAGNH: Lukaku is the third major departure from Inter this summer, joining Antonio Conte and Achraf Hakimi. What’s the outlook for the club for this season and the seasons ahead? How shocking has this all been immediately following a Scudetto?
SOM: You know how Inter went through a decade of banter era after the treble win in 2010? Well, it’s looking like we might be repeating history. Inter still have a very talented roster but losing Conte, Lukaku, Hakimi, and Christian Eriksen (his defibrillator doesn’t allow him to play in Italy as per regulations) is a massive setback for the team that dominated Serie A last season. It’s only a matter of time before a down season prompts players like Nicolò Barella, Alessandro Bastoni, and Lautaro Martínez to decide to move on as well.
A minor miracle is required for Inter to somehow repeat as champions. The club seem to be slowly sliding down towards a steep and rocky slope just as after cresting the mountain. The important thing will be staying in the top four and the Champions League money that brings, until either Suning or new owners sort out Inter’s financial headache.
WAGNH: As far as Lukaku himself, what would you say his greatest strengths may be?
SOM: Lukaku was about as complete a striker as they come. This is from our player report card:
“With a player of Lukaku’s caliber leading the attack, it only made sense to funnel play through the Belgian. He was a perfect fit for Antonio Conte’s system and found an ideal strike partner in Lautaro Martinez. Lukaku was set up to succeed and didn’t disappoint one bit. He led Inter in shots on target (55), shot-creating actions (3.6 per 90), touches in the penalty box, and had the most successful dribbles (47). Lukaku scored one goal every five shots and averaged a goal per 120 minutes; he also went seven for seven on attempts from the penalty spot. And as if that didn’t show how important he was to every phase of Inter’s attack, here’s his season heatmap (via sofascore).
Lukaku was a menace to opposition defenders anywhere and everywhere in the final third. His build-up play opened up space and his quick combinations with Lautaro ruthlessly exploited any gaps. Lukaku’s physicality meant stopping him one-v-one was all but impossible without double-teaming him.”
WAGNH: Lukaku was often criticized (rightly or wrongly) during his time in England for a perceived lack of work rate, a poor first-touch, and wasteful finishing especially against “good” teams. Any (actual) weaknesses in his game now?
SOM: The only area Lukaku didn’t cause constant problems was in the air. For a 6’3” guy, he gets beaten in aerial duels too often and can’t make the best of headed chances when they come. As for a poor touch or minimal impact against big teams, those were both proven wrong almost immediately. Lukaku scored in every Milan derby and his linkup with Lautaro was especially lethal thanks to both strikers’ superb technical skills and quick passes.
WAGNH: Legend has it that Antonio Conte paid special attention to developing Lukaku’s hold-up game, to help turn him into a world class complete striker. How was the relationship between the two former Chelsea men and how did Conte get Lukaku to perform at career best levels?
SOM: Antonio Conte was the man who persuaded Lukaku to come to Milan and kept his promise that the trip to Italy would be worthwhile. Lukaku started a new diet and entered into a fitness regime when he arrived. He was in superb shape and physically absolutely dominant on the pitch.
Once Lukaku had the edge in fitness, the rest of his game began to fall into place. Everything from his technical skills to game-awareness improved by leaps and bounds. Some of his most memorable goals originated with him blasting past defenders on the sprint in midfield. Other teams simply couldn’t stop him.
WAGNH: Conte’s and Thomas Tuchel’s (Chelsea) tactics are fairly similar, yet also divergent in key aspects, such as an emphasis on possession versus a more direct approach and defending from the front (i.e. high press) versus defending deeper and more compact (and counter-attacking) setup. What role did Lukaku play in Inter’s approach to games, both with and without the ball?
SOM: A large part of Lukaku’s success was down to a system that fit him perfectly, and in turn, a large part of Inter’s tactical success could be traced to having Lukaku leading the line. In Conte’s counterattacking setup, Lukaku attracted defenders to him, which opened space for runners like Hakimi and Lautaro. He could use his hold-up skills and smart passing to slice apart opposing backlines. If he was afforded any space whatsoever he left defenders in the dust with a quick burst of speed and his final product had impeccable quality, whether it be a shot or pass.
As for off the ball, it was Lautaro that usually did the dirty work up front and nagged defenders all day long with nonstop pressure. That gave Lukaku the freedom to focus on leading the attack and the mere threat of him charging down the pitch gave defenders cause for wariness.
WAGNH: Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez seemed like perfect strike partners, whereas in the Premier League, Lukaku usually played as a lone striker. Do you see him excelling in either role, or is he more suited to one of them?
SOM: I definitely don’t see Lukaku hitting the same numbers he did at Inter without Lautaro by his side. The two of them had excellent chemistry and a mutually beneficial relationship on the pitch. Their skill sets complemented each other perfectly and while it’s one thing to gameplan against one striker of that caliber, two is almost impossible for any defense to prepare for. I could see Lukaku taking time to adapt to a one-striker system but he’s so good that even a formation change isn’t going to keep him off the scoresheet.
WAGNH: How do you see Lukaku fitting in at Chelsea and in the Premier League now, after his two years in Italy?
SOM: Changing from league to league and country to country is never easy but like the switch from a two-striker system to one, I can’t see anything holding Lukaku back for long. Even if the Premier League is as physical as it’s touted to be, Lukaku has both the football smarts and the fitness to deal with anything defenders throw at him.
WAGNH: Since the football gods love a narrative, how good are the chances that we get drawn against each other in the Champions League this season?
SOM: Inter have had horrendous luck with its group stage draws in recent years and haven’t made it to the round of sixteen in a decade. Luckily a meet-up with Chelsea is impossible until the knockout rounds but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if that happened after after finally progressing from the group stages. The football gods sure have a sense of humor.