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Luk Who’s Back: What can Chelsea expect from Romelu Lukaku?

In-depth analysis of Chelsea’s old new striker

Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

Almost exactly ten years to the day of Chelsea agreeing terms to sign him the first time, Romelu Lukaku is back at Stamford Bridge, for a bit of unfinished business.

As Lukaku himself said, his career path has seen its fair share of ups and down, including that frustrating initial spell at Stamford Bridge, which was followed by stops on Merseyside and Manchester and of course the fruitful spell at the San Siro, winning the Scudetto with Inter Milan under Antonio Conte.

Along the way, Lukaku has grown and developed as a player. This is not the same Lukaku we remember in Chelsea colors. The striker we are getting back is nothing like the one we gave away. In the last half-decade, Lukaku has established himself as one of the world’s premier centre forwards, a player who fits all teams and styles.

But what makes him so special? Let’s take a look at his strengths, his style of play, and areas to improve.


Overview

Lukaku’s biggest positive is his all-round game. He is not a single-minded goalscorer like Erling Haaland or a passing link-up savant like Roberto Firmiño, but he is arguably the best all-round centre forward in the world right now, along with Harry Kane. He can do almost everything required of a striker at a very high level.

If attacking statistics are separated into three distinct categories — output, penalty box threat, open play involvement — there are only three strikers who rank above the 75th percentile in all of them. One of them is Luis Muriel, who plays for an Atalanta team who have broken the Serie A code. The second is Kylian Mbappé. The third? Romelu Lukaku.

Lukaku’s skillset allows his teams to be equally comfortable on transitions and also while sustaining possession in the final third. Thomas Tuchel should be rubbing his hands with glee at the tactical possibilities Lukaku brings.


Strength: End-product

Chelsea are paying a king’s ransom primarily for Lukaku’s end-product. His all-round skillset will be of great use, but above all, it’s goals and assists that we need from him.

And in that aspect, Lukaku finds himself in esteemed company, in the upper ranges of non-penalty goal contributions, bettered only by the likes of Mbappé, Haaland, or Robert Lewandowski. Playing under a coach renowned for creating efficient attacking teams like Thomas Tuchel could boost his numbers further.

One of Chelsea’s biggest issues last season, as well as in recent seasons, has been putting away (non-penalty) big chances. Lukaku used to be criticized for similar things back in the day, but he should fill this void with aplomb. Despite not receiving as many big chances as other elite strikers last season, he ranked joint-fifth for most big chances converted with 27.

It is not unreasonable to expect Chelsea to create 1.0-1.2 big chances per 90 for Lukaku this season, nor is it unreasonable to expect him to convert roughly half of them: 15-19 goals just from big chances alone in league play. Add penalties and a few more from non-big chances, and his goal tally will look very healthy indeed.


Strength: Ball-progression

Lukaku helped Inter progress the ball in all three ways possible — with his passing, ball-carrying and receiving ability. As we know, Antonio Conte’s patterns of play often involve strikers controlling quick vertical passes from deep before bringing others into play. This was a weakness of Lukaku’s until not too long ago but is a bona-fide strength now. Conte’s coaching has improved Lukaku’s associative play in the final third and his decision-making by spades.

Lukaku’s ability to receive and carry will alleviate Mason Mount’s ball-progression burden, while his capacity to receive the ball and bring teammates into play will elevate the likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. While Lukaku’s inclusion alone will not solve all our ball-progression issues — the attacking midfielders will still need to step up as well — his presence will be a major boost.

Further evidence: xG buildup is a stat that measures the involvement of players in possession sequences that result in a shot — without counting shots taken or assisted by said players. While this stat does not teach us anything new, it does confirm the importance of Lukaku to Inter’s build-up.


Strength: Penalty-box activity

In Timo Werner, Chelsea already have one of the most active penalty box players in Europe. Adding Lukaku to the mix will make it even harder to defend against this team in possession. Besides those two, Kai Havertz has also shown glimpses of being dangerous around the box while Christian Pulisic’s best work comes in the same region, too.

On top of the four box threats, Chelsea also have three good-to-great ball-progressors in Hakim Ziyech, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Mason Mount. The variety and quality of Chelsea’s attackers is enviable, though consistency is a major issue that needs to be fixed.


Tendencies: Shooting zones

Lukaku has lived off a steady diet of high-quality shots wherever he has been. Most of his shots come from within the frame of the goal and from close distances, maximizing his chances of scoring. This is not to say Lukaku does not or cannot shoot from out wide, he just does not do it as often as other strikers.

While off-ball movement is hard to quantify, Lukaku has some of the best moves without the ball in world football right now. There is an element of art involved in his runs without the ball, with an economy of movement that is impossible to teach. While it is easy to cite his athleticism and skill as the main reasons behind his success, it is his intelligence and awareness that truly set him apart.

Inter focused on creating from the left channel for Lukaku, allowing him to open up his body from center-right positions. Those are exactly the types of chances Mason Mount has been creating for Chelsea over the last 12 months.

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Tendencies: Passing zones

Lukaku is coming off his best-ever creative season, notching up 11 assists along with some healthy underlying numbers. However, it is pretty unlikely that he creates at that level in the Premier League. Lukaku’s creativity in 2020-21 was at a level he had never shown before and realistically, he will do well to notch 5-8 assists in the league next year.

That said, his key passing pattern is encouraging from a Chelsea perspective. The bulk of his key passes originated from the center-right channels and ended in central zones. While Havertz and Lukaku might prefer passing from similar zones, they are not likely to be making the same pass at any given time. In practice, Havertz will be on the end of Lukaku’s passes and vice versa. As one drops deep, the other will attack space behind the defensive line.

If Chelsea are to focus our offensive possessions in center-right zones, there is a constant possibility of making quick diagonal passes to Werner or Chilwell on the opposite flank, making use of their pace to create cut-backs or even shots.


Tendencies: Finishing zones

After our recent finishing struggles, we might be tempted to believe and expect Lukaku to be a one-stop solution who will solve all our issues on that front. However, that might not be the case.

Lukaku is a good finisher but to portray him as one of the world’s best would be misleading. Barring one epic season in 2016-17 — 26 goals from 17 xG — his finishing throughout his career has been mostly average to above-average. Lukaku scores a lot because of his movement without the ball, not his finishing skill. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Finishing can be a very volatile skill and it is impossible to predict how it will trend year-on-year, as can be seen in Timo Werner’s case. He had two great finishing seasons and two average ones before coming to Chelsea only to forget how to finish almost completely. Similar inconsistencies could be seen with Diego Costa, even, several years ago. Lukaku might very well go on to over-perform his xG by 10, there’s no ruling it out, but it does not look likely.

In terms of finishing moves, Lukaku’s arsenal is vast. He has exhibited every type of finish and is comfortable shooting with both feet and head. When given time, he likes to pick out the corner of the goal and mainly prefers to shoot from the center-right channels.

Even more encouraging are the variety of situations from which he scores. He is capable of feasting on cut-backs in set possessions, running transitions by himself or with others, making far post runs and also just simply bullying defenders or weaker opponents. He is a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C all by himself.


Room for improvement: Shot volume

Among Europe’s best goalscorers — players with at least 30 non-penalty league goals since 2019-20 — Lukaku’s shot volume is among the lowest.

This is an issue that has followed him throughout his career, with his career shooting average hovering around 3 shots per 90 as opposed to most elite strikers who average 4 or more. Lukaku has clearly prioritized shot quality over quantity but he would score 3-5 additional goals every season simply by taking more shots, even if they are of low quality.

Lukaku is one of Europe’s most consistent goalscorers but his lack of shooting volume is one of the reasons why he doesn’t capitalize on his scoring games to score even more.

That he has played mainly in counter-attacking teams has influenced his shot volume, but there is certainly room for improvement here.

An easy way to look at Lukaku’s shot-shy nature is by analyzing the number of games he has had with a specific number of shots. For a striker of his calibre, 9 games with just one shot is far too many. If he can score off just one or two shots every game, why not shoot more and score more? Considering his intelligence and all other strengths, it not a stretch to say Lukaku could score 30 league goals if he were willing to shoot more.

The last world-class striker who was as shot-shy as Lukaku is coincidentally the aforementioned Chelsea cult hero Diego Costa.


Room for improvement: Aerial ability

For a player of his height and build, Lukaku certainly does not do enough in the air. Even by Serie A standards — where the ball is more on the ground compared to England — Lukaku was weak in the air. 1.15 successful aerial duels per 90 at a rate of 37% is something that can be improved upon for sure.

This downturn seems to have started in Italy. His aerial numbers in England were mostly fine before nosediving at Inter, so there is a decent chance he bounces back without too much trouble.

(Note: Dribbling is not a weakness by any means, nor is it a strength. It has been included in the same chart as aerials solely for convenience)


What can we expect from Lukaku?

As a baseline, 20-25 Premier League goals and 5-10 Champions League goals (penalties included) appear to be a reasonable expectation from Lukaku. However, some of his best traits, including his football intelligence and simply just his presence, will not always be reflected on the statsheet.

All said and done, signing Lukaku should help us get closer to first place in the Premier League and remain competitive in the Champions League.


Conclusion

In Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea have signed one of the world’s finest marksmen right in the middle of his prime. His stylistic fit with the team is superb, perhaps the best of any striker linked to the club this summer.

His game also projects to age well due to his intelligence and professionalism. Many of the world’s best attackers, such as Lewandowski or Karim Benzema, have managed to prolong their careers well into their 30s as a result of their dedication and advancements in sports science. Luck permitting, Lukaku can do the same, too.


As always, any feedback is more than welcome, either here in the comments or on Twitter.

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