You may not believe in curses, but the Curse of the Chelsea striker, the proverbial No.9 shirt, has long vexed and befuddled us all. More than 25 have come in since Didier Drogba’s first stint at spearheading the attack in 2004. Though not all have worn the No.9 shirt, virtually all not named Diego Costa have failed to live up to expectations. Many have floundered rather spectacularly, coming in hot and going out cold. (See: Andriy Shevchenko, Claudio Pizarro, Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao, Álvaro Morata, Gonzalo Higuaín, the list goes on).
The return of Romelu Lukaku last summer in a club-record £97.5m move was billed as the final piece of our attacking puzzle, the solution to our mystifyingly poor performances in front of goal. He declared himself a complete striker, backup up by his numbers in Italy that saw him contribute to exactly 80 goals in two seasons (64 goals, 16 assists). He seemed purpose-built for the Premier League, and he was eager to complete his Chelsea destiny.
Twelve months later, it looks like he’s already on his way out, adding his name to our growing list of flops at the position, and for the second time, even.
So, what happened?
Although there are numerous contributing factors to his performances and numbers, the resounding complaints, outside of his effort or how he fits into Tuchel’s system, have been that the service to him has been insufficient or that his runs have been lacking or mistimed. One does not preclude the other, and there have been times when both of those assessments were accurate.
In fact, in “that game” against Crystal Palace, where Lukaku was chastised for only having 7 touches, the team recorded 536 passes and had 58% possession, which should have been plenty to get the ball to him. The blame for this falls on both parties, the many passers and the sole receiver.
There were times when Lukaku was making decent runs, ball- and goal-side of his mark, but wasn’t getting the service he sought. In the two images above both Sarr and Rüdiger opted for less progressive passes in order to retain possession. In both circumstances, Lukaku is making an intelligent run based on the positioning of his fellow attackers and the channels he is being afforded, but the ball never comes his way.
Then, there were the circumstances in which the runs he was making did not do anything to help our link up play.
In the top image above, Lukaku had backed into his defender while hoping to get on the end of a pass from Rüdiger. When Rüdiger starts advancing with the ball, Lukaku turns and runs away, giving Rüdiger no real passing option to feet. His run takes him into a threatening area but greatly diminishes the likelihood that he will get onto the end of the pass. The ball is instead recycled wide in possession as a result.
In the bottom image of the two above, Lukaku begins a run into the half space, pauses because he is taking his run wider than he’d prefer, and then is too slow to get onto the ball due to that hesitation. This is the same run and pass that Sarr connected to Havertz in the images of the first sequences, but Lukaku doesn’t get on the end of his.
And then there is the most frustrating bit - how he can so horribly misjudge the flight of viable balls to him and lose possession through a duel. Both the top ball from Ziyech and the bottom ball from Rüdiger were accurate.
On the top ball, he is outmuscled by Joachim Andersen despite being in a superior position, all while allowing the ball to bounce at his feet. In the second instance, the defender easily wins the duel as Lukaku’s leap is mistimed and the ball is lost uncontested. In fact, he lost all 4 of his aerial duels on the day and more than half of them over the course of this season. Something was not clicking between him and the rest of the team.
When Chelsea were bagging goals for fun, it was not due to the proficiency of a striker. Our goals have almost always come from wide play through our wingbacks, even after the injuries of Reece James and Ben Chilwell. And indeed it would be difficult to analyse every game and Lukaku’s every movement without the advanced metrics to which clubs have access, so instead I have taken a subset of matches through the month of October. Notably, these are also the games Lukaku would have had in recent memory while giving his now famous interview. (And occurred before his injury and positive test, which technical
advisor director Petr Čech cited as major extenuating circumstances for Lukaku’s performances this season.)
In just those four league games from the month, we have the information to quantify both Lukaku’s and Kai Havertz’s output. Lukaku was injured on the 20th of October in the game against Malmö, meaning that he started the first two league games and Havertz the latter two. It is also a prime set to study as the formations involving Lukaku were both a 3-4-3 against Southampton (eventually shifting to a 3-4-1-2) and an outright 3-5-2 while partnered with Timo Werner against Brentford.
In that month, we won our four Premier League games by a combined 14-1 scoreline, yet only a single goal could be attributed to a recognised striker. Timo Werner scored against Southampton, notably after Mason Mount had replaced Callum Hudson-Odoi and took up a No.10 role with Lukaku and Werner in a split striker 3-4-1-2 system. Three were scored by Mount himself against Norwich. Six of those goals (three each, and two each being unassisted) were scored by Reece James or Ben Chilwell.
Havertz managed to get on the scoresheet twice, but not in either league game — all while up against much weaker opposition in Norwich and Newcastle (at the time weaker) than Lukaku had faced in Southampton and Brentford. However, that should have played into Lukaku’s hand, as both Brentford and Southampton were high pressing teams, the exact opposite of the low blocks fielded by Norwich and Newcastle.
Tuchel’s deployment of Lukaku against the high press of Southampton and Brentford was still likely not a strategic maneuver — he was simply trying to get his star striker into a rich vein of form, regardless of the competition. However, in those two games, Lukaku played one game extremely well and disappeared in the other.
Against Southampton, after losing the previous matches to Manchester City and Juventus, Chelsea needed a strong start and got it through an early goal from Trevoh Chalobah, theoretically lightening the burden on the forwards.
The attack thereafter was actually looking wonderfully fluid and Lukaku and Werner were both having an impact. Lukaku was holding up play well, laying the ball off, and then marking darting and direct runs into the box. He nearly doubled the lead just a moment after the first through that exact style of play — something he had done so well at Inter.
In fact, both he and Werner had goals ruled out by VAR prior to the halftime whistle. Werner bagged a header from a cross but César Azpilicueta was adjudged to have fouled Kyle Walker-Peters (about a full minute prior) in the buildup. Lukaku was only marginally offside after a mazy run from Antonio Rüdiger slid him in from close range.
Lukaku had one of his best games in a Chelsea shirt despite not getting on the scoresheet, and he was enabling Werner to thrive — note Werner’s shots, SoT, xG, and presses in the graphic below. The game really came to life when Mount replaced Hudson-Odoi and picked up a role as a floating No. 10, restructuring the attack with a recognized striking partnership of Werner and Lukaku rather than a front three. Their movement was exceptional throughout the match, and Lukaku should have had another goal in the second half but he rang the woodwork.
Following an international break, the team’s performance against Brentford was pretty miserable — Édouard Mendy was by far our best player.
A second half tactical shift saw a more defensive-minded midfielder in Mateo Kovačić (after being on a yellow since the 17th minute) replaced with Mason Mount, and the vertical ball movement fell apart.
Similar to the game against Palace, our passing accuracy was low for a team rooted in possession. The press from Brentford held us deep in our half and our numerous injuries resulted in a makeshift back line that couldn’t transition the ball to the midfield. When Lukaku did receive the ball, he was in isolated spaces and on the day he could not hold up the ball while waiting for our attack to join.
There were truly only two circumstances where the two strikers linked up in the entire match. In the first, a long ball headed towards Lukaku is overhit by Chalobah, but Ben Chilwell is there to head it on for Lukaku. His first touch is off his thigh and rather poor, even directed away from goal, but a trailing Werner would be there for the follow. He goes for placement and shoots wide of the top corner by a fair distance.
In the second instance, Mount drops very deep and picks up a ball from Chalobah. He turns and finds Kanté in the half space, who drives through their midfield towards goal on one of the few occasions we were able to do so. Kanté finds Werner in the box with Lukaku right beside him. Werner uses Lukaku as a shield and dips around him in an attempt to get off a shot, but the defense is able to shift and block that shot. It falls incredibly kindly for Lukaku, who blasts it over the bar. There are hints of offsides on the play, too, and it may not have even counted had it gone in.
Perhaps an analysis of the role required by a striker in Tuchel’s formation compared to an analysis of the personnel instructed to play there would be more pragmatic.
Defensively, Tuchel expects a system of flexible pressing when out of possession. Lukaku’s role in this is limited by his positioning being so deep and central, and so we are more easily played around and past when he is on the pitch than we are with a more mobile forward.
Offensively, Lukaku’s strengths are to hold up play, dish off the ball, and then show his presence in the opposition box. His runs are typically vertical, with or without the ball, and are designed to stretch a back line, something that is done best with pace. Considering his starting position is often on the shoulder of the last defender, any direct passes to release him need to be just right or, as we have seen plenty with both him and Werner, he will be caught offside. There is very little margin for error and possession is often lost with those sorts of passes, which is certainly contrary to Tuchel’s plans.
Another aspect of Tuchel’s system is our progression through the flanks and overloading a particular side to gain a numerical advantage. This tends to slow the pace of our play down — that overload must be coordinated — and only Manchester City ended with a more deliberate attack or greater sequence time in attack than Chelsea had this season. That works against Lukaku. Firstly, it doesn’t get him involved in the build up play often, as he prefers to bring his runs in towards the box, not out to the flanks. Secondly, he likes to be on the ball and be a focal point of the play, wherein the play develops around and according to him — that is not an objective in Tuchel’s system.
It also negates what are likely his best attributes: direct and/or transitional play. Sometimes frustratingly, we know Tuchel is resolute on a possession-based game and reliant on patterns of play and rote passing sequences. Because they are designed through the flanks, Lukaku will see much less of the ball than the wingers and wingbacks. If the attack fails, it is recycled through the midfield and back line to the other side. Very rarely will we attempt to bring an attack centrally, and so he is essentially nullified by the very nature of our ball movement.
When he was successful, many of his Serie A runs came from the right-sided half space towards goal, whereas Lautaro Martínez was playing the opposite flank or tasked with dropping a bit deeper in possession. Against Brentford, Tuchel tried something similar yet had Lukaku on the left and Werner on the right: it wasn’t effective.
Lukaku’s injury versus Malmö allowed Tuchel to safely switch back to Havertz with less scrutiny, but Havertz fit in seamlessly and the real scrutiny only came once Lukaku was still being left out while fit. Havertz naturally fits into this system — he is not dovetailed in like Lukaku — but with such an overhaul on our hands this summer, Lukaku might be useful still. After the transfer window closes and signings are complete, we may be in an entirely different formation. We do already have an abundance of players who prefer different roles to what we typically assign them, anyway.
And in the more modern game, it doesn’t seem like recognised strikers still dominate the scoring charts as they have in the past. The position itself has been largely redefined and the stress we had placed on getting a no. 9 who is failing shows that versatility and fluidity may be preferential to a defined role — I say while hoping that Erling Haaland to City is a more condemning bust.