Despite Chelsea’s rousing comeback to claim a point against Liverpool on Sunday, Blues striker Romelu Lukaku has remained the main subject of discussion in what could be a big month for the club.
The £97.5m summer signing was dropped by manager Thomas Tuchel after recent comments to Sky Sport Italia came to light, with the Belgian claiming he was not happy at how he was being used since returning to Stamford Bridge.
Amid reports of showdown talks between player and manager, Chelsea’s use of the former Inter Milan forward has come into sharper focus as a career full of promise and intermittent end-product threatens to hit a roadblock.
As a player who has moved around throughout his career and played under a range of managers, Lukaku has been the subject of plenty of scrutiny himself.
However, as comments from some of his former bosses indicate, there appear to be right and wrong approaches when it comes to getting the best out of a man whose ceiling is clearly higher than most.
After spending so much of their budget bringing him back to Stamford Bridge, it could be time for the London club to learn from others’ mistakes and looking for a way to get the most out of their record signing, rather than cutting their losses at the first sign of trouble.
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“I think the coach has chosen to play with another system, I just have to not give up and continue to work and be a professional,” Lukaku said in his interview with Italian media.
“I am not happy with the situation, but I am a worker and I must not give up.”
It is not the first time Chelsea have spent big on a marquee attacking signing only for the manager to struggle to get the best out of him.
Kai Havertz struggled early on under Frank Lampard before finding a new gear under Tuchel, while Andriy Shevchenko – a club record signing in 2007 despite not being manager Jose Mourinho’s first choice – was unable to impose himself in an attack where Didier Drogba remained the focal point.
Chelsea have been known to cut their losses or turn their attention to shiny new models after other slow starts, with Alvaro Morata and Mohamed Salah among those offloaded early with contrasting results.
No two cases are identical, though, and there are reasons why the Lukaku situation should be considered salvageable if those showdown talks allow Tuchel to establish, in the manager’s own words, “what [Lukaku] said and why he said it”.
Even before that, though, previous comments from Mourinho may help illuminate what has gone wrong during a season which has already been interrupted by injury and illness for the Belgian.
According to The Athletic, Tuchel has held conversations with senior squad members in an effort to address the interpersonal side of the situation.
However, even if the German is able to maintain a solid personal relationship with the former Inter striker, the professional issues will need to be resolved.
This is an area which Mourinho addressed after Manchester United – the club at which he managed the Belgian – let Lukaku move to Inter.
“[In his first spell] at Chelsea, he was still a kid. At Manchester United, he was still developing. At Inter he became the top man,” Mourinho told The Times in June.
“He became loved – a big love from the supporters, love from teammates, great relations with the coach.
“He’s a big guy, physically so strong, but there is also a kid inside who needs that love, needs that support, needs to feel important.”
We often hear stories of footballers being misused due to preconceptions based on their size or build, but Mourinho recognised the mistake of conflating physical qualities with an ability for the forward to look after himself in every facet of his game.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez is among those to notably avoid one of the more obvious traps by utilising Lukaku’s pace and movement rather than attempting to use him as a static target man, while there appear to be few better examples of understanding Lukaku on a personal level than Antonio Conte at Inter.
If that wasn’t clear enough from the on-pitch results, where Lukaku’s 24 goals last season helped Inter end a wait of more than a decade to win the Scudetto, the player’s own comments remove any doubt.
“How I left Inter, how I communicated with the fans, this bothers me because it is not the right time now, but even when I left it was not the right time,” Lukaku said in his Sky Sport interview.
“Now I think it is right to speak because I have always said that I have Inter in my heart, I will return to play there, I really hope so.”
The success at Inter might then come down to being shown he was wanted, both by the fans and the manager, in a way which wasn’t always evident elsewhere: being shown how important he was, rather than just being told as much while being sent mixed messages elsewhere.
Martinez has recognised that, despite Lukaku’s ups and downs, the quality has never disappeared. It was the Spaniard who got the best out of him at Everton by giving him main man status which was lacking in that first Chelsea spell, before ensuring the same treatment came his way at international level with Belgium.
“But going to Italy, he’s in the middle of a new project, he’s taken that responsibility and those difficulties he had in England in a good way,” Martinez said in 2020, after Lukaku moved on from his Man Utd challenge to develop anew in Italy.
“The player we have now is a player in the best maturity moment of his career.”
Maturity can mean different things to different people, of course, and there will be some who put Martinez’s assertions next to Lukaku’s recent comments and wonder aloud how they sync up.
One wonders how many other players would be put in Lukaku’s situation after one of the most expensive moves in football history – not just being misused, at least in his own mind, but seeing ex-players hit out at him for speaking up about how he feels and even demand he apologises to Chelsea fans..
Other big-money deals have become expensive failures, but it’s rare to see the wheels come off so early into a move, especially when the player in question has shown his quality on plenty of occasions.
This is not a case of a player being overpromoted after one hot season – it’s a man who has won trophies and scored at the highest level, reaching the top 20 of the all-time international scorers list before his 29th birthday.
If Lukaku’s issues at Chelsea stem from a personal beef with Tuchel that can’t be resolved, it may yet be the case that it’s just a poor fit which may need to be confined to the past with yet another transfer.
If it’s simply a fixable on-field issue, though, hasn’t he done enough over the course of his career to reach the point where he deserves to be listened to?
We’ve seen what a team can get from Lukaku when he’s loved, and it’s time for Chelsea to decide whether his talent is too significant to be allowed to go to waste when an answer is staring them in the face.