Come at the king, you’d best not miss. But Romelu Lukaku did, twice. First before half-time when, on the charge and with the ball on his stronger left foot, he opted, bafflingly, to try to lay in Hakim Ziyech, who was offside even if the pass had been accurate; and then in the second half when, laid through by Mateo Kovacic, he opened his body to try to curl an effort round Ederson, only to find that the keeper had read his barely disguised intentions and was diving to make a save that was far more comfortable than it ought to have been.
And that’s the problem when you’ve recently given a television interview questioning the formation, especially when the team you’ve joined are European champions: it places scrutiny on your own performance that isn’t tremendously helpful. Little wonder that Thomas Tuchel was unwilling to spare his £97.5m striker afterwards. Was Lukaku the only reason Chelsea lost to Manchester City on Saturday? Clearly not but, for all City appeared dominant, that game was not that far from following the pattern of last season’s Champions League final or FA Cup semi-final between the sides: City with lots of the ball but unable to break down a well-organised Chelsea and undone on the counterattack.
Had Kepa Arrizabalaga not given that little skip to his right before Kevin De Bruyne’s shot, had Lukaku made more of either of his two big opportunities, this might easily have been regarded as another Tuchel masterclass.
To an extent, that only highlights how result-driven a lot of analysis is: as Juanma Lillo, City’s assistant coach, once observed, what is praised is not what is done well but what ends well. But this was not like the game between the sides at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season; City were not so superior on Saturday as they had been then. They are a supremely talented side and there are limits to what an opposing manager can do against them, even with a squad like Chelsea’s.
On Saturday, Chelsea did largely contain City and they did cause occasional problems on the break; for all the understandable frustration that Chelsea weren’t more proactive given their need to win in order to remain with even a sniff of the title, there was not a huge amount more they could have done. Perhaps they could have gone a little more direct a little more often, perhaps they could have slung in a few more crosses for Lukaku to contest with John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, but retaining possession and with it the control that has characterised Tuchel’s Chelsea at their best was key to the plan.
Little wonder, then, that Tuchel was frustrated with Lukaku, something apparent in his gesticulations on the touchline as well as his words after the match. “He had many ball losses without pressure and in very promising circumstances,” the manager said. “Of course we want to serve him but he is part of the team and sometimes he needs to do service as well. He had a huge chance so he’s included in this.
“He is part of the team and the performances up front, especially in the first half, we can do much better and we need to do better. We had eight or nine attacking transitions in the first half and zero touches in the box. That is a big problem. There was a lack of timing and composure. We could have had more chances if we played with better precision.”
Lukaku’s form is of more general concern. He’s not the only Chelsea forward underperforming. It’s only fair to acknowledge the impact of injuries and illness but none of Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner or Ziyech, brought in at a combined cost of £210m, have entirely convinced either. But his case is the most baffling.
Lukaku had shown glimpses of talent in the Premier League before; the sense was that he was as much a victim of Manchester United’s malaise as a cause. He had shown with Belgium his tactical intelligence, his capacity for drifting wide to create space for advanced midfielders – which seemed to be just what Chelsea needed in a front man – allied to an immense physical presence. And then there were his goals: 47 of them in the league over two
seasons in an Inter team based around pressing, albeit a more frenetic system than that favoured by Tuchel. But maybe a championship in which 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic and 35-year-old Edin Dzeko still stand out isn’t that much of a gauge.
It’s early. Nobody should be written off six months into a move. Lukaku has scored five goals in nine Premier League starts. But the truth is that this feels a lot like his time at United. There are flickers of what he could be. The way he turned Stones before his ill-conceived pass to Ziyech was a demonstration of how terrifying he can be for defenders. But five of his 12 attempted passes failed to find a teammate. His one attempted dribble squandered possession. On the 42 occasions teammates attempted to find him with a pass, only 12 times did he claim possession. He lost all eight of his aerial duels (which may explain Chelsea’s reluctance to cross). He registered only one touch in the City box. Playing against City is difficult, but that was not the performance of a player who can be demanding formational changes to suit him.
Lukaku is 28 now. His gifts are obvious and seem abundant, and perhaps that generates unreasonable expectation. But if it ever is going to really work for him in the Premier League, it is going to have to be soon.