Romelu Lukaku: What does the Belgian bring to Chelsea? – Positional analysis

Varun Pai
By Varun Pai
17 Min Read

In what was quite possibly one of the best transfer windows for Chelsea, the Blues chose quality over quantity this year. Thomas Tuchel had a well-knit squad in place to win most games, but they lacked a ruthless forward who could bully his way through regardless of the opposition. In came Romelu Lukaku, who might not have been the club’s first priority but is surely shown more than enough to prove that he is exactly what the club needed.

This is a striker who is oozing confidence and has taken it on himself to win the Premier League. Yes, the Belgian has only featured in two games, but he has shown more than a glimpse of what he is about to bring to the club.  

Let us take a look at how the 28-year-old managed two very different games against two very different oppositions in two very different conditions.

1) Romelu Lukaku vs Arsenal: 

This was a game that Lukaku knew he could dominate, and it was the perfect debut game to play in. Arsenal were on the down, Chelsea were confident of their strengths, and the Belgian international had a point to prove. However, there were four particular instances where he showed why Thomas Tuchel has spent the big bucks on him. 

A) Always on the run:

Lukaku running between the two Arsenal centre backs

As you can see in the picture above, the Belgian is doing something very different from what Timo Werner did last year. Werner would often make the same run as Lukaku has made right now, but the big difference is that the Belgian is running between the two centre-backs, and he is pointing where he wants the ball. This does two things – Reece James knows exactly where to play the pass, and if the delivery is perfect, it would immediately take Pablo Mari out of the game. This is experience, loads & loads of experience. 

Timo Werner would often make the run between a centre-back & full-back whereas Lukaku is not only taking Mari out of the game but is also dragging Rob Holding along with him.

This creates two problems for Arsenal.

1) Another defender has to follow Lukaku and ensure that Rob Holding is not left in a 1v1 position.

2) If another defender does choose to do so, Chelsea are ready to create an immediate overload on the left-hand side with Marcos Alonso and Havertz/ Mount who were roaming around in free roles. 

Thus, Lukaku portrays that every time there is an opportunity to play a through ball, he can not only run the hard yards but make the perfect run which will ultimately take one defender out of the game or create leave him free in a 1v1 situation, where he would back himself to find the back of the net. 

B) Attracting players towards him:

Lukaku attracting four players towards him

It is very clear in the picture above that as soon as Mateo Kovacic pinged the ball into Lukaku, four Arsenal players surrounded him because they felt it was a great chance to win the ball back and counter-attack. While most people would feel that Chelsea’s 2nd goal was a team goal, it was actually the first where every player worked in symphony and performed their roles brilliantly. 

As soon as Lukaku receives the ball, Mason Mount has come in an inside position to drag Kieran Tierney while Reece James has galloped from the wings to create the perfect run. Although Bukayo Saka is guilty of not tracking back, a lot of credit has to be given to Lukaku, who has kept the ball long enough to attract four players towards him, which, in turn, led to Reece James having the space he had. 

As soon as the four players converged on Lukaku, he immediately passed it back to Kovacic, who found James in tons of space and all the Englishman had to was cross the ball into a dangerous area where the Belgian was waiting to score his debut goal. Although there were a lot more elements involved in Lukaku’s movement for the goal, it is this moment where he turned the tide on the Gunners and took nearly 3 players out of the game.

C) Dominating the opposition:

Lukaku dominating Pablo Mari

A prime example of what Lukaku brings to Chelsea. Although one could have picked out nearly 17 different instances of the Belgian backing into Mari and dominating him, it is this very instance that encapsulates Lukaku’s ability to turn defence into attack. The ball Lukaku receives was at the legs of Antonio Rudiger 10 seconds ago. The German slashed the ball towards Reece James on the right side, who calmly passes it to Jorginho. The Italian straightaway pings the ball to Lukaku, and now Chelsea can push their forwards beyond Lukaku while the defence and the midfield can push up. 

From the instance shown in the picture above, there is a lot of space between Arsenal’s midfield and defence as the Gunners were trying to press the Blues into making a mistake. However, Chelsea’s defenders played through the press, and they immediately had an outlet in Lukaku, who could dominate Mari, keep the ball to himself and let Chelsea push up.

From here, Lukaku can either turn and find Havertz or Mount or bring Jorginho, Kovacic, or James into the game and create a 5v5 situation in Arsenal’s half. While it does not matter which decision he takes, it is the fact that he can dominate most centre-backs and provide an outlet for the Blues when they need to play through the press. 

D) Stretching the play:

Lukaku going out wide to stretch the play

The advantage of having an experienced forward, especially one like Lukaku, is that he understands almost every role across the frontline. It would have been very easy for the Belgian to tuck in and stay close to James, but he has done something quite the opposite. Chelsea have just played through a tight press, and the 28-year-old is now waiting on the wings to stretch the play and go 1v1 against Nuno Tavares. 

In doing so, he is letting Reece James run through the center, courtesy of which Tavares has 2 issues now. Either close in on Lukaku or stay where he is so as to not create a gaping hole for Reece James to run into. Tavares is in the fix because Lukaku made the right choice between staying central and pushing towards the right and ‘stretching the play’. This might seem a simple quality, but very few attackers in the world actually push out to the wings to accommodate the all-round play. 

All in all, the Blues won the game 2-0 and the Belgian had a great ‘second’ debut or in his words ‘A dominant performance’.  

2) Romelu Lukaku vs Liverpool:

We move on to the Belgian’s second game of the season. Liverpool at Anfield. It does not get any more intimidating, especially when Liverpool, like the Blues, were yet to concede a goal. However, the Blues broke the deadlock in just under 20 minutes, thanks to a looping Kai Havertz header, who looks much more like the player Chelsea signed from Leverkusen a year ago. However, from Lukaku’s perspective, he was about to go hammer and tong with some of the best defenders in the business – Joel Matip & Virgil van Dijk. Two tall robust defenders, who were not going to buckle down to the Belgian bully like Pablo Mari did a week ago. 

The game ended 1-1 but given that Reece James’ red card at the end of the first half changed how Lukaku had to approach the game in the second half. Thus, let us take a look at how the 28-year-old approached the game in the first half and the sudden change in the second half.

A) Providing an out-ball: (First Half)

Lukaku providing a solution in a dead ball situation

First of all, it is important to understand that Virgil van Dijk has little to no frailties. The Dutchman is as powerful as they get, and he was up for the challenge against Lukaku and did dominate the Belgian aerially a lot of times. However, it did not take long for Lukaku to understand one of the weaker qualities of the Dutchman. The Liverpool star is great in a lot of areas but not necessarily on his left-hand side, especially not when somebody as equally as strong as Lukaku is forcing him into that position. Chelsea took a simple thrown in but Lukaku, who was backing into Van Dijk, turned left away from goal instead of turning right which most forwards do. 

This caught Van Dijk by a little surprise and by that time the Belgian had placed his body in front of the ball and he shrugged the Dutchman on the floor. All of these areas help the Blues because Lukaku is taking it upon himself to get the team into possession. 

This quality is particularly helpful when teams like Liverpool press continuously and do not let leave a lot of space between their defence, midfield, and attack. However, this also leads to such teams having a high line and Lukaku used this to his advantage in almost a dead-ball situation. Almost every Liverpool player is within 3 yards from every Chelsea player but Lukaku, because of his ability to turn away from Van Dijk, provides Chelsea a solution against a high pressing team. 

B) High awareness and in sync with his team-mates: (Second half)

Lukaku high awareness during the counter attack

In the picture above, nearly five Liverpool players are surrounding Lukaku and Mason Mount. The ball was played over the top by Marcos Alonso to Mason Mount on the far right-side as most of Chelsea’s attacks in the second half came through counter-attacks as they were a man down and Liverpool had not stopped their relentless pressing.

However, Chelsea’s frontline have switched on almost immediately, and as soon as Mason Mount receives the ball, it is very clear that neither he nor Lukaku can move through five players while there is no crossing option either because Matip and Van Dijk will crowd out Lukaku. However, it is the Belgian’s awareness and instinctive ability to complete a quick one-two pass with Mount that changes the narrative in a matter of seconds.

There is quite possibly no other solution but Lukaku is smart enough to back into Van Dijk, receive the pass from Mount who is ready to get the ball back to take a shot. Immediately three players are taken out of the game and Mount is just about on the edge of the penalty box to slam a shot. All of this has become possible because Lukaku has dragged Van Dijk with him and is ready to receive the pass and lay it off Mount as soon as the Englishman is in a position to take a shot. 

The Strength, awareness, and understanding of Lukaku immediately turned Chelsea’s half-hearted counter-attack into more than half a chance of scoring a goal. These are the signs of a complete forward, and given the level of opposition, Lukaku is proving that he can use his qualities to outmaneuver and outsmart most defences even when the odds are stacked against the Blues. It is the art of moving the ball around quickly.

C) Always ready to receive a pass: (Second half)

Lukaku was immediately involved in a quick counter attack solution by making himself available for a pass under pressure

Again, Chelsea have used a long ball to play through Liverpool‘s press, and given the aerial ability of Alonso, the Spaniard was able to cause enough problems to Matip and Trent Alexander Arnold, who ended up clearing the ball straight into Kovacic’s path. However, Kovacic’s first touch has to be a pass, otherwise, the Reds would have tackled the Croat down and snatched the ball. But Kovacic passed the ball straight away, and there again was Lukaku in the right place to receive the pass. 

He held on to Joel Matip and quickly played the ball to Kovacic who continued with his run and had a great chance to take a shot. It is this quality of Lukaku that proves that he is supreme and a fantastic addition to Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. He is continuously ready to take the ball into his legs to provide the players that run beyond him well-timed through balls. It is counter-attacking at its finest, and Lukaku facilitated play all day.

Thus, it is very easy to understand the various solutions Lukaku gives to Chelsea just by his mere presence. It is not even about his ability to score goals, but the fact that he has the capability and confidence to help the Blues work out of tough situations is what makes him a great player. He is an answer to all the problems Chelsea faced going forward last year, and he could be the man who drives the Blues to Premier League glory this year. It has only been two games, but it is certainly one heck of a curtain-raiser provided by the club’s record signing.

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