Football Features

Do Chelsea really have a Lukaku problem? Southampton live stream info & team news

By Harry Edwards

Published: 17:00, 1 October 2021

Chelsea host Southampton in the Premier League on Saturday at 3pm (UK time) looking to end a mini slump in results.

The Blues have suffered consecutive 1-0 defeats to Manchester City and Juventus in the Premier League and Champions League respectively, and are yet to figure out how to use record signing Romelu Lukaku according to a man who knows both player and club intimately.

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Lukaku was tipped to be one of the signings of the summer when he re-joined Chelsea from Inter Milan for £97m, hoping to be the final piece of their puzzle – a goalscoring striker. Things got off to a great start too, with the Belgian scoring four goals in his first four games across all competitions including on his second debut against Arsenal and a brace at home to Aston Villa.

But the honeymoon period is over, with Lukaku failing to score in his past four appearances including three starts across all competitions and the aforementioned defeats to Man City and Juventus. It’s certainly not the end of the world, and any fans looking to seriously criticise Lukaku should take a step back, breathe and think. But it’s worth asking, what has changed?

According to former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, who tried to sign Lukaku for the Blues in 2017 and later worked with him at Inter Milan, Thomas Tuchel hasn’t figured out how to use the Belgian.

“I think he can still do better, above all with his technique,” Conte said of Lukaku on Sky Sport Italia, prior to Chelsea’s defeat to Juventus.

“During the game, there are moments when Lukaku needs to be turned on, but other than that he is one of the toughest forwards to play against, because he can do damage in any area of the pitch.

“If you have a centre-forward like that, you need to use him and I don’t think Chelsea have quite figured out how to use him yet.

“Last season, they didn’t have a proper centre-forward, so they rotated positions, whereas Romelu is a real reference point in attack.

“If they can figure out how to use Lukaku, then Chelsea can become the team to beat in the Champions League this season.”

So where are Chelsea going wrong?

Under Conte last season, en route to winning Serie A, Lukaku was part of a devastating strike partnership alongside Lautaro Martinez. Between them, Lukaku and Martinez scored 41 goals with the Belgian banging in an excellent 24 in 2,886 minutes with an extra 11 assists – while Martinez had 17 and six. Having someone so capable in front of goal alongside him allowed Lukaku to move around the pitch, focusing on helping his team in other areas.

Under Conte, Lukaku was able to play to all the strengths of his game, using his explosive pace to break through a high line and holding the ball up with his back towards goal – whether to fashion an opportunity for himself or pass on to teammates to keep the build up going.

We saw glimpses of this in Lukaku’s games against Arsenal and Aston Villa at the start of the season. On his second debut against Arsenal, Lukaku opened the scoring with a tap in but he also appeared earlier in the move, holding off Pablo Mari to pass the ball to Mateo Kovacic before beating Mari again to get onto the end of Reece James’ cross. For Chelsea’s second, just the threat of Lukaku played a big role in the build up as a Granit Xhaka attempted tackle on the Belgian allowed the ball to fall to Mason Mount who passed to James for the finish.

In total, Lukaku had 43 touches at the Emirates including 11 inside the opposition box (the most of any player), won eight duels, took eight shots and won two fouls – a dominating display that had both Arsenal and Chelsea fans remembering the fun Didier Drogba used to have when playing the Gunners.

The win over Aston Villa showed a different side of Lukaku’s game as he managed to score twice despite being fairly below par, with Dean Smith’s side doing well to restrict his time on the ball for most of the match. But when he was given the chances, Lukaku showed how clinical he could be, scoring with each of his two shots. The first saw Lukaku run onto the end of Mateo Kovacic’s pass, cut inside Axel Tuanzebe before finishing; his second came with the Belgian receiving the ball on the edge of the area from Cesar Azpilicueta, take one touch before rifling into the top corner with relative ease.

After finding the net again against Zenit in the Champions League, Lukaku had his second blank of the season, showing the first signs of a lack of cohesion away to Tottenham Hotspur though he still played his part in a 3-0 win, causing the defence some problems. But the past two games have not been good.

Across the 1-0 defeats to Man City and Juventus, Lukaku had just 49 touches of the ball in 180 minutes with 20 of his 28 pass attempts completed. He had four shots, hitting the target once, and won four of his seven aerial duels. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it also wasn’t completely his fault.

In both matches, Chelsea’s midfield were passive in getting the ball further up the pitch, even when playing Timo Werner alongside Lukaku as a strike partner, trying to mirror the 3-5-2 that worked so well for him at Inter. Without someone creative like Mason Mount in the midfield trio, Chelsea struggled as N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic could not break through the Man City line – perfectly managed by Rodri.

Against Juventus there was a return to a 3-4-2-1 but Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech were frankly terrible in giving Lukaku the service he needed, with the Belgian growing increasingly frustrated. In both games Lukaku was trying to make runs in behind the defence but was either unseen by teammates (who should have been looking) or just ignored as Chelsea stuck with their slow, passing style of play, allowing their opponents to regroup and reshape.

According to Conte, this has come as a result of Chelsea not having a proper centre-forward last season, but it’s a problem the Blues have had for quite a few years – including when the Italian was at Stamford Bridge. Werner and Alvaro Morata have also seen many runs ignored by teammates who could not move away from a passive style of play during their time at Stamford Bridge, though the latter believed it was due to a lack of confidence in his abilities.

“I was playing some games in England and I had the feeling that when I got into space, my teammates looked at me and I knew they thought I wouldn’t do anything good with the ball,” Morata said in November 2019 after permanently leaving Chelsea for Atletico Madrid.

So the question is, what needs to change at Chelsea to get Lukaku firing again?

Unfortunately for Tuchel there is no fix-all solution, as there are other underlying problems out of his control, but the first thing should change is the tactics. Nothing major, but just instruct the players to be a bit quicker with their passes, adding creativity to their play and taking risks. What’s the point in having 73.1% possession and 90.4% pass accuracy (697/771) if you’re not going to do anything with it, as Chelsea did against Juventus. Sure, they had 16 shots, but their xG was only 1.30 and they hit the target once. The shots they did have weren’t good enough to be troubling Wojciech Szczesny.

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Chelsea also need their key players to return to form. It sounds strange to say, considering they started the season unbeaten in eight matches, but the Blues do have a number of players performing well below par. Mount is certainly one of the missing pieces of the puzzle through injury, but even he had started the season in underwhelming fashion and was taken off at half-time against Tottenham as a result. Kovacic and Jorginho have allowed mistakes to frequently creep into their game, Havertz is going through another rough patch while Ziyech hasn’t found form since arriving in west London. The likes of Ross Barkley aren’t good enough to make a difference from the bench either.

As Conte said, there are times when Lukaku needs to be switched on to get into games, but the Belgian needs some support from his teammates and manager in doing so.