Romelu Lukaku wants to rejoin Inter Milan after an unsuccessful return to Chelsea. And based on how he’s been used tactically, it’s clear to see exactly why he craves a San Siro reunion.
Despite shelling out a club record £97.5m for Lukaku last summer, the Belgian is inching towards the exit at Stamford Bridge, having never truly recovered his reputation from that car crash Sky Italia interview last winter, in which he appeared to take a complain about Thomas Tuchel’s tactics.
“I’m not happy with the situation,” Lukaku said in December. “I think the boss has decided to play a different formation but I have to stick at it and get on with it professionally.”
It’s hard to question a man (tactically speaking) who reached back-to-back Champions League finals, winning the 2020/21 edition with Chelsea, but Lukaku was certainly onto something when he questioned his place in Tuchel’s set-up; the two were – and clearly aren’t – compatible. But why exactly?
On paper, both Inter and Chelsea play a back-three system that looks to control the midfield zone and exploit the flanks with the use of high-pressing wing-backs. But this is too broad a brush to explain the two teams. Tactics are far more nuanced than formations alone.
So, let’s see why Lukaku flourished so much at Inter – and why he found life hard at the Bridge in 2021/22.
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The importance of on-field relationships
You only need look to north London to see the importance of strike partnerships. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have combined more times in the Premier League than any other duo in history – more than Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, and Sergio Aguero and David Silva.
A key facet of Lukaku’s success at Inter in the club’s Scudetto-winning campaign in 2020/21 was his frontline partnership with Lautaro Martinez. Collectively, the duo combined for eight Serie A goals that campaign, with the Lukaku-to-Martinez assist-to-goalscorer combination bettered only by Ruslan Malinovskyi-to-Duvan Zapata. In the context of this Premier League season, Chelsea’s most prolific link-up was Reece James to Kai Havertz (three).
Of Lukaku’s eight Premier League goals in 2021/22, no single player assisted him more than once, with Reece James, Mateo Kovacic, Cesar Azpilicueta, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech all setting him on just one occasion (with his first in the 2-2 vs Wolves coming from the spot after he won the penalty).
The lack of a genuine, cohesive link-up partner for Lukaku at the Bridge hindered his ability to settle in Tuchel’s system. The German’s rotational policy up front meant there was never a clear identity about how they would attack, which culminated in only Mason Mount reaching double digits for goals or assists in the Premier League. In fact, only Antonio Rudiger made over 30+ starts in the league for outfield Chelsea players, even four held firm against Pep Roulette to manage 30+ for Man City.
Where Antonio Conte set up in a 3-5-2 to facilitate a system in which Lukaku and Martinez could thrive, Tuchel fielded a 3-4-2-1 that largely negates the need for a traditional centre-forward. The No.9 in Tuchel’s system is expected to drop deep and drag defenders out of position, allowing the wingers to tuck in and exploit the space this creates. Meanwhile, the wing-backs overlap and attack the final-third flanks.
Of course, this isn’t a ‘problem’ exclusive to Lukaku at Chelsea. Christian Pulisic averaged 52.28 touches per 90 minutes in 2021/22, but when deployed as a False No.9, that figure dipped. The American made 39 touches in the 1-1 draw with Everton up front and 30 touches in Wolves 0-0 Chelsea just before Christmas.
Pulisic even recognised this trend back in November. “I am not on the ball as much as I usually am or able to use some of my strengths, but I think it is a position that I can play,” he stated about being utilised as a False No.9.
“I can create a lot of space for my team-mates and I am happy to play there as well.”
Being the nimble player that Pulisic is, this does appear a role better tailored to his qualities. But for Lukaku, a more direct, less mobile centre-forward – whose bread and butter is scoring goals – it’s a system in which he struggles to execute his role (just look at his infamous seven-touch match vs Crystal Palace). Chelsea essentially signed a goal fiend to take on a sort of Roberto Firmino-esque role as a selfless False No.9. It was destined to fail unless they adapted their set-up, which they didn’t.
Romelu Lukaku’s game by numbers vs. Crystal Palace:
4 accurate passes
0/4 duels won
0 touches in opp. box
0 chances created
He played the full 90 minutes. 😳 pic.twitter.com/xZJRy2fDAQ
— Squawka (@Squawka) February 19, 2022
Less ball time, fewer fast breaks
So, the system for Tuchel is ultimately hinged on creating space in the final third, be it stretching the play with the use of touchline-hugging wing-backs, half-space-exploiting inside forwards, or (in theory) a centre-forward who can consistently drop deep and drag opposition centre-backs out of position.
For Inter, though, it was all about getting the ball up to Lukaku and Martinez as quickly as possible, allowing the duo to dovetail rhythmically, seeing far more time on the ball and creating final-third chaos. It’s a similar set-up at Tottenham under Conte (Lukaku’s boss at Inter) with Kane. Under Nuno Espirito Santo in 2021/22, the England forward averaged 38.41 touches per 90 minutes in the Premier League; under Conte, he averaged 44.49.
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Conte wants his side to get up the pitch quickly, using fast breaks and counters to devastating effect. From his debut match for Spurs on November 7, no team scored more fast breaks than his side (four), while only Wolves (23), Liverpool (23) and Newcastle (22) played more fast breaks than Spurs (21) overall. In that same timeframe, Chelsea were one of only three clubs alongside Leeds and Everton not to score from a single fast break. In fact, it was only Leeds and Chelsea who didn’t score this type of goal in the entire 2021/22 Premier League season.
Compare that to Inter in their Serie A title-winning campaign in 2020/21 under Conte, where they scored more fast breaks than any other club (nine) and were the only side to register 40+ fast breaks in total (43). Lukaku and Martinez netted from three such situations apiece. Only Victor Osimhen (four) netted more. Incredibly, Lukaku was involved in the most fast breaks of any player in the 2020/21 Serie A season (17), as one of only four players to hit double digits (alongside Martinez, 11).
And while it should be noted here that Conte is no longer at Inter, Simone Inzaghi has not deviated from his predecessor’s tactical blueprint in this sense. They finished with the second-most fast breaks in 2021/22 (33) and scored the second-most goals from fast breaks (eight), with only title-winners AC Milan managing more on both counts.
It now looks all the more baffling why Chelsea signed Lukaku. Their system is built around a patient build-up and controlling play. Inter, meanwhile, are set to a frantic tempo that gets the ball forward quickly. The Belgian averaged 0.53 fast breaks per 90 minutes at Inter in 2020/21, compared to just 0.17 at Chelsea in the season just gone.
Looking at ‘passes per sequence’, which measures the average number of passes in a single passage of play, Chelsea (4.63) ranked second behind only Man City (5.32) in the Premier League last season, suggesting a more slow, patient and intricate build-up. Or in other words, exactly the opposite of the style in which Lukaku last thrived.
So, Tuchel essentially signed a ‘fast break’ striker with absolutely no intention of playing with a ‘fast break’ set-up, hence the zero fast break goals in 2021/22.
A “target man”?
When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sold Lukaku to Inter from Man Utd, he said his decision was motivated by the Belgian, essentially, not fitting his system because he’s a “target man”.
He stated at the time: “Of course Rom has a good record and stats – he’s one of the top number nines around when you want to play with that kind of striker – he’s a target man.”
While few begrudged Solskjaer for parting with Lukaku, the suggestion that the Belgian is a “target man” appears a lazy appraisal on first glance, a common trope largely used because of his hulking frame and the occasional sloppy touch, which in particular leaves him vulnerable to criticism and unfair assessments of his actual playing style.
But, in fact, this appears to be an assessment Tuchel made when bringing Lukaku to west London. Despite playing only 1,585 minutes in the Premier League last season (starting just 16 games and featuring 26 in total) Lukaku won more aerial duels (51) than his 2020/21 season at Inter (45), where he racked up a whopping 2,886 minutes, started 32 games and featured in 36 in total – six more aerial duels won last season despite playing 1,301 minutes fewer than 2020/21.
Using his per-90 numbers to get around this huge minutes-played differential, Lukaku’s ‘target man’ numbers for Chelsea continually outperform his for Inter. He registered more flick-ons for Chelsea (1.31 to 1.06), more headed passes (2.67 to 1.59) and more shots from headers (0.68 to 0.53). In fact, two of his eight Premier League goals last season came from headers; just one of his 24 in 2020/21 for Inter were headed in.
Meanwhile, Lukaku’s ‘into feet’ numbers at Inter in 2020/21 far outperform his Chelsea numbers, with his touches per 90 minutes (39.82 to 30.26), passes per 90 (22.95 to 18), final-third passes per 90 (13.5 to 9.48) and touches in the opposition box per 90 (7.3 to 5.79) all leading the way at the San Siro. It’s also worth noting here that his passing accuracy is almost identical (72.55% at Inter, 72.87% at Chelsea), suggesting Lukaku didn’t necessarily struggle to accurately find teammates while in possession at Chelsea. Rather, Inter simply got the ball to him at a much higher frequency.
Going back to that point about on-field relationships, you can see just how much Lukaku enjoyed playing with Martinez, especially while analysing his passes-received-and-movements network. Taking into account his entire Inter career in Serie A (2019/20 and 2020/21), the below graphic illustrates Lukaku’s first port of call when he received a pass.
Where Lukaku’s average movement at Chelsea was dispersed between three general directions, at Inter it was always towards Martinez. This brings us back to the point about systems. At a first glance they both appear to be fairly similar, with the back-three pushing up and Lukaku occupying a near-identical position, but what he does with the ball after tells us everything we need to know. At Inter, his movement is forward and progressive, essentially, in line with Conte’s fast-break philosophy. At Chelsea, all three movements are backwards, essentially, in line with Tuchel’s more intricate, patient build-up.
Whether or not Lukaku leaves Chelsea and returns to Inter remains to be seen. We’re dealing with astronomic figures here that will do anything but facilitate a smooth transaction. But, one thing remains certain, Lukaku was at his best at Inter because the system was tailored to him, and not the other way around.