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Pat Nevin: Why an unplayable Lukaku could make the difference

Chelsea legend Pat Nevin is not afraid to dish out the highest of compliments to Romelu Lukaku after his performance on Sunday, and our columnist also makes a point of praising another key man whose showing at the Emirates was somewhat overshadowed…


I remember being in Russia for the World Cup in 2018 and getting to watch Belgium a couple of times. They were packed full of quality players, with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne both a delight to watch unless you were supporting the opposition. In the group stages against Tunisia and Panama, however, there was only one word to describe Romelu Lukaku: unplayable. By the time Roberto Martinez’s men rocked up against Brazil in the quarter-finals, the match-up between Miranda and Thiago Silva and Romelu Lukaku was mouthwatering.

It was a battle royale between world-class players. The thing that jumped out at me was the work ethic that Romelu was showing and, once again, that word unplayable was on everyone’s lips. The slight niggling problem was, quite simply, niggles. Considering the hits he took from defenders in every single game, the injuries sustained and the energy levels needed to play at that intensity up front, keeping up that level game after game turned out to be impossible.

Understandably the big man needed to conserve energy now and again, but the problem was that with his country in the World Cup finals playing so many games so close together, this was impossible. The same thing seemed to happen to him at club level for a while. It probably doesn’t help when you are his height with that physique. Us little guys can/could ping about the place carrying 25 per cent less weight, so it is understandably a whole lot easier.

Somehow it seems that during his time in Italy, Romelu has found a way to keep it going week after week. There have been stories about dietary changes, maturity, and the rest, but for the fans they are secondary thoughts now. What is crucial to us is sustaining Romelu at the levels he reached against Arsenal. If he can play at that standard most weeks, then we have every chance of being in the shake-up for the title at the end of the season. At the Emirates, Romelu once more deserved the epithet unplayable. This is the highest compliment you can give to a striker, or just about anyone else on a football pitch for that matter.

If you couldn’t recognise the quality of his hold-up play against Arsenal, then you probably haven’t watched a football game in your life before. In that first half Pablo Mari might has well have been trying to tackle the old Shed End wall. The goal was the classic example. It was an easy tap-in eventually, of course, but the hold-up play, the link-up pass, the power to steamroller the defender, and finally the pace to get to the right position for the tap-in combined to make it such a brilliant goal.

Even for the second goal, he was central to it from an entire minute before. Mari took his chance to ‘wipe out’ our striker, accepting a yellow card for his troubles. It was a desperate act but also a desperately pointless one. Seconds later he held off another defender with a superb dummy. Mari had to step back now after his card and so Romelu’s presence drew the full-back Tierney inside, allowing Reece James to fly in from the far right to finish the half, and indeed the game, in Chelsea’s favour. Without Lukaku’s influence on and off the ball, that goal simply doesn’t happen.

'We shouldn’t become predictable because none of us can even begin to guess week to week what the starting line-up will be'

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

It is quite clear that with the big man taking the strain and drawing defenders around him, this is going to have a hugely positive effect on his team-mates. As he draws players near him, then gaps open naturally for the two attacking midfielders behind him. For Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, playing behind a focused Lukaku is a dream scenario.

I expect most teams will start playing a man directly in front of Romelu within the next few weeks, to cut off his supply line, but that is difficult to do with the quality of passing we have from midfield. Even if they do cut off the supply to his feet with his back to goal, the opposition will have to use an extra man in there, so it should open space elsewhere. That was already obvious when you saw James romping free to set up the first and score the second at the weekend.

A quick word for Reece James here. In any other game people would be raving about his explosive first start of the season, and yes a few of us were, but the new striker was always going to grab the attention. Blues fans however were quick to spot his impact, but throughout the team you could say the same about most of the team.

So, are there any concerns at all about Romelu and his position in the team? Or is it certain glory all the way, time to consider not if we will win trophies this year, but how many? Well, it isn’t that easy, and the real big tests are just coming over the horizon now, starting with Liverpool this weekend.

In time, no matter what Romelu is eating or not eating, and however hard he trains, he will have to be rested. There wasn’t a long summer break this season and with domestic, European and international matches every few days for the foreseeable future, he will need the odd break. Maybe that was a problem in the past with some of his teams, they pushed him too much because of his scoring record and his pivotal role. It is tough to rest or drop your star striker because every game seems vital at the time, but fortunately we have options so that should be fine.

In the past other teams with a powerful striker have been tempted to go too direct too often. I hope this will not happen with us and I suspect it will not. We have too many good players, too many complex on-field options and an intelligent manager who can see the danger of becoming predictable.

Another reason why we shouldn’t become predictable, is that none of us can even begin to guess week to week what the starting line-up will be. Before the start of this game no one would have batted an eyelid had Trevoh Chalobah, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Timo Werner, Thiago Silva, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell all started.

Making those team choices is and will continue to be the biggest problem that Thomas Tuchel may have. He can relax in the thought that the problem is a bigger one for the opposition. Trying to prepare beforehand for a rampant Chelsea team when you don’t know who half the players will be isn’t easy, so no-one in blue is complaining about that problem for Thomas.

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