Is Romelu Lukaku Chelsea's problem or are Chelsea Lukaku's problem?

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Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring against Arsenal back in August

Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring against Arsenal back in August

It would be an understatement to say that Romelu Lukaku’s first season back at Chelsea has not gone to plan.

When the Belgium striker returned to Stamford Bridge in a £98million deal in the summer he looked to be the final piece in Thomas Tuchel’s jigsaw, a player capable of helping Chelsea deliver their Premier League title for five years. 

It all started so well. Having missed the opening match of the season against Crystal Palace as he had only just signed from Inter Milan, Lukaku showed the Premier League just how much he had improved in Italy with a ruthless display against Arsenal, scoring in a comfortable 2-0 away win.

That kickstarted a run of four goals in five matches as Lukaku and Chelsea wowed fans and had pundits predicting Premier League and Champions League glory. 

Since then it has all turned surprisingly sour. Lukaku went nine matches without scoring either side of spending a month out with a sprained ankle, then was in and out of the team in December after being hit by Covid, before his bombshell interview with Sky Italia rocked Chelsea’s boat.

Frustratingly, that came just as Lukaku looked to be returning to top form after three goals in four matches, including a match-winning appearance as a half-time substitute against Aston Villa which saw him produce his best football since early September.

Tuchel did not take kindly to his star striker criticising the way Chelsea play under the German, as well as openly saying he’d like to return to Inter one day, and dropped him for the thrilling 2-2 draw at home to Liverpool earlier this month.

Following an apology, Lukaku has been reinstated and has started their last five matches. But we are back to the Lukaku of late September and early October, one who looks low on confidence and whose most memorable action was a half-time row with Hakim Ziyech in the draw with Brighton earlier this week. 

Lukaku has seen arguing with Hakim Ziyech at half-time against Brighton earlier this week

Lukaku has seen arguing with Hakim Ziyech at half-time against Brighton earlier this week

His Chelsea tally for the season stands at just eight in 23 matches, while his only goal in the last five came against fifth-tier Chesterfield in the FA Cup – and even in that match Lukaku didn’t look convincing.

So how is the Lukaku of 2022 different to the one of earlier this season? Do the stats bear out his dip in form, or are we just overplaying things?

At this stage is worth pointing out that although Chesterfield are by far the lowest-ranked team Chelsea have played in the 10 matches we have sampled, when combined the first five fixtures – Arsenal, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Zenit and Tottenham – are of a pretty similar level to the last five – Tottenham, Chesterfield, Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton. 

The most obvious stat to look at for a striker is goals, with four coming in Lukaku’s first five matches of 2021-22 compared to one in his last five. But goals can mask a poor performance – as one did for the Belgian against Chesterfield.  

A look at a striker’s expected goals compared to their actual number of goals gives an indication of exactly what type of form they are in, and there is an even clearer discrepancy with Lukaku here. His four early season goals came at an xG rate of 2.85, meaning he was in lethal finishing form, while he was expected to score 2.3 goals in his last five matches, showing just how out of touch he has been in front of goal.

Lukaku cuts a frustrated figure during Chelsea's recent 1-0 defeat at Manchester City

Lukaku cuts a frustrated figure during Chelsea’s recent 1-0 defeat at Manchester City

One aspect of Lukaku’s game said to have improved in Serie A was his ability to bring others into play, however he has not created a single goal in any of the 10 matches we have looked at – and only has two assists all season. He did create 10 chances at the start of the season compared to eight recently though. 

Although Lukaku played 55 minutes more in the first five matches of the season compared to his last five, his number of touches and touches in the opposition were significantly higher back then too. Tellingly, Lukaku also won 17 aerial duels, compared to just seven in his last five matches. 

Those stats would suggest that Chelsea are just not getting the ball to Lukaku enough – either to his feet or his head. Wing backs Ben Chilwell and Reece James started the season in blistering form and it has been since their injuries that Chelsea have dipped in form. Perhaps their ability to find Lukaku is hindering the Belgian’s form too.

That begs the question: is Lukaku Chelsea’s problem or are Chelsea Lukaku’s problem? Maybe he was getting at something when he criticised Tuchel.

ROMELU LUKAKU AT THE START OF THE SEASON COMPARED TO NOW
Romelu Lukaku 2021-22 First 5 matches Last 5 matches
Starts 5 5
Minutes played 450 395
Goals 4 1
Assists 0 0
Expected goals 2.85 2.3
Expected assists 0.85 0.23
Shots 19 14
Chances created 10 8
Touches 164 122
Touches in opposition box 38 23
% of touches in opposition box 23% 19%
Aerial duels won 17 7

A look at Chelsea’s stats overall in the first five games Lukaku played this season compared to the last five also shines some interesting lights.

Despite scoring 10 goals compared to nine, Chelsea’s xG in the last five matches is actually higher than at the start of the season. That number has not been skewed by the Chesterfield match either, as Chelsea were only expected to score 2.65 goals in that match.

Their expected goals against is lower recently despite conceding three goals compared to one. Chelsea were expected to concede over six goals at the start of the season, which suggests their results were as much down to brilliant goalkeeping by Edouard Mendy as anything else.

While Chelsea have had more shots of late, they played more passes and crosses into the box at the start of the season, which backs up the theory that Chilwell and James have been missed.

Wing backs Reece James (right) and Ben Chilwell (left) are both out injured for Chelsea

Wing backs Reece James (right) and Ben Chilwell (left) are both out injured for Chelsea

Added to that, despite playing far more passes and therefore having more possession on average in their last five matches, Chelsea have played less forward passes of late. The stats suggest Chelsea of recent times are passing the ball sideways, not getting the ball into the box enough and having pot-shots from range.

That is the sort of play that would frustrate any striker. Though Lukaku is clearly suffering a dip in confidence in front of goal compared to the start of the season, Chelsea’s problem of late seems to be more their style of play as the man up front, and that is largely down to the absence of Chilwell and James.

If Chelsea can start getting the ball into the box more often, Lukaku will score more.  

CHELSEA AT THE START OF THE SEASON COMPARED TO NOW 
Chelsea 2021-22 First 5 matches Last 5 matches
Won 4 3
Drawn 1 1
Lost 0 1
Goals 10 9
Conceded 1 3
Expected goals 7.72 8.02
Expected goals against 6.17 4.28
Shots 71 75
Shots faced 62 49
Passes/crosses into opposition box 156 138
Open play crosses 61 55
Successful passes 2431 2696
Forward passes 900 863
Possession won in final 3rd 15 27

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