Thomas Tuchel’s decision to drop Romelu Lukaku for Lille clash breathes new life into Chelsea attack

Thomas Tuchel’s decision to drop Romelu Lukaku for Lille clash breathes new life into Chelsea attack

Thomas Tuchel has found a solution and created a problem. With Kai Havertz at the point of his attack, Chelsea produced more verve than they have for the best part of three months.

But with the German leading the line, the question is what to do with Romelu Lukaku? A £97.5million substitute is never a good look. And while Tuchel pointed to a combination of fatigue and protection when explaining the club-record signing’s omission from last night’s win against Lille, the true reason for his absence is clear.

Lukaku just does not fit into this Chelsea team — and it is debatable whether he ever will. It is not for a lack of desire on Tuchel’s part. He wants to form a forward line around Lukaku and Havertz, the club’s two most expensive outfield players, with no shortage of pressure on his shoulders to make that axis work.

But at what cost? That was the calculation made by Chelsea’s manager as he plotted the defence of their European crown. Could he really risk another seven-touch show from his centre-forward?

Could he gamble their future in the biggest prize available to him this season by continuing to toil with a player who has shown so little sign of adapting to his system? This is not a case of the blame lying squarely with one party. Chelsea bought a striker who operates best in a counter-attacking team, while Tuchel’s philosophy is about possession.

That was a problem for Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud before Lukaku — Timo Werner, too. Of all the forwards, Havertz has looked most at ease with Chelsea’s system, yet there is a general acceptance he is at his best somewhere other than through the middle. He is described as a false nine for no other reason than he is not an actual No9. Yet, when he plays centrally, it is effectively as an orthodox centre-forward.

Tuchel admits it is a difficult job to lead his attack, not least because Chelsea’s dominance of the ball tends to prompt teams to sit deep, reducing space to run in behind. Add to that an ongoing lack of fluidity and a constant changing of the cast up front and the striker can look under-served and isolated.

Lukaku was not Tuchel’s first choice last summer — Erling Haaland was a long-term target and Robert Lewandowski a dream. But Lukaku was seen as guaranteed goals, even if privately Tuchel was aware he would not provide the intensity or work-rate he looks for in that role.

The problem is that Lukaku has not provided the goals, either. So where does the story go from here? There is a strong argument to say Lukaku does not fit into Chelsea’s plans in the Champions League. In Europe they need the high intensity provided by Havertz, as well as his deftness of movement, close control and link-up play.

Thomas Tuchel dropped Chelsea’s record signing Romelu Lukaku for the win over Lille (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Thomas Tuchel dropped Chelsea’s record signing Romelu Lukaku for the win over Lille (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Injury and Covid have robbed Lukaku of the chance to fully develop an understanding with his team-mates and there is no time to learn on the job in club football’s biggest competition — which, in the absence of a Premier League title challenge, is Chelsea’s priority.

Perhaps Lukaku’s role between now and the end of the season is to do the hard yards domestically. Top four looks secure enough, so the League provides ample room for him to find his feet. There have long been questions about his record against the very best — and as such it is difficult to put up a strong case to recall him against Liverpool in Sunday’s Carabao Cup Final. But what Chelsea need is someone to beat up the rest.

Does that fit in with Roman Abramovich’s idea of how best to deploy his most expensive acquisition as Chelsea owner? Almost certainly not. That is the tightrope Tuchel must walk — and his bold decision to drop the 28-year-old is evidence of his willingness to make such unpopular decisions.

It could have blown up in his face and left him with difficult conversations with his superiors. Instead, it breathed new life into a team that have been ailing for months — their success in the Club World Cup notwithstanding. Tuchel’s job is to put together the most effective team he can with the resources at his disposal. Right now, that does not include Lukaku.