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Are Chelsea a better team without Romelu Lukaku?

Cristiano Ronaldo has greatly imbalanced Manchester United, but has Lukaku had a similar effect on the European Champions?

Romelu Lukaku.
Romelu Lukaku.
Image: PA

IT’S CHELSEA VERSUS MANCHESTER United this weekend, as one side whose collective strength has been undermined by their superstar summer signing travels to meet a…side whose collective strength has been undermined by their superstar summer signing? 

The collateral damage Cristiano Ronaldo has dealt Manchester United has been well covered at this point, but the last few weeks raises a similar question about Chelsea.

Are they a better team without Romelu Lukaku?

Lukaku is undoubtedly one of the best centre-forwards in world football and would improve most teams, but has he improved the team he is currently part of? 

The most fascinating tension in football is that between the individual and the collective, and there is a fair argument at this point to say Lukaku has somewhat unbalanced Thomas Tuchel’s finely-calibrated Chelsea system. 

It was made this week by Juventus manager Max Allegri, who claimed Chelsea are a better side without their Belgian striker. 

“Without Lukaku, they have different characteristics”, said Allegri. “They’ll have fewer reference points and do more counter-attacks. Lukaku is a reference point. They gain speed without him and defend differently.” 

Lukaku has missed the last seven games with injury, a run in which Chelsea have won five times and drawn twice (and one of those draws was a Carabao Cup game with Southampton that they won on penalties.) 

In that run of form, Chelsea have surged to the top of the Premier League and their Champions League group, scoring 20 goals and conceding just two. Those stats are slightly skewed by Norwich’s hapless showing in a 7-0 pasting so bad that it cost Daniel Faroe his job, but take that game out and 13 goals in six games is still a rate of better than two per game. 

Let’s compare that to the nine games Lukaku started prior to his injury (leaving out the game in which he sustained that injury), a run in which Chelsea won six, drew one and lost two. They scored 13 goals over the run, and conceded four.

This carries the caveat of being a tricker run of opposition: the defeat came at home to an utterly brilliant Manchester City while one of the draws was at Anfield, where Chelsea played half the game with 10 men. 

Chelsea averaged 1.4 goals a game with Lukaku in the team, and 2.85 without him. (2.1 if you want to discount the aforementioned hapless Norwich.) 

Allegri pointed to Chelsea having more variation in their attack without Lukaku, and it’s borne out by the stats. They averaged 14.4 shots per game with Lukaku in the team, which has increased to 19.7 per game without him. 

They have averaged 16.22 touches in the opposition box with Lukaku – he accounted for just under a quarter of them – while that has rocketed to 30.5 per game in his absence. 

These stats show Chelsea are an effective attacking team without Lukaku, but they are hardly a blunt force with him. More interesting is the other point made by Allegri, in relation to defence. 

Chelsea are not the high-pressing side that Man City and Liverpool are, but under Tuchel they drop off into a mid-block that is extremely difficult to play through. 

chelsea-v-malmo-ff-uefa-champions-league-group-h-stamford-bridge Lukaku is consoled by Thomas Tuchel as he leaves a Champions League tie with Malmo through injury. Source: PA

Opponents had a little more joy against Chelsea when Lukaku was playing, though. With Lukaku leading the line, Chelsea have conceded an average of 10.4 shots a game; without him that figure has been halved. The opposition’s Expected Goals has been far lower without Lukaku, too: 0.5 per game, as opposed to 1.3 when he has been in the team. 

The root of this may not necessarily be a flaw in Lukaku’s game but a consequence of Thomas Tuchel changing his system to fit the new striker into the team.

Last season Chelsea broadly played a 3-4-3 system, with a central striker playing ahead of two No.10s who were comfortable drifting wide. (The system Ireland – with Chelsea coach Anthony Barry involved – are currently playing.) 

When Lukaku has been involved this season, Tuchel has tweaked the system to a 3-5-2, and has pushed one of the No.10s up front beside Lukaku as a second striker, which makes them slightly easier to play through. 

That might be a worthy trade-off if Chelsea were scoring more goals and creating more chances, but they have actually proved to be more effective in the system they know from last year. 

In Lukaku’s absence, Tuchel hasn’t entirely thrown out the new system, but he reverted to the old 3-4-3 for this week’s games with Leicester and Juventus, arguably Chelsea’s best of the season so far. 

One of Tuchel’s strengths as a coach is the fact he is constantly evolving, but there is also a trend in his career thus far of him trying something new before abandoning it. 

He retained Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 at Dortmund but experimented with a back three in his later days at the club before throwing it out; at PSG he also tried a back three domestically but went back to the back four he inherited from Unai Emery in the run to the 2020 Champions League final. 

Lukaku is nearing fitness and may be available for Sunday’s game, and he has the strength and quality to torture United’s brittle centre-backs so he may come straight back into the team. And he may prove to be the signing Chelsea needed to take the final step to the league title but, equally, it may prove that they didn’t need to make that signing at all. 

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Lukaku’s integration at Chelsea has been nowhere near as chaotic or turbulent as Ronaldo’s at Manchester United, but it hasn’t been entirely seamless, either. 

Premier League fixtures (KO 3pm unless stated)

Saturday 

Arsenal vs Newcastle (12.30pm) 

Liverpool vs Southampton 

Norwich vs Wolves 

Crystal Palace vs Aston Villa 

Brighton vs Leeds (5.30pm) 

Sunday 

Brentford vs Everton (2pm) 

Man City vs West Ham (2pm)

Leicester vs Watford (2pm)

Burnley vs Spurs (2pm) 

Chelsea vs Man United (4.30pm)

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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