With Chelsea searching for a goal against Everton on Sunday, Thomas Tuchel turned to his bench on two occasions. At half-time, Mateo Kovacic was brought on in place of Jorginho. Then, with Chelsea trailing 1-0, a double substitution saw Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic enter the fray with 22 minutes of regulation time remaining.
Romelu Lukaku watched the entire match from the sidelines. Tuchel did not turn to the £97.5m striker despite his team’s need for a goal. It was yet another indication that the Belgium international might be on the move again this summer.
Not many people saw this coming. Gary Neville was certainly not alone in predicting Romelu Lukaku would be a success in his second spell at Stamford Bridge.
“He’s an absolute guarantee for Chelsea,” the Sky Sports pundit said in August. “I think that he makes Chelsea serious title challengers so I do feel as though he is that piece of the jigsaw that Chelsea needed.”
Lukaku returned to west London after two fantastic years at Inter. His first season with the Nerazzurri yielded 23 goals in Serie A and 11 more in other competitions. Lukaku then found the net 24 times in the league last term as Inter won the title for the first time since 2010.
In theory, he arrived at Chelsea at the peak of his powers: still at the top of his game physically, but more experienced and mature than he was at Everton and Manchester United. Lukaku was returning to a familiar environment and looked to be a good fit for a club whose previous title-winning teams relied on a strong centre-forward, from Didier Drogba to Diego Costa.
Lukaku hit the ground running with a goal and a man-of-the-match performance on his second debut, as Tuchel’s side eased to a 2-0 victory in August. It was a dream start – but his return to Chelsea has gradually become a nightmare.
Lukaku has started only five of his team’s 14 Premier League matches in 2022. He has not featured from the first whistle since an anonymous display against Crystal Palace in February. As we saw at Goodison Park on Sunday, Lukaku is not even guaranteed an outing from the bench these days, even when Chelsea are pushing to score.
The relationship between Lukaku and Tuchel was damaged by the player’s decision to conduct an unauthorised interview with Sky Italia. In it, the striker said he was “not happy” with Tuchel’s choice of system at Chelsea and admitted that he hoped to return to Inter in the “near future”. Lukaku was duly dropped for the visit of Liverpool to Stamford Bridge on January 2nd.
Had Lukaku delivered the goods on the pitch since then, the interview would have been long forgotten. But the 28-year-old has looked like a shadow of his Inter self this season. He has scored only five goals in 23 league appearances, at a rate of one every 265 minutes. Kai Havertz, not a striker by trade, has nonetheless nailed down that role in Tuchel’s XI.
It is not clear what comes next for Lukaku. Tuchel appears to have made up his mind on him. He would probably be prepared to let him go this summer, but the club may well have different ideas given they will struggle to recoup the £97.5m they paid for him last summer.
In any case, Chelsea are preoccupied by the ongoing takeover saga right now. Lukaku’s future will have to wait. One thing is for sure, though: this has been a terrible season for a man who would have dreamed of firing Chelsea to the title.