In signing Romelu Lukaku this summer, Chelsea took what was already a Champions League–winning roster and somehow made it a hell of a lot better. Rival teams might have hoped it would at least take a little while for Chelsea to fully integrate its new-and-old striker, but in Lukaku’s re-debut on Sunday, it was immediately evident just how scary this team is now with one of the best strikers in the world leading the line.
Though his last spell in England was a disappointment—his stay at Manchester United was as notable for his poor first touches as it was for his goals—in his return to Chelsea, the club that first signed him a decade ago, he showed why he cost about €110 million to sign, and why Inter will rue losing him. After two seasons in Serie A, Lukaku is now back and better than ever.
On Sunday, Lukaku was the pivot at the head of the Chelsea attack. He’s always had the strength to muscle off defenders, but against a struggling Arsenal, the Belgian essentially posted the defenders at the top of the box while Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, and Reece James all flew by him to receive the ball in space. Lukaku was the definition of a target man, those beloved English strikers of old that could do little beyond head the ball down and kick it on to more skilled players.
Only, Lukaku is not just that. You can’t be a simple target man in today’s game and succeed in the elite. Instead, he’s a dynamic force of nature who forces defenders into a brutal choice: Do you give him space to protect against his passes and speed, or do you try to out-muscle one of the strongest strikers in the Premier League? Arsenal’s Pablo Marí chose the latter ahead of Chelsea’s opening goal, and Lukaku made him pay:
Let’s see that again, but closer:
You can blame Mikel Arteta’s gameplan for setting Arsenal’s players up to fail by asking them to wrestle with the way-too-strong Lukaku, or you could blame Marí for not adjusting when it was clear his physical defending posed no impediment. Or, you could just enjoy what will likely be a common sight this season: Lukaku getting what he wants inside the box, and Chelsea getting the goals it craves from its new star man.
The really scary part is that his is all only going to get better. I for one can’t wait to see the havoc that Lukaku wreaks with Timo Werner playing next to him for a full game. Werner’s struggles were well-chronicled last year, but part of the problem was that Chelsea was playing the German as a traditional, lone center forward, which has never been his game. Werner’s pace is such that his best successes usually come out wide, where he can terrorize defenders with out-to-in runs behind their backs.
Putting Werner next to Lukaku is like taking his time at RB Leipzig—wherein he played next to Yussuf Poulsen, another large striker—and pumping it with a Super Mario Bros. star power-up. The Werner and Lukaku partnership should alleviate the former’s hold-up duties and decrease the pressure on the German to be the chief goal-getter, while also giving Lukaku an eager partner with which to combine and create space, mirroring the fantastic strike team the Belgian enjoyed at Inter with Lautaro Martínez.
It’s not just Werner, either. Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, and Christian Pulisic should all thrive playing off of a more central striker, because they all have great understanding of open spaces. Further back, Lukaku will serve as a perfect landing pad for Jorginho’s long balls. And James already found the connection with Lukaku on Chelsea’s first goal against Arsenal, before scoring one of his own after he was gifted acres of space. Having Lukaku on the field makes Chelsea much more difficult to defend against, since his inclusion in the side upgrades not only his position but also the play of all those around him.
Two seasons of intense Serie A soccer showed that this version of Lukaku can’t really be contained. He scored 47 goals in 72 matches for Inter in the league, and lead the club to its first Serie A title in 11 years last season. His success continued into the Euros this summer, where he scored four goals and was named in the team of the tournament.
English fans might remember the big Belgian as a flop from his time at United, but a lot has changed in two seasons. Lukaku is at his peak right now, and he joined Chelsea at the perfect time, surrounded by all of the tools and weapons a striker could want. Sure, Arsenal is a disaster at present, but what Lukaku showed on Sunday is what he should continue to show every match. With a manager that understands his value as the focal point of the attack, there’s no defense in England prepared to slow down this particular freight train.