LONDON: A lack of confidence. Injuries to his main chance creators. Tiredness. Defensive opponents.
Romelu Lukaku’s struggles at Chelsea this season can be put down to a whole host of potential factors.
Thomas Tuchel has another possible explanation, too.
“There’s a history of strikers struggling a little bit at Chelsea,” the Chelsea manager said on Monday, somewhat bluntly. “It’s not the easiest place in the world for strikers.”
From Fernando Torres, to Radamel Falcao, to Alvaro Morata, even as far back as Andriy Shevchenko. Many strikers with big reputations — and some with even bigger fees — have come to Stamford Bridge and failed to live up to their billing.
Is Lukaku, signed for a club-record $135 million in the off-season, just the latest example?
It’s too early to make a definitive judgment on Lukaku’s second spell at Chelsea but the first few months back at the club have been difficult for the Belgium international, not least when he was dropped at the start of this year after giving an interview in which he said he was “not happy with the situation” at Chelsea and indicated he didn’t like Tuchel’s style of play.
Another low point came on Saturday, when he touched the ball just seven times during the entirety of the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace. That’s the fewest touches by any English Premier League player in 90 minutes since Opta started collating the data in 2003.
Two days later, Tuchel still appeared to be at a loss to explain it.
“What can I do? I don’t know,” he said. “Now we have to deal with it. The data is out there and the data speaks a certain language so he was not involved in our game. Sometimes it’s like this with the strikers if they struggle a little bit with self-confidence, if they struggle a little bit to find the space, to get involved against a defensive side.
“It’s of course not what we want or what Romelu wants, but it’s also not a time to laugh about it and make jokes about him. He is in the spotlight and we will protect him.”
Tuchel certainly doesn’t sound ready to give up on Lukaku, who has 10 goals in 28 games in all competitions for Chelsea and is looking far from the striker who struck fear into the heart of defenses during his time in Italy with Inter Milan over the previous two years.
The German coach noted Chelsea plays a more physical game than other top teams, placing extra demands on the team’s lone striker.
“In my opinion, Chelsea is a team that is also considered as a strong defensive team, that is a physical team and has a certain attitude and grip in playing competitive football,” Tuchel said.
“We demand a lot from our strikers in terms of defending. We want to be a physical and hard-working group, one that’s not shy to make it a physical game and not only a skilful game. That maybe plays a part. We have many games where we created many chances and struggled a little bit in the conversion. Now it’s a moment where we struggle to create many big chances for our strikers.”
Key to that is the absence of first-choice wing backs Ben Chilwell and Reece James, who provide much of the team’s creativity and attacking thrust. Chilwell is out long term with knee ligament damage while James recently had a setback in his recovery from a hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined since late December.
Chelsea’s attacking approach can be quite ponderous at times, especially with Mason Mount also out injured at the moment and unlikely to feature on Tuesday against Lille in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16.
It’s a hectic period for Chelsea, which has just returned from winning the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi and will play the English League Cup final against Liverpool on Sunday.
Big games are coming every week. Even a run at the Premier League title cannot be completely discounted, with Chelsea 13 points behind leader Manchester City — which lost to Tottenham on Saturday — with a game in hand.