This was the sort of game Chelsea bought Romelu Lukaku for. For those matches during which not much catches fire. For the matches that last season would have seen Thomas Tuchel’s side drop two points. Here, though, with Lukaku on hand, Chelsea were able to get away with an off day.
The £98m frontman gives them that luxury. While Lukaku was previously criticised for a degree of wastefulness in front of goal earlier in his career, he is now one of the game’s most ruthless goalscorers and he demonstrated this by converting the one genuine chance Chelsea created in their 1-0 Champions League victory over Zenit St Petersburg.
Tuchel has already highlighted the cutting edge Lukaku gives his team, labelling him “the difference” as Chelsea claimed a 3-0 win over Aston Villa on Saturday. In almost every game Lukaku has played since swapping the San Siro for Stamford Bridge, he has shown at least something that hints at why he was signed.
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Chelsea were held to no fewer than seven goalless draws last season. While this didn’t cost them in the Champions League, where the knockout format suited their ability not to lose, it stopped the Blues from sustaining a genuine Premier League title challenge. Such slip-ups won’t be tolerated this season.
Lukaku will help in this regard. He saved Chelsea from another goalless draw against Zenit and could be the difference, to borrow a term from his manager, in a title race that might involve as many as four contenders. Four goals in four games hints at a player who is very comfortable with the role he has to play.
And yet for all that Lukaku is doing what he was signed to do, Tuchel must heed the warning signs. Zenit St Petersburg were very effective at frustrating the European champions on their own patch. They should have levelled things at 1-0 when Artem Dzyuba somehow managed to miss a gaping goal from only a few yards out.
A better team with sharper instincts in front of goal might well have taken a point, or maybe more, off Chelsea who were unable to do much to alter the dynamic of the match despite four changes made off the bench. Zenit surely left Stamford Bridge aggrieved at the final outcome.
When Tuchel has to toggle to a more conservative, compact approach mid-match, there are rarely any issues. See how Chelsea responded well to going a man down against Liverpool at Anfield and were ultimately able to take a point from a match they very easily could have lost.
Lukaku and Tuchel at Anfield
Image credit: Getty Images
However, when Chelsea have to step things up, when they are faced with a well-organised low defensive block, Tuchel doesn’t yet have an alternative plan to enact. Against Zenit, the German’s first change saw Kai Havertz introduced for Hakim Ziyech which only made Chelsea even narrower. Next came two like-for-like changes - a left wing-back for a left wing-back and a centre-back for a centre-back - followed by the withdrawal of Mason Mount for Ruben Loftus-Cheek in stoppage time.
Callum Hudson-Odoi remained on the bench for the full 90 minutes despite possessing a skill set that might have allowed Chelsea to get in behind Zenit more frequently. Timo Werner is another whose pace and directness could have opened up different avenues for the hosts, but he too stayed on the bench.
While the addition of Lukaku gave Chelsea something they were previously missing, it’s still up to Tuchel to make the most of his squad as a whole. Lukaku’s signing means Chelsea can get away with an off day, like the one they suffered on Tuesday night, from time to time, but he can’t be called upon to save the day every time.
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