It is tempting to wonder what might have been if, at the start of the second half at the Etihad on Saturday, the only shot on target that Chelsea managed all afternoon had been placed around the onrushing Ederson rather than easily within his reach. Maybe Thomas Tuchel would have taken more positives from the performance, maybe Manchester City would even have lost, maybe there would still have been a sliver of intrigue for us to savour in the final four months of this Premier League title race.
Maybe Romelu Lukaku would have taken the first step on his long road back to something approaching redemption, too. The narrative almost demanded that, very much against the run of play, he should convert that golden one-on-one opportunity to put his ahead – not only to repair some of the damage done by last month’s explosive interview to Sky Sports Italia, but also to damage a club that he revealed he had almost joined, who offered him much more money than Chelsea did, by the way.
Instead, Lukaku spurned the one genuine opening that Tuchel’s cautious, reactive master plan created. Chelsea had not come to dominate or play City at their own game. If they were going to walk away with any kind of positive result, they would have to take maximum advantage of key moments. Mateo Kovacic’s driving run through midfield and delicate pass through City’s retreating backline created such a moment, easily Chelsea’s best of the game. Lukaku failed to seize it.
The upshot is that Chelsea lost, the title race is as good as run and there will be no sudden easing of the tension that still clearly exists between Lukaku on one side and his club and manager on the other. The debate over whether Lukaku is failing Chelsea or if Chelsea are failing Lukaku will not abate any time soon either. On the one hand, this £97.5m signing has only scored five league goals this season. On the other, is this really the way to get the best out of him?
The more sympathetic argument to Lukaku goes that he is not suited to be the player that Tuchel wants him to be in this system. The Belgian spent much of his afternoon at the Etihad with his back to goal acting as a focal point for the rest of the attack to operate around, using his physique and strength to hold up play and bring others into the game. It is a logical role for a centre-forward of his size and presence but it is not a role that he has traditionally played his best football in, especially when operating centrally.
Lukaku’s 64 goals in 95 games for Internazionale did not come as the static nucleus of an attack with others spinning in his atomic orbit. They came as part of a two-pronged front line alongside Lautaro Martinez, running in behind and from outside to in as part of a much more direct, transition-based style of play under a manager who adored him in Antonio Conte. That is not how Tuchel’s Chelsea play though, not even when defending deep as they did at the Etihad.
But then the game was not without a key point for those less sympathetic to Lukaku’s predicament: on the one occasion where he did get to run in behind City’s defence, he fluffed his lines.
Tuchel gave a pointed post-match interview to BT Sport and did not gloss over Lukaku’s disappointing display. He could forgive the miss, he said, but he was less happy about his centre-forward’s all-round contribution and the number of times he turned over possession. “Sometimes he has to do the service, he is included in this,” the Chelsea manager said. “He had many ball losses and a huge chance. Of course we want to serve him but he’s part of the team. The performance up front in the first half, we can do much, much better.”
Tuchel was invited to elaborate on those remarks in his press conference and this time avoided singling out individuals, though his comments could easily still apply to Lukaku. “The performance in the first half in the opponents’ half, we had eight or nine transition chances and out of them we didn’t have a touch in the box. That’s what I’m critical about. That you miss chances, there is no problem in that. Everybody wants to score from every big chance and of course you don’t get a lot in top games.
“But efficiency, you need a bit of luck and composure,” Tuchel added. “We could have had much more chances, that’s what I’m critical about. The ball losses were too early and we were too poor in decision making and timing. That was not on the level that we need on this kind of level of football match.”
Clearly, from these comments and some of his previous team selections, the Chelsea manager has reservations about Lukaku in the central attacking role in this set-up. And clearly, from his interview, Lukaku does not feel especially comfortable there either.
Which brings us to the great irony of this whole saga: that despite all the sound, fury and that heartfelt apology posted to social media, everybody involved seems to agree that Romelu Lukaku is not an especially easy fit in this Chelsea system. That increasingly seems to be the common ground that all the parties involved share. Time will tell whether they come together and find a solution.