Whether intentional or not — and it would seem to be the latter — in his interview with Sky Italia that emerged last week Romelu Lukaku found himself asking not insignificant questions of Thomas Tuchel’s managerial authority at Chelsea. Those have now been emphatically answered.
Tuchel has drawn a line under the affair, bringing Lukaku back into the Chelsea squad with a view to being involved against Tottenham Wednesday in the EFL Cup semifinals. He has done so with his authority enhanced as Monday’s meeting with the club record signing brought closure to a dramatic five day spell which began when quotes emerged that questioned Tuchel’s methods and hinted at a desire to return to Inter Milan.
Chelsea had been blindsided by Lukaku’s comments, even if they had been made three weeks earlier when he was confined to an impact role off the bench after a hamstring injury. In such circumstances, amid faltering results on the pitch, it is not unknown for the manager to take the blame rather than the $135 million new signing. After all, when Frank Lampard could not convince those above him he could manage Kai Havertz and Timo Werner he was swiftly dispensed with for Tuchel.
Yet the German had the confidence in his standing to drop Lukaku for Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Liverpool, to hold face to face talks with him on Monday and confirm to his happiness that he had a player who wants to be at Chelsea.
Tuchel said: “We were happy that we took the time that was needed to talk calmly. This is what we did. He apologized. He is back in the squad for today’s training session.
“For me the most important thing was to really understand and believe that it was not intentional to create this kind of noise ahead of a big game [against Liverpool]. The second one was that it was the very first time that he even behaved [badly], even before when in his opinion he was ready to play from the start after his injury and we thought he needs to re-adapt to the intensity a little bit more. There was never the slightest behavior against the team. It was the very first time that we actually felt him this way.
“These are very important points to stay calm and understand it’s not as big as people want it to be. It’s not small but it’s small enough to stay calm, to accept an apology and to move on. He is very aware of what happened and what he created. He feels the responsibility to clean the mess up. Maybe we will have a bit of a smell still from it. He can handle it. He has no other choice.”
Chelsea released a video Tuesday of Lukaku apologizing on camera. “I’m sorry for the upset I have caused,” he says to start the video. Here’s the full clip:
Tuchel will offer his support to Lukaku but, using the public medium of the press conference, he left the Belgian in no doubt that he was far from impressed with his actions. It did not make it better, the head coach said, that his star player insisted he remains fully committed to Chelsea. He had believed that his goal scoring return from a spell out due to COVID-19 had brought an end to any issues over form; it was a “big surprise” to see Lukaku question whether he had been too sparingly used.
“Sometimes he carries his heart on his tongue,” Tuchel added. “We should not just blame him and just point on the negative side of it. We have to adapt to the situation. It created some noise that you absolutely don’t want, this is clearly understood, but there are zero doubts in his commitment to the team and the club.”
Among Lukaku’s most notable statements was what appeared to at the very least be an indication that he might find it awkward to adapt into Tuchel’s system, one which generally asks him to lead the line flanked by two inside forwards rather than the strike partner he had at Inter Milan in Lautaro Martinez. Certainly there were occasions after a bright start this season where the 28-year-old seemed to be struggling to find the same wavelength as his team mates.
In 12 Premier League and European matches with Lukaku in the side Chelsea have scored 22 goals with a per game expected goals (xG) return of 1.6. In 15 matches without their No. 9 they look to be a more devastating attack force, scoring 36 times and registering 2.1 xG per game. The message from Tuchel was clear; the player must adapt to the system, not vice versa.
“With Romelu it’s not about finding positions. He’s a striker, it’s pretty easy. Just put him on the number nine. It’s about adaption to the league, adaption to a different club, to different team-mates. Then comes injury and COVID. We’re in an absolutely total normal place with him.
“He’s willing to learn. He’s willing to adapt. He comes to the most intense league in the world and it takes its time. He was very strong in the beginning, in the latest games he was very decisive and we have no doubts that he will be a big influence.
“We took our time. It was in a very, very bad moment ahead of a big game. We protected the game and now we have time to clear the air and move on.”
It would appear that the crisis is over. Tuchel did not let it go to waste.