Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has not been short of advice on how to approach the hot issue of the month at Stamford Bridge — Romelu Lukaku’s making public his unhappiness with his “situation” at the club. Tuchel consulted with senior players ahead of dropping Lukaku at the weekend.
Expert counsel on how to best manage Lukaku could also have been sought from the other side of London, although in the circumstances, Tuchel was not likely to be chatting to Antonio Conte about a centre-forward who the Italian knows very well and is admired by. Certainly not in the days leading up to Wednesday’s League Cup semi-final against Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur.
Lukaku, whose transfer from Inter Milan cost Chelsea more than €100m in the summer, has apologised for saying, in the interview — which was unauthorised by his current club — with Sky Italia that he was “not happy” with aspects of Chelsea’s game plan for him, while also stressing his affection for Inter.
“He apologised and is back in the squad,” reported Tuchel on Tuesday. “He is aware of what happened and what he created and feels the responsibility to clean the mess up but there may still be a ‘smell’, of course.”
The controversy, Tuchel added, “was not that big, and also not small — but small enough to stay calm, to accept an apology and to move on.”
Still, Tuchel admitted Lukaku’s remarks “were surprising to me. I never, before the interview, had the slightest doubt that he was not committed. He is an emotional guy, he does not hold back with his opinion.
“Was the intention to create trouble? To leave the club? I don't know,” added Tuchel, who met with Lukaku on Monday. “Was it to put pressure on the coach? No. Of course he should have known better but that is why we have cleared the air together.”
Chelsea have no intention of parting ways with the most expensive player signed in their year under Tuchel, but they recognise he has not reached the peaks of form he showed over two years at Inter, playing under Conte, the coach Lukaku credits with nurturing his all-round game.
Conte, a former Chelsea manager, made the Belgian his priority recruit when he took over at Inter in 2019: 64 Lukaku goals in 95 games under Conte showed why. Lukaku became the fulcrum of the side, his striking partnership with Lautaro Martinez so effective they were referred to as a single, devastating unit, nicknamed ‘Lu-La’. It was only broken up because Inter had heavy debts to service, so Lukaku was sold and Conte, unwilling to work under a suddenly constrained budget, left, joining Spurs in November.
After four months at Tuchel’s Chelsea, Lukaku has not yet found his equivalent of a Lautaro, and he hinted, in the controversial interview, at frustrations about tactics and strategy. “I an not happy at the moment,” he said. “The coach has decided on a different formation, but I have to stick with it.”
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Tuchel’s reaction to that comment? “I think players get the best out of themselves. With Romelu it is not about finding positions, he is a striker, a number nine and that is it. It is about adaptation to a different team, teammates. He was not happy because he was injured [for a month in the autumn] and then had Covid [missing two league games in December] but he wants to score for us, make us successful.”
For all that Tuchel was taken aback by Lukaku’s candour, the idea that Chelsea have yet to maximise the Belgian’s potential is not new. It certainly struck Conte, the striker’s former mentor, in September. Conte, then working as a pundit for Italian television, remarked: “Chelsea have not quite worked out how to play him. If they get there, they will be the side to beat.”
Conte could also testify to Tuchel that Chelsea, with its notoriously high turnover of managers, is not an easy club to be in charge of a troubled centre-forward. Conte has been there. The summer after the Italian guided Chelsea to the Premier League title in 2017, his relationship with his leading scorer from that campaign, Diego Costa, deteriorated badly.
Costa was gone the following January. Conte ended his two-year spell with Chelsea four months later.
Wednesday will be Conte’s first return to Stamford Bridge as a rival manager. “It will be a pleasure,” Conte said. “Over two seasons, I created a good relationship with players and staff at Chelsea. We did a really good job. There will be emotion.” And there may be a knowing glance shared between Conte and his old ally Lukaku.