Tuchel and Chelsea are failing to capitalise on Lukaku’s specific threat
Is it time to talk about Romelu Lukaku? Or rather, to talk about the way in that this mannered Chelsea team still seems to be toying with that final element of its armoury, spinning it on its end, admiring its edges.
Lukaku has been called the final piece in this jigsaw so many times, you wonder what kind of jigsaw this is that can become champions of Europe, with such excess talent available, and still claim to be incomplete.
But this 1-0 defeat in Turin against a coltish, hard-running Juventus team was a reminder that this is very much a team still being built on the hoof. And that Chelsea have not yet learnt how to exploit fully their record signing, to integrate his very specific kind of threat.
The Allianz Stadium is an agreeably nuts thing, a grim concrete campus that opens out into a vertiginous bowl, massive steel roof crowding in low above the stands.
For all the noise, the lights, the theatre, the first half here was like watching a slightly snarky competitive knitting bout. For long periods the blue shirts passed the ball to blue shirts. Patterns were run, angles tightened, opponents moved across the pitch.
Lukaku kept gesturing for an early pass to feet, then just waiting while it didn’t come, a semi-interested spectator observing some methodical work being carried out, like men who stand and watch bricks being laid on a building site through a hole in the fence.
Juventus played a back four here, with Matthijs De Ligt lining up alongside the magnificent Leonardo Bonucci at centre-back. Thomas Tuchel rejigged his team again, bringing in Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz in the forward positions.
That restless intelligence is still sifting and sorting and looking for points of fusion, dead ends, internal electricity. Tuchel had even ditched the chemistry-teacher-out-for-a-jog aesthetic, opting instead for an all-black smart-casual outfit, waving his long skinny arms wildly on the touchline, like the curator of a New York experimental theatre group desperately trying to flag down a cab.
Lukaku had an early chance from a planned corner move, snaking a run in from the back of the box and meeting Marcos Alonso’s delivery with a neat first-time shot. After which Chelsea spent the opening quarter taking all sense of sting out of the game.
There is a wonderful mathematical clarity about this team. Every part moves in sync. They drain an opponent, killing their strengths at source. But they run cold for long periods, too. At times it must feel like playing draughts against a polite, highly strung super-computer.
And steadily there were signs of frustration for Lukaku. On the half-hour Bonucci simply levered him away from a high goal kick with a little turn of the shoulder, like a veteran removal man expertly steering a two-seater chesterfield around the bend in the second‑floor stairs.
Three or four times he called for an instant pass, and was left visibly frustrated. It is to be hoped this doesn’t become a structural problem. Lukaku is considered in his movement, always looking for a small space off the shoulder.
He demands to be spotted, and knows those moments when he finds them. That controlled systems-play will not always allow for the instant pass.
It is surely a note Chelsea could add to their game, a little more direct engagement with their record-signing centre-forward before that sense of sterility is allowed to build.
Instead it was Juventus who went directly towards goal immediately after the break, and scored with seconds of the half gone. It was wonderful run and finish by Federico Chiesa, although as ever it was also made by the pass and the vision behind him.
For the last half an hour Chelsea did push forward, looking to build attacking moves rather than simply phases of play, dropping the holding-pattern football. By that stage Tuchel had made four substitutions, three of them in one go on the hour mark. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on, a footballer who always seems in an urgent doomed hurry, the football equivalent of a man who ends up making scissor gestures as he wheels around the living room trying to remember what he came in for.
There was a glimpse of the mercurial, marginalised Callum Hudson-Odoi, and of Ross Barkley, who seems to have taken on a bit of The Grealish these days. At moments like these Chelsea seem to have a wealth of everything, and somehow not quite enough of some things: a brilliantly powerful squad that still has the sense somehow of too much hole and not enough doughnut. What, exactly, was the plan again, with all these high‑grade parts?
Perhaps a little simplicity, a paring back of those options into some more direct patterns might help. By the end here Lukaku hadn’t score in four appearances and just over 300 minutes of football.
In that time he has had two shots at goal. And Chelsea have seemed at times to be playing the same way as last season, even with their final piece in play, like a man limping on one side even after his gammy toe has healed. It’s fine. Just walk.
With 82 minutes gone Lukaku did finally get Bonucci where he wanted him, rolling his man, finding himself in front of goal, but slicing his shot wide. It came only once, and by that stage it was far too late.