When a £97.5million signing has three goals in two games, it’s not often there would be a debate over whether they should start in the following match. However, this was the FA Cup final and it’s been far from the expected season for Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea.
The 29-year-old has been far from the Blues’ first choice in 2022 but started the previous two matches against Leeds United and Wolves and put in performances that were worth more than his goals. At Elland Road the Belgian in particular showed an all-round display in pressing the Leeds defence, while his distribution to Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic matched with some strong hold-up play suggested Lukaku had managed to adapt and thrive, while Kai Havertz was left on the bench. Indeed, Lukaku even established himself as Chelsea top goalscorer with 15 goals this season.
Havertz, while not necessarily prolific has enjoyed a solid start to the year and seems to mesh with the way Thomas Tuchel likes to play with lots of movement and lots of pressing. His combination play appears more natural with the Blues other forwards, and with 13 goals himself, isn’t too far behind what Lukaku has presented in front of goal, albeit having had seven more starts.
Come match day, the debate was over before it really started as when the Blues released their team, Lukaku was in the starting XI and Havertz was not on the team sheet at all. The 22-year-old made the trip to Wembley as Chelsea looked to make a late call on the forward who was suffering from a hamstring issue.
Regardless of any plan, Lukaku was the man leading the line and tasked with firing Chelsea to FA Cup glory. The confidence the former Inter Milan striker had showed in his last outing wasn’t entirely present, presented with a more difficult task of fighting off Ibrahima Konate and Virgil van Dijk rather than a Leeds backline with the second worst record in the Premier League.
Preoccupied with shielding the ball from the opposition Lukaku’s first touch was understandably sometimes lacking, and his runs on the last man ignored. The only shot Chelsea’s number nine could muster was a wild shot wide in the first period, in a moment that showed decisiveness he lacked in other moments.
However, it wasn’t his actions within the Liverpool box that drew Tuchel’s ire but a moment on the halfway line when the Blues were not even in possession. As the Reds built from their backline Lukaku’s position and pressing was judged to be not up to scratch and the German coach exploded around his technical area. The striker’s output did improve from that point.
The statistics do not make for pretty reading, however. A combination of 15 touches, one shot off target and 50% passing accuracy is not ideal in a final. Lukaku did not necessarily appear to play awfully but if he’s not at his very best can be caught lacking in the areas that are not automatically natural for him, and those remain the attributes that Havertz can consistently offer. To be able to perform well against Liverpool’s backline is difficult, particularly if when you’re required to display more than your typical strengths. It’s not farfetched to think the German forward would have asked more questions if he was available.
Lukaku can still use the end of the season to build a platform for the rest of his Chelsea career, but the match against Liverpool was an opportunity missed to truly earn his place back in the hearts of Blues supporters.