Romelu Lukaku’s Chelsea switch appeared to be the signing of last summer — but the powerful forward has struggled to set pulses racing at Stamford Bridge.
Mediocre form on the field has been compounded by controversy off it and fresh reports are now suggesting a rapid return to former club Inter Milan could be on the cards.
We take a closer look at Lukaku’s situation and assess whether the Blues and their Belgian striker would be better off parting ways.
When news broke of the £97.5million agreement to bring Lukaku back to West London last August, it felt like a game-changing moment.
Thomas Tuchel’s troops were already reigning European champions and the addition of one of the most in-form centre forwards on the planet looked certain to fire them into Premier League title contention.
After all, Lukaku had just netted 24 times in 36 outings to inspire Inter to an unexpected Serie A success, appearing to have taken his game to another level since departing Manchester United in 2019.
However, the goals have not flowed as hoped.
Just eight strikes in 26 Premier League appearances represented a disappointing return for someone of his pedigree and price tag.
In fact, even getting a game has proved anything but straightforward — Lukaku started a mere 16 of the Blues’ 38 top-flight clashes in 2021-22.
Injuries were only partly responsible for that disappointing game time, with more pressing issues being a lack of consistency and some questionable interview comments.
Speaking to Sky Italy last December, Lukaku went public with his discontent at losing his place in Chelsea’s starting XI to young German forward Kai Havertz.
Lukaku said: “I’m just not happy about the situation, but that’s normal. I think the boss has decided to play a different formation but I have to stick at it and get on with it professionally.
“I’m not happy with the situation but it’s my job and I mustn’t give up.”
The 29-year-old went on to romanticise over a future return to the Nerazzurri in the same interview and was subsequently dropped from Tuchel’s squad altogether for a clash with Liverpool.
Though the pair held clear-the-air talks to resolve the issue — with Lukaku releasing a formal apology on the Chelsea website for any upset caused — the incident has certainly left a mark.
Back to Italy
Earlier this month, Lukaku distanced himself from comments made by his agent Federico Pastorello which suggested crisis talks between his client and Chelsea would take place this summer.
Taking to Instagram after the quotes surfaced, Lukaku wrote: “Never ever will I let someone speak for me. I kept my mouth shut and focused on helping the team end the season in the best way possible.
“So, if someone out there [is] trying to say something about me and the club, not in my name.”
Yet as the old saying goes, there is rarely smoke without fire and a logical case certainly remains for him exiting Stamford Bridge in the coming weeks.
Inter are extremely keen on bringing the 29-year-old back to the San Siro and while the Blues would almost certainly make a loss on their initial £97.5m outlay, Lukaku would still command a sizeable fee.
That cash would come in handy as Tuchel goes about rebuilding a defence that will soon be left woefully light by the impending departures of Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger.
More to come
However, a turbulent few months has left the Blues in desperate need of some stability and there is still good reason to believe Lukaku can still turn his Chelsea career around.
After all, his 15 goals across all competitions was still a higher tally than any other Chelsea player managed, ranking him above fellow forwards Havertz and Timo Werner.
And the underlying statistics also boost the Belgian’s cause.
Lukaku’s rate of 0.45 goals per 90 minutes in the top tier betters that of Havertz (0.39) and Werner (0.28), as well as on-loan forward Armando Broja (0.27) who has impressed with Southampton.
He also comfortably trumped his peers in terms of creation by carving out an impressive 1.36 opportunities per 90 minutes, while he misses the least big chances of the quartet.
All in all, the Blues would have to go shopping if they wanted to find a more reliable finisher.
Keeping the faith
Any player can endure an underwhelming campaign and it is too early to be writing off a player of Lukaku’s quality.
While off-field incidents clearly did not help his cause last term, the Antwerp native has shown a willingness to move forward and may now feel he has a point to prove.
Furthermore, it is impossible to quantify just how much of an impact a bout of coronavirus, niggling thigh injury and lack of consistent game time actually had on his overall output.
Do not be surprised to see the hitman arrive back from his summer break rejuvenated and ready to remind the football world what he is all about.
Todd Boehly’s consortium completed their takeover of the Blues earlier this week and a new era is about to begin at the club — perhaps this is a fresh start for Lukaku, too.