Seven hits on Saturday, none on Tuesday. The decision to bench Romelu Lukaku for Chelsea’s Champions League win over Lille only adds to the scrutiny of his struggles at Stamford Bridge.

“If you have to force it, it probably won’t fit.” This was Lukaku’s post on social media recently, leading many to wonder if it was a comment on his predicament. In the spotlight with a trophy to defend, Thomas Tuchel has stopped trying to force it.

Instead, he returned to the striker who scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the Champions League final in May. The striker who scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final in Qatar just last week. Kai Havertz delivered again.

“I’m really happy for Kai,” said Thomas Tuchel. His effort, his work rate and the volume and areas of the pitch he covers for us are immense and very good. He doesn’t hesitate to defend.”

Tuchel may have highlighted Havertz’s defensive work but it’s time to start calling him a striker. It’s not a fake nine. He’s short and he frees up space, but he also runs behind and he scores goals that any striker – Lukaku included – would love to score.

There was a run through the near post, betting on the incoming ball. There was a header straight from a corner, just the kind of chance a true No.9 takes.

The first was missed and the second was scored against Lille. Both came within the first 10 minutes. Midway through the first half, Havertz had benefited from 15 touches on the ball – more than double what Lukaku had managed at Crystal Palace over the weekend.

Why did Tuchel prefer Havertz to Lukaku? “We focused on intensity, high speed and hard work off the ball,” he explained. “Romelu has struggled in recent games to achieve that.”

While Tuchel is understandably frustrated “almost all questions relate to Romelu”, his own explanation for his selection decision damns the man Chelsea paid £97.5m to bring to the club.

Why can’t Lukaku deliver what Tuchel wants?

Let’s be clear about his credentials because it’s all too easy to suggest that Lukaku is simply overrated. He’s the Serie A player of the year, a man with more than 100 caps for his country who averages 23 goals per season over almost a decade.

No foreign player currently playing in the Premier League has scored more goals in the competition – neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Mohamed Salah. However, at 28, when he should be in his prime, the man who should not prove anything has everything to do.

Maybe Tuchel’s comments on Lukaku’s first signing should have been cause for concern. “I think that with the departure of Olivier Giroud, we could use a player used to playing with his back to goal, whose strength is to keep the ball on long balls.”

This perception that Lukaku is a heist, a target around which Chelsea could build their attacks, hinted at this change in role from the start. What Lukaku and his admirers would point out is that he was never the player his physique suggests.

He is capable of it. The strong display against Arsenal in August, when Pablo Mari was effectively kicked out of the football club, was eye-catching but also atypical.

Lukaku has long been more comfortable in front of goal, running towards it, using his speed and strength to get past people. That counterattack game with Lautaro Martinez for company saw him rejuvenated at Inter after his struggles at Manchester United.

When former Inter striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge noted that Lukaku was showing ‘technical skills that weren’t seen so much in Manchester’, that’s what he meant.

Not only did Lukaku score goals, but he created the most chances and performed the most dribbles. He was the player they were buying for a club record and he was a player worth buying. The one they’re rolling out to Chelsea, not so much.

Romelu Lukaku's changing heatmap at Chelsea vs Inter
Picture:
Romelu Lukaku’s changing heatmap at Chelsea vs Inter

The contrast between last season’s heatmaps and this highlights the problem. At Inter, there was a license to move into that half-space, Lukaku’s favorite area on the right wing where he could cut inside and string in passes or fire his own shots.

Now he has become a more peripheral figure precisely because he does not venture to the periphery of the field. Staying central, perversely, has meant staying on the sidelines.

GRAPHIC

Lukaku went from three shots per game for Inter to two shots per game at Chelsea. It’s not a finishing issue, it’s just that he’s not as involved. Playing in the width of the penalty area and waiting is not his game – and it is not Chelsea’s game.

His confidence seems to have taken a hit. “Kai is fit and full of confidence,” Tuchel said of his alternative. The challenge Lukaku faces now is that when the big games arrive and Tuchel wants intensity and movement, he’s likely to look elsewhere.

There was a telling line from the coach about his change in defensive form before kick-off. “When in doubt, it’s always a reason to go for something the team is used to.” That could just as well apply to Lukaku. If in doubt, he may well turn to Havertz instead.

It’s because Lukaku hasn’t joined a club, like Diego Costa did in 2014, which was waiting for him, in the words of Jose Mourinho. He joined a club that had just climbed the mountain without him, signed to solve a problem not everyone will have felt existed.

To succeed at Chelsea, he will be expected to adapt to them and not him.

Sunday, February 27, 3:30 p.m.


Kick off 4:30 p.m.


Lukaku could yet earn a call-up for the cup final, giving him the chance to win a first domestic trophy in English football. “Every match is different,” explains Tuchel. “That was the decision for today. We have four days to recover and decide the squad for Sunday.”

But it’s Havertz, not Lukaku, who seems to have established himself as Chelsea’s go-to man.