Inter Milan, 2019–
Chelsea paid a club record £97.5m to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club from Inter Milan, where under their former manager Antonio Conte he evolved into one of the world’s leading strikers, and perhaps to even become the long-term replacement they sought for Didier Drogba when first signing him for £20m in 2011.
Lukaku moved on to Everton for £28m in 2014, but aged 28 when his return was confirmed in August 2021, he is a player in his prime. Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and Álvaro Morata have all tried and failed to replace Drogba – Timo Werner could yet prove another – making Diego Costa’s relatively short-term success the only time a high-profile striker has delivered what he was signed to do. The position of Chelsea’s senior striker has therefore become increasingly pressured, but Belgium’s Lukaku said: “I’m coming back with a lot of experience and more mature. To be back and trying to help them win more titles is an amazing feeling.”
Lukaku is a powerful striker who, though more comfortable on his left foot, is also capable of striking the ball effectively with his right. He generates significant power while doing so, even if shooting from a static position, and is demonstrating improving balance both when shooting and when making off-the-ball runs.
When shooting with the inside of his foot, he remains relatively static; few movements are made until the relevant pass is played; he also often disguises his shots to put both the opposing goalkeeper and, if necessary, defender, off-balance. His ability to twist and turn with the ball at his feet, and to then strike it with either one, makes Lukaku a threat from most angles (below) and positions in the attacking third. That he is also strong in the air, and to the extent he can compete with the very best – particularly from inside the penalty area – enhances that threat.
That same strength and power is largely why he is so effective at driving forwards with possession and holding off opponents. He is quick on the counter, but even when defenders can match his speed they struggle to stop him because of his upper-body strength (below) and ability to protect the ball while on the move, which often ensures he eases past opponents – and to the extent he remains aware of his surroundings.
Another consistent and impressive trait exists in the forward movements he offers around his opposing central defenders, when supporting the ball and seeking forward passes. He excels at moving his opponent, and then moving again to receive the ball, when his timing creates the necessary room to receive and then potentially shoot at goal.
His link play is similarly effective. By pinning even the strongest central defenders (below), Lukaku creates opportunities to spin and drive in both directions, and often complements doing so by using his arms to keep opponents away from the ball. If combinations offer greater potential than him receiving on the move or attacking in behind, or indeed if teammates are better positioned, Lukaku adjusts by adopting positions between defenders and then dropping, and times doing so just before the ball is played.
That same sense of timing is extended to when he releases the ball, when he resists retaining it for so long that he risks being pressed from more than one direction. He, similarly, is capable of providing a valuable outlet and working to hold on to the ball for lengthier periods – particularly if pressure is being applied from behind him – to provide time for his teammates to make runs or adopt new positions as the opposing defenders attempt to adapt to Lukaku’s movements.
Role at Inter Milan
Alongside Martínez, Lukaku consistently led Conte’s 3-5-2 in which they provided the focal point of the majority of Inter’s attacks. The Belgian’s ability and willingness to occupy opposing central defenders regularly encouraged Martínez to attack the spaces in behind (below); he drew defenders out of position, encouraging Martínez to attack one-on-one and isolate his direct opponent. Lukaku was similarly capable of retaining the ball on the occasions Martínez needed to adopt a new position. He regularly dropped into the right inside channel; Martínez prioritised making penetrative runs through the central or left inside channel.
When he was the one in possession, Lukaku favoured feeding teammates by setting possession to them if they were better positioned to play forwards passes, or by spinning away from pressure and then delivering balls in behind. For all of the awareness of his physical attributes, the quality of his final pass is underappreciated; he demonstrates an admirable understanding of how to create with more delicate passes, and Martínez and Alexis Sánchez have both benefitted from him doing so.
He was similarly influential in Inter’s ability to attack on the counter. Conte’s preference to so often defend with a mid or low block meant that their back five and three central midfielders provided the foundation from which to defend, and that their front two became the target of early forward passes. Lukaku, more than Martínez, became their preferred target, because of his consistent success in securing the ball and then time for Martínez and their attacking midfielders or wing-backs to advance and either support or provide the decoy runs he required to progress their attack himself.
Attacking runs from Achraf Hakimi and Ivan Perisic, so often Inter’s senior wing-backs, provided essential support by ensuring their opposing defenders couldn’t move infield and overload Lukaku. From Inter’s mid-block, their attacking midfielders – perhaps Stefano Sensi, Christian Eriksen or Nicolò Barella – were likelier to provide those runs through already being further forward than those wing-backs.
That Lukaku is so effective at attacking crosses (above) meant that their attacks could offer further variety. Inter’s wing-backs were encouraged to adopt more advanced positions, owing to Lukaku’s ability to support wider play – often from between the opposing central defender and full-back, and potentially eventually twisting and turning with the ball to create the chance to shoot at goal.
Their wing-backs’ movements also created space for Lukaku to make one run intended to move his marker, and then another to pursue a through ball or cross. When he was their most advanced runner in behind, Martínez or Sánchez dropped, encouraging their attacking midfielders to drift wider, from where they could play balls in behind from a different angle and target Lukaku in the knowledge he will complement their delivery with a well-timed run and can finish both in the air and on the ground.