There will be a sense of foreboding among many of the home contingent at the Emirates this weekend, mindful not just of their own team’s slovenly start in losing to Premier League newcomers Brentford, but also the likely debut of a £97.5 million (€115m) striker in the mould of another player famous for causing the Gunners’ defence nightmares.
Drogba scored 13 goals in 15 games against Arsenal spanning nine years and two spells at Chelsea between 2004 and 2015, often brutally exposing a defensive brittleness that eventually came to define the latter days of Arsene Wenger’s reign as manager. It is a weakness the club have struggled to eradicate ever since Wenger was sacked in 2018, despite seeking to inject greater resolve by investing considerable sums in various centre-backs under Unai Emery and now Mikel Arteta.
Ben White is the latest, and at £50m the most expensive attempt to answer the problem, but the sight of the former Brighton defender being outmuscled and outmanoeuvred by Brentford’s Ivan Toney, a prolific Championship goal scorer yet unproven at the highest level, hardly bodes well for his prospects of handling one of Europe’s finest marksmen in Lukaku.
Lukaku enjoys a longstanding friendship with Drogba dating back to his first spell at Stamford Bridge in 2011, telling Chelsea’s website: “Our relationship means the world to me. It’s not like we talk once a month, I talk to the guy every few days! We have a group chat so we’re constantly communicating and I’ve been on the phone with him a bit more in the past two weeks. I had a lot of questions to ask and he still knows a lot of people here so he really prepared me well with the last details.”
The striker’s mission this season is to add a cutting edge to a Chelsea team that defied their own profligacy in front of goal to win last season’s Champions League. A Premier League title challenge is expected this time around for the Blues and what better place for Lukaku to lay down a marker in his second debut than at Drogba’s home away from home.
Lukaku has faced Arsenal 17 times in his career to date — having played for Chelsea, West Brom, Everton and Manchester United prior to his two-year spell at Inter Milan — but has scored just three goals and only ended up on the winning side five times. That record is due to a combination of factors, not least the more modest ambition of West Brom and Everton, but also a small indication of the inconsistencies which stalled his personal progress in England.
Lukaku insists, however, that he is a different man upon his return to the Premier League this summer, benefitting significantly from Antonio Conte’s tutelage while spearheading Inter to their first Serie A title in 11 years with 24 goals in 36 league games.
“As a player the Italian game is so different,” he explained at his unveiling press conference on Wednesday. “It’s so tactical and technical. You have to make the right run or movement to get another player free. We always had a lot of possession, so we were playing in the opposite half. Most of the time you were back to goal and everything was going through me.
“I remember having a conversation with Conte about this and he told me if I wasn’t good at that I wouldn’t play. For me that was an eye-opener. Once I mastered that aspect then for me everything became easier.”
Now 28 years old, Lukaku believes he has matured into a more complete forward since he last played in England — which included just 15 appearances in his first spell with the Blues after a €12m move from Anderlecht in 2011 — but in Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, he may also have found a natural tactical fit. The German manager certainly seems to think so, notably referencing that transformation in Lukaku’s link-up play when discussing his new centre-forward.
“He likes to play physical, he is comfortable playing with his back towards the goal,” Tuchel said. “But he is also very, very strong in using his speed and pace. Romelu has a variety of strengths. He is strong in the air, he will give us a new power when we cross from the side. We do not have to change our style of play to make him shine.”
After all, Chelsea’s problem last season wasn’t creating chances but taking them. Timo Werner scored just six goals in 35 League appearances last season after his €53m move from RB Leipzig, producing a catalogue of remarkable misses sufficient to create a lengthy blooper reel. Many of those were from close range and the expectation will be on Lukaku to finish the same patterns of play where Werner couldn’t. All 24 of his Serie A goals last season came from within the width of the six-yard box.
Drogba’s goals against Arsenal were slightly more varied — including one free kick from outside the box and multiple finishes from tight angles — but he was principally effective in the same areas close to goal where Lukaku needs to be. Developing an understanding with those around him is likely to take time but Lukaku is more adaptable these days and it helps that the others in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 system have had a season to gel together.
Kai Havertz and Mason Mount are the frontrunners to occupy the two No. 10 positions but there are multiple options beyond with United States international Christian Pulisic among them. Werner could play there and will also hope to rival Lukaku up front but the Belgian’s responsibility is clear, underlined by inheriting the No. 9 shirt from Tammy Abraham, now departed to Roma for €40m.
Lukaku’s goal record is remarkable, particularly so for a player who has never truly escaped question marks over his quality. To date, he has netted 251 times in 508 games at club level, plus a Belgian record of 64 in 98 games internationally.
It is perhaps easy to forget he also already has more Premier League goals than Drogba managed throughout his career, and in less time. Drogba required 254 games to reach 104 goals. Meanwhile, by scoring in Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Watford in September 2018, Lukaku noted his 105th in his 225th match.
Yet Drogba holds a legendary place in Chelsea’s history, not just because of his record but also the defining contributions he made in so many big matches, combining pace, technique, skill and power to overwhelm opponents and win major honours (four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups and one Champions League). He became the talismanic, all-conquering No. 9 that only Diego Costa for a short spell has really come close to emulating since.
Drogba was the complete striker Lukaku now believes he is. A similarly destructive display against Arsenal on Sunday would be the perfect first step toward proving it.
Credit: Source link