Just 10 months and nine days since his dream £97.5million homecoming, the second chapter of Romelu Lukaku’s doomed Chelsea story is as good as over.
Thomas Tuchel was meant to have found the missing piece of his Blues jigsaw when the Belgian striker, fresh from inspiring Inter Milan to their first Scudetto in a decade, returned to west London for a club-record fee last August.
But now, less than a year later, Inter are on the verge of re-signing the Premier League’s second most expensive player on loan for peanuts after a disastrous first season back at Stamford Bridge.
Just 10 months after returning for £97.5m, Romelu Lukaku is already on his way out of Chelsea
Lukaku is set to rejoin Inter Milan on loan after a disastrous season back at Stamford Bridge
So how did it come to this?
While the blame doesn’t lie entirely at his door, with Tuchel also partly responsible, it is hard to argue that Lukaku wasn’t the architect of his own downfall in SW6. And ahead of his departure, Sportsmail has taken a closer look at why his second Chelsea stint went so dramatically wrong.
There were no red flags or alarm bells whatsoever when Lukaku swaggered back into Stamford Bridge as an Italian champion last August. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
He had previously departed Chelsea as a boy in 2014, leaving to join Everton following a successful loan spell at Goodison Park, yet after scoring 193 goals in 357 games for the Toffees, Manchester United and Inter, and winning Serie A with the latter, he returned as a seasoned, established centre-forward at the peak of his powers.
‘I’m happy and blessed to be back at this wonderful club,’ Lukaku said at the time. ‘The relationship I have with this club means so much to me, as you know. I have supported Chelsea as a kid and now to be back and try to help them win more titles is an amazing feeling.’
There were no red flags when the Belgian striker got his second Blues stint up and running
He initially scored four goals in as many games to hit the ground running back in west London
Lukaku’s return looked like turning Chelsea from top-four regulars to serious title contenders
Thomas Tuchel appeared to have found the final piece of his Blues jigsaw in attack
It had only been three months since Tuchel’s men won the Champions League but the general consensus was that signing Lukaku would complete their transformation from top-four regulars to title contenders. Despite their success at the back end of 2020-21, deploying Kai Havertz as a false nine was not seen as the long-term answer to trouble Manchester City and Liverpool.
Nearly £100million was therefore spent on Lukaku, and at first their seismic investment appeared justified when his first four outings brought as many goals, including a debut strike away at rivals Arsenal. Initially, the move looked a match made in heaven for both parties.
Yet Lukaku and Chelsea’s honeymoon period quickly began to fizzle out, with a goal at home to Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League on September 14 proving his last until he scored against the same opposition three months later.
After an initial run of six matches without a goal had caused a slight concern, Lukaku injured his ankle during a clash with Malmo on October 20 and was forced to spend the next month on the sidelines. It would eventually mark the beginning of his demise as a Chelsea player.
The 6ft 3in frontman returned at the end of November but did not slot straight back into Tuchel’s starting plans. Instead, reverting back to Havertz as a false nine had brought 20 goals and six wins in seven games, meaning he had no intention of messing with a winning formula.
Lukaku was made to wait until December 12 for his next start, when he got back on the scoresheet away at Zenit, before Covid-19 again ruled him out of action in mid-December.
But an injury sustained at the end of October marked the beginning of his downfall last season
Despite returning a month later, Lukaku failed to work his way back into Tuchel’s starting XI
By the time he recovered, Chelsea’s season was hitting a snag, with a series of Covid cases and injuries derailing their title bid and allowing City and Liverpool to pull clear. They had only claimed two wins out of five when a trip to Aston Villa came on Boxing Day, and after going in level at the break Tuchel introduced his big-money signing for the second half.
What played out over the next 45 minutes looked like a turning point in Lukaku’s season. He first edged Chelsea in front, glancing home a terrific header to break his three-month Premier League drought, before racing through on goal and winning a penalty for Jorginho to convert late on.
The £97.5million man was back to his brilliant, bullying best and, as we neared the second half of the season, there were high hopes that he could kick on and enjoy a strong end to the campaign – especially when he followed it up with a second goal in as many games at home to Brighton three days later.
However, just as he was beginning to regain Tuchel’s trust on the pitch, Lukaku had already set the wheels in motion for an explosive move which would rock Chelsea’s season and bring him right back to square one.
He finally got back up and running with an influential performance off the bench at Aston Villa
Lukaku followed it up with another goal against Brighton, but behind the scenes he had set the wheels in motion for an explosive move
‘Physically I am fine. But I’m not happy with the situation at Chelsea,’ Lukaku told Sky Italia at the end of December. ‘Tuchel has chosen to play with another system – I won’t give up, I’ll be professional. I am not happy with the situation but I am professional – and I can’t give up now.
‘I really, genuinely from the bottom of my heart hope to come back to Inter, not at the end of my career, but while I am still at the level to win more trophies.’
Conducted before his revival away at Villa, a disgruntled Lukaku questioned Tuchel’s decision to leave him out of the side and flirted with former employers at Inter in a bombshell interview which irked his manager and infuriated Chelsea supporters.
The Stamford Bridge faithful wasted no time in berating their record signing, who had poured gas onto a fire which appeared to be fading. The comments were seen as disrespectful, divisive and disloyal to the club, meaning it didn’t take them long to call for his departure.
Even more damningly for Lukaku, Goal reported at the time that Sky Italia had released the interview three weeks after it was first recorded. This means he had hit out at Tuchel and expressed his unhappiness while Chelsea trailed Premier League leaders City by a mere two points – by no means a gloomy environment to be in.
His bombshell interview with Sky Italia, in which he questioned Tuchel and hinted at a return to Inter, was released at the end of December – three weeks after being recorded
Lukaku had put himself before the team. His interview dominated headlines and disrupted Tuchel’s preparations at a time when all attention should have been focused towards catching City and Liverpool. Instead, the Blues boss had no choice but to drop his in-form star when the latter visited west London on January 2.
Tuchel was merely making a statement by exiling him for that fixture, showing Lukaku who was boss and reminding his team that such antics will always be reprimanded. Once he had served his punishment, though, the outspoken striker was back in his starting XI.
Despite his controversial interview Lukaku was offered an unlikely second chance by Tuchel, who started him in their next four league outings against Manchester City, Brighton, Tottenham and Crystal Palace. Chelsea registered two victories and took seven points out of 12, yet Lukaku went without a single goal involvement in 250 minutes of football.
The nadir of his season from a playing perspective came away at Palace on February 19, when he broke the record for the lowest number of touches by an outfield player in a Premier League match with a measly seven. Even though Tuchel had provided him with a clear vote of confidence, it was becoming clear that Lukaku could not fit into his system or gel with his fellow attackers.
Tuchel dropped his big-money recruit from the squad for their next fixture against Liverpool
Though when he returned to the side it was clear Lukaku no longer suited Chelsea’s system
He broke the record for fewest number of touches in a Premier League game at Crystal Palace
‘What can I do? I don’t know. We have to deal with it,’ Tuchel said after the game.
‘The data is out there and the data speaks a certain language. He was not involved in our game, it’s sometimes like this with strikers. If they struggle a bit with self-confidence, to find the space and to get involved against a good defensive side, it can be like this.’
One month prior to that sorry afternoon at Selhurst Park he had been spotted arguing with Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech during a 1-1 draw against Brighton. As they left the pitch at half-time, Ziyech covered his mouth while engaged in a heated discussion with Lukaku, who gestured animatedly and appeared to demand the ball into his feet.
‘It’s normal that they talk, it’s normal that they are not happy, it’s normal that they don’t like it if we say that we want more from them, it’s normal,’ Tuchel said after the pair’s on-pitch row.
Nevertheless, the disagreement symbolised Lukaku’s lack of cohesion with his team-mates, which would prevent him scoring another Premier League goal until May.
If reports from football journalist Fabrizio Romano are correct, Lukaku had already made up his mind about leaving Chelsea when he squabbled with Ziyech on the south coast.
The former Inter man is said to have angled for a return to Milan in January, setting his sights on a swift SW6 exit amid the controversy of his Sky Italia interview. In the end a winter transfer was not possible, but three months later Nerazzurri boss Simone Inzaghi received an interesting call.
According to Corriere dello Sport, Inzaghi answered the phone to a curious Lukaku at 8:30am on April 5, the Inter manager’s birthday. And after wishing him many happy returns he turned the conversation to a potential San Siro return.
Lukaku reportedly made contact with Inter boss Simone Inzaghi over a potential return in April
One day later he then missed two glorious chances as Chelsea were beaten by Real Madrid
The wantaway forward reportedly asked Inzaghi what it would take for him to rejoin his team, in a conversation which took place 24 hours before Chelsea’s pivotal Champions League quarter-final first leg against Real Madrid.
With the Blues trailing 3-1 in that first leg, Lukaku came off the bench and missed two glorious chances from close range to reduce the deficit ahead of their trip to Spain. In hindsight, it is clear to see his mind was elsewhere.
Aside from goals in routine FA Cup victories over Luton and Middlesbrough, as well as against inferior opposition at the Club World Cup, Lukaku had not produced a meaningful strike since December as we reached the final month of the campaign. Yet incredibly, it was in May when he produced an unexpected late revival, scoring three goals in as many league games to propel himself back into favour ahead of an FA Cup final battle with Liverpool.
Perhaps more telling about the scarce options in Tuchel’s attack, Lukaku earned himself a start at Wembley against the odds. Though in what possibly proved the final nail in the coffin for him as a Chelsea player, he was hooked ahead of extra-time after squandering his best chances on the day.
On the whole, Lukaku following up a late rise in form with an FA Cup final stinker epitomised his anti-climatic return.
Lukaku’s anti-climatic Chelsea return was pretty much summed up by his late surge in form
He followed up a run of three goals in as many games with a poor display in the FA Cup final
So after netting just 15 goals in 44 appearances, Lukaku is now set to wave goodbye to Chelsea again as he nears a move back to Inter. Though this time around there will be no lingering questions of ‘what if’ when he heads out the door.
His doomed return was a result of various factors. Firstly, the player’s ego behind the scenes did not help his cause. Lukaku allegedly sees himself on the same level as the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, a bold stance he failed to justify over the course of the season.
The injury that put him out of action at the end of October also allowed Tuchel to conclude that his attack was better suited without him. They had more intensity, movement and fluency in the same fashion as the team which became European champions the previous season.
Tuchel tried to adapt their expensive arrival to his system but Lukaku was unresponsive, which can be put down to the coach’s failed man-management just as much as his own poor attitude and stubbornness.
Lukaku has spoken about his preference to play facing forwards, only for Tuchel to use him as more of a target man with instructions to hold the ball up and bring others into play. It is also believed there was some confusion behind closed doors as to why Havertz was granted greater freedom upfront than their record buy.
The pair had already encountered problems long before that infamous Sky Italia interview, and when it resulted in his demotion against Liverpool their relationship became fractured beyond repair.
Lukaku and Tuchel’s relationship was fractured beyond repair after the Sky Italia controversy
But it is the player who will now go down as the Premier League’s worst ever signing
As a result, Tuchel was unable to bring the best out of Lukaku as his Chelsea fortunes plummeted to rock bottom in the second half of the season, with his presence as the spearhead of their attack largely invisible.
The decision to prise him away from Milan was understood to have been Chelsea’s as opposed to Tuchel, who was instead keen to target a deal for Lewandowski. Lukaku most likely knew he was not the manager’s first choice and was forced to try and make things work, but in the end that didn’t happen.
There are countless reasons why what should have been a dream reunion is now ending in a nightmarish divorce after just over 10 months.
However, when it’s all said and done only Lukaku, the £97.5million signing from hell, will bear the brunt of being the Premier League’s most costly mistake.