It was another big week of trading at Chelsea. Moisés Caicedo and Roméo Lavia came in, £173m worth of midfield talent entering the building while Lewis Hall and Hakim Ziyech headed towards the exit. Yet even with a whirlwind of activity blowing around Stamford Bridge Romelu Lukaku remained. The striker stayed away from the revolving door and almost registers as an afterthought these days: a £97.5m exile with no shirt number, no place in Mauricio Pochettino’s squad and seemingly with no way of bringing an end to his Chelsea purgatory.
Hopes of a return to Inter came and went, obliterated by anger at Lukaku’s flirtation with Juventus, and offers from the Saudi Pro League are yet to tempt the Belgian. The scorer of 121 goals in 278 Premier League appearances, perhaps he is entitled to feel he has more to give at the highest level. Perhaps, if the transfer window closes before a resolution is found, there is a chance of Lukaku rising again to give Chelsea more oomph in attack.
A long shot, true. The aim is still to sell Lukaku and the Saudi window does not shut until 20 September. Hopes of a rapprochement are low. Chelsea and Lukaku were seeking to end the relationship long before Pochettino took over in June and the impression is of a player who has checked out mentally. “Nothing changed,” Chelsea’s head coach said before Sunday’strip to West Ham. “I didn’t talk with him. The situation was clear before we arrived between the club and the player.”
Pressed further, Pochettino made clear he was not thinking about reintegrating Lukaku if nothing has changed after the window shuts. “We need to be focused on the team. We cannot expend energy on a situation that was clear before we started at Chelsea.”
It is a ruthless attitude. The aim of Chelsea’s owners, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, is to build a squad of hungry young players on long, incentivised contracts. They have allowed a lot of experienced players to leave this summer and Lukaku does not fit with the project. He is 30, demotivated and on a huge contract.
The curious thing, though, is that Chelsea have spent close to £1bn on transfers since last summer and still look short of goals, especially with Christopher Nkunku at the beginning of a long journey back after knee surgery. They have full-backs galore, options in central defence and depth in midfield, but Pochettino is still talking about looking for attacking additions.
It was not hard to work out why when Chelsea missed plenty of chances during their 1-1 draw with Liverpool last Sunday. Shoddy finishing has been a problem since they sold Diego Costa in 2017 and the issue is summed up by their 38 league goals last season. Pochettino, who could count on Harry Kane at Tottenham and Kylian Mbappé at Paris Saint-Germain, lacks killers in the final third.
But how to sort it out? Kane was out of reach and has gone to Bayern Munich and Napoli are holding on to Victor Osimhen. The striker market is not exactly booming and Chelsea have been burned before. Lukaku was supposed to be the missing piece in the jigsaw when signed from Inter two years ago and he is not the only big-name forward to fail at Stamford Bridge in recent years: Timo Werner, Álvaro Morata and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have familiar tales of woe.
They did a lot of good things against Liverpool, playing with energy and winning the midfield battle, and Pochettino’s early impact was clear. Nicolas Jackson was a handful on his debut but the £32m signing from Villarreal needs more finesse around the box. He is 21 and should not be placed under too much pressure. Armando Broja is working his way back from injury and needs time to regain sharpness.
Crazy though it sounds, Pochettino needs more options. Does a midfield of Enzo Fernández, Caicedo and Lavia offer enough of a threat? Further forward, can any of the wingers rival Raheem Sterling for end product? Sterling disappointed during his first season at Chelsea but still managed nine goals. Compare that with Mykhailo Mudryk, who is yet to score since joining for £88.5m, and Noni Madueke, who has one goal in 12 league appearances.
The picture would look different had Nkunku not succumbed to injury, particularly as the versatile France forward linked up well with Jackson in pre-season. But Pochettino is in a rush. He sees Champions League qualification as the bare minimum and bristled at a suggestion that Chelsea should be satisfied if they return to Europe via the Europa Conference League. Given those aims, surely Chelsea could do worse than look at Lille’s Jonathan David, a consistent scorer in Ligue 1.
Chelsea have seen a deal for the Crystal Palace winger Michael Olise fall apart and are interested in Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson, who scored eight Premier League goals last season. They continue to look at the potential, not the present, and the problem for Pochettino is that his rivals can all call upon more firepower. Manchester City have Erling Haaland, Liverpool have Mohamed Salah, Manchester United have Marcus Rashford and Newcastle have Alexander Isak. Pochettino has Lukaku sitting around doing nothing.