TThere are soccer games that feel like the inevitable product of their circumstances: system against system, the patterns of attack and defense predetermined days in advance, the result telegraphed from the moment the first ball is kicked. Then there are the games where Granit Xhaka runs the midfield, a massive brawl breaks out in the closing minutes and Eddie Nketiah scores twice against a team currently sanctioned by the UK government.
Chaos, farce or high entertainment? Probably a mix of all three. like shirtless Arsenal fans ran over each other in the Shed End, as a furious Cesar Azpilicueta protested with some of the few Chelsea supporters left on the ground, it was tempting to write this off as a classic slice of the freak Premier League, a crucial London derby. . with all the logic and atmosphere of a fourth round tie for the Carabao Cup.
Chelsea remain far ahead in the race for Champions League football. Thomas Tuchel he sent a weakened experimental XI. His attentions are understandably divided at the moment. Perhaps this was simply a case of victory for the team that cared the most.
But pick through the bones of Third consecutive loss for Chelsea at home and there are signs of legitimate concern. The most obvious thing is that you fear for that defense, so impregnable and well trained at the beginning of the season, but which has already conceded more goals in 2022 than in the first 10 months of 2021. Even the introduction of Thiago Silva at half time did not blunt Arsenal. menace on the counterattack, the prevailing mood of panic that seems to take over Chelsea every time someone even vaguely decent runs at them.
And yet, even after a four-goal thrashing, it seemed a convenient scapegoat had already been identified. Barely a minute before being substituted to a chorus of boos from his own fans, Romelu Lukaku He made a decisive run to the near post, anticipating a cross from Timo Werner. Werner couldn’t see it and instead sliced the ball into space. And somehow that little exchange summed up Lukaku’s season at Chelsea, a season of misunderstanding and misalignment, in which a £97.5m striker has somehow become the poster child for all that’s wrong with Chelsea. club.
You certainly feel that fans wouldn’t feel a great deal of nostalgia for Lukaku if Chelsea cut their losses and got rid of him in the summer. Lukaku is an old man of 28, with over 600 games under his belt for club and country and lacking the pace and sharpness of his early years. He has spent four months without scoring a goal in the league. Only in the last fortnight has he missed decisive chances against Real Madrid in the Champions League and Crystal Palace in the FA Cup semi-final. In the long run, Werner and Kai Havertz and even Armando Broja, on loan at Southampton, are probably more valuable.
Even Tuchel, you feel, has come to terms with the essential expendability of his record signing, stating ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final that Lukaku “wasn’t fit enough for the intensity of our game”.
Meanwhile, Tuchel’s apathy can also be felt in the way he talks about Havertz, a player he genuinely seems to love: “He gives us volume, he covers a lot of meters at high intensity, he loves to create overloads and half spaces.”
Lukaku, by contrast, describes himself in terms of a pure finisher: a man who if he’s not scoring goals is basically useless. “Of course we want to serve you,” Tuchel said of him earlier this year. “But sometimes he also needs to serve.”
And so Lukaku finds himself in the envious position of having to adapt to a team that in many ways has surpassed him, a conventional striker in an unconventional team.
Here he ran and slipped, played the offside trap, slid deep and into the channels. He missed a good opportunity when the score was still 0-0. He executed a delicious nutmeg on Gabriel early in the second half. And yet, for the most part, the ball inevitably funneled itself elsewhere, moved in patterns it’s no longer equipped to interpret.
This is, let’s not forget, a man who scored 24 times in Serie A last season.
Who could well break the all-time record for international goals.
Who will likely do an excellent job for another club, one built more explicitly around the strengths of his target man.
Meanwhile, there will probably be new chelsea owners in a matter of days, at which point virtually all assets will be appraised and given a useful life. With a little time and a little love, Lukaku could still thrive at Stamford Bridge. But it is becoming increasingly clear that he has none.