Romelu Lukaku’s £98million return to Chelsea in the summer was heralded as a game-changer in terms of the Premier League title race, with many switching from Manchester City to back Thomas Tuchel’s men.
Pep Guardiola’s men had failed to secure the £150m signing of Harry Kane from Tottenham, while the side who had beaten them in May’s Champions League final managed to recruit Serie A champions Inter Milan’s top goalscorer.
Those who had changed their minds appeared destined to be vindicated for their decision when Lukaku opened his account on his second debut at Arsenal, before a double at home to Aston Villa and another header against Zenit three days later.
Romelu Lukaku has scored four goals in 11 games since returning to Chelsea in the summer
He then missed seven games through injury before being named on the bench on Tuesday
The 28-year-old, however, then went four Premier League games and one-and-a-quarter Champions League matches without scoring or assisting, and the hope of ending that rut anytime soon was dashed after sustaining an ankle injury against Malmo.
Tuchel said after their subsequent 4-0 win against the Swedish side that Lukaku would take a ‘while to recover’, which would have put some fans on edge with crucial Premier League fixtures coming up in November.
However, Chelsea have not struggled in front of goal in the Belgium striker’s absence, netting 22 goals (including the third and fourth against Malmo after he went off injured) in eight games across all competitions.
The ex-Inter Milan striker was an unused substitute in Tuesday night’s 4-0 thrashing of Juventus as the Champions League holders qualified for the knockout stages. But he is likely to be in contention to face his former club Manchester United when they visit for the late Sunday afternoon kick-off in the Premier League.
So have Chelsea fared better this season with or without their record signing? Sportsmail crunches the numbers to find out…
The Blues have already played 20 games this season but have been without Lukaku for nearly half of those.
The European champions have emerged victorious in seven of the 11 matches in which the Belgium star has featured, while recording six victories in the nine fixtures without him.
The Blues have drawn on more occasions in matches in which Lukaku has played at least some part, but they are yet to lose when the Belgian has not figured compared to twice when he has.
It would be totally irrational to lay the blame at Lukaku’s door for the defeats by Manchester City and Juventus this term, especially since they did not face a team currently in the form and of the calibre of City or Liverpool during his absence.
But it is an indication the Blues have still managed to find balance in their game without their focal point up top. What, however, could be read into a little more closely is Chelsea’s form in front of goal with Lukaku in and out of the side.
Reece James has scored four of his five goals in 2021-22 without Lukaku on the pitch, while Mason Mount has also stepped up with a hat-trick against Norwich and the likes of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have kept ticking along too.
The Blues have had 12 different goalscorers in Lukaku’s absence as well as one own goal, showing continued good form in front of goal.
In two fewer games, Chelsea have scored five more goals without the Belgian (24) than they have when he has led the line for Tuchel’s men (19).
Unsurprisingly therefore, their average goals per game stands at 2.7 without the ex-Everton and West Brom forward, compared to 1.7 with him in the team.
Mason Mount’s hat-trick against Norwich came among 22 goals scored in Lukaku’s absence
Chelsea’s average shots per game increases from 14.1 with Lukaku as one of the players used on a given matchday this term compared to 20.2 without him, and they have dominated the ball more with 58.9 per cent possession increasing to 65.1.
The Blues, however, do have a greater proclivity to deliver the ball into the box from open play when their No 1 target man is in there, sending in an average of 14 balls into the area for him and others to attack compared to 12.3 when he does not play.
The aforementioned statistics regarding goals scored and crosses are not sufficient enough evidence to suggest their style is more direct when Lukaku plays, nor that one style suits them more than the other.
But Chelsea do adopt completely different approaches with and without the Belgium international, and both have clicked to much success already this season, as the respective win percentages of 63.6 per cent and 66.7 show.
Somewhat peculiarly, the Blues’ defensive record is largely superior without Lukaku than with him, although again the level of opposition faced in the last month should be taken into account.
Reece James (left) and Christian Pulisic (right) are among 12 different scorers without Lukaku
The Champions League holders already boast Europe’s best defensive record since Tuchel took over, and their miserly ways have seen them concede just three goals without Lukaku. That number only increases to five with him in the side.
They also concede more shots on goal on average per game with Lukaku than without him, while the defence face an average of 10.6 crosses per game with him compared to just six when he is not on the pitch.
There is a drastic increase in the number of fouls won, increasing from just below nine to above 13 per game, albeit the Blues do concede more fouls without Lukaku than they do when he is playing.
Yet as mentioned before, it is the attacking numbers that make for far more intriguing viewing than the defensive ones in regards to Lukaku, as Tuchel considers his options ahead of Sunday’s match against United.
Lukaku could feature for first time in nine games against former club Manchester United
The German insisted he was in no rush to bring Lukaku back against Juventus with his side needing just a point to qualify for the last 16, but the temptation to do so could be a little greater this weekend given United’s recent failings.
The ex-Borussia Dortmund and PSG boss has certainly changed things up in terms of attacking formation without Lukaku, with Havertz often leading the lines.
The Germany international has often been supported by the likes of Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley and Callum Hudson-Odoi directly behind him, or next to him in the case of the latter against Burnley.
However, surely Tuchel will not resist the temptation to reinstate Lukaku into the starting XI and free him to get stuck in among a low-on-confidence Victor Lindelof and – mostly likely, in the absence of Harry Maguire through suspension – Eric Bailly when Michael Carrick brings his men to west London.
Tuchel could be tempted to bring Lukaku back and try and unsettle the likes of Victor Lindelof
He of course already has previous for destroying a so-called ‘Big Six’ defence since his return, tearing a fragile Arsenal backline to shreds with his pace, power and movement in their London derby victory at the Emirates Stadium in August.
Sunday’s fixture will hold as much – if not a tad more – spice for Lukaku, however, as he faces the club he scored 42 goals for in 96 games but where in all honesty he never felt completely comfortable and appreciated.
He netted just 12 Premier League goals in his final season at Old Trafford in 2018-19 but became a goalscoring machine under Antonio Conte at Inter Milan with 64 goals in 95 matches.
Lukaku has scored three goals against United, all of which came for West Brom in May 2013
Lukaku scored three goals against United before his two years in Italy, all of which came as a substitute for West Brom in the infamous 5-5 draw in Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1,500th and final game in charge of United in May 2013.
As a result, United do feature in the top 30 clubs Lukaku has scored the most goals against, but he would like to right a few wrongs from his time at Old Trafford by adding to that tally on Sunday.
Whether he receives the nod to do so will depend on whether Tuchel prescribes to the ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ mantra with regards to Chelsea’s current form, or whether he views the Belgian as the perfect man to exploit United’s frailties.
But whether he gets the chance to add to that tally against United will be up to Thomas Tuchel