It’s official, Romelu Lukaku is on his way back to Chelsea. 10 years (almost to the day) after the Blues bought the Belgian from Anderlecht, he’s making his return to the club he never stopped loving. Lukaku is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. He led Inter Milan to a Serie A title and was a key cog in Antonio Conte’s side. He now joins Thomas Tuchel’s Champions of Europe and will look to be the front man that Chelsea has been missing since Diego Costa’s departure after Conte’s Premier League winning season with the Blues.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the fact both Conte and Tuchel line up in a 3-4-3, albeit vastly different approaches. Conte built up from the back whereas the current Chelsea boss emphasizes winning the ball back as soon as its lost and playing with possession. Regardless, Lukaku’s return will not limit the Blues to a 3-4-3. Chelsea can now play in more formations with a true No. 9 than it could last season. We may finally see Tuchel’s famous tactical flexibility.
How could the Blues set up this season with Lukaku back at Stamford Bridge?
1. The Long Shot (4-2-2-2)
The most unusual of all of Tuchel’s choices is the 4-2-2. This is a formation Chelsea is capable of playing with its current personnel, we saw it when Frank Lampard tested it out at the beginning of last season. This is perhaps the only way the gaffer will get all of his important attacking pieces onto the pitch at once, which is important to note because it also destabilizes the back line. Luckily, Ben Chilwell and Reece James are not wingbacks by trade and they’re both more than comfortable playing as natural fullbacks.
The 4-2-2-2 would see the midfield pivot remain, regardless of personnel. Tuchel has three midfielders to choose from in N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic; one would suspect the former two would sit in front of the back line in this case. Kante and Jorginho were excellent during the Blues’ Champions League run last season and one shouldn’t dare to break that chemistry.
In front of the double sixes in the middle of the park would be Mason Mount and Kai Havertz acting as dual No. 8s. These two wunderkinds have forced their way into every starting XI with their mature play, despite being just 22. Mount and Havertz have built an understanding with one another that is now forged in history after the former assisted Havertz’s UCL clinching goal in Porto. They are more than capable of playing all over the pitch, but the middle of the three lines of two would be their home in this formation. That said, depending on the duo in front of them, Havertz could also slot in up top and utilize his ability to get into space.
That brings us to the front line. Of course, Lukaku has to feature as the new centerpiece of Chelsea’s attacking plans. His time at Inter shows us that he thrives when having a striking partner alongside him to play one-two passes with at all times. In this case, Timo Werner would take on that role. The presence of a natural No. 9 could help take the pressure off the German.
The downside to this formation is the Blues are lined up incredibly narrow. Chilwell and James are forced to sit along the back line—although they’d undoubtedly come up in possession—and there are no wingers in the XI. This means the likes of Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech are relegated to the bench. However, that risk may be worth the reward of Tuchel being able to get Mount, Havertz, Werner and Lukaku onto the pitch at the same time.
2. The Tried and Tested (3-5-2)
Whereas the 4-2-2-2 is a long shot, the 3-5-2 is a more realistic solution to the Blues’ depth “issues.” The fact of the matter is, Tuchel is going to struggle to fit all of his best players into the starting XI on any given day. The preseason has shown us that the German is willing to be flexible with his side’s shape, but he doesn’t want to deviate from a back three just yet. The 3-5-2 was tested scarcely with Armando Broja and Ike Ugbo this preseason, so it represents a viable option and one Tuchel is considering.
The most important part of this set-up is that the Blues’ three at the back would remain. This means the key to their Champions League triumph stays in place and the attack gets to experiment. It’s assumed Antonio Rudiger, Thiago Silva/Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta/Jules Kounde (should he sign) would occupy those defensive positions. Tuchel would also remain happy as his wingbacks could persist, giving him a lot of flexibility as it relates to personnel. This preseason has shown that the UCL-winning manager loves to experiment with wide players in those spots, as Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic once again played more defensive roles.
The midfield is where things get a bit foggy. The wingbacks obviously occupy two of the midfield slots, so Tuchel would be left with three other places in the middle of the park. He has two options here: a lone defensive midfielder and dual eights OR a midfield pivot and a sole No. 8/10.
It’s assumed that Tuchel would love to keep the pivot in tact and if this is the case, one of Chelsea’s best young players would be relegated to a substitute role. He would be forced to choose between Mount and Havertz, assuming the latter doesn’t play a more advanced position. This is perhaps the only downside to the Lukaku transfer, Tuchel is now tasked with fitting four incredible attackers onto the pitch at one time. For this reason, a lone defensive midfielder is probably the best way forward. It goes without saying that man is Kante.
All of this would allow for a striking partnership up top. As in the 4-2-2-2, those partners would be Lukaku and Werner. Both of these forwards have played their best football with another individual up top to take some of the heat off themselves. Lukaku had Lautaro Martinez at Inter and Werner had Yussuf Poulsen at RB Leipzig. The German forward struggled to cope with the strength and speed of Premier League centerbacks last season, so Lukaku’s arrival will probably be the best thing for him.
This formation is everything Tuchel could want in a team. He’s able to keep his trusted back three, bring on wingbacks to charge forward, possibly get all of his attacking options on the pitch at once and form a striking partnership up top.
3. The “Ol’ Reliable” (3-4-3)
In all likelihood, Lukaku’s arrival could mean absolutely nothing to Chelsea’s formation. Tuchel has bent over backwards during the preseason to keep this set up in tact. He truly has done everything, from playing Hudson-Odoi at left wingback to lining up Lewis Baker in a back three, which speaks to his commitment. The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” instantly comes to mind as the 3-4-3 is the shape that got the Blues through some tough times last season. Additionally, who could forget that big-eared trophy?
The defensive shape and personnel remain the same, the only questions Tuchel will have to answer relate to his starting centerbacks. The upcoming campaign could see Christensen force his way into the starting XI and there will undoubtedly be cries for Kounde to start, if Chelsea is able to complete the deal. Wingers are present in the 3-4-3, so the manager would likely stick with traditional wingbacks in Chilwell and James. Hudson-Odoi could also get into the starting line-up there when speed is required. The midfield pivot is also untouched, where Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic will continue to vie for two starting roles.
The winger positions are undoubtedly the most competitive on the pitch. Lukaku is the surefire No. 1 choice up top, it’s just a matter of who Tuchel will slot in around him. The selections will really depend on the opponent. The German gaffer will have to choose two out of a field of Havertz, Hudson-Odoi, Mount, Pulisic, Werner and Ziyech on any given day.
The upside to this formational selection is obvious: Chelsea doesn’t have to change a thing. The Blues are able to keep the structure in place that saw them finish inside the top four, make an FA Cup final and win the Champions League. The downside is Tuchel will struggle to get his four best attacking players on the pitch at a given time. Lukaku’s return is a glorious thing and he’ll undoubtedly thrive in all competitions. That said, his return comes with some important questions.