It’s a bit hard to take much away from a match in which a relegation favorite goes down to 10 men in the first half and goes on to lose 3-0. Fortunately for Chelsea, that’s how things shook out on Wednesday. With a top four finish looking increasingly certain and an FA Cup final on the horizon, the season seems like it will go down as somewhere between acceptable and pretty darn good, depending on how these next few matches shake out. For now, supporters can look back at a much-needed three points at Elland Road and highlight the things most likely to make an impact against Liverpool at the weekend.
Here are three of the lessons we learned in Wednesday night’s win:
1. Chelsea has a chance with Lukaku playing
That’s a headline that was last realistic back in September when the addition of Romelu Lukaku undoubtedly looked like an upgrade who would single-handedly fix Chelsea’s goalscoring issue. That was a simpler time. Now, just months later, even a relatively positive performance from the Belgian is seen as a minor miracle. We’ve now been treated to two minor miracles in a row with Lukaku logging three goals over the last two matches. This includes one of the clumsiest, most inefficient solo efforts you’ll ever see to wrap up proceedings against Leeds.
The issue with Lukaku all season has been consistency: consistency in his performances, consistency in his availability, consistency in how Thomas Tuchel deploys him, consistency in how his teammates link up with, et cetera and so on. It’s been as messy of a bedding-in period as you could possibly imagine, and you’d be well within your rights to call the transfer a relative disaster.
That said, Lukaku has strung together a couple of his best performances of the season here in the home stretch, and his success seems to coincide with an overall uptick in Chelsea’s attacking play. It’s a welcome relief, albeit almost half a year later than one would’ve hoped, and it could bode well for getting a foothold in the match against Liverpool.
Some aspects of Lukaku’s play in the last two matches seem like they might have been a dress rehearsal for the cup final. For one, there seems to be a greater focus on playing off the shoulder of defenders, with Lukaku looking to receive the ball with at least a bit of momentum toward goal. It’s how Lukaku stated he preferred to be used, rather than being seen as a target man. Given the needs of the team going into the season, Tuchel can be excused for wanting Lukaku to serve that role, but it’s pretty clear that he just isn’t that Olivier Giroud-type of player who can exist purely to facilitate the play of those around him.
Ironically, however, Lukaku is playing that role of a totemic maypole when he drops into midfield, which he did on a number of occasions at Leeds. While he’s certainly not a target forward, he at some points he seemed to be more a target midfielder, coming deep to receive the ball before either turning to run with the ball or playing it out wide and trying to find a channel to run into. This play style seemed to result in him having the ball right at the top of the box, affording him a few decent shot attempts and a handful of opportunities to feed other players in behind the last line of defenders.
Against Liverpool, Lukaku would be rendered thoroughly impotent trying to play with his back to goal against the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate. But if he can position himself with his back to Liverpool’s midfielders, that’s a much more winnable battle. It then becomes a face-to-face competition between Lukaku and the centerbacks, which may be more a fair fight. Still an exceedingly tall task, but it at least puts Chelsea on the front foot looking to stretch and manipulate Liverpool’s back line, rather than having to react to their movements.
Are we maybe reading too much into two decent performances by a much-maligned striker in an attempt to grasp at the thinnest of straws? Maybe . . . probably. But this is the most useful Lukaku has looked in months, and it might be worth betting on that inkling of good form lasting one more match to secure another piece of silverware.