In pictures: Aston Villa v Chelsea
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Just five months after Chelsea spent £97.5million on Romelu Lukaku to solve their issues up front, Thomas Tuchel was facing the same problem of trying to squeeze goals out of his misfiring attack. The Belgian started on the bench again as the Blues took on Aston Villa on Saturday evening, with Christian Pulisic entrusted as the centre forward in the three-man attack. The only difference was this time, he could bring on Lukaku to solve those problems.
There is no denying that things have not quite gone to plan for Lukaku since his big-money move from Inter Milan.
His second spell at Stamford Bridge started with promise after a debut goal against Arsenal and he followed that up by scoring a brace against Aston Villa in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge.
But since picking up an ankle injury in October in the Champions League against Zenit St Petersburg, Chelsea have struggled even more without him than they did with him.
Tuchel addressed the inevitable questions that came his way when it emerged he had left Lukaku on the bench from the start against Aston Villa, citing his recent fitness issues.
“It was never a possibility for Romelu Lukaku to start and finish the match, 90 minutes was not an option,” he told Sky Sports before the match.
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“He has just come back from Covid, so we decided to have the possibility of having Romelu on the pitch for the end of the match.”
There was nothing to suggest the tactician was trying to conceal anything with that explanation, but the unavoidable fact is that Lukaku was in something of a rut.
The Belgian had not scored in the Premier League since his brace against Aston Villa on September 11, a run of nine games without finding the net domestically.
Of course, the target man has only just recovered from Covid and an ankle injury over the past month, but those issues had not affected his form before his injury.
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And after disappointing draws against Everton and Wolves put them on a run of three wins in eight games, Tuchel made it clear that his side needed to get back to winning ways.
So to leave Lukaku on the bench until the end of the match looked like a strange decision, particularly given how Lukaku is out of form and in need of minutes to get back to scoring ways.
And sure enough, lining up with Christian Pulisic in the No.9 role, Chelsea looked a long way from the best up front.
The American was more involved than his dismal outing against Wolves, offering runs into the channels and playing one-twos. But it was a threat Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa were more than equipped to deal with and didn’t afford him a touch in the box.
Indeed, in the first half it was Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi who posed the danger for the visitors, with the latter winning a penalty which was converted by Jorginho to bring the score back to 1-1.
But in fairness to Pulisic, he is not a striker nor does he possess the strength to hold up the ball like Lukaku can, so to expect him to play the same role is unrealistic.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp identified Chelsea’s struggles up front and suggested teams no longer feared them when facing their front three.
“Lukaku and Werner, Werner hasn’t really found any form since he’s been at the club which has not been helpful,” he said before the game.
“That’s when you rely on players playing a false nine, today like they are with Pulisic, and you just lose that out and striker, that focal point.
“For some teams it works but the edge has gone.”
But at the half-time interval, Tuchel opted to switch things up, sending on Lukaku for Trevoh Chalobah, putting Reece James at right centre-back and moving Pulisic to wing-back.
And within six minutes, the decision paid off.
At this point, Chelsea were dominating possession when Hudson-Odoi curled in an inviting cross to Lukaku. He called for it with his hand up and made sure he got his head to connect with a fantastic glancing header to beat Emiliano Martinez.
The relief was palpable, on the pitch and in the dugout, as Chelsea came from behind to take the lead Then, in the first minute of stoppage time, he ran the best part of 50 yards with the ball, shrugging off challenge after challenge before a foul from Konza inside the box.
Jorginho stepped up to score his second from the spot to clinch the points for the Blues, showing that bringing on Lukaku turned out to be Tuchel’s masterpiece at Villa Park.
But it underlined a potential issue for the future. With Covid cases and injury problems mounting in recent weeks, there is every likelihood their talisman could be set for another spell on the sidelines — something they can ill-afford if they are going for the title.
Tuchel will be hoping that, with transfer funds likely to be limited in January, he can rely on Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to provide sufficient backup. Because without Lukaku, this side may struggle to compete for the title.
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