Three forwards Chelsea should target instead of Romelu Lukaku


Tensions are rising in west London. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, reportedly frustrated by his employer’s stubbornness in the transfer market, has sent worrying signals that his long-term future lies away from Stamford Bridge. 

The elusive nature of Roman Abramovic’s management is increasingly unsettling the Italian, and their latest impasse suggests Chelsea’s owner doesn’t believe heavily reinvesting in the squad is a necessity after the club won the Premier League title with 93 points last season. 

As Conte knows, this would be a dangerous, even calamitous, assumption. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have already begun significantly improving their squad ahead of the 2017/18 campaign and will undoubtedly contribute to a considerably more competitive title race next year, while the immaculate 3-4-2-1 tactic that brought the title back to Chelsea will not carry the same potency as it did during Conte’s inaugural campaign.

In such a fast-moving, cut-throat industry, trying to stand still will only move you backwards. Already there are warning signs that Chelsea won’t be as tactically cohesive next season, and not just because Diego Costa is likely to remain at the club against his manager’s wishes. His replacement (or, perhaps, strike partner) will supposedly be Romelu Lukaku.

 

Is Lukaku good enough?

The Belgian’s goalscoring record is superb, particularly considering none of his 85 goals in English football have been for a side that consistently produces clear-cut goalscoring opportunities. As a strong, quick forward with a knack for finding space inside the box, Lukaku is a traditional number nine in the mould of Diego Costa.

But there are serious limitations to his game and, for £70million, there are surely better players out there for a club of Chelsea’s calibre. As highlighted by Sky Sports, Lukaku doesn’t bother to press from the front (making zero interceptions in 2016/17), doesn’t work hard enough to link the play in deeper areas, and rarely scores against top six opponents (one goal every 622 minutes).

His technical play outside the penalty area is nowhere near sharp enough for a team so reliant on their most advanced three players for creativity, particularly since Eden Hazard and Pedro both like to make runs beyond the central striker. Now that opponents better understand the limitations of a 3-4-2-1, Chelsea cannot rely on Hazard’s free-role, or the advanced wing-backs, as much as they did in 2016/17. In short, their centre-forward must be one of the primary creators, forging a link between N’Golo Kante and the inside forwards better than Costa was able to.

However, Conte increasingly experimented with a 3-5-2 towards the end of last season to increase their firepower in central areas, which would mean Lukaku (or whoever they sign) will in fact be partnering Costa, not replacing him. This only increases the need for a more creative, false-nine forward and further renders Lukaku an inappropriate signing at this time.

There are plenty of other options for Chelsea, including Kylian Mbappe, Dries Mertens, Alexis Sanchez, and even Cristiano Ronaldo - who may be seeking a move away from Real Madrid in light of accusations of tax evasion. But all of these players are either unsuitable, unaffordable or unavailable.

Instead, here are three forwards Chelsea should try and sign this summer. . .

 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Borussia Dortmund’s want-away striker should be available for £61 million, which in today’s market is a bargain for a 28-year-old forward who scored 31 Bundesliga goals last campaign. Highly intelligent, lightning quick, and a natural goalscorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would fit perfectly into Conte’s system.

In a 3-4-2-1, Aubameyang could certainly be relied upon to come short and help sew the attacking lines together, as he has done so brilliantly over the years at Dortmund. Their quick-tempo gegenpressing football mimics the sort of direct, centre-focused attacks that Conte implemented throughout the 2016/17 season at Stamford Bridge. If used alongside Costa, then Aubameyang’s ability to run the channels will stretch the opposition defence superbly, creating extra room for Hazard, Pedro, and Costa in central areas.

There really is no down side to pursuing the Gabon international, especially now that Paris Saint-Germain have reportedly pulled out of the race. Nobody would dare claim Lukaku is as good.

 

Andrea Belotti

The biggest advantage to pursuing 23-year-old Andrea Belotti, who scored 26 league goals for Torino last season, is his tremendous work rate. The Italian will sprint tirelessly in Sanchez-like fashion, forcing opponents into mistakes and generally making a nuisance of himself. It is an intensity that Conte would love to see at Stamford Bridge.

Another tactically intelligent option, Belotti can work well on the flanks and in a false-nine role, offering greater positional awareness than Lukaku as well as a lethal goalscoring touch. A real all-rounder, Belotti completed 1.6 key passes per match last season and finished with seven assists. He may not be as glamorous as some of the names on this list, but he has all the makings of one of Europe’s finest strikers. 

 

Alvaro Morata

It is hard to believe Real Madrid’s fringe forward is only 24-years-old, but the Italian still has plenty of time to develop as a player - something he seriously needs after four bitty years at Real Madrid and Juventus.

Morata is tall, strong, and good in the air, making him an obvious replacement for Costa, although question marks remain over his ability to help create chances. He is not a mobile player and, unlike Costa, doesn’t always willingly press the opposition defence. As a like-for-like replacement Morata is barely an upgrade, meaning Conte would be better off prioritising another player on this list.

Lukaku would score more goals for the side than Morata, and since they are relatively similar in terms of speed and mobility, it is understandable that Conte is looking at both players. On the other hand, there is a certain classiness, and unpredictability, about Morata’s play that makes him a marginally better option than Everton’s Belgian striker. 

Like Aubameyang and Belotti, Morata is, quite clearly, a better option for Chelsea than Everton’s Lukaku.