Romelu Lukaku dominates Arsenal on return as Chelsea’s leading man

Romelu Lukaku dominates Arsenal on return as Chelsea’s leading man

Once he had been confirmed in the starting XI, did anybody doubt Romelu Lukaku would score against Arsenal on Sunday? Was there anybody who thought, “You know what? I think Arsenal may come up with a viable plan to stop him?” Lukaku had scored on his debut for the other five clubs he had played for; he required a second debut to score for Chelsea, but from kick-off on Sunday it felt a matter of time.

Two games into the season, Chelsea have two wins and have scored five goals without conceding. They have looked as sleek and unruffled as European champions should. But a comfortable win over Arsenal tells us very little more about their title credentials than their 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on the opening weekend. Yes, they’re a lot better than this lot – next!

The only real threat to them at the Emirates was how easy they found it, a noticeable lessening of intensity in the second half occasionally hinting there could be a route back into the game for Arsenal. But that first 35 minutes of the first half was almost laughably straightforward.

Lukaku, asked to describe his own performance, called it dominant, which on another day might have sounded arrogant: it was simply the truth. It is hard to remember many Premier League defenders who have been more dominated than poor Pablo Marí. The opening goal was ludicrously easy. Lukaku, back to goal, received a pass to his feet. Marí got too tight and as Lukaku worked the ball out to the Chelsea right, he turned.

Did Lukaku even notice him as he hurtled into the box? To say he brushed him off doesn’t quite do justice to how straightforward it was, because most things that are brushed off at least offer some resistance. Dandruff has a certain clingy quality, leaves can flutter annoyingly, dust has a remorseless willingness to keep coming back for more. At least Tony Underwood forced Jonah Lomu into a slight change of his stride pattern. Marí just sprawled face down in the turf.

Kieran Tierney had presumably been warned to tuck in behind his central defence when balls were played to Lukaku, but as he moved to do so nobody moved to cover him, leaving a vacant channel for Reece James to surge into. Still, there was a potential offside trap to spring but no, there was Cédric Soares loitering inexplicably four yards behind the defensive line. You suspect Lukaku will score a lot of goals this season from crosses from the wing-backs, but he will score very few as easy as that.

For those who are tiring of Arteta, who believe he is unduly protected by the enormous caveat of the chaos at the club, here was a storehouse of ammunition. Yes, Arsenal are missing a number of players and yes, the recruitment policy is baffling, but these are professional defenders. Tierney is manifestly a good player. Marí has won the Copa Libertadores. It should not be impossible to instil at least a semblance of organisation.

Even within that context, even acknowledging that Arsenal strung bunting from the lamp-posts to welcome him back to the Premier League, this was a fine return. Lukaku touched the ball 43 times, less than any other Chelsea player who started the game (although 31 times more than Gabriel Martinelli did in the 78 minutes before he was taken off. What was he doing? Could he have done more to check James’s surges? And why was he left on so long? Was he so uninvolved Arteta forgot he was on the pitch?). But with those 43 touches he shaped the game.

Lukaku won 57% of his aerial duels, completed 67% of his dribbles and 95% of his passes. He offered a focal point; Chelsea’s forward line worked off him. Tuchel, as is his habit, spoke of room for improvement but he also noted “his physicality and his link-up play and ability to attack the space”. Sit deep against him and he will beat you in the air. Push high against him and he will run in behind you.

He has a rare combination of power and pace – and is quicker now than he was when he left Manchester United, the diagnosis of a gastric problem having helped him lose more than a stone – but he also has an astute tactical brain. It has been notable for Belgium since Roberto Martínez took over how often he pulls right to create space for Kevin De Bruyne to operate through the middle, often as a false nine. It is early days, but there were signs of a similar relationship developing with Kai Havertz, who was playing notably higher than Mason Mount, the other of the two creative midfielders.

There is also the potential threat Timo Werner, who did not come on until the 89th minute, could pose swooping form the left into space created by Lukaku, making the sort of runs that defined him at RB Leipzig and perhaps generating the sort of chances he is more comfortable in taking. The possibilities for Chelsea are extremely exciting.

Few other opponents will be quite so accommodating as Arsenal but this was a highly impressive debut from Lukaku. The question now is whether he can do it against a defence.