How Chelsea and Romelu Lukaku’s £97.5m transfer catastrophically backfired

There was a sense that Chelsea had finally found the missing piece of the puzzle when they brought Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge in 2021.

The Blues had just won the Champions League final against Manchester City, a game few expected them to win. A strike from Kai Havertz had been enough to secure a surprise victory, with Thomas Tuchel beginning to look every inch the master tactician that Chelsea had acquired just five months earlier.

The signings of Timo Werner and Havertz from the Bundesliga the previous summer hadn’t quite worked out. Both had shown glimpses of their quality – Havertz’s Champions League winning goal being one of them – but neither had the clinical edge required to propel Chelsea to sustained greatness.

Lukaku, fresh from an impressive spell with Inter, was signed for £97.5m to provide such ruthlessness. On paper, little could go wrong. But, as the old saying goes, football isn’t played on paper.

The signing of Lukaku went from masterstroke to disasterclass very swiftly, with the Belgian only making 44 appearances during his return to Stamford Bridge. A loan to Inter last season is set to be followed by another one to Roma this summer as Lukaku’s failed Chelsea career draws to a close.

Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku didn’t hit the numbers needed to keep his place / Harriet Lander/Copa/GettyImages

Lukaku has been open about his idolisation of former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, and it was expected that Lukaku’s return to Stamford Bridge would offer the Blues the closest thing to Drogba they could find.

Life had gotten off to a pretty good start at Chelsea too. Lukaku scored in his first Premier League outing of the 2021/22 season against Arsenal, followed up by an impressive brace against Aston Villa two games later.

However, that was pretty much where the good times came to an end. Lukaku would fail to find the back of the net in the Premier League for just under four months, eventually breaking his duck against Aston Villa again on Boxing Day.

Admittedly, the forward had missed spells with injury and illness in between, but it was already clear things weren’t going to be straightforward for Lukaku at Stamford Bridge. Despite scoring three goals in his final three league matches, his time at Chelsea already looked to be coming to an end. The Stamford Bridge crowd are far from the most forgiving or patient.

There were, of course, some positive moments. Lukaku had scored twice during the FIFA Club World Cup to push Chelsea to the trophy, and his goals had also helped Chelsea reach the FA Cup final, which they lost on penalties to Liverpool – as the Blues also did in the Carabao Cup final.

But general performances in the Premier League and Champions League had been at a pretty low level. Lukaku shrunk on the big occasions, something highlighted by the fact that, other than that opening goal against Arsenal, he failed to find the net against any of the traditional big clubs.

The centre-forward ended the campaign with 15 goals in 44 appearances, a poor tally for someone of such quality and experience. The £97.5m price tag had become a stick with which to beat him, and ultimately spelled the end of his Chelsea career after just one season.


Romelu Lukaku, Thomas TuchelRomelu Lukaku, Thomas Tuchel

Lukaku’s blockbuster interview caused issues at Chelsea / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Footballers speaking to the press rarely goes well, especially an unsolicited media appearance. That proved to be the case for Lukaku following his surprise interview with Sky Italia in December 2021.

Lukaku spoke about his lack of game time at Chelsea, something which Tuchel claimed was “not helpful”, while also admitting that he would have preferred to have stayed at Inter than joined Chelsea.

Lukaku even suggested that he would have preferred a move to either Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, somewhat implying that his Chelsea move only came to fruition because those clubs had shown no interest in him.

Lukaku also heaped praise on his former boss Antonio Conte – something which is unlikely to have gone down well with Tuchel.

It’s fair to say that any doubts that Chelsea fans, players or staff had about Lukaku’s ability to succeed at Stamford Bridge only grew from that moment onward, with the striker never able to recover from that ill-advised interview.

With the transfer deadline fast approaching, there was fear among those at Chelsea that Lukaku might still be at the club next season.

A permanent deal with Inter had seemed inevitable, but transfer talks broke down after a falling out between the Nerazzurri and the player. Lukaku had been negotiating with Juventus too, but a move to Turin also didn’t materialise despite ongoing talks.

As a result, Roma have all but secured a loan deal with Chelsea for Lukaku. Jose Mourinho is keen to work with the 30-year-old and the deal will set Roma back £4.3m in loan fees and potentially another £2.6m in add-ons.

However, Lukaku’s contract with the Blues doesn’t expire until 2026, meaning the forward could find himself in a similar situation next year as Chelsea struggle to get rid.


On this edition of Talking Transfers, part of the 90min podcast network, Scott Saunders is joined by Toby Cudworth and Graeme Bailey to discuss Man Utd’s links to Marc Cucurella and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Romelu Lukaku’s impending exit from Chelsea, West Ham’s attempts to revive a deal for Harry Maguire & more!

If you can’t see this embed, click here to listen to the podcast!

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