With his loan at Inter Milan having not worked out Romelu Lukaku is showing signs of wear and tear, but Chelsea have moved on so where does he go next?
For those who appreciate their catenaccio, it was almost the perfect result. A 0-0 draw for Inter away from home against Porto to follow up a 1-0 win thanks to a late penalty in the first leg would have had Helenio Herrera smiling approvingly. But for Romelu Lukaku, it was a day of mixed blessings.
On the one hand, he was the player who’d scored the only goal of an important Champions League knockout tie.
But on the other, it would appear that his club will not be taking up the option to keep him beyond the end of this season, meaning that he will return to a very different Stamford Bridge to the one he left on loan last summer. This will come at the end of an injury-plagued season which has had nothing like the triumphant homecoming he may have envisioned when he arrived back in Milan, and considering how far down he’d likely find himself in the pecking order at Stamford Bridge, it’s worth asking what happens to him now.
The contrast with his last spell in Milan is stark. Between 2019 and 2021, having escaped the listing ship at Manchester United, he exploded into the most successful period of his career, winning a Serie A title, finishing as a runner-up in the Europa League and scoring 64 goals in 95 games in all competitions. It was enough to persuade Chelsea to part with £97.5m in the ill-fated move that took him to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2021.
Inter can hardly be said to have had a disastrous season this time around; they’re second in Serie A and in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. But Lukaku has had a rough time of things in the main. Injuries kept him out for most of the first half of the season. In total, he’s played just 18 games so far this season in all competitions and has scored just five goals, of which only three have come in the league.
He certainly couldn’t be said to have been eased into the professional game. Lukaku made his debut for Anderlecht just 11 days after his 16th birthday and he’s been going pretty much full pelt since then. Despite the fact that he’s still 10 weeks shy of his 30th birthday, he’s played 570 club games in all competitions, plus a further 104 international matches for Belgium. Small wonder he’s been showing signs of wear and tear. One of the costs of not being raised by a superclub is that they can seldom afford to not drop you straight in at the deep end.
It’s the fact that his injury rate has accelerated so greatly over the last couple of years that makes you start to wonder whether he’s in the autumn of his career. He never used to be an injury-prone player. He lost just 58 days to injury between January 2014 and December 2017. He’s lost 266 since, including 92 since the start of this season alone.
And in a sense, that feels contradictory. After all, at 6’3″ tall and weighing in at 16st 3lb – that’s very nearly one and a half Kevin De Bruynes, for those of you who do metric – it’s reasonable to say that Lukaku is a ‘unit’, and in a sense it is surprising to see such a physically imposing player struggling in this respect.
Except, of course, that isn’t how injuries work and it certainly isn’t how wear and tear works, if that is the cause of the aforementioned injuries, and it has been proved in other sports that the greater impact forces felt by taller and heavier sportspeople leave them at a greater risk of injury.
Considering the risk assessment approach that clubs take towards transfers now, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to find Lukaku has failed this particular test. After all, even very big clubs like Inter are in a transfer market with the financially bloated Premier League. Every penny counts, and they can’t afford to be paying big wages to someone who may end up on the treatment table half the time.
So where does he go next? Well, ‘back to Stamford Bridge’ would appear to be the obvious answer. After all, Lukaku is contracted to Chelsea until 2027, and while he agreed a 30% pay cut to return to Milan, Inter have been paying that reduced amount since then, but it not clear what happens should he return to Stamford Bridge. It would be surprising if he didn’t revert to the terms of the original contract that he signed in 2021.
But what use will Chelsea have for him? It’s fair to say that until recently they’ve been struggling in front of goal, but even throughout those long weeks when it felt as though Chelsea couldn’t buy a goal, it seemed doubtful that Lukaku would have been the answer. Chelsea already have Kai Havertz, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, David Datro Fofana and loanee Joao Felix. It’s understood that Christopher Nkunku’s RB Leipzig release clause will be paid come the end of this season.
There seems little space for Lukaku at the Bridge, even if some of those current attacking options might not be with the club by the end of this summer. But while Chelsea may have already decided that his career is over, they can’t just unilaterally terminate his contract, even if persuading someone else to take on the burden of his wage packet may be a not-insignificant challenge.
As with other high profile, high workload players such as N’Golo Kante there’s always a possibility that things may improve, but once you approach and pass 30 years of age the odds start to stack against you extremely quickly. With 14 years at the top end of the professional game already behind him, Lukaku at least has the luxury of choice that comes with being extremely financially secure.
A return to Belgium may suit him. A slightly less taxing environment might also work for him. One of the more curious corrolories of Lukaku’s career so far has – his explosive first spell with Inter aside – been that he’s always seeemed more successsful at lower-ranked clubs. At Anderlecht, West Bromwich Albion and Everton, he shone. At Manchester United and Chelsea, he didn’t. His two spells with Inter are tied at a success and a failure each. Saying that he’s still only 29 years old feels a little bit wrong, but perhaps the slower pace of life would suit him.