Why is the team that didn’t sign a striker 10 points and eight goals clear of the one that did?
It was basic arithmetic, really. In the same way that two plus two equals four, an almost impregnable defence plus a prolific, 20-goals-a-season striker equals a title-winning team.
Two Premier League clubs found themselves stuck on the first side of that equation last summer. Each had one of the best defences in Europe but lacked a player regularly converting at the other end. Both intended to do something about it during the transfer window. One could and did, the other tried and couldn’t.
So in that case, why is the team who didn’t spend £97.5m on a centre-forward sitting at the top of the table, 10 points and eight goals clear of the one who did?
It is a question that challenges our understanding of football and our pre-concieved concepts of what makes a successful team. It demonstrates how a simple game in theory can actually be complicated in practice. It interrogates the modern role of the centre-forward and whether the centre-forward has much of a role at all.
But it is only complicated further by the knowledge that, once the team who are 10 points clear have collected their Premier League title and this summer’s window opens, they are going to go out and try to buy a No9 all over again.
Manchester City do not play with a recognised centre-forward and will not be signing one in January either, but make no mistake: they are still in the market for one.
That probably would not be the case if, during the summer of 2020, they had signed Romelu Lukaku. There has long been an appreciation of Lukaku’s abilities among key decision-makers at City and, in last month’s interview with Sky Italia, the Belgian revealed just how close he came to moving to the Etihad.
“When I was at Inter, at the end of the first year, I turned down an offer from Manchester City which was higher than Chelsea FC‘s this summer,” Lukaku said. “I did it because it had only been a year, it wasn’t the right time to leave and I didn’t want to.”
It feels intuitive to suggest that if Lukaku was a City player, Pep Guardiola’s side would have made an even more dominant start to the season, that the title race would only have ended sooner.
Guardiola has had to face countless questions on last summer’s failed pursuit of a striker since the start of the season. They have all carried a subtext: that if City had a No9, they would be scoring more goals. If Guardiola wanted to counter that assumption, he could use a simple, devastating reply: look at Chelsea, look at Lukaku.
Guardiola is too polite to ever make that argument but it is a persuasive one. At the end of last season, Chelsea were champions of Europe but not because of a free-scoring attack. Since Thomas Tuchel took charge, they had conceded a frugal 0.5 goals-per-game but scored a meagre 1.3. In other words, their defence was the best on the continent but their attack was not much better than Southampton’s.
The addition of a player who scored 30 goals in all competitions last season was intended to fix that and, on the surface, it has. Chelsea are suddenly scoring more – 2.1 goals-per-game this season, in fact – but Lukaku’s influence on that improvement has been minimal. It is not that he has only scored eight goals himself, or even that he is still waiting for his first assist, but that he has only started 15 of 34 games and Chelsea have often looked better without him.
This is not really a story about Lukaku as an individual though, as he is undoubtedly one of the best centre-forwards in Europe. It is more about the importance of signing players who fit within the pre-existing structure.
Lukaku’s main point of contention in the interview with Sky Italia was that Chelsea’s tactical set-up is not tailored to his game. Though Tuchel was confused by Lukaku’s claim that the Chelsea manager had chosen to play a different system – “We decided not to play a different formation,” was his exasperated response – he must recognise that the Belgian’s role is different to the one he played at Inter.
In Milan, Lukaku’s goals came in a partnership with Lautaro Martinez, and largely through running in behind or through the channels, as part of a more direct style of play that drew the opposition out and attacked open space.
Yet in Tuchel’s possession-heavy system, Lukaku has typically been required to play centrally, without a strike partner and occasionally as the old-fashioned target man that his physique suggests he should thrive as, only with greater responsibility to link up play through possession. Is this the best use of his ability?
Possibly not, and though injuries played a role, Tuchel appeared to begin to realise, starting just once in the league between the first week of October and Christmas. That was Lukaku’s motivation to give the interview, which has only clouded his place in the Stamford Bridge pecking order further.
If he is not named in the starting line-up at the Etihad, it will be clear that he has plenty more to do to win back his manager’s favour.
Perhaps this was always going to happen. Perhaps a No9 like Lukaku is not well-suited to the type of possession-oriented system that Tuchel plays. City’s dominance without a centre-forward in a similar system under Guardiola would appear to back that up, too. Except the irony of it all is that City still want a striker. Specifically, they want Erling Haaland.
Haaland is nothing short of phenomenal, capable of playing off-the-shoulder of the last defender and running in behind at pace, but also able to hold up play and act as a physical presence. If there is a weakness, it is his build-up. Haaland touches the ball relatively rarely for a centre-forward. He is, in that way, not an entirely dissimilar player to Lukaku.
Could City experience similar issues next season, then? Could we be brushing up on our Norwegian and picking the bones out of a Haaland interview to TV2 at some point around Christmas? Maybe, though City have proved a little more flexible in their interpretation of their central, attacking role and you would not bet against Guardiola finding the right fit for Haaland were he to arrive at the Etihad.
The lesson from Chelsea’s signing of Lukaku is that there are no guarantees, though. You cannot simply transfer 20 goals from Serie A or the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Signings have to be well-suited to the system they will be playing in. Buying a striker is not simple matter of addition or subtraction.
And as City have shown, sometimes it can be better to multiply by zero or, in other words, do nothing.