Lukaku appears to have returned to the Premier League at the right time and comes up against a Liverpool side who will need to show they can mix it with him
Romelu Lukaku has returned to the Premier League at the right time. The Chelsea forward will benefit from the relaxed refereeing approach to physical contact. He will be on the receiving end of some rough treatment, too, but the 28-year-old is clever enough and tough enough to use the rules to his advantage.
Jurgen Klopp voiced his opposition to the changes in officiating after Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Burnley at the weekend. In the light of the German’s comments – which were echoed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Manchester United manager – it will be fascinating to see how Klopp’s side handle Lukaku during Chelsea’s visit to Anfield on Saturday.
The Belgian was magnificent when Thomas Tuchel’s team beat Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates on Sunday. He scored the opener and bullied the defence throughout the game but his signature moment came in the build-up to his goal. Pablo Mari, who had bounced off the striker’s back when Lukaku held up the ball earlier in the move, tried to track the goalbound run. The Chelsea man breezed onwards, dumping Mari onto the ground with contemptuous ease. Lukaku has had more trouble slipping off tracksuit tops after pre-match warm-ups. He may not even have noticed the Spaniard’s presence. It was like a fly hitting the windscreen of a Ferrari.
Virgil van Dijk is one of the few centre backs in the Premier League capable of restraining Lukaku. The Dutchman has the positional sense and subtlety to make life difficult for any attacker. Although he is far from a traditional stopper, van Dijk has a physique that allows him to dominate opponents. His matchup with Lukaku is an enticing prospect, especially if the referees continue to be less fussy about contact.
The problem for Klopp is if Lukaku gets one-on-one with Joel Matip, who is less-equipped to deal with the man leading Chelsea’s line. That contest would be much more to Tuchel’s liking.
Wherever Lukaku is on the pitch, it pays to have a midfielder in the vicinity. For the second goal against Arsenal, he drifted away from the centre-backs and dummied the ball, allowing Mason Mount possession and time to pick out Reece James, who scored. The nearest challenger to the centre-forward was Granit Xhaka, who went to ground in a despairing attempt to affect a passage of play that had already bypassed him.
When Lukaku receives possession around the halfway line, the back four need midfield support. He causes havoc if he is allowed to turn and run. Once he sets out for goal, defenders become transfixed and are drawn to him, leaving acres of space for Chelsea’s support runners. A potential solution is to keep a midfield player close to double up on Lukaku before he is in full control of the ball. In either situation, Klopp might be glad that officials are letting things go.
That’s because Lukaku is crafty. When he gets set, it is very difficult to knock him off the ball. When he thinks it might help his team, even the light touch sends him tumbling to the floor. Liverpool will have to get physical with the striker to contain him.
Managers, like supporters, take a one-eyed view of the game. Klopp complained about Burnley’s aggressive approach but said nothing when Kostas Tsimikas knocked over Johann Berg Gudmundsson on the edge of the box. The shoulder charge was perilously close to an illegal barge and could have gone either way.
Liverpool are not a particularly rugged team but they are not innocents. Andy Robertson is rarely shy in the tackle. James Milner sometimes acts like a one-man wrecking crew. He dumped Lionel Messi off the pitch with a completely unnecessary push in the Nou Camp in Barcelona’s 3-0 Champions League semi-final victory two years ago, an act that helped establish the tone for the second leg when Klopp’s team rebounded to win 4-0 on their way to winning the competition.
Milner, at 35, is increasingly a bit-part player. Georginio Wijnaldum was hardly an enforcer but his departure to Paris Saint-Germain has removed a bit of nous and robustness from the midfield. Naby Keita has never quite come to terms with the physicality of English football. Klopp’s complaints signal that Liverpool are a little less equipped for a dogfight than before. If that is true, Tuchel will attempt to take advantage.
The Van Dijk-Lukaku clash has the potential to be one of the great individual head-to-head showdowns of the season but Liverpool will need help from the midfield to fully constrain the Chelsea striker. Their tackling will need to be early and sharp. Klopp may profit from looser officiating on Saturday.
Contact is back and moaning about it merely encourages the opposition to play rough. No one pushes a defence around like Lukaku and Liverpool need to lay down a marker at Anfield.