Romelu Lukaku was introduced to Stamford Bridge on Saturday 27 April 2011, coming on for a brief and uneventful cameo during a routine win over Norwich City.
Almost exactly a decade later, Lukaku made his second Chelsea debut on Sunday and the circumstances could not be more contrasting. This time, the Belgian arrived as a global superstar, billed as the final piece of the puzzle for Thomas Tuchel’s side to make a genuine Premier League title challenge.
Expectations were high but Lukaku had no trouble living up to the hype, making Arsenal’s defence look even less competent than the Norwich back four he faced ten years prior. No offence to Zak Whitbread, Leon Barnett and Premier League winner Richie de Laet intended.
Right from the off it was clear what Chelsea’s go-to pattern of play would be with Jorginho immediately firing passes between the lines for Lukaku to take with his back to goal. This move drew the Gunners’ narrow defence out, and with Mason Mount and Kai Havertz occupying the half spaces, the Blues wing-backs had acres of space out wide.
This formula was followed to the letter for the visitors’ opening goal at the Emirates Stadium with Lukaku offloading to Reece James before surging into the space behind the Arsenal backline that he created with his clever movement.
When James eventually delivered his cross, the Blues’ new number nine was in the perfect place to tap home. It was a mercilessly efficient goal and Lukaku added cinematic flair to the scene, with his mere presence making Pablo Mari tumble hopelessly to the turf.
The goal, scored just 15 minutes into his Chelsea return, set the tone for an imperious first half display. Smelling blood in his one-sided battle with Mari he constantly looked for the same outlet ball to feet. He often got it too with the Brazilian powerless to prevent his opposite number laying it off and spinning in behind.
Although not directly involved in Chelsea’s second goal, Arsenal’s obsession with denying Lukaku the ball meant they were defending narrowly enough for James to drift into the box and finish Mason Mount’s cross emphatically at the back post.
He was equally devastating after the break too, only being denied a deserved second goal by a miraculous reflex save by Leno near the end. He should have had an assist too, with his cute pass to Kai Havertz not receiving the finish it deserved from the German.
All of this points to the conclusion that Lukaku is going to be everything that Chelsea expected and more this season. The possibilities genuinely seem endless. The balance between Mount dropping a little deeper into crossing positions while Havertz stayed higher was effective against Arsenal, but there is not a forward in Thomas Tuchel’s squad that does not stand to benefit from Lukaku’s arrival.
Timo Werner will be salivating at the prospect of racing into the space created by Lukaku, while Hakim Ziyech now has the ideal recipient for his inch-perfect balls into the box. Callum Hudson-Odoi will also be excited about both creating and being created for this season.