Sunday, January 16, 2022

City, Chelsea and why you made the mistake of signing a forward

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It was really basic arithmetic. Just as two plus two equals four, a nearly impregnable defense plus a prolific forward scoring 20 goals a season makes for a title-winning team.

Two Premier League clubs were on the first page of this equation last summer. Each had one of the best defenses in Europe but at the other end lacked a player who converted regularly. Both wanted to do something about it during the transfer window. One could and did, the other tried and couldn’t.

Why is the team who in this case? not Spend £97.5m on a centre-forward who sits top of the table, 10 points and eight goals ahead of who did it?

It’s a question that challenges our understanding of football and our preconceived notions of what makes a successful team. It shows how a simple game in theory can be complicated in practice. It questions the modern role of the centre-forward and whether the centre-forward even plays a big role.

But it’s only complicated by knowing that the team that’s 10 points clear, clinched their Premier League title and this summer’s window opens, will go out again and try to buy a No9.

Manchester City don’t play with a recognized centre-forward and won’t sign one in January either, but make no mistake: they’re still on the market for one.

That probably wouldn’t be the case if they had signed Romelu Lukaku in the summer of 2020. Lukaku’s skills have long been recognized by key decision makers at City and last month was interviewed by Heaven Italy, the Belgian revealed how close he came to joining the Etihad.

“When I was at Inter, at the end of the first year I turned down an offer from Manchester City that was higher than Chelsea FC’s this summer,” said Lukaku. “I did it because it was only a year ago it wasn’t the right time to go and I didn’t want to.”

It feels intuitive to suggest that Pep Guardiola’s side would have had an even more dominant start to the season had Lukaku been a City player, that the title race would only have ended sooner.

Since the start of the season, Guardiola has had to face countless questions about a striker’s failed pursuit last summer. They all carried a subtext: If City had a No.9, they would score more goals. If Guardiola wanted to contradict 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’s compelling. Chelsea were European champions at the end of last season, but not because of a free-kick attack. Since Thomas Tuchel took charge, they have conceded a meager 0.5 goals per game but scored a meager 1.3. In other words, their defense was the best on the continent, but their attack wasn’t much better than Southampton’s.

The addition of a player who scored 30 goals in all competitions last season should fix that and on the surface it did. Chelsea are suddenly scoring more – as much as 2.1 goals per game this season – but Lukaku’s impact on that improvement has been minimal. It’s not that he’s only scored eight goals or is yet to get his first assist, it’s that he’s only started 15 of 34 games and Chelsea often looked better without him.

However, this isn’t really a story about Lukaku as an individual as he is undoubtedly one of the best centre-forwards in Europe. It’s more about signing players who fit into the existing structure.

Lukaku’s main point of contention in an interview with Heaven Italy was that Chelsea’s tactical setup is not tailored to his game. Although Tuchel was puzzled by Lukaku’s claim that the Chelsea manager had chosen to play a different system – “We’ve made our choice not playing a different formation,” was his annoyed reply – he has to realize that the Belgian’s role is different from the one he played at Inter.

At Milan, Lukaku’s goals came in partnership with Lautaro Martinez and largely from running in from behind or through the channels as part of a more direct style of play, drawing out opponents and attacking open space.

However, in Tuchel’s possession-heavy system, Lukaku usually had to play central, without an attacking partner and occasionally as the old-fashioned target man, which his physique would allow him to thrive on, only with greater responsibility to connect the game through possession. Is this the best use of his ability?

Possibly not, and while injuries played a role, Tuchel seemed to be beginning to realize he only made one league start between the first week of October and Christmas. That was Lukaku’s motivation for giving the interview, which only further tarnished his place in the Stamford Bridge pecking order.

If he’s not in the starting XI at the Etihad, it’s clear he still has work to do to win back his manager’s favour.

Maybe that would always happen. Perhaps a number nine like Lukaku isn’t well suited to the kind of possession-oriented system that Tuchel plays. City’s dominance of no centre-forward in a similar system under Guardiola also seems to underpin this. Besides the irony of it all, City still want a striker. Specifically, they want Erling Haaland.

Haaland is nothing short of phenomenal, capable of shouldering last defenders and running after them quickly, but also capable of stopping play and acting as a physical presence. If there’s a weakness, it’s its build. Haaland rarely touches the ball for a center forward. In that regard, he’s not a completely dissimilar player to Lukaku.

Could City then face similar problems next season? Could we brush up on our Norwegian and get the bones out of a Haaland interview with TV2 sometime around Christmas? Perhaps, although City have shown a little more flexibility in interpreting their central attacking role and you wouldn’t bet Guardiola finding the right fit for Haaland when he arrives at the Etihad.

However, the lesson of Chelsea’s signing of Lukaku is that there are no guarantees. You can’t just transfer 20 goals from Serie A or the Bundesliga to the Premier League. Signings have to fit well with the system in which they will play. Buying a forward isn’t just a matter of addition or subtraction.

And as City has shown, sometimes it can be better to multiply by zero, or in other words, do nothing.

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