“I just feel more complete. I just want to try to help the team win and be available for the manager as well as for my team-mates. I want to make sure that they feel comfortable and they can lean on me in whatever situation we’re in.”
This is what Romelu Lukaku told Chelsea’s website after completing a club-record £97.5 million move from Inter Milan last summer. And yet here we are, just 10 months later, and not only has the forward failed to live up to his own billing at Stamford Bridge, he has pushed for a loan move back to the Serie A club he just left — and Chelsea have agreed to it.
Inter have paid a fee of €8 million plus add-ons to borrow the Belgium international, one of the heroes of their 2020-21 title triumph, while terms over the 29-year-old’s salary and performance bonuses have also been accepted. After several days of negotiation, it is understood the strong business relationship between Chelsea’s new co-owner Todd Boehly and Michael Yormark — the president of the Roc Nation agency that played a prominent role in brokering the move for Lukaku — was essential to closing the agreement.
The deal between the clubs does not include either an option or obligation to buy the striker at the end of the loan period, which leaves doubt over Chelsea’s future plans for a player who will still have three years remaining on his contract at the end of next season.
It will also not see any Inter players head to Chelsea as part of this specific transfer, despite Boehly approaching negotiations in a manner described by a source as a “baseball mentality” in the hope of securing a trade of players as part of the Lukaku loan. Chelsea dismiss that this will be a regular method of doing business going forwards, arguing Boehly’s priority is simply to get the very best deal in each scenario and that sometimes this will include enquiring about players on the books of those negotiating from the opposite side of the table.
Behind the scenes, Lukaku has played a substantial role in driving the transfer, while his attorney Sebastien Ledure has been cited as an important figure in the Italian media. At Inter, chief executive Giuseppe Marotta led discussions, as well as sporting director Piero Ausilio, and the head coach Simone Inzaghi set out where Lukaku would fit into his plans.
For Lukaku, this move has been his ambition since he resolved by the end of last season that he would not be successful at Chelsea under the coaching of Thomas Tuchel.
There had been mixed signals from the Chelsea hierarchy. The technical and performance director Petr Cech was quoted this month as saying Lukaku would have a “great” second season in his second spell at the west London club.
As it turned out, Cech was out of the door even before Lukaku left.
Indeed, there are plenty of people close to the situation who believe Chelsea’s previous ownership and management structure would have been reluctant to sanction this departure. That Lukaku is leaving is down, in no small part, to both Boehly’s aforementioned relationship with Roc Nation, but also the sense that the new ownership must back head coach Tuchel to reshape the squad in his image.
For Inter, this has not been a straightforward transaction and it is expected that Lukaku has agreed to trim his wages to make the deal happen. Inter have already agreed this summer to sign Lukaku’s former Manchester United team-mate Henrikh Mkhitaryan on a free transfer when his Roma deal expires, while they are also in talks to sign the Argentinian striker Paulo Dybala at the end of his contract with Juventus.
While their centre-back Milan Skriniar is a key target for Paris Saint-Germain, which would help offset the economic burden, Inter announced in October losses of €245.6 million (£210.7 million) for the year and they have a €272 million loan to repay to Oaktree Capital Management by May 20, 2024. The interest on that loan is 12 per cent, meaning they currently owe €292 million.
As such, a permanent transfer taking Lukaku back to Inter was never going to happen but Boehly was involved in discussions over a loan, or a player trade, from the start of June. Boehly’s openness to exchange players — albeit a notion unpalatable to Inter — demonstrated a deal could be struck… and a deal that the Italian club had feared impossible now felt attainable.
Inter also knew they had leverage, in that the player only wanted to join them and that both Lukaku and his Chelsea coach had concluded it was best to part ways. The clubs held a series of conference calls, with the opening offer of €5 million not meeting Chelsea’s demands of €10 million with add-ons. The two sides eventually settled somewhere in the middle.
Matters accelerated and June 20, a Monday, was busy at Inter headquarters on Milan’s Viale Liberazione, where they also laid the groundwork for head coach Inzaghi’s contract extension and signed a former Italy Under-21 international in Raoul Bellanova of Cagliari. There was a feeling of significance as president Steven Zhang pulled up outside, in his Inter-coloured Ferrari, and the club’s entire executive team were also on site. Within 24 hours, a deal with Chelsea was all but concluded.
For Lukaku and Chelsea, it should not have turned out like this.
One of the motivations behind Lukaku’s return had been that he said he had “unfinished business” at Stamford Bridge having made just 15 appearances during his first spell there between 2011 and 2014.
Meanwhile, Chelsea regarded the Belgian they waved off to Everton at age 21 seven years earlier as having become the finished article as a striker and leader during spells at Goodison Park, Manchester United and Inter, and believed he would make the difference as a side who had just won the Champions League tried to mount a Premier League title challenge.
But after just 16 Premier League starts and eight goals, they have already gone their separate ways for a second time.
Indeed, relations soured to the extent that the club’s record transfer personally approached Boehly to accelerate his return to Inter.
So, how has it come to this so soon?
The first place to start is the most obvious — that Sky Italia interview.
Lukaku suffered because of a lack of form and fitness during the season but nothing did more damage than when he broke ranks to talk to the Italian broadcaster without the club’s knowledge or permission. The interview was recorded the day after he had suffered the disappointment of coming on as a late substitute in the 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United on November 28, but it wasn’t aired for another month. It emerged, dramatically, on New Year’s Eve.
Although the primary aim of the conversation was geared towards making peace with Inter fans he’d walked out on a few months earlier and who had continued to criticise the forward heavily on social media for leaving, he ended up making headlines for suggesting he was frustrated at Chelsea under Tuchel.
In case anyone needs reminding, Lukaku said: “I’m not happy with the situation and that’s only natural. The head coach has decided to play a different system and I mustn’t let up. I need to keep working hard and be professional. I’m not happy with the situation but I am a grafter and I mustn’t let up. The coach can get me playing more but I have to respect the choices he makes. All I have to do is keep working and wait for my moment.”
Tuchel made his displeasure known straight away. Lukaku was dropped for the huge home game against Liverpool on January 2 and also fined two weeks’ wages. Significantly, the coach conferred with senior squad members including Jorginho, Cesar Azpilicueta, N’Golo Kante and Antonio Rudiger before making the decision to leave the player out against Jurgen Klopp’s side.
In turn, Lukaku issued private and public apologies, the latter provided in a rather awkward and perhaps embarrassing fashion in front of the cameras for the club’s Fifth Stand app. “Now it is on me to make sure I show my commitment 100 per cent,” he said. It wasn’t the most convincing show of contrition as fans commented on him smiling on several occasions.
There was a lot of talk at the time of there being an overreaction to what Lukaku had said and done, that his comments had been blown out of proportion. Tuchel did his best to manage and downplay the furore when asked about it in press conferences. “We don’t like it because it brings noise we don’t need and it’s not helpful,” he explained. “On the other side, we don’t want to make more out of it than it is. It’s very easy to take lines out of context, to shorten lines and make headlines, and later realise it’s not so bad and maybe not what he meant.”
No one can blame Tuchel for trying to take a measured and balanced approach in front of the media. Most managers would want to kill a story such as this as quickly as possible, to stop it being a negative distraction.
But multiple sources told The Athletic he was furious behind the scenes. During one of the training sessions ahead of that Liverpool fixture in January, he got all the players together on the pitch to stress the importance of not giving interviews without the club’s knowledge, that it was noise they could have done without ahead of such a big game and what had transpired wasn’t what being a Chelsea player was about.
The club denied this happened when it was put to them at the time, but insiders maintain it did and made the point about how awkward the speech was, given that Lukaku was standing there among everyone else as Tuchel spoke.
It was notable that the club sided with their manager this time. Previous Chelsea coaches have come under pressure when there have been issues with a high-profile signing.
Yet the hierarchy could see Tuchel was shocked by what had transpired. They were not enamoured with the situation either.
It didn’t help that the two men had been having positive conversations about Lukaku’s position in the team for a few weeks before the interview was finally broadcast. His performances against Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion in December, scoring in both games, gave more cause for optimism.
But once Lukaku’s views came to light, all the good work was undone. Understandably the initial reaction was one of disbelief and bemusement as to where it had come from.
In Lukaku’s defence — and the club took this into account to some degree — he was at a low ebb when making the remarks. An ankle injury sustained against Malmo in mid-October had ruled him out for five weeks and, understandably, there was some frustration he didn’t start against former club Manchester United a month later. It is also believed he was struggling to settle off the pitch, so he wasn’t in the best frame of mind the next day when Sky Italia asked a question about life at Chelsea.
But as explained at the time, Lukaku’s team-mates had no idea he was planning on speaking out or had any indication he was unhappy.
The squad were certainly not sticking up for him internally or externally.
What has come to light in the six months since is just how much Lukaku’s actions caused issues in the squad. The vast majority of those in the dressing room won the Champions League final in May last year and The Athletic has been told there was a strong reaction from some of the players, pointing out that Lukaku had come into a squad of European champions and given the impression — intentionally or otherwise — to some that he was better than them.
Sources went on to explain that Tuchel was caught in the middle and made decisions on what was best for the dynamic and chose the group over an individual.
But Lukaku wants to be a focal point and have that unconditional trust and backing. Those who have worked closely with him previously feel that, while he requires a demanding coach, he also needs to feel the trust and love of a manager. The strength of his bond with Antonio Conte was key to his success over two years at Inter.
Instead of support, a source close to the player said he came to feel, rightly or wrongly, doubted every time he appeared for Chelsea.
It would be wrong to suggest Lukaku had no friends at the club. Anyone seeing his interactions with Hakim Ziyech and Malang Sarr, to name just two, could see that wasn’t the case. But once he went public with his angst, many got the impression he was already looking to leave — and, frankly, they were right.
It is worth remembering the timing and context behind that notorious interview.
The Italian agent Federico Pastorello had brokered Lukaku’s return to Chelsea, for which he received acclaim — he was named Agent of the Year at December’s Globe Soccer Awards in Dubai. At the Italian newspaper Tuttosport’s Golden Boy award, he was named the Best European Agent, with Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia also picking up an award on the night. As part of the publicity surrounding the evening, Pastorello granted an interview to Tuttosport at his offices in Monaco, where a journalist asked the agent whether Lukaku may one day return to Italy.
Pastorello replied: “Yes, because Romelu is in love with our country. But now let’s enjoy him at Chelsea.”
This interview was published on December 11 and within three weeks, Sky Italia had an audience with Inter sporting director Piero Ausilio. Pastorello’s comments gave the broadcaster an invitation to ask Ausilio if the club would take Lukaku back. With a wink and smile, he said: “On loan, sure.”
Next day, December 31, Sky Italia released the interview with Lukaku which had been in the can for a month, and the situation exploded. “It was the trigger,” explains a source close to the player. “And the beginning of the end.”
For Inter, it represented an opportunity. The Italian champions were reluctant to sell him in the first place and their coach Inzaghi, who took over when Conte stepped down last summer after delivering the title, wanted to work with the Belgian. He did not expect Inter to sell Lukaku. Indeed, when Inzaghi took the job, he was only told about the need to cash in on wing-back Achraf Hakimi, who was sold to Paris Saint-Germain.
On January 1, Chelsea supporters responded en masse to a tweet by the club on their official Twitter account wishing everyone a happy new year with a picture of players from the men’s and women’s teams.
They noticed how Lukaku could barely be seen among the many faces, as if he had been deliberately hidden away in response to what had transpired. Regardless of whether there was any truth to the theory, sources told The Athletic that Lukaku was upset by the apparent snub.
Over the following months, Lukaku sent messages to people he knew at Inter expressing a desire to return and telling old team-mates there to stay so they could play together again.
By the end, several well-placed sources suggested that the relationship between Lukaku and Tuchel had broken down altogether, although Chelsea insist the relationship remained cordial.
Like with many big-name acquisitions at Chelsea, there is always a lot of talk about whether the player is a “club signing” or the “manager’s signing”. Chelsea always consult with whoever is in charge of the team over what individuals are being brought in, so will argue there is no such thing as either of the above.
But Tuchel was very much behind the acquisition of the striker, making it clear to Lukaku when Chelsea began to step up their interest about how much he wanted him. There were a lot of calls during the European Championship last summer before he signed the five-year deal. Tuchel thought the player could help Chelsea win the Premier League again.
Chelsea were not the only ones interested. Manchester City are thought to have been keen earlier in the calendar, but once they made it clear Harry Kane of Tottenham was their first-choice striker target, Lukaku wasn’t keen on being a perceived consolation prize. Barcelona were also monitoring events, although a deal was not feasible due to the financial demands. But the emotional pull of going back to Chelsea, a club he had supported as a boy while idolising their talismanic striker Didier Drogba, was too strong to resist.
Lukaku was hindered by his lack of a pre-season with Tuchel, in terms of building both fitness and an understanding with his new team-mates. By the time a deal was finalised and he had spent a few days in quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols, the 2021-22 season was already underway.
Still, it shouldn’t be forgotten how good he looked when he began his second spell at the club by scoring four goals in as many games last August and September. Some pundits made Chelsea favourites to finish top, the supporters were singing his name.
But it proved to be a false dawn.
He then went three months (10 appearances) without finding the net for Chelsea. Contracting COVID-19 in December didn’t help either. Despite telling fans he would make up for his outspoken views on the pitch, Lukaku started 2022 with a seven-game run that yielded one goal — and that was against non-League Chesterfield in the FA Cup.
Some hope was restored when he started and scored in Chelsea’s two games that clinched the Club World Cup in February.
Speaking to The Athletic after Palmeiras of Brazil were beaten 2-1 in the final, Drogba, who has been a close confidant of Lukaku’s over the years — the Ivorian had even reached out to a teenage Lukaku when he first signed for Chelsea from Anderlecht — felt it was a sign of many more good things to come.
But a week later came “that” match against Crystal Palace, where he touched the ball on just seven occasions. That was clearly the breaking point for Tuchel, because he started Lukaku in just seven of the final 22 fixtures, none of which came against Real Madrid in a two-leg Champions League quarter-final or the Carabao Cup final versus Liverpool.
Despite both not being available as substitutes — Werner was hurt in the warm-up while Havertz wasn’t in the match-day squad at all — Lukaku was substituted before the game went into extra time and then to penalties. It was the final straw, according to a source close to the player, although Lukaku was also left feeling isolated when he was an unused substitute at home against Watford on the final day of the Premier League season.
No one has come out of this looking very good — Lukaku, Tuchel or the club. But nobody set out for this to go wrong on purpose and misfortune played a part in this move backfiring, with the lack of a pre-season to bed in, the ankle injury and COVID-19.
Lukaku was praised for being in great physical shape while at Inter and began Chelsea’s 2021-22 campaign in a similar vein. But once he’d suffered the ankle problems and health issues, the club felt he was effectively starting from scratch, that he needed a pre-season to get back to his peak. But, of course, that isn’t possible mid-season. There was an acceptance in February that he wasn’t in as good a condition as when he arrived six months earlier.
The fact Chelsea didn’t have a settled side was taken into account, too. Injuries and COVID-19 also negatively affected other players so Lukaku didn’t get to build a rapport like the one he enjoyed at Inter with strike partner Lautaro Martinez. Due to Chelsea having an intense schedule across five competitions, with games regularly just three or four days apart, there was limited time to work on improving things on the training pitch.
By speaking out on TV, people inside the club believed he only succeeded in making the situation worse for himself, that he was under even more scrutiny and pressure than before.
Lukaku provided another flash of what he could do late on in the season with two goals against Wolves on May 7 and another against Leeds four days later. It meant he actually ended the season as the club’s leading scorer in all competitions — albeit with the rather underwhelming tally of 15 for the club’s top earner being paid a base rate of £340,000 a week.
His mind had been pretty much made up to leave by the time Chelsea played those two games. Being substituted in the FA Cup final the following weekend just solidified his thinking.
There were a lot of obstacles to overcome for Lukaku to get his wish and return to Inter, but with new owners coming in to replace the old Chelsea regime, the timing has worked out.
This loan is only a temporary solution for now. One wonders what will happen in 12 months.
For example, what if Tuchel has underperformed? Chelsea could always decide to hire a new coach who they believe can get the most out of Lukaku and bring him back for another try.
However, one cannot imagine the fans giving him a warm welcome in that instance, considering the events of the past year. Lukaku has had two opportunities to succeed at Chelsea now and it did not work out on either occasion. He will be compared unfavourably to other expensive forwards who disappointed in the blue shirt, such as Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata.
At Inter, many will see him as a returning hero, though the Curva Nord, where the ultras stand, will need winning over. They have not forgotten his “betrayal” less than a year ago and set out their position in a statement issued the day after the deal was finalised.
No representatives of the Nord or the groups it comprises were allowed to welcome Lukau at the airport in Milan when he arrived, while any adulation he would receive in the future has to be “earned with sweat and humility on the pitch”.
The statement read: “He was supported (and treated) like a King. Now he is no different from anybody else.”
This view cuts against the grain of excitement generated by the unexpected return of a former Serie A MVP. Fans ignored the directive from the Nord and congregated outside Linate airport late on Tuesday night to greet Lukaku. Then again outside the clinic where he was performing his medical on Wednesday, where there were chants of “Portaci lo Scudetto” — “Bring us the title”. It was a stark contrast to the indifference and disappointment he leaves behind in the Premier League. That unfinished business he had at Chelsea remains just that.
To think he once had a dream of emulating his hero Drogba, but this now appears forlorn.
(Other contributors: David Ornstein and James Horncastle)
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)
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How Romelu Lukaku’s Chelsea return unravelled – and why everyone is to blame
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