How Chelsea could replace Lukaku: Nkunku, Evanilson or David?

Romelu Lukaku is edging closer to returning to Inter on loan, drawing at least a temporary line under Chelsea’s biggest-ever transfer disaster — but the need that drove the £97.5 million deal to bring him back to Stamford Bridge in the first place has not gone away. Thomas Tuchel is still looking for a forward who can be relied upon to convert the chances his team creates, while also being able to meet the broader tactical demands of his system.

Chelsea’s attacking options require a refresh, not least because Tuchel appears to trust startlingly few of his current choices. The club are growing in confidence over signing Raheem Sterling from Manchester City, while Ousmane Dembele continues to figure prominently and would be a tantalising, if risky, bet on an exceptionally talented free agent, but in tactical terms, either player would be more of a replacement for Christian Pulisic or Hakim Ziyechshould one or both leave in search of more regular opportunities in this window — than Lukaku. Sterling, however, has shown at City that he can be used as a false nine.

Tuchel still has Kai Havertz, Chelsea’s marquee signing of 2020 who made incremental improvements on a disappointing debut season in the Premier League in 2021-22, and who offers more of the “huge volume” his head coach wants in terms of leading the team’s high press, recovering the ball in the attacking third and linking up in possession.

Using smarterscout, which gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 relative to either how often a player performs a given stylistic action or how effective they are at it compared with others playing in their position, we can see clearly that these are the outstanding qualities Havertz provides when deployed as a striker — though the below-average blue section in the pizza chart below shows he isn’t yet the relentless goal threat his team needs.

Lukaku, by contrast, while more of a consistent penalty-area presence and aggressive in hunting his own shots, is far less involved in Chelsea’s build-up play and running without the ball (as anyone who watched the seven-touch disasterclass against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in February can attest).

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Chelsea’s ideal solution to the Lukaku mess would be either to find a striker who combines Havertz’s pressing and technical abilities with a regular stream of goals, or for Havertz to find a more clinical edge himself. Failing that, it’s clear that any incoming striker will need to be closer to Havertz than to Lukaku in order to be useful to Tuchel.

Who fits that profile? Smarterscout can also be used to generate a “similarity score” based on a player’s key metrics. Here are the players — limited to age 26 and under — it brought up in relation to Havertz.

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There are some pretty unexpected names here (Neal Maupay for £60 million, anyone?), others like Phil Foden, who are unrealistic transfer targets, and one, in Daishawn Redan near the bottom of the list, who has already been on the books at Chelsea. The two closest matches according to the numbers are Porto striker Evanilson and Lille forward Jonathan David, while the most eye-catching potential transfer target on the list is coveted RB Leipzig star Christopher Nkunku.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them in turn…


Evanilson (Porto)

Last season was the first full campaign as a regular starter for Evanilson, the talented 22-year-old Brazilian who Porto signed from Fluminense in 2020. It was also a breakthrough in scoring terms: 14 non-penalty goals in 30 Primeira Liga appearances, of which 25 were starts, as Porto regained the title by six points from Sporting. His 0.62 goals per 90 minutes was the sixth-best in the division.

Most often deployed up front alongside Mehdi Taremi in an aggressive 4-4-2 system by coach Sergio Conceicao, Evanilson was given the freedom to roam across the attacking line with and without the ball. The smarterscout graphic below illustrates that he was particularly effective as a disruptor and creator of turnovers in the final third and linked up well in possession — but without sacrificing his ability to find the ball in the penalty area.

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Evanilson developed good on-pitch chemistry with Taremi, and several of his 14 non-penalty goals were tap-ins supplied by the Iranian star. All of the rest were penalty-box finishes, many dispatched with one confident touch from cutbacks or low crosses. Most impressive were his movements to get into finishing positions, and the comfort level with which he converted with either foot. At 5ft 11in he does not project as an aerial force, but his reasonably strong frame and the few headers he did score suggest it is at least not a significant flaw in his skill set.

Chelsea’s rivals are buying directly from the Portuguese top flight with increasing confidence: Ruben Dias became a key figure at Manchester City almost from the moment he signed from Benfica in the summer of 2020, while traditionally smart spenders Liverpool have splashed out vast transfer fees to bring Evanilson’s team-mate Luis Diaz and Uruguay international Darwin Nunez to Anfield this year.

Liverpool have also been linked with Evanilson in the past and when asked by Brazilian publication Lance about his favourite league in an interview published this week, he replied: “I like English football. I really like English football.” Conceicao, however, wants to keep working with him next season and Porto have reportedly already turned down a €60 million bid from an unnamed club.

Most significantly, Evanilson himself isn’t sure he is quite ready to step up to an elite European club just yet. “I’m at a good level in my career, but I’m not at a top level,” he added. “I have a lot to evolve. But that’s what I work for. If any big team comes… I will try to do my best at FC Porto. I will work hard to be prepared to the fullest.”

No goals in any of his four Champions League group stage starts in 2021-22 lend further weight to the notion that Evanilson might need more experience and seasoning – but he does have the look of a natural, well-rounded goalscorer capable of offering a dominant team more than simply goals.


Jonathan David (Lille)

No stranger to transfer speculation involving top Premier League clubs, David has scored 13 non-penalty goals in each of his two full Ligue 1 seasons. His stock was highest after a debut campaign that saw him help Lille win a shock league title by a single point from Paris Saint-Germain. They finished a disappointing 10th in 2021-22, meaning it might be easier to prise him away this summer.

In the title-winning season, David established himself as an exceptional pressing No 9, and his relentless work rate perfectly complemented veteran strike partner Buruk Yilmaz in Christophe Galtier’s 4-4-2 system. He also kept the ball and linked play impressively, as shown in his pizza chart below.

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Last season that profile shifted a little: David scaled back his work without the ball to offer more of a penalty area presence when Lille had it, and in January his 12 league goals led the Ligue 1 scoring charts. He found the net just three times in the final four months of the season, and his statistical profile is less eye-catching than it could have been — though it’s important to remember that he was labouring in a significantly diminished team.

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David’s key attacking metrics have actually remained pretty consistent for Lille, with his non-penalty xG hovering around 0.38 per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 and his goals coming at a rate of around 0.5 per 90 minutes. His average xG per shot of 0.18 also stands up well to comparison with other noteworthy forwards in Europe, including Nkunku, and his performance relative to xG indicates he generally converts the chances he should score. His shot map certainly looks like that of a true No 9…

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His speed makes him a big threat running in behind — a quality the Canada national team utilised in their surprisingly dominant run to World Cup qualification — but his comfort level on the ball in tight spaces, coupled with the fact that he is a real asset at the head of a high press, should make him appealing to teams who routinely dominate possession in the opposition half.

The only real concerns are that his lack of aerial ability could be a problem against deep-lying defences, he has not had much experience operating as a lone striker and he is yet to sustain his most impressive scoring streaks over a full season. But at 22, there is plenty of time for David to grow his game, and a move to a top European club could be exactly what he needs in order to facilitate his next big leap in production.

There have been suggestions in recent months that he thinks so too; Sky Germany reported in February that David is keen to leave France this summer and despite the fact that his current deal – which runs until June 2025 – has no release clause, Lille are believed to be prepared to sell for a fee in the region of €45 million to €55 million. That price would make him considerably cheaper than Evanilson, as well as the next forward on the list…


Christopher Nkunku

Robert Lewandowski scored 35 goals in 34 league appearances in 2021-22 and yet didn’t win Bundesliga Player of the Season. Nkunku’s spectacular breakthrough was the reason why.

The midfielder-turned-forward registered 19 non-penalty goals and 13 assists in 34 Bundesliga matches last season as RB Leipzig finished fourth, being directly involved in more goals than anyone bar Lewandowski. His form in Europe was spectacular too, scoring seven goals in six Champions League group stage matches and four more on Leipzig’s run to the Europa League semi-finals.

He profiles as a significantly bigger goal threat than Evanilson or David, while his ability to retain the ball and carry it in the final third is exceptional. His contribution without the ball isn’t quite so eye-catching, but the numbers suggest he was still an impactful defensive presence in the attacking line.

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Nkunku’s explosion as a scorer in his third season at RB Leipzig coincided with being moved into a more central attacking role by Jesse Marsch and then kept there by successor Domenico Tedesco. Not a true No 9, he was used across the front in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2 system, with Andre Silva most often the focal point of the attack. The Frenchman’s job was to get on the ball between the lines of opponents and use his speed and sharp movement to exploit spaces behind and between defenders.

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Sound at all familiar? Timo Werner enjoyed the best scoring season of his career at RB Leipzig in a very similar system and role, and Chelsea could be forgiven for being a little wary of prolific goal records by fast forwards in the Bundesliga, where space in the final third is more easily found and many matches seem to exist in a permanent state of transition.

It is true that many of Nkunku’s goals were the product of running in behind opposition defences or at backpedalling, isolated defenders — opportunities that Chelsea’s opponents in the Premier League give up far less frequently. Havertz was a genuine transition force at Leverkusen too, but has had far less scope to maximise that aspect of his attacking game in England.

There is one key difference with Nkunku though: he is far, far better with the ball at his feet than Werner, whose technical limitations can make him a blunt instrument against low blocks. His form in European competition last season — punctuated by a Champions League group stage hat-trick against City — might also provide some reassurance against the notion that his newfound status as a prolific goalscorer is a Bundesliga illusion.

nkunku-leipzig


(Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

Nkunku’s emergence as one of Europe’s most coveted forwards has come at a good time in his career. He has two years left to run on his current contract at RB Leipzig and while he does not have the kind of enticing release clause that eased Werner and Erling Haaland’s moves to England, a significant offer this summer could be difficult to turn down.

Tuchel is an admirer, but Chelsea are not the only interested party. Manchester United are in need of a younger forward and have also been linked, while Nkunku admitted in May that a return to hometown club Paris Saint-Germain would carry particular appeal. “Paris, I’ve always said it, it’s my home, my heart club,” he said. “I don’t close any doors. Everything is possible in football.”


These are just three examples of talented forwards who could suit Tuchel’s system at Chelsea better than Lukaku. The full list is much longer, and may even include an internal solution; with needs for reinforcements throughout this squad, would Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital be better served by keeping their powder dry on the striker front and elevating academy graduate Armando Broja, who showed the potential to blossom into a modern, mobile forward on loan at Southampton?

Alternatively, they could instead follow a Roman Abramovich-era tradition and commit huge money to acquire one of the best No 9s of his generation at the tail-end of his prime — even if a 33-year-old Lewandowski appears to have much more left in the tank than Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres or Gonzalo Higuain did by the time they arrived at Stamford Bridge.

The path they choose to take will be fascinating, and could well have a profound impact on Chelsea’s future direction under Tuchel.

(Photos: Getty Images)

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How Chelsea could replace Lukaku: Nkunku, Evanilson or David?

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