Soccer

Romelu Lukaku says he returns to Chelsea a more mature player: ‘I’ve learned much more about myself’

Chelsea’s record signing Romelu Lukaku says he is returning to the Premier League a more mature player than the one who left Manchester United for Italy two years ago.

The Belgian striker returned to the Premier League last week in a club record $135 million deal, returning to the club he first joined a decade ago as a teenager. Since then he has established himself as one of world football’s most formidable strikers with his reputation only swelling further after two seasons with Inter Milan that culminated with him being named Serie A’s MVP after inspiring Antonio Conte’s side to a title win that ended Juventus’ stranglehold over Italian football.

Asked what has changed after his two years away from the English game, Lukaku began what would be a recurring trend of his introductory press conference, one word he would keep coming back to. “Maturity.

“Maturity has been important. I’ve learned much more about myself, setting higher standards for myself. As a player it’s becoming more complete.

“The game in Italy is much more different: the spaces are very tight, the game is more technical and tactical which helped me a lot. The English game is different [but] for me it’s not something new. It’s just getting here, adapting to my teammates and whatever gameplan the coach has.”

Lukaku’s qualities had been in some doubt after Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pushed for his sale, questioning his fit at Old Trafford, but he set Serie A alight with 47 goals in 72 games, adding new weapons to his attacking arsenal, not least an ability to provide for others. In 2020-21 he sat second in the Italian league’s scoring and assist charts, striking up a formidable understanding with Lautaro Martinez that will augur well for the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic.

Indeed for a club record signing and a player who is now the most expensive in football history in terms of cumulative transfer fees it was immediately apparent how Lukaku viewed himself less as a franchise player and more a cog in Thomas Tuchel’s winning machine at Stamford Bridge.

As to how he will adapt to his old but new surroundings — and the Champions League winning frontline he already finds himself in — Lukaku added: “A lot is about communication. I’m a guy who is very open minded. I always ask my teammates questions: what they want, what they expect from me, where I can help them, where I would like the ball.

“The next couple of weeks it’s very important to communicate with all the players around me, be open to their mindset. We have a certain type of playing style here. To me it’s not something I have to adapt to much because with the Belgian national team we play the same system. That’s already a good thing.

“At the end of the day it’s all about communicating, knowing what they like and their characteristics. I will adapt and find a way I can help the team.”

Having spent three years in the Chelsea set up before joining Everton in 2014 there is much that is familiar to Lukaku about his new surroundings, including some of his teammates. His first spell with the club was largely spent out on loan — a familiar experience for young players at Stamford Bridge — and he now finds himself tasked with stepping into the shoes of the explosive center forwards that have shone in this blue shirt in years gone by. As Tuchel noted last week, his new signing fits the mold established by Diego Costa and Didier Drogba.

The latter, the hero of Chelsea’s first Champions League win in 2012 when the Belgian international was a fringe player, is a close confidante of the returning striker. Indeed Lukaku can count Drogba among his many admirers.

“He was really happy about the improvements that I made in the last couple of seasons,” Lukaku said. “He’s always saying that there is more work to be done. That’s the right mindset if you really want to achieve the maximum. As a football player it’s all about improving week in, week out.

“The last two years has been great for myself, on a club level and international level. Now I get the chance to join a team that’s very hungry and very ambitious. I can’t wait to help them and to add something.”

Lukaku looks set to make his return against the team who Drogba enjoyed facing more than any other: Arsenal. He declared himself fully available for Sunday’s trip to the Emirates Stadium, noting that he had done a full preseason before making the move back to England.

“They are a team that’s rebuilding,” he said of Arsenal, who go into the game smarting after a shock 2-0 loss to Brentford on the Premier League’s opening day. “At the end of the day, I just look at my team and focus on the plan that we have. It is going to be a tough game but we are preparing ourselves for a battle. We won the first one and we want to keep building on the result that we had at the weekend.”

A hastily cobbled together Arsenal defense could be the dream first opponent for Lukaku. On his signing for Chelsea his boyhood club Anderlecht posted a video of the then youth player sat at Stamford Bridge, dreaming of one day taking to the field in west London. It has not always been the smoothest of journeys but now he finds himself fulfilling that childhood ambition: the star striker of a super team who seem destined for big things at home and abroad.

“The dream is reality now so I’m going to have to improve on the pitch now. I’m here, it’s time to get to work and let my performance do the talking.”


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