Lukaku Out? Vlahovic In? Solving Chelsea's Long-Running Centre Forward Crisis

Strikers have historically not flourished at Stamford Bridge in recent years
11:00, 12 Jul 2023

Chelsea are trying to offload an underperforming number nine and get some new blood in to add goals to their team. No, you’re not stuck in a time warp. This isn’t a story about the Blues trying to ditch Fernando Torres, Mateja Kezman, Alvaro Morata, Andriy Shevchenko or Adrian Mutu. Chelsea’s problem position has reared its ugly head again as new manager Mauricio Pochettino tries to move on Romelu Lukaku and freshen up his attack.

So familiar is this narrative, this isn’t even the first time Chelsea have sold Lukaku. The player was flogged to Everton in 2014 after impressing on loan at Goodison Park. Lukaku went from Merseyside to Manchester, where an uneasy couple of years at United saw him take off for Italy. The Belgium international rehabbed his reputation at Inter Milan, playing a starring role in the club's 2020-21 Serie A triumph.

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This attracted a number of suitors, with the Italian top flight still proving a happy hunting ground for transfer-hungry Premier League teams. Chelsea parted with a whopping club record fee of £97.5 million to bring home their prodigal son. Then he had one very ordinary season at Stamford Bridge before being loaned back to Inter. Lukaku scored less than he had the first time, but did enough that the club remains keen to bring him back.

The stumbling block so far appears to be the price. Chelsea are obviously keen to recoup as much of their initial outlay as possible. But such thinking is pie-in-the-sky considering Lukaku has had one quite bad season and one okay campaign since. Teams are not exactly beating down the door of chairman Todd Boehly to secure the player’s signature.

Chelsea are doing their best, reportedly dismissing two sub-£30m offers as derisory. It is understood that Inter are preparing an increased package of £35m, pending their goalkeeper Andre Onana agreeing a deal to join Manchester United.

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Chelsea have long had a way of chewing up centre forwards and spitting them out. Even strikers who performed reasonably well, such as Olivier Giroud, were cast aside in the search for something better. But apart from Didier Drogba, that 'better' never seems to come. Drogba was such a standard-bearer that he was even brought back in 2014, such was the desperation to recapture some consistency up top.

There are targets. There always are. Dusan Vlahovic has been mentioned. The 23-year-old Juventus striker is highly rated and has appeared on a number of radars in recent years. Ten goals in 27 Serie A games last season doesn’t scream prolific but he was a force to be reckoned with at Fiorentina. If the patient, detailed coaching of Pochettino can tap into that player then Chelsea could have the striker they have long needed.

A name which just intrinsically feels more Chelsea is Roma’s Paulo Dybala. The 29-year-old is apparently viewed as a way to add experience to the young squad Pochettino wants to cultivate. Fans wanting an out-and-out number nine may be disappointed but Dybala’s career revival should be highlighted. From persona non grata at Juventus, he rebounded to net 18 goals in 38 games at Roma across all competitions last season.

Chelsea won’t be looking within for a solution. Kai Havertz, often miscast in a striking role, has left for Arsenal. David Datro Fofana, signed in January, is off to Union Berlin for further seasoning. Christopher Nkunku has signed from RB Leipzig but he operates largely as a second striker. It seems likely that if and when Lukaku goes, Chelsea will look to replace him with a number nine. The question is; can they get it right when they have got it wrong so often in the past?

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