Thomas Tuchel insists everyone at Chelsea will “stay calm”, but the importance of Monday’s meeting with Romelu Lukaku should not be overlooked. It will decide the Belgian striker’s future at the club, as well as the very trajectory of this season.
If the meeting is satisfactory to Tuchel, Lukaku will be brought back into the team for Wednesday’s League Cup match at home to Tottenham Hotspur and everything will blow over in the manner some close to the player predict. If it isn’t satisfactory, well, we’re in the sort of vintage Chelsea strife they haven’t actually seen in some time. It could even develop into a power battle.
For the moment, Tuchel just wants to “understand what he said and why he said it” in that interview with Sky Italia.
One of the ironies - and frustrations - of this whole story is that those motivations were no longer relevant. It is why much of this was so needless.
As those close to the player insist, the circumstances discussed in the interview had passed. There was a period when Tuchel was leaving him out and trying to play in another way. Then, after a spell of wavering results, Lukaku was brought back in and started scoring. That was when the interview emerged.
Perhaps that will become the main topic in the meeting: why Lukaku felt the need to go public at that point, when it was still so soon into his second period at Chelsea, and so soon after a recent injury. Because then it’s about something more than the motivations. Some sources from around the training ground have also spoken of how figures there feel there was an element of “disrespect” towards Chelsea. The Independent has also been told that the players have broadly supported Tuchel’s stance. They proved that with their performance in coming back from 2-0 behind against Liverpool. They were similarly backed by the crowd.
That, however, is also where this story goes beyond Lukaku.
This is in some ways a test of Tuchel’s response as much as the player’s. We all know that the support of the crowd doesn’t always mean that much when it comes to Chelsea managers.
The reality is that Lukaku is a £97.5m asset on £350,000 a week. That isn’t the sort of investment even Chelsea can take lightly, despite an oligarch’s backing.
It brings a certain pressure to make it work. Chelsea can’t really just discard a player of such value if this does become really problematic. On the other side, the nature of the market means there can’t be too many takers for a 28-year-old on those wages and that value. Internazionale, whose supporters the interview was meant for, just don’t have the money.
That’s one reason they were so keen to sell Lukaku in the first place. They were desperate for income. Pep Guardiola has never been that much of a fan. Manchester United are obviously out. Tottenham Hotspur would be dependent on a swap for Harry Kane that just isn’t going to happen. Bayern Munich will stick with Robert Lewandowski for some time yet, and then maybe go for Erling Haaland if still possible. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona are looking to the Norwegian, as well as other targets.
This isn’t to do down Lukaku’s quality or influence in a way that has become fashionable.
He is a player of brilliant talent, who can be devastating in the right system. This was part of the interview that was true, and it’s impossible to escape the feeling that some of the shock was just at a rare example of a player being honest about how he felt.
It is nevertheless also possible that Lukaku requires a specific type of management. Former teammates say that, despite his mental fortitude, he does “need to be loved”. He works better under positive reinforcement.
In that regard, Tuchel has not displayed the necessary nuance so far.
The German was entitled to be aggrieved with the initial publication of the interview giving everything going on at the time, and there is maybe the danger that festers. Tuchel is described by everyone who has worked with him as “brilliant” when serene, but problems can arise when he gets agitated, or angry. He is also determined not to let Chelsea become anything like Paris Saint-Germain, where player power becomes a disproportionate influence. This is not to say Lukaku is anything like any of the prima donnas there, but it is more about a club becoming beholden to expensive signings.
The situation in Paris eventually got to Tuchel, but any perceived impatience is often overstated. It should not be overlooked that he was responsible for their best season in the Qatari era, guiding them to a Champions League final while winning a domestic double.
That illustrates he navigated their many political issues better than anyone else.
For the moment, he has more than offered Lukaku an out. The door has been opened. The language in Tuchel’s post-match press conference was very conciliatory given the scale of the story, and some of the reaction to it.
The Chelsea manager made a point of saying “there is always a way back”.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world and it’s not the first time an interview out there causes some noise nobody needs,” Tuchel said. “But we can handle it. I don’t feel a personal attack.
“He’s our player, he will stay our player, we will always protect our player. First we need to evaluate the situation, not listen to media or pressure, understand what he said and why he said it. Then we will take the decision if he is good to go for Wednesday.”
Much will depend on that meeting. It has high stakes, but can potentially be low maintenance.