“I’ve supported Chelsea when I was a kid and now to be back and try to help them win more trophies is an amazing feeling.”
Less than 12 months later, the Belgian striker is leaving the club in one of the costliest transfer blunders in Premier League history.
Lukaku’s return to Chelsea on a five-year deal cost the Blues a club-record £97.5m, but he part 10 months later in an initial loan agreement having failed to make the impact that both he and the club would have hoped for.
His signing was supposed to make Chelsea Premier League title contenders, so how and why did it all go so wrong?
A move that should never have happened?
When Chelsea announced Lukaku’s renewal, it seemed they had secured the last piece of the puzzle.
The 29-year-old had just enjoyed a stellar season at Inter, scoring 24 league goals and providing 11 assists as the Italian side ended Juventus’ decade-long dominance to win the Serie A title.
Lukaku also had unfinished business at Chelsea. He first joined them when he was a teenager from Anderlecht in 2011, but left three years later after failing to score.
“I am happy and blessed to be back at this wonderful club,” said Lukaku on his return to Stamford Bridge.
“It’s been a long journey for me. I came here as a kid with a lot to learn, now I’m coming back with a lot of experience and more mature.”
The motivation and pedigree were there, while Chelsea were in desperate need of a striker. It was a move that made perfect sense.
He couldn’t hope for a better second debut as he scored in a 2-0 win against Arsenal on 22 August, but it didn’t take long for things to fall apart.
After scoring twice in a 3–0 win against Aston Villa on 11 September, Lukaku did not score another Premier League goal until 26 December.
“It was seen as the last piece of the puzzle,” Tim Rolls, a Chelsea fan and writer for the CFCUK fanzine, told BBC Sport.
“People were excited. We had fast wide players and he was the piece that would complete the puzzle. He was expected to make us contenders.”
“Initially, he looked into the business, but for some reason it faded away very quickly.”
Injuries and a coronavirus outbreak didn’t help, but on the pitch he showed little strength, holdup play and finishing skill that helped him score 47 goals in two seasons at Inter.
Despite Lukaku’s words on his return, the striker was at times unmotivated.
An interview with Sky Italia in December seemed to confirm that view. as he said he “wasn’t happy” with his role in the Blues.
“It’s [the return to Inter] has been driven by Lukaku. He made it very clear in that interview he gave,” Italian football pundit James Horncastle told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“I think the subtext of that was that leaving Inter was not his decision. It was because of the financial strains and strains the club was under at the time.”
“The circumstances of his departure played a lot on his mind and left him confused.”
The glove that just didn’t fit
In that Sky Italia interview, Lukaku made it clear that much of his unhappiness at Chelsea was due to how he was used by manager Thomas Tuchel.
The German manager was quick to dismiss claims that his system did not play to Lukaku’s strengths, but he still struggled to make an impact when he played.
When Chelsea beat Crystal Palace 1-0 in February, Lukaku managed just seven touches on the ball, the fewest by a player in the full 90 minutes of a Premier League match.
“It’s not about the system,” Tuchel said afterwards.
“There is no change in the system because it is the same attack structure. We always attack in a 4-1, it is just to set up, sometimes we are in a 3-2, sometimes in a 4-1. For him, it does not change anything “.
Despite his struggles, Lukaku finished last season as Chelsea’s top scorer with 15 goals in all competitions, but given the hefty fee paid to sign him, Tuchel and Chelsea fans hoped he would contribute more.
“Because it cost so much, it has to be one of Chelsea’s worst signings,” Rolls added.
“When we bought Diego Costa he had an immediate impact on the team. He was a leader, but Lukaku was almost the opposite.
“The other forwards were maybe looking for him to lead and he didn’t. We were rudderless.”
Lukaku was also linked to Manchester City last summer and Micah Richards thinks that would have been the best move for him.
“I think if Lukaku was in the Manchester City team, he would score goals,” the former City defender told The Monday Night Club last month.
“I think that’s the difference, it’s the system.”
Will Inter revive Lukaku again?
Inter failed to defend their title last season and finished second behind rivals AC Milan, although scoring was not a problem for Simone Inzaghi’s side as no team scored more than Inter’s 84 league goals. .
But the Italian outfit will see the return of a player who scored 34 and 30 goals in his previous two seasons at the club as the move that will give them the edge over their rivals next season.
Lukaku turns 30 next year, so time is no longer on his side, but a happy Lukaku is a goalscoring Lukaku and it’s clear this will be a move that suits all sides.
“There were murals of Lukaku when he was last at Inter,” Horncastle added. “He was voted the best player in Serie A in a year in which [Cristiano] Ronaldo was the top scorer, that’s how good he was.
“It is clear that he felt that he played his best football at Inter, that they understood him, that he understood them.
“He should never have left.”