Romelu Lukaku scored his first goal for Chelsea and produced a commanding performance on his return to the club as Thomas Tuchel’s side defeated rivals Arsenal 2-0 in the Premier League.
It took just 15 minutes for Lukaku to score on his second debut for the Blues after arriving on a club-record transfer from Inter Milan as the striker held off defender Pablo Mari before tapping in Reece James’ cross. Lukaku’s hold-up play then led to Chelsea’s second on 35 minutes as James rounded off a flowing move to put the European champions two goals up before half time.
Arsenal had appeals for a penalty waved away after Bukayo Saka appeared to be nudged over by James in the box, before the England international had a fierce shot from range tipped over the bar by Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy after half time. Rob Holding then went close with a header than flew just wide of the post.
Lukaku was denied a second goal after Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno produced a stunning stop to tip his header onto the crossbar, which would have added further gloss to a man-of-the-match performance from the Belgian international.
Here are five things we learned.
1. Romelu Lukaku looks to be Chelsea’s missing piece
In many ways it was a simple goal, but Romelu Lukaku’s first Chelsea goal is simply not one that the Blues would have scored last season.
Lukaku is Chelsea’s missing piece in the jigsaw, Thomas Tuchel has said, and that could be seen in the 15th-minute opener as he occupied the central space, drew the Arsenal defenders out of position, and then read the move to make sure he broke into the six-yard box to tap in Reece James’ cross.
Lukaku had hardly touched the ball up until that point but he only needed one moment to give his side the lead. Arsenal had probably been the better team but the way Lukaku pinned and then shrugged off Pablo Mari seemed to send shivers around the Emirates, and audible groans could be heard amongst the home supporters each time he received the ball.
That’s what having a deadly striker can do and Lukaku’s arrival has made Chelsea a force to be feared in the Premier League this season. The fact Lukaku produced such a complete performance, only a week after arriving at the club, is of huge credit to the 28-year-old and his seamless return surely makes Chelsea favourites for the title at this early stage.
2. Reece James shines in outstanding attacking display
Lukaku’s impact extended to creating more space for his Chelsea team-mates and against Arsenal, it was Reece James who thrived as he dominated Arsenal’s left side. The England international had his finest attacking performance under Tuchel.
James scored Chelsea’s second goal in a similar move to their opener, with Lukaku holding the ball with his back to goal and drawing in defenders before Chelsea switched it to the open space. The 21-year-old then supplied the finish to score his first goal in almost a year. It came after James had two more opportunities to lay the ball onto a plate for his team-mates in what was a devastating attacking performance.
James, who did not start in Chelsea’s opening win over Crystal Palace, was used as part of a back three at times last season due to his defensive skills but it left Thomas Tuchel’s side missing his delivery on the right wing. It could be said, however, that James was not providing the goal contributions to match his excellent delivery. A single goal and two assists in the Premier League last season did not catch the eye.
With Lukaku now leading Chelsea’s attack, however, James will not only benefit from having a central target, but also from the space the Belgian creates. That could be seen against Arsenal and it suggests his numbers could vastly improve this season.
3. Arsenal’s defensive weakness is all too familiar
Arsenal’s encouraging start was undone by Lukaku’s early goal and the way the Chelsea striker dominated his opposing defenders was reminiscent of the Gunners’ struggles of the past 15 years.
Didier Drogba dominated Arsenal during his time at Stamford Bridge while Diego Costa also had a similar effect during his shorter spell in the Premier League. Arsenal’s defenders would be bullied and it contributed to the club’s poor record in North London derbies - although that has improved recently under Mikel Arteta.
The difference now, however, is that Chelsea once again have a striker to fear while Arsenal are yet to find a centre back who can stand up to the challenge. Arteta’s side have spent £50m on Ben White this window but with the England international out ill, Pablo Mari and Rob Holding were faced with the task.
Mari, in particular, struggled and the uncertainty of his performance and the ease of which Lukaku was able to win their individual battle spread around the team as well as the stadium. Unfortunately for Arsenal fans, it was nothing new.
4. Arsenal’s creativity problem shows the need for Odegaard
Arsenal improved after half time but rarely looked like scoring at the Emirates. The Gunners have now gone goalless in their opening two games of the season, joining Wolves, Norwich and Crystal Palace in failing to get off the mark.
Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka were again Arsenal’s brightest performers, supplying some much needed drive into their attacks, but that was not replicated in terms of clear goalscoring chances.
The addition of Martin Odegaard, who was re-introduced to the Emirates before the match following his arrival on a permanent deal from Real Madrid this week, should help Smith Rowe and Saka - following the trio’s impressive performances together last season.
The remaining question, however, is who those attacking midfielders will be providing. Gabriel Martinelli struggled again on his second start of the season, but there was good news with the return of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The return of Alexander Lacazette will also be a boost once the Frenchman recovers from Covid-19.
5. Gulf in quality clear between the two London rivals
This may have been clear last season, with Chelsea winning the Champions League while Arsenal struggled to finish inside the top half of the Premier League, but the difference in quality between the two London rivals was rather masked by the fact that the Gunners won both meetings between the sides last season, as well as the FA Cup final the year before.
There is now no doubt, and Chelsea’s performance in the opening 45 minutes in particular emphatically showed that the two sides are currently operating in separate atmospheres.
Both Chelsea and Arsenal have spend around £100m this summer but the difference between the sides is clear when you look at where that money has gone. Chelsea have gone out to fix a central issue, their lack of a top goalscorer, and have done just that with the signing of Lukaku based on the evidence here.
Arsenal, however, have signed five players - but their first team still does not look any stronger than it did last season. The emphasis, of course, is on the future with the hope that Martin Odegaard, Ben White and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale will be pillars for the club in the years to come.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are focussed on the present, and their goals of winning the Premier League and defending the Champions League this season look lightyears away for Arsenal right now.
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