Romelu Lukaku’s animation instantly increases. He smiles, in full knowledge of the barbs that have become resident in his career.
He nods, agreeing even the praise he receives is often at an imbalance with his contemporaries: Harry Kane is “world class,” Lukaku is always just “in good form”.
He shakes his head, holding both hands up and crossing them to denote a strong “no” at being put in the target-man box.
And finally, there is a shrug of his shoulders when asked how he stomachs the endless question marks against him despite the club records he has broken and his powering of Belgium’s golden generation.
Lukaku, back at Chelsea for a sum just shy of £100m, has an intense hankering to succeed at the club he supports, but also the one where his talents were first not appreciated or understood properly.
He was a teenager then, he is totally assured of himself now after lifting off at Inter Milan where he blitzed them to the title while bulldozing a few of the original Ronaldo’s records as well as others that stood in Serie A for 70 years.
There is nothing to prove, even to those who want to distill his career into the contextless “failed at Manchester United”.
“The perception is something that, at the end of the day, you know, you get to point that you just don’t fight against it,” Lukaku says in his first big interview with the national papers since rejoining Chelsea.
“Really that is something that I thought to myself when I went to Italy, that I’m part of this zone where people see me as a certain type of player that I’m not. I am much more than what people want to see.
“I think going to Italy basically showed the world what I can do along with me playing with the national team of Belgium. Being with my back against the wall is something that I experienced since my youngest age so it’s nothing new to me. It is what it is, I accept it.
“I do my work in training and on the pitch, whatever people are saying, let them talk. They have a perception. They don’t know me or the work of my performances.
“You do want your respect, but you don’t want to keep fighting for it because you’re going to lose unnecessary energy. I’m not really about that.”
Lukaku offered a window into how much he has changed since swapping Manchester for Milan in 2019, the priceless tools Antonio Conte equipped him with there, and the thirst for trophies that will define his new Stamford Bridge spell.
Did you have to leave England to be the player you’ve become?
I think I had to. It was also a big part of my plan to try and experience different leagues. I experienced Serie A, which was a league I always wanted to play in at one point in my career. Going there, you deal with a different kind of pressure and in a different way. It was good. Maturity-wise it was knowing what it takes to win and the circumstances in which you need to do that. Obviously, I had Antonio Conte there as a manager who really helped me and showed me what it took to win, and we did it [win the league] in the second season. As a player it’s a totally different game in Italy. Very, very tactical. Tight spaces and in most of the games you only get one chance, and if you don’t score it gets very difficult. So, efficiency-wise that was very important, and I also learnt to play more with my back to goal and other technical aspects of the game which are really important. It was a good experience.
What did you learn about yourself in Italy and how exactly did Conte show you to be a winner?
To learn how to win is basically pushing the barrier. Every trainer has a different way of coaching, but with Antonio [Conte] we really learnt how to go to the red zone. That was it. In the second season we were much more consistent in winning big games. That made the difference against big opponents. As a player, the Italian game is so different. It’s so tactical and technical. You have to make the right run or movement to get another player free. We always had a lot of possession, so we were playing in the opposite half. Most of the time you were back to goal, and everything was going through me. I remember having a conversation with Conte about this and he told me if I wasn’t good at that, I wouldn’t play. For me that was an eye-opener. Once I mastered that aspect then for me everything became easier. The game would slow down, and I could control the game more and give more assists. That was really something I wanted to do and I wanted to experience that in another country, where I think it would be beneficial for the rest of my career.
When you left Chelsea, did you feel like you’d blown your chance at the club or did you know you’d be back?
I was young and I don’t think I was as evolved as I am now. My journey has had a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day if you keep performing you know that you will always get a chance. My relationship with the club has always been great and now to be back at the perfect time is a good feeling.
You broke a lot of records at Inter, same at Chelsea?
It’s not about records. It’s about winning trophies. I’ve realised how different people’s attitude is towards you when you win something. That’s something that I’ve learned. In conversations I had with Didier Drogba or John Terry or Conte, the respect is different when you start winning. That was something I really wanted. I wanted to win so bad. I went to Inter and then we did. That’s the only thing that matters to me - winning. Scoring goals, yes, that’s beautiful. I know I am in a position where I can score a lot of goals. But winning trophies, that sets you apart.
You had an excellent relationship with Conte, do you see any similarities between him and Thomas Tuchel?
I don’t like to compare. I will never compare. This is a new experience, but from the conversations we had what I like about him is every game there is a different game-plan. Training sessions are always with a goal to try and prepare the team for the game at the weekend, and that’s what I love about him. That’s something that I told him in the first conversation I had with him, I said: “Look, I try to figure out what you try and do with the team, but I never figured it out because every game was different.” That’s what I like because I look at the game from a tactical point of view, I don’t really look at the game just to watch. I try to know what the team is doing, and that’s what really intrigued me to come and play for him. Because he is a manager that is tactically very, very strong. But also the players that he has at his disposal which, for me, is something where I would have loved to play with those players. Now to be here it is up to us now to try to get to know each other and deliver good performances at the weekend.
Do you feel like the final piece of Chelsea’s jigsaw?
I don’t know. You are talking about the European champions. If you win the Champions League, you have a very good team. The coach wanted something different to add to the team than what he’s got. I think I’m different to all the players that he has. But you have to put some respect on this team. This team won the Champions League. That is the biggest trophy in club football so if you win the Champions League that doesn’t mean you are a bad team. They did it how they did it and credit to them. The only thing I’m doing is I’m coming and I will make myself available for the manager and hopefully we can work together and keep performing like we should.
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