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Romelu Lukaku’s return to Inter poses new questions of the Belgian striker

Lukaku returns to Milan after a disappointing spell at Chelsea, in search of better form before the World Cup. Cruciatti/Sipa.

There’s no place like home, and the San Siro is very much where Romelu Lukaku is most comfortable. That much has been demonstrated over the last few seasons, particularly last season when the Belgian striker struggled to find a role in Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea team after a £98m move to Stamford Bridge.

Lukaku looked to be the final piece of the puzzle for a Chelsea side that needed a reliable goalscorer to lead the line. The Belgian netted 24 times in 36 Serie A appearances for Inter the season before and was widely seen as one of the best centre forwards in the European game alongside the likes of Karim Benzema, Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski.

One year on, Lukaku’s confidence has been shaken after a season that saw him score just eight Premier League goals. A loan return to Inter will be confirmed in the coming days with the 29-year-old hopeful that a second stint at the San Siro will be more fruitful for him than a second stint at Stamford Bridge was.

But Inter are now a different team to the one Lukaku left behind 12 months ago. Most notably, Antonio Conte is no longer at the club with the 29-year-old now in charge of Tottenham Hotspur. That in itself has been enough to change the identity and character of Inter as a team with Simone Inzaghi imposing his own style.

Inzaghi hasn’t led a revolution since taking over from Conte, but there has been an undeniable evolution in the way Inter play. Under Conte, the Nerazzurri were a side that sought to create, and make the most of, moments of quick transition. This was where they did their best work and it played perfectly to Lukaku’s strengths as a mobile and direct forward.

This approach allowed Lukaku to drive with the ball at his feet. Several managers have misunderstood the Belgian or failed to grasp his qualities as a player, but Conte recognised what he could offer on the pitch and made Lukaku the focal point of his team. Everything was designed to get the best out of him.

Under Inzaghi, though, Inter have become a more rounded outfit. They still play in those moments of quick transition over the course of a match, but there is greater control to their game. Inzaghi has pushed his midfield 10 yards further up the pitch and wants his players to be more proactive on the ball. 

All this raises questions over the role Lukaku will play for Inzaghi upon his return to Inter this summer. The comfort zone of the San Siro might be enough to relax the 29-year-old, but there’s no guarantee the Nerazzurri will be geared towards Lukaku like they were over the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons.

Lautaro Martinez is still at Inter and so it’s possible Lukaku could re-establish his connection with the Argentine, but Achraf Hakimi is gone and so too is Ivan Perisic. These were two driving forces for Conte’s Inter that they provided Lukaku with supply lines. They, too, thrived when Inter opened up space in quick transition.

The change in style under Inzaghi is best illustrated by the players brought in over the last year with midfield playmaker Hakan Calhanoglou signed from AC Milan last summer and Henrikh Mkhitayran joining from Roma on Friday. This pair rely on their technical ability over their physical attributes.

Lukaku’s Chelsea experience didn’t just raise questions about his tactical purpose, but also his individual character. “It’s not about the system,” Tuchel once explained. “There is no change of system because it’s the same attacking structure. We always attack in a 4-1, it’s just for the build-up sometimes we are in a 3-2, sometimes in a 4-1. For him, it changes nothing.”

Of course, Lukaku has proved his doubters wrong before and he has the talent to do it again. This is a striker that has scored 266 goals in 552 appearances over the course of his career to date. He has succeeded at club and international level and has a cumulative transfer worth of around £300m. Yet there is plenty on the line for Lukaku as he returns to Inter this summer. He might have been a success in black and blue before, but after a lost season London, he must do it all again.

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