Chelsea’s attacking brilliance without a striker could delay Lukaku return

Thomas Tuchel was in his element when Chelsea smashed Juventus 4-0 on Tuesday. Forced to improvise after losing Kai Havertz to a hamstring injury, Tuchel seized the chance to think outside the box, his tactical mind whirring as he looked at his options in attack and decided that the best way to hurt Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci was essentially to give them nobody to mark.

It was a night for the little guys. There was an unfamiliar central role for Christian Pulisic, who made up for his lack of impact in possession by contributing in other areas, his energy off the ball a feature of Chelsea’s high press. There was a fine playmaking display from the slender Hakim Ziyech and on the left there was maturity and skill from Callum Hudson-Odoi, who made it 3-0 when he finished off a flowing move in the 58th minute.

This, it seemed, was Tuchelball in all its glory, the tempo relentless, the movement bewildering, the threats coming from all angles as the blue wave overwhelmed Juventus. Strikers? Who needs them? Chelsea were fine without one against Juventus, just as they were when they demolished Leicester last weekend, and the quality of their football in the past week means that Tuchel does not have to shift gear against Manchester United on Sunday, even though Romelu Lukaku is available again and no doubt desperate to play against his old team.

The Lukaku issue is a fascinating one for Tuchel to solve. The striker’s recovery from the ankle injury he sustained against Malmö on 20 October is welcome, but he is not returning as a saviour. Lukaku, who is 28, was an unused substitute against Juventus and, given that Chelsea have responded to his injury by rattling in 23 goals in seven and a half games, Tuchel is under no pressure to start him against Unitedtomorrow.

There is no need to rush. Havertz is fit, Pulisic could start again, Mason Mount could return and Timo Werner scored after coming on against Juventus. Whichever way you spin it, the league leaders are in a luxurious position. The goals are flying in from every angle, with defenders stepping forward and the wing-backs playing more like No 10s.

The reliance on a No 9 is minimal. Reece James, the right wing-back, is Chelsea’s top scorer with five goals and Marcos Alonso will be an able deputy on the left for Ben Chilwell, who must wait six weeks before finding out whether he needs surgery after sustaining anterior cruciate ligament damage against Juventus.

Chilwell has been a key part of Chelsea’s versatile attacking. In total there have been 16 goals from defenders and, for the time being, the challenge for Lukaku simply has to be proving that he deserves to be the main man up front.

It has not been easy for the striker since his £97.5m move from Internazionale, although Tuchel is not panicking yet. He accepted that signing Lukaku would make Chelsea’s attack less mobile. Tuchel wanted more variety after winning the Champions League in counterpunching style last season and Lukaku, who had fired Inter to the Serie A title, seemed the perfect fit.

He arrived as the final piece in the jigsaw and scored four goals in his first four games. Since then, however, the doubts have grown. Lukaku had not scored in six games before facing Malmö and Chelsea had become a slightly static attacking force, the fluidity returning only once they were back to playing without a traditional target man.

There was more unpredictability with Havertz leading the line. The German’s height makes him a useful recipient of crosses, but he is also comfortable dropping deep and he is a better presser than Lukaku, who wants the ball to feet, to assert himself by pinning his marker before spinning or bringing others into play.

Chelsea are yet to tap into those strengths. Yet Tuchel is not worried. He loves Lukaku’s leadership and he can point out that Chelsea missed the 28-year-old’s ruthlessness when they chucked away two points against Burnley this month.

Perhaps patience is required. Lukaku can relax. He can bide his time before showing United that they were wrong to sell him.