LONDON — Nothing quite screams ‘Chelsea need a striker’ at the sight of Ross Barkley playing at centre-forward in an FA Cup final.
It was a circuitous route to this most bizarre situation, relying on a peripheral midfielder without a first-team minute since January 8 to help close out an opportunity such as Saturday’s penalty shoot-out loss to Liverpool – but nonetheless provided evidence of the main reason why a gap remains between the Blues and England’s top two sides.
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Favorite option Kai Havertz failed a late fitness test with a hamstring problem, Romelu Lukaku was substituted after 85 minutes, Christian Pulisic failed to impress when moved through midfield, Timo Werner suffered a hamstring problem in the warm-up and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lasted just 13 minutes before Barkley’s superior shots record triggered his sudden inclusion for the final two minutes of extra time.
Barkley converted his kick, and so in that context, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel will feel that particular move was justified. Still, bringing Loftus-Cheek up first so late in the game – at the start of the second overtime period – was in itself somewhat confusing given how close the penalties were.
If Werner was still fit enough for the bench, couldn’t he have played 15 minutes? And the curious image of Barkley playing time as a makeshift No.9 is symbolic of a larger problem. With or without Lukaku, Chelsea simply haven’t been as consistent in attack as Manchester City and Liverpool have been over the campaign.
As was the case when these teams also met in February’s Carabao Cup final and April’s Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid, the Blues had enough chances at Wembley. Saturday to win but failed to grab them. Despite all his troubles since returning to Chelsea in a €115m move from Internazionale last summer, Lukaku is the club’s top scorer this season with 15 goals. Only three other players are in double figures in all competitions. Liverpool, on the other hand, have three players – Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota – who have scored 15 goals each in the Premier League alone.
With two games to play, Chelsea have scored 73 league goals, a respectable total but still well below Liverpool (89) and City, who have scored 94 goals despite failing to sign the centre-forward that they wished last summer. Pep Guardiola has found a way to keep City efficient despite everything in a way that Tuchel hasn’t quite matched. It’s a situation that needs to be high on the list once the club’s new owners are in place: either transfer Lukaku or build around him more effectively to close the gap on Liverpool and City.
The question of Lukaku’s future surfaced once again on the eve of Saturday’s game, making headlines which the Belgian himself sought to air after his agent was quoted discussing a a return to Italy – but by this stage on Friday Tuchel had already admitted it was ‘a situation you don’t want to have before the big games.’
Lukaku’s discontent has bubbled up in the background since he gave that controversial interview to Sky Italia in December, but wider events have since overtaken Chelsea, most obviously the UK government-triggered sale sanctioning owner Roman Abramovich for his alleged links to Russian President Vladimir. Putin.
Havertz proved a more effective option, but arguably more off the ball as he directs Chelsea’s press so well; his absence was keenly felt early on at Wembley on Saturday as Liverpool threatened to overwhelm the Blues in a devastating 20-minute first half in which Luis Diaz went wild without scoring. Pulisic had several chances as Chelsea settled in – the clearest two minutes after the restart when he fired straight at Alisson from inside the box – but it was an unnecessary performance from the USA international, another example of the debauchery that permeates the team.
Lukaku was taken off after touching the ball just 15 times, the fewest of any starter on the pitch apart from Salah (13), who played just 33 minutes before suffering a groin injury. Losing Werner shortly before kick-off was unfortunate, but the Germany international has never been the most reliable performer in any case, certainly another to miss the clinical touch that Chelsea so badly need up front the goal.
Tuchel mentioned the impact of government sanctions on his planning for next season and the debilitating effect on the end of this campaign, citing players like Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger leaving as the opposite of the unit Liverpool currently possess. . Yet Chelsea were still able to rally to match Liverpool stride for stride, only once more missing in front of goal; it seemed significant in the wider context that none of Chelsea’s seven penalties were taken by a recognized striker as Liverpool counted Jota, Roberto Firmino and Mane among their takers.
Instead of one last piece of silverware to end the Abramovich era, Chelsea claim an unwanted piece of history as the first team to lose three consecutive FA Cup finals. Following the 2020 loss to Arsenal, they were beaten 1-0 by Leicester City last season due to another fruitless outing in front of goal, a problem repeated with such regularity that it prompted them to pay a fee club record for signing Lukaku. The problem remains.