In 1918, right before the very eyes of an astounded crowd at New York’s Hippodrome theatre, on a brightly-lit stage with no obvious means of deception or visual tomfoolery, Harry Houdini fired a solitary gunshot and made an elephant disappear.
Romelu Lukaku may not be as big or as cumbersome as an elephant (despite the acerbic and wholly unoriginal digs of his cruellest critics), but his vanishing act in Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday afternoon was almost as jaw-dropping.
Over the course of 97 irksome minutes, the Belgian touched the ball just seven times - and one of those fleeting encounters came at kick-off.
To contextualise that figure a little further, Lukaku averaged one touch every 14 minutes. There are punters in Row Z who will have seen more possession.
The 28-year-old’s touch map looked like the kind of underwhelming pepperoni pizza that might justifiably inspire a strongly-worded letter to your favourite frozen brand’s customer complaints department; his heat map resembled a smattering of flickering matches scattered across the floor of a great, cavernous cathedral.
It was anonymity the likes of which is rarely ever seen in football, professional or otherwise, and even Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel felt the need to defend his summer acquisition from the inevitable salvo of mockery that followed his spectral display.
Speaking after the final whistle, the German said: “He’s in the spotlight and we’ll protect him. Romelu will always be part of the solution.
“Sometimes it’s like this with strikers if they struggle a little bit with self-confidence and to find the space to get involved with a good defensive side.
“Of course it’s not what we want and what Romelu wants but it’s also not the time to laugh about him and make jokes about him.”
In one respect, Tuchel is right - the vapid, parrot-like discourse of a predatory meme culture serves little purpose aside from undermining a player’s reputation and self-confidence in the name of cheap social media clout. But when you’ve reached a point whereby your only constructive post-match comment on a £97 million senior international centurion is ‘Please don’t laugh at him’, you know something has gone badly, badly wrong.
For Chris Sutton, a man who knows all too well what it’s like to succumb to the quicksand pull of Chelsea’s extraordinary striking curse (see Messrs Shevchenko, Torres, Falcao, Higuain, Morata, Batshuayi, Pato, Kezman, Pizarro, and Mutu for further evidence), the issue is one of self-esteem.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club, the pundit said: “I think at the weekend he [Lukaku] hid.
“He’s lacking confidence - he looks like an unhappy player. He could do so much more for the team.
“I’ve hid myself in games.
“Your confidence wanes and you start to hide. You tell yourself you’re not hiding but you are - that was him in a nutshell.
“He didn’t want the ball. It’s a lack of confidence, it’s hesitation, it’s doubt.
“It’s okay [pundits] blaming other players but he was ambling. He wasn’t being clear in his movements.
“I can’t see them [Lukaku and Tuchel] both being there next season. Something has to give.”
But to what extent should Lukaku shoulder the blame for his recent ineffectiveness?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
According to Tuchel, the striker’s holographic presence - and the well-documented struggles of his predecessors - is at least partially due to his side’s tendency to prioritise their defensive duties.
“There is a history of strikers struggling at Chelsea so it may not be the easiest place in the world for strikers,” the Blues boss said on Saturday.
“In my opinion, Chelsea are a team considered a strong defensive team, a physical team, that has a certain attitude when in competitive football. We demand a lot of our strikers in terms of defending.”
By contrast, Match of the Day’s analytical Cerberus of Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, and Ian Wright have called on the ex-Inter star to hold his teammates to account more often.
“There’s definitely not an understanding of what he wants, what he needs. He’s stopped running at times because the ball is not coming in. Seven touches is incredible,” Shearer said.
“He’s got to demand it and make sure his team-mates are prepared to pass the ball in. It’s a bit of both [on who’s to blame]. He’s got to be demanding it but there’s no point paying so much if you’re not going to play to your forward’s strength.”
Lineker added: “When I played, if I wasn’t getting service I’d be hammering them. You’d be giving them a hard time. You’d be shouting and screaming at them to give you the ball.”
And ex-Arsenal favourite Wright concluded: “They can’t be doing it in training because they’re not looking when the ball should just be put into an area for him. How can you pay that much money and not play to his strengths?”
Certainly, there is an argument to be made for Chelsea’s quality of service dulling an already blunted threat.
Against Palace, the Blues registered just three accurate crosses into the box and just two passes that stat gurus Wyscout deemed to be “smart”.
By any metric, Lukaku was left feeding on scraps at a time when he needs to be wined, dined, and traditional number nined.
Make no mistake, in no way does that creative hindrance fully absolve a player of his obvious talent for offering up a contribution as paltry as Saturday’s shadow show, but it does go some distance to explaining why he’s only managed five goals in 17 Premier League outings this season.
And that brings us back to Harry Houdini and his elephant.
You see, when the illusionist fired his single gunshot, the collective flinch of his audience created just enough of a distraction to allow him to hide the animal behind a huge, black curtain in a colossal rotating cabinet. In short, the elephant was in the room the whole time.
And the longer that Lukaku’s penance in West London goes on, the more apparent it becomes that there’s an elephant in the room at Stamford Bridge too. For all of his pedigree, the Belgian just might not be the right striker for Chelsea.
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