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3 Jan, 2022 01:08

Lukaku saga moves footballers closer to becoming PR puppets

After Thomas Tuchel axed Romelu Lukaku from his Chelsea squad against Liverpool, the days of footballers being entirely honest are clearly numbered.
Lukaku saga moves footballers closer to becoming PR puppets

Romelu Lukaku may be wishing he had kept his thoughts to himself after the reaction to his remarks from his own manager and Chelsea fans. The lasting repercussions may prove broader and less immediately obvious.

Discontent felt as if it might turn into mutiny in the first half when Chelsea played Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.

Home fans had already been angry before kick-off, with most united by their disdain for Romelu Lukaku's words during the week, and tetchy at being deprived of the player who should be their main goal threat during a patchy run of form. The majority verdict – that Thomas Tuchel was entitled to banish Lukaku for the distraction caused by his fawning remarks about old club Inter Milan to an Italian outlet – was sorely tested for half an hour or so.

Sadio Mane, who arguably should not have been on the pitch after elbowing Cesar Azpilicueta with jarring force in the opening minute, and Mohamed Salah, back on inspired form after his hapless evening against Leicester, put Liverpool two up inside 27 minutes.

Tuchel must, at the very least, have wished somewhere in his subconscious that he had Lukaku on the bench at that point, the mood around the place hurtling from defiant to panicked.

Broad judgements are made and then rapidly redefined by moments. Mateo Kovacic scored with an exquisite volley, Christian Pulisic produced a clinical finish and the hopelessness of that beginning was forgotten by half-time. A breathless second half provided no more goals and a draw that really benefits neither side in what looks increasingly like a futile pursuit of Manchester City.

It did not seem acutely evident that Lukaku, whose two goals in his last two appearances have been more of a relief than a statement of promise, was hugely missed. The likelihood is that he will be reintegrated into the squad shortly, Tuchel's authority asserted. The broader repercussions are potentially an even further narrowing of meaningful communication from players.

While the storm around Lukaku's absence from the squad was growing before kick-off, Gary Neville suggested that Lukaku had been punished for telling the truth. Neville called the forward's words "brutal", and they were undoubtedly ill-chosen: calling yourself unhappy and pledging not to "give up" because a manager picks a particular system sounds like badly misjudged arrogance less than five months after becoming a club's record signing for $130 million.

These types of interviews happen every season when some Premier League players speak to the media outside of England: perhaps, naively, because they let their tight guard down under less intense scrutiny or believe that few will discover what they have said. This spirit of greater openness is what a lot of supporters and interviewers want instead of the sanitized, heavily-staged PR exercises that have become parodied to the point at which social media announcements by players that are not copy-and-pasted are collectors' items.

Except, it turns out, when those players don't say exactly what fans want to hear. Were Lukaku's words treacherous? Progressive managers such as Tuchel tend to claim that they don't expect players to be happy when they are not meeting expectations on an individual or collective level. After an excellent start to the season, Chelsea have not regularly clicked since they thrashed Norwich, the bottom side in the Premier League, 7-0 in mid-October.

That has included five draws from six games at home in the league – the only win in that sequence was a last-gasp victory over fifth-bottom Leeds courtesy of a penalty – as part of a run in which Lukaku went three-and-a-half months without a top-flight goal.

Lukaku, like the overwhelming majority of players who turn to predictable soundbites when they want to avoid undue hassle, could have provided platitudes about positivity, patience and the joys of being outscored so far by Maxwel Cornet and Callum Wilson, both of whom play for teams in the relegation zone in Burnley and Newcastle. Yet while Tuchel's aggravation at being asked about Lukaku during a challenging enough period is understandable, it is hardly earth-shattering, even the most grievously offended of fans would have to concede, for their star signing to say that the system is yet to suit him.

Then there are Lukaku's remarks about Inter, confessing remorse for leaving the club in a way he regrets after they won the title, and expressing his hope that he will return while he remains in his prime. This, again, could be treated as something or nothing. Lukaku could have reeled off robotics about his respect for the club and his time in Italy, with no-one any the wiser as to whether his sentiments held any meaning or were recited by rote as a placation attempt.

Chelsea fans – like any supporters blinded by their love for their team, expecting players to have the same absolute devotion – were never going to find Lukaku's mid-season love letter to Inter endearing. Equally, reflecting on the glories of the title charge he led last season and having the honesty to apologize to fans he feels he treated badly cannot be construed as a crime on Lukaku's part.

Had Lukaku scored ten goals in the first half of the season for a Chelsea side within touching distance of City, his quotes would probably have evaporated as rapidly as his club's ambitions of becoming champions again in 2022. They will have harsher implications for him should he not hit form during the second half of the season. Then again, one of the best strikers in the world could score 100 goals during the remaining four-and-a-half years of his deal, every one of them making this seem more of a melodrama driven by over-sensitivity over a few clumsy comments.

Whatever happens, other players will be watching. There will be fewer translated interviews to irritate coaches with unwanted "noise" after this, and more inauthentic "bland PR messages", as Neville puts it. As much as Lukaku may wish he had stuck to that approach, the prospect of players revealing what they really think is going to continue to be an ever-rarer novelty.

By Ben Miller

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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