Looking at the positives from Thomas Tuchel’s big selection call, at least Romelu Lukaku has a better understanding of how Chelsea aspire to play now.
This was a flexible and smart performance from the European champions, who functioned perfectly well with their £ 97.5m conundrum watching from the bench for the entire 90 minutes, and on this evidence Lukaku could be forgiven for wondering if his new diminished role is here to stay.
After all there is little reason for Tuchel to bring the Belgian back when Chelsea meet Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday. It could well be further humiliation for Lukaku after this comfortable win against Lille.
Chelsea were far more effective with Kai Havertz offering movement, mobility and incision up front and they have a firm grip on this last-16 tie after the impressive Christian Pulisic gave them a 2-0 lead to take to France next month, by which point Lukaku might already be plotting his path back to International.
The increasing sense is that a clean break would suit all parties. “A look of tiredness” was how Tuchel had explained his decision to drop Chelsea’s record signing but nobody was buying that. As ever the evidence was on the pitch.
Lukaku had mustered a mere seven touches against Crystal Palace in his previous outing, the fewest registered by any Premier League player over 90 minutes since Opta began keeping track in 2003. Numbers of such anonymity made it simple for Tuchel, who seemed to be on to something by picking a front three that gave his side pace, trickery and unpredictability in the final third.
It was a controversial decision, though, and one that Tuchel needed to come off. Chelsea have stumbled of late, their title challenge unraveling during a bleak winter period, injuries taking a toll. The next drama has never felt far away and, although there was a nice moment before kick-off – the injured trio of Ben Chilwell, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James parading the club’s latest trophy around the pitch – the crowd’s applause was accompanied by an awareness that this season is not going to be defined by Club World Cup glory.
This was more important than Abu Dhabi and it looked as if Chelsea knew it early on. Pulisic took the game to Lille with some snaking runs and the opening goal should have arrived inside four minutes, Havertz somehow turning César Azpilicueta’s cross over from close range.
Would Lukaku have scored? Probably. The point, though, is that Chelsea are far more fluid with Havertz operating as a false nine. His graceful movement di lui unsettled Sven Botman and José Fonte, Lille’s center-backs, and he quickly put his early miss behind him, shifting inside before drawing an excellent save from Léo Jardim after seven minutes.
Eleventh in Ligue 1, Lille soon cracked. Hakim Ziyech lifted in a corner from the left and Havertz made it look easy in the middle, rising unmarked to send a bouncing header beyond Jardim.
Tuchel had his vindication. For a while, with N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic controlling midfield, it was one-way traffic. Marcos Alonso went close with a volley. Pulisic kept running. Havertz floated around menacingly.
Cautiously, though, Lille came into the contest. Tuchel grew irritable, roaring when Ziyech wasted a chance to shoot. Chelsea were making too many mistakes and Lille were growing in confidence. Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan David looked dangerous and Chelsea, who survived a few skirmishes in their area, were relieved to escape when Antonio Rüdiger almost sliced Renato Sanches’s cross past Édouard Mendy.
Lille had hope after the break. Azpilicueta was working hard to contain Bamba and Chelsea were starting to retreat. Too many counterattacks were fizzling out and the worries for Tuchel increased when Kovacic made way for Ruben Loftus-Cheek before hobbling down the tunnel.
Chelsea were wavering. Alonso had a volley blocked by Zeki Celik and Havertz fired over, but the game had become bitty and Tuchel was forced into another adjustment when Ziyech went down with an ankle problem just before the hour.
That, though, allowed Tuchel to regain control. He chose to bring on Saúl Ñíguez instead of another attacker and more bodies in the middle meant there was a chance to release Kanté, who accepted his new role with relish, dousing Lille’s optimism with the run that led to Chelsea’s second goal.
The surge came out of nowhere. Suddenly, after an aimless Lille attack broke down, Kanté was tearing through the middle and carrying Chelsea up the pitch. Nobody could keep up with him and there was quality at the end of the run, the midfielder’s weighted pass sending Pulisic through to score with a lovely dink.
It was a deserved goal for Pulisic and Chelsea were able to relax. Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva and Rüdiger were determined to protect the clean sheet and the introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa was not enough for Lille, though at least the former Newcastle winger got on the pitch. With Timo Werner sent on before him, the same could not be said of Lukaku.