Under Antonio Conte’s tactics, Lukaku has formed a successful partnership with the Argentine Lautaro Martínez in a front two in Inter’s 3-5-2 formation. Lukaku has scored 17 goals in 25 games in Serie A this season and is averaging 0.73 goals per 90 minutes and 0.59 xG (expected goals). Playing in a more classic number nine role than fellow top scorers Ronaldo and Immobile, Lukaku’s powerful, direct style and anticipation around the six-yard box has resulted in 11 goals in the box, three of which were headers, one goal from outside the box, and five penalties.
This scout report is the final part of a three-part tactical analysis on the top three scorers in Serie A, attempting to dissect the goalscoring situations each striker has scored from in open play. Each piece will conclude with a finishing practice for coaches to use with their players. The focus of this piece will be around Lukaku’s combination play with his back-to-goal and his finishing inside the box.
Positioning, shot attempt location, shot target distribution
Lukaku often acts as a target man playing in between, or up against one of the opposing centre-backs. As a result, he operates in central areas within the final third illustrated in the heat map below (yellow/orange area). Lukaku has become more comfortable receiving to feet to set the ball back and bring others into play; or, by playing ‘round the corner’ directly into wide areas before making a move into the box.
Additionally, Lukaku is an outlet down the channels between the centre-back and the full-back where he makes runs before shifting the ball onto his left foot.
This season Lukaku has attempted 2.82 shots per game with 54.8% of them on target. This is roughly half the amount of shots per game Cristiano Ronaldo averages (5.61), but just under 15% more accurate. When analysing shot attempt location (pitch distribution – see below left), Lukaku predominantly operates in zones A and B (51.5%), also known as the ‘golden zone’ mentioned in previous pieces where 80% of goals are scored from in one or two touches.
Interestingly, Lukaku also attempts a significant amount of shots on either side of the ‘golden zone’ (zones D and E) 33.4%. This could be a result of his tendency to run into the channels between the centre-back and full-back.
In reference to shot direction (see above right – on target distribution), Lukaku does not differ from fellow top scorers Ciro Immobile and Ronaldo. Low shots account for the majority of Lukaku’s attempts at 69.2%, with 26.2% placed centrally.
Throughout his career, Lukaku has always been known as a threat when running towards goal, whether it be in behind the centre-backs or across them into the channels due to his speed and impressive power. A criticism aimed at Lukaku over recent seasons has been his ability to receive the ball with his back to goal and combine with supporting teammates without slowing down attacking play.
This is an attribute Lukaku has improved significantly in his time at Inter, receiving support instantly through teammates’ forward runs which provide better passing options and allows him to release the ball earlier before entering the box. Most notably, teammate Lautaro Martínez seems to provide this and Lukaku has thrived in this partnership as a result.
Back-to-goal, receiving and combining
Lukaku seems to be enjoying life under Conte’s tactics where Inter come alive once the ball is played into his feet, providing constant support. Lukaku’s back-to-goal play is increasingly improving and upon analysis, it is evident he is finding success in a variety of situations initiated through intelligent combination play around the edge of the box.
Inter’s forwards frequently adopt purposeful supporting positions around Lukaku as he receives the ball (orange in the picture below), which means there is little delay in his decision making, allowing for quick combinations disrupting the oppositions’ defensive organisation.
Defenders are commonly faced with one of two problems. If the centre-back gives Lukaku space, it is easier for him to control the ball, connect with his teammates and enter the box. However, if the defenders are tight too him, he can use his strength and power to ‘roll’ the defender who most likely cannot see the ball resulting in a shooting opportunity.
The former occurs in the picture above as Lukaku successfully sets the ball back to Martínez in one touch.
Martínez attempts a long-range shot which draws the attention of both centre-backs. An unmarked Lukaku darts towards the goalkeeper in case a rebound opportunity presents itself.
The keeper parries the ball onto the edge of the six-yard box and before he can gather himself, Lukaku has dispatched of the opportunity (see picture above). Allowing Lukaku to combine with a teammate and make another run leaves the defenders in no man’s land, not knowing whether to follow Lukaku or pressure the ball. By the time this is decided, a shot has been taken and Lukaku does the rest.
The other danger for defenders is if they are too tight to Lukaku and try to wrestle with him. Often this puts Lukaku in an advantageous position as the defender loses sight of the ball, and he can use his strength to shield the ball whilst rolling past the defender. This is evident in the picture below. As the ball travels towards his feet he backs into the defender who tries to outmuscle him, a situation which favours Lukaku.
The defender has now dropped two to three yards further back towards his goal as Lukaku backs into him (see below). With no sight of the ball, the defender has no idea which way Lukaku will turn, giving him superiority in this 1 vs 1 scenario. Lukaku rolls off the defender to his left to create space for a shot.
Lukaku successfully creates enough space to shoot into the goalkeeper’s right-hand corner and opens the scoring for Inter (see below).
His ability to hold off the defender using his strength whilst keeping his body between the ball and the man as he searches for space to shoot causes chaos for the opposition defence.
In the picture below Lukaku receives the ball once again on the edge of the box with clear passing options available to him (orange). Lukaku lays the ball off to his wide player and makes his way into the box.
Once again Lukaku attacks the empty space left by the defenders (see picture below) who have been drawn out of position largely due to his hold up play around the box. The defenders are then found ball watching as Candreva crosses into the box.
Lukaku finds himself in space and connects with Candreva’s cross, heading the ball into the keepers left corner to score, (see below). His hold up play around the edge of the box causes significant problems for individual defenders who are unsure whether to mark him tightly and risk being drawn out of position, or hold their position and allow him to release the ball to a teammate.
Dangerous runs into the channels
In addition to improving his hold-up-play with his back to goal, Lukaku has been effective when running onto the ball in the channel between the centre-backs and full-backs. This commonly occurs when Inter have won the ball back in their own half and the opposition’s defensive line is around the half-way line leaving space in behind.
His speed and power in addition to the timing of his runs put defenders on their heels as they try to keep him on the outside, showing him away from the goal.
This is evident in the picture above where Napoli’s high line is exposed. Inter win the ball back in their own half and within seconds Lukaku makes his move down the channel (see above).
The picture above illustrates a nightmare scenario for the defender as Lukaku tears down onto the Napoli goal.
Here there is enough space for him to beat his defender down the outside, or come inside directly towards goal.
The defender cannot close the gap between Lukaku and himself in time to block the shot. At an extremely difficult angle, Lukaku’s powerful shot finds its way through the Napoli keeper’s hands and into the goal (see above).
As well as scoring in the ‘golden zone,’ Lukaku is extremely dangerous in wide areas of the box which account for 33.4% of his shot attempts making his runs into wide areas an even more dangerous.
Lukaku is a constant threat in the channels and is dangerous coming in from left to right, or right to left as pictured above. He receives the ball on the touch-line with space to dribble down the outside of the defender or come inside into the central area.
In the picture above, Lukaku fakes to go down the outside and cuts inside onto his favoured left foot. With the full-back now chasing him inside, the centre-back is in a difficult position and must decide whether to come out and pressure Lukaku to block the shot, or follow Martínez on his blindside on the left of the picture who looks to make a run across the box.
The centre-back drops back (located on the corner of the D) to block the pass through to an onrushing Martinez. Lukaku takes full advantage of the space this decision has created unleashing a lethal shot into the left corner of the goal and score vs Brescia. When space is afforded to Lukaku giving him the opportunity to drive towards goal, this creates several problems as he tears defensive organisation into pieces.
Individual defenders must match his speed and power when running with the ball, and cope with his ability to dribble past them on the inside or outside of the channel, on either side of the pitch.
Finish like Lukaku…
When analysing Lukaku’s improved hold-up play with his back to goal, two main factors stand out. His ability to use his strength and body position to manipulate the defender who is marking him tightly and create space for a shot by ‘rolling’ them; and, when given space and supporting options, Lukaku is able to combine with teammates efficiently, creating space within the box which he can then attack.
The intention of the following practice will be on combination play around the box, in order to create opportunities to finish inside the box. Key factors that must be taken into account when creating a practice that addresses this intention are the starting position of the striker (outside the box), the variability of the ‘receive and combine phase’ which will be dictated by teammates’ supporting runs, and the way in which the defender intends to defend in each given situation.
The picture above highlights the importance of the strikers’ start position and the defenders’ start position as Lukaku and the centre-backs start outside the box. The supporting players’ (yellow) movement will be highly variable and will dictate the type of chance that is created.
Situations that could be encouraged and coached may be hold-up play and rolling past the defender, double-movement of the striker before receiving and the impact of this on the defenders and subsequent space, quick one-twos, third-man runs, a set-back and shoot, an overlap into a wide area of the box and an opportunity for a pull-back, and many more. Two example practices are illustrated below.
Starting from left to right, in picture one – above left: the blue eight starts with the ball and can play through or down either side of the mannequins in order to vary the receiving angles of the blue nine. In this case, the blue eight decides to dribble to his/her left before passing.
Picture two – above centre: The blue eight feeds the ball into the blue nine who is marked tightly by the red defender (five). Once the blue nine has received the ball the blue eight can enter the yellow zone to combine or blue zone for a pull-back cross.
Picture three – above right: In this case, the blue nine rolls the red defender, shifting the ball to his/her right creating space to finish into the goal. If the defenders win the ball they aim to score in the mini-goals at the bottom of the image. Players then return to their positions. Players can also be rotated every five goes depending on numbers.
From left to right above, this is a progression from the previous practice including more players and more opportunities for the blue nine to receive and combine.
Picture one – above left: The blue eight starts with the ball and aims to combine with the blue nine and eleven. The blue nine must receive the ball before the blue eight and eleven can enter the yellow or blue zones. If the reds win the ball they aim to score in the mini-goals. Here the blue eight plays into the blue nine who cleverly passes the ball across to the onrushing eleven.
Picture two – above centre: The blue eleven plays the ball down the side of the red six, and the blue nine makes a diagonal run into the vacant space in the box.
Picture three – above right: The blue eight and eleven make supporting runs into the box. The blue nine finishes first time into the goal. Players would then return to their start position and the coach would feed a ball into the blue midfielders to restart the practice again.
With Antonio Conte’s Inter slowly closing the gap between themselves and defending Serie A champions Juventus, it is clear Lukaku has played an integral part in their success. His speed and power when running into the channels in addition to his much-improved hold-up and combination play is something that strikes fear into opposition and is capable of disrupting almost any defence.
This concludes the three-part piece on the top three scorers of Serie A, Ciro Immobile, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Romelu Lukaku. Any feedback on any of the pieces and in particular the coaching practices which conclude each piece would be greatly appreciated!