AS Roma‘s signing of Romelu Lukaku in the closing days of the 2023 summer transfer market almost seemed a counterintuitive move for a side that had been spending the previous two months targeting less prestigious attacking profiles such as Sardar Azmoun, who was eventually signed, as well as Atalanta‘s Duvan Zapata and Santos‘ rising star Marcos Leonardo.
In the end, the Giallorossi took advantage of an unexpected and favourable situation that had left the Chelsea striker with no real suitors and they were able to bring him to the Eternal City to bolster their attack in a way that caught many by surprise.
In addition to filling a crucial void in Roma‘s squad, the arrival of the Belgian has the potential to lift the level of the whole team. His partnership with Paulo Dybala, which Giuseppe Marotta had tried to build at Inter last season, is technically one of the most exciting in Serie A and could add significant attacking prowess to Jose Mourinho‘s attack. The Giallorossi attack finished the 2022/23 Serie A campaign with as few as 50 goals scored, the lowest in the top nine.
Both Lukaku and Dybala had their name on the scoresheet in the 7-0 thumping of Empoli. But beyond their clear potential, how can Mourinho, who is often criticised for the way his teams play, help his attacking partnership express itself at its best?
Lukaku and Dybala linkup at AS Roma anlaysed
Roma’s 7-0 thrashing of Empoli offered a clear sneak peek of how Lukaku and Dybala could operate in Mourinho‘s 3-5-2. The Belgian striker was constantly positioned as the most advanced player in the team, providing his teammates with an offensive point of reference they can use to make their way up the pitch by taking advantage of Lukaku‘s hold-up play.
While it was no surprise to see Dybala roaming around on the right, from which he loves to cut inside onto his left foot, it was interesting to note Renato Sanches‘ proximity to Lukaku, a clear attempt from the Portuguese to exploit the spaces generated by the striker’s ability to constantly keep one or two markers busy.
That seemed to be exactly the case when Sanches made a penetrative run into the box, where two Empoli defenders were trying to deal with Lukaku, to double Roma‘s lead after seven minutes.
The former Inter player was then involved again in the play that led to Bryan Cristante‘s goal, before adding his own name to the scoresheet in the second half to complete an all-round convincing performance.
Can Dybala and Lukaku fire Rome into a top-four spot?
While one game has shown the potential impact of the newly-formed partnership on Roma‘s game, their potential hasn’t been entirely explored yet, as Lukaku and Dybala could combine effectively in more than one way, providing the Giallorossi with different solutions against different opponents.
Using Lukaku as an offensive pivot looks to be the most effective system to unhinge low defensive blocks, as his ability to hold up and shield the ball can trigger movements from defenders that end up opening up space around him.
As has been seen already, both Dybala and the Giallorossi’s technical midfielders can take full advantage of such a situation by either attacking those gaps or leveraging Lukaku‘s physicality to combine with him in tight spaces as happened for Roma‘s winner against Sheriff Tiraspol in Europa League.
At the same time, another feature of Lukaku‘s that shouldn’t be overlooked is his ability to thrive in open spaces. This is something that was often showcased during his stints at Inter, which gave both Antonio Conte and Simone Inzaghi the chance to shape a team capable of performing lethal transitions by releasing the Belgian toward the goal.
Against high-pressing sides, Roma could and should improve their initial build-up to make their way through the opponents’ pressure. Knowing the ability of Dybala and some of their midfielders, such as Lorenzo Pellegrini, Renato Sanches or Houssem Aouar, they should be able to set Lukaku in behind, which could work for the Giallorossi either as an attacking option or a way to alleviate the pressure.
Should Roma manage to retain their defensive solidity from last season, the Lukaku-Dybala partnership will provide Mourinho with a greater variety of high-quality attacking solutions that should significantly boost Roma‘s offensive production – pending the two strikers’ physical fitness. This could give the Giallorossi the consistency they have lacked in the past, ending up making a difference in the fight for a spot within the Serie A top four.