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The Lost Virtue of Patience

 

Since arriving from the Bundesliga over the summer, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have both largely struggled to adapt their game to fit the Premier League. However, with exceptional individual records in their previous seasons back in Germany, the duo could become greats at Stamford Bridge over the coming seasons if utilised accurately by manager Frank Lampard.

By: Nathan Evans

It’s fair to say that both Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have perhaps not had the early impact that both they and Chelsea fans were expecting following moves from the Bundesliga during the summer transfer window. Now with a growing weight on their shoulders, it’s easy to argue that neither individual has adapted well so far to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League – but to what extent is it fully their individual fault. When you look back to their previous spells with RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen respectively, a clear image emerges as to how Chelsea boss Frank Lampard can tactically reshuffle his Blues to get the best out of his two new star German internationals.

‘Turbo Timo’

As mentioned before, despite both players struggling to adapt their game to match the pace of the elite English game during their short Chelsea careers to date, the vital statistics prove that the recent widespread scrutiny has been laid on a little thick.

Let’s start with striker Timo Werner.

Through 27 appearances across all competitions this season for the Blues, the German striker has nine goals and five assists. In simple terms that gives Werner a goal involvement per 138 minutes of action for Chelsea since his move from RB Leipzig. To give that statistic some more context, that’s higher than Liverpool’s Sadio Mane who has a goal contribution per 162 minutes of action this season.

Werner has played 15 times on the left wing and 11 times as striker for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in 2020-21. Here lies the crucial problem in the Werner puzzle – the constant changing of his position week-in-week-out within the Blues lineup has proved unsettling for the pacey forward. In simple terms, when you look at his previous stint with Leipzig, Werner has no business to be playing from the left wing given his complete unfamiliarity with the role.

Despite playing over 150 times for former side RB Leipzig, Werner has already played more times on the left for Chelsea than during his whole time with the Bundesliga side. In Germany, ‘Turbo Timo’ was deployed 143 times as the forward for last season’s Champions League semi-finalists and only nine times on the left wing.

 

 

This deeper position that the German forward is currently been asked to play at Stamford Bridge is stifling one of Europe’s best forwards of the past three seasons. Last season in particular, Werner shone under Julian Nagelsmann’s tutelage in the east of Germany. In the Bundesliga 2019-20 campaign, Werner had 28 goals and eight assists through 34 matches – 33 of which he started as the lone striker. His position as the pressing forward in Leipzig’s system was crucial to his individual output. He topped the chart across Europe’s top five leagues for ‘ball carries leading to goal involvements’ – a ball carry defined as a player traveling with the ball for over five meters. This stat – and the graphic below – highlights the way that Werner loves to play, by picking up possession deeper and more centrally on the pitch before attacking the opposition central defenders with his impressive pace and agility.

 

 

At Chelsea, his deployment so far this season has not been tailored enough to set the German attacker free to go and win matches for his side. His starting position has been too deep to fully influence the play – compared to what was previously seen in Leipzig – as when played at left wing in a 4-3-3 set-up, Werner is expected to backtrack and protect the full-back sat behind him.

 

 

And it’s not just fans who are now calling for a change in his playing position. Southampton boss Ralph Hassenhuttl – who worked with Werner for two-and-a-half years previously at RB Leipzig – is the latest to criticise Lampard’s use of the German striker. Speaking just last week, the Austrian boss stated to press:

“you really need to bring him into his best position so he can bring his strength on the pitch. For me, he is one of the best strikers in Europe.”

But Werner isn’t blameless in this discussion. The German forward isn’t as clinical as other forwards in the English top-flight and to date, he’s squandered major opportunities in front of goal for the Blues. This season the recent knock to his confidence coupled with the influence of less playing time has meant that his output in terms of attempts at goal has dropped significantly as well. At Chelsea, his shots per 90 stands at 2.7 this season whereas last season it stood at a much higher 4.1 for RB Leipzig across all competitions. His output in terms of both dribbles and touches in the box per 90 are also down although his positioning out on the left wing could explain that drop.

Kai Havertz – the ‘Alleskönner’

The ‘what is Kai Havertz’ best position’ conundrum is still one yet to be solved by boss Frank Lampard but to many football fans – particularly those in Germany – the answer seems obvious.
Known as the ‘jack of all trades’ in his homeland, from his debut for Bayer Leverkusen at the age of 17 back in 2016, Kai Havertz has shone as an elite attacking midfielder and has shattered records in the Bundesliga along the way. By his 21st birthday, the German international had featured in 114 German top-flight matches for Bayer, scoring 35 goals in the process – a modern day record in the competition. His haul of 17 goals in the 2018-19 season is the most ever scored by a teenager in a single Bundesliga campaign.

 

 

As his influence and stardom grew in Leverkusen, it was only until a matter of time until a big money transfer followed and this summer, he joined the Blues. But so far life in SW6 has proved difficult for the 21-year-old.

Suffering heavily with a volatile battle against COVID-19 throughout November which by his own admission really surprised the German midfielder, Havertz has yet to complete 90 minutes in the Premier League since late October. In fact, since then Havertz has only seen 570 minutes of action and in that time he’s been asked to play a number of roles – as the attacking midfielder, in central midfield and out on the right wing.

Much like with his fellow compatriot Werner, the general consensus among fans is that Havertz hasn’t adapted his playing style enough yet to match the physicality of the Premier League. Potentially there’s an argument there as Havertz has looked lightweight in his early days with Chelsea but his statistics over the last four seasons with Bayer Leverkusen highlight that the young star has also not been accounted for properly as of yet by Chelsea’s management with the way their side is often set-up.

Like Werner, the attacking midfielder has largely played outside of his preferred position to date for the Blues – playing only 11 out of his 23 appearances as the attacking midfield. Through 702 minutes of action in that position, Havertz has four goals and four assists. Granted his hattrick in the EFL Cup versus Barnsley has inflated his goalscoring strike rate some would argue but timely assists against Sevilla, Krasnodar, Crystal Palace and West Brom highlight why Frank Lampard should be playing Havertz in a more advanced role. With a goal contribution coming every 87 minutes in that position, it’s a wonder why Havertz has only played as the attacking midfielder three times in his last ten outings for Chelsea. In total this season he’s only spent a mere 38% of his playing time in his most familiar role.

Last season with Leverkusen, Havertz had a mixed campaign – performing well throughout but failing to reach the heights of his 2018-19 stand-out season. He operated as an attacking midfielder for the majority of the season with Bayer but also spent significant time out on the right wing where he played as an inside forward – similar to the role Hakim Ziyech is now been tasked with at Stamford Bridge. Havertz also played as the lone striker eight times where he scored important braces against Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga.

 

 

A constant in Havertz’ game is that the midfielder loves to drift into the right half space to create opportunity from whichever position he has been tasked to play. His movement into that spot dragged James Justin out of position when Chelsea faced Leicester in the Premier League earlier this week. Havertz smartly controlled the ball with his chest and played a quick pass inside to Pulisic who in turn found Callum Hudson-Odoi on the right flank to create the Blues best opportunity of the evening.

To date, Havertz hasn’t done enough of that to warrant too much praise but by showcasing these little moments of brilliance in that area that should cement his place as Chelsea’s main central option.

A key area of Havertz’ game that has often been overlooked during his short spell with Chelsea is his aerial ability. Despite his relatively wirey-looking physique, the German attacking midfielder is an accomplished threat in the air. His goal versus Morecambe in the FA Cup third round highlighted his aerial prowess as he dominated his man – 6’ 1” central defender Harry Davis – in the air before hammering his header into the bottom left corner of the goal from six yards out.

 

 

As such it’s plausible that Havertz could even play as the ‘second striker’ for the Blues, playing on the shoulder of Werner who could thrive off of the attacking midfielder’s aerial ability. His previous stint as a striker in Leverkusen saw Havertz bag eight goals in eight matches.

The System

Given recent performances and results that have seen Chelsea stall in the Premier League, Frank Lampard is in desperate need of finding the winning formula upfront for the Blues and a key part of that will come with consistently similar starting line-ups. During this Premier League campaign, Chelsea have only started the same attacking line-up in back-to-back matches on four occasions.

With the usual 4-3-3 set up becoming somewhat stale in recent weeks, a change of fortune is needed and a proper shift to a 4-2-3-1 set-up would potentially see the two German attacking stars excel. The whole system that Chelsea adopt in the final third of the pitch has to become more fluid and that will only come with time and patience.
Havertz and Werner shone back in Germany when both were allowed to roam the attacking third for their respective former sides. A system where the two German internationals can frequently rotate positions could work well in terms of chance creation. Chelsea now have too many attacking players that shouldn’t be shackled to just one position or area of the field. Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi would all thrive if given the option of switching positions through matches more frequently – something we’re yet to truly see this season under Frank Lampard’s management.

The Conclusion

What is key is that Chelsea fans need to have the patience to let both Werner and Havertz settle into life in south London and at Stamford Bridge. If played more regularly and in the positions that they want to operate in within a system that suits, then yes, the media and fans alike can start to question both players individual output for the Blues if neither improve drastically.
Until then, scapegoating either of the new signings could ultimately lead to an early exit from SW6 and when you look at previous departures of players who were in similar scenarios – namely Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah in particular – that could prove to be another headache for the Blues in the not-so-distant future.

 


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