There is a bitter sense of déja vu at Stamford Bridge this Christmas, so palpable you can almost taste it on the cold west London air.
Once again, Chelsea are in the midst of an untimely festive slump in form, and once again – perhaps more concerningly – a marquee signing to lead the attack is struggling to deliver.
Three defeats in four, and 11 games without making a mark on the scoresheet for Timo Werner. Time for togetherness and to rally around the £47.5m man, and not one for a bit of light scapegoating, right? Right?!
“Timo wasn’t giving us enough with or without the ball. Some of it we have to give him time. I keep saying the same thing because it’s a different league, but we have to get there quickly.”
– Lampard on Werner post Arsenal defeat
Such a scathing post-match assessment of one player following another damaging defeat to Arsenal would lead any supporter to believe that Chelsea’s poor form and Werner’s struggles are mutually exclusive, which is simply not the case.
To be clear, Werner’s first-half performance against Arsenal was, objectively, awful. But a repellent first touch, no shots on target and a 57% pass completion rate all speak to a sharp decline in confidence – not something Lampard’s words will remedy.
My esteemed colleague Robbie Copeland argued it would be reductive to lay the blame entirely with Lampard’s deployment of Werner when the 24-year-old received 90min’s dreaded ‘what’s going on buddy?‘ treatment last week.
But while we can’t say with any certainty, it feels impossible that this narrative would have developed had the German played consistently through the middle this season, rather than shoehorned onto the left wing. Adapting to the Premier League is hard enough, let alone doing it out of position.
It’s something of a misconception that Werner is equally adept hugging the touchline as he is centrally – where he scored 30 goals and created 13 more last season. RB Leipzig’s system meant he was able to operate more as a left forward, drifting inside to play off Patrik Schick or Yussuf Poulsen and getting into goalscoring positions, while Julian Nagelsmann’s wing-back system would often negate the need for him to defend.
Anyone who has played football at any level will know that playing on the wing is vastly different to playing as a lone striker, with space limited by the confines of the pitch and the requirement to track back and help your full-back.
It’s an energy-sapping role, and although Werner had actually played more minutes than he has so far for the Blues by the same point last season, this is of course his first taste of the chaotic festive fixture schedule in England. A year ago he would have been stuffing his face with stollen with his feet up.
It’s not like he’s the only Chelsea player struggling, either. Inevitably when the Blues’ new, shiny front man is having a hard time – just like Mateja Kežman, Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres, Álvaro Morata, Radamel Falcao AND Gonzalo Higuaín all have in years gone by – they take a lot of the heat. Without getting too granular, there is only a handful of Chelsea players who can be satisfied with their season’s work so far.
If you’re winning, it’s far easier to swerve the spotlight. Take Sadio Mané for example; arguably the Premier League’s most dangerous attacker, the undroppable Senegal international had gone eight league games without a goal before his strike in the 7-0 destruction of Crystal Palace before Christmas.
It feels as though Werner is falling victim to his manager’s rigid tactics – a stark contrast to the fluid formations and attacking rotation he was accustomed to in eastern Germany. While Werner thrives on the shoulder of the defender with the ball coming to him centrally (it is no surprise that his best performance to date came as a centre forward against Southampton), Chelsea have unequivocally become a crossing side, leading the Premier League charts with 343 chucked in already this season.
With the midfield lacking creativity, every attack currently seems geared towards shifting the ball out wide all game long in the hope that one quality delivery might provide a goal. It’s quite literally a hit-and-miss approach, and one that only really benefits Olivier Giroud, with 6’2 Tammy Abraham inexplicably average in the air.
While there is no questioning that in-form Giroud merits a starting berth at present, his age dictates he cannot start every game when they come so thick and fast, while his and Abraham’s staggered, irregular goalscoring is a source of frustration in itself. Lampard must find an effective alternative to his 4-3-3-get-ball-wide-cross-hope-for-goal tactics.
Timo Werner provides that alternative, with his mere presence centrally likely to encourage a more direct style of play through the middle, in turn nourishing the creative talents of Mason Mount and, notably, Kai Havertz who will become more than just glorified vessels for shifting the ball wide, knowing they are servicing a striker who has the pace to chase through balls and run in behind.
A 4-3-3 with Havertz as the attacking midfielder, Hakim Ziyech wide on the right (when fit), Christian Pulisic on the left and Werner straight down the middle would surely provide the goods (right?!!!).
More discerning fans will acknowledge that Lampard is limited as a coach, but with Chelsea struggling for ideas and results, there is no better time to show a willingness to try something different. It’s a tweak that could solve both Werner’s and Chelsea’s festive quandaries and could even drag some others into form.