Timo Werner: Why Chelsea’s Road Runner Deserves The Faith

Since his arrival, 25-year-old Timo Werner has not only been Chelsea’s lightning, but their lightning rod too. His report card from last season is damning – his goal conversion rate was a woeful 10% (he managed 15% and 23% in his last two seasons at Leipzig) and he missed 18 big chances. His disallowed header at Southampton was the 16th time his goal had been chalked off by officials. Misses, whether due to fate, fortune or personal fault, have spawned distorted numbers pundits and armchair analysts alike love to wave around after a difficult performance.

And yet, it is hard to argue against the proposition that Werner makes the Chelsea attack more dangerous. After a stale and passive showing against Juventus, Werner’s return to the XI galvanized the Chelsea frontline against the Saints. Like a blue Duracell Bunny, his electric pace stretched Southampton lines and hamstrings repeatedly, threatening to make them snap with tension like an overworked rubber-band. He left the Bridge with one goal for his efforts even though he should have had two or three, but that’s just been Werner’s story so far at Chelsea.

Timo Werner, Chelsea's European Champion. (Photo by Manu Fernandez - Pool/Getty Images)
Timo Werner, Chelsea’s European Champion. (Photo by Manu Fernandez – Pool/Getty Images)

Like many footballers limited in certain aspects, Werner is easy to criticize. Despite being a centre forward, he is poor at holding off players, cannot compete aerially against Premier League centre backs and appears claustrophobic when defenders cramp his spaces. This can make him frustrating, almost painstaking, to watch at times but he isn’t the only Chelsea player to have elicited a reaction of this nature. Take for instance, Jorginho, who was often lambasted for his lack of pace, for becoming a liability on counters and negative, repetitive short passing. Tuchel’s shift to three highly proactive centre backs and increased emphasis on verticality has transformed Jorginho’s role. The focus has now shifted to his crucial role in organizing build up and setting the tempo, his leadership skills and his in-game management, elevating him straight into the conversation for a Ballon d’Or. It wasn’t as if Jorginho didn’t have these qualities when he arrived; they were simply being overshadowed in a system where his shortcomings were more vulnerable to exploitation. With Romelu Lukaku now the focal point at centre forward and the 3-5-2 being tested out, there is hope Werner could also be inching slowly towards a system that plays to his strengths.

All forwards are inevitably judged on their output, but gaging Werner’s impact through numbers can be counter-intuitive. For instance, last season, out of all players who had played at least 90 minutes, Werner’s 13.1 pressures per game and 29.2% pressure success rate put him 16th and 14th respectively in the Chelsea squad for both metrics. The numbers conveyed that Werner didn’t just press less than most of the squad, he also pressed poorly. But re-watch his games again, and you’ll notice why. In added time in the first half against Southampton, he ran 60 yards from his own box to chase an overhit long ball, pressured Jan Bednarek into a back-pass and then charged down Alex McCarthy, who panicked and booted the ball out of touch.

As Chelsea did not regain possession within five seconds of Werner’s double press, they both counted as failed pressures, even though Chelsea got the throw-in. Werner’s thankless work did not juice up his numbers, but it did evoke a roar of approval and applause from the Stamford Bridge crowd. As the first defender, Werner often performs long, lung-bursting sprints in which he relentlessly pressures multiple players, while most other players press in shorter bursts. Most of the time he is unsuccessful, but it does force the opposition into hastier decisions, allowing for more effective gegenpressing opportunities. Numbers, in general, are best kept away when appraising his influence.

Speed and industry are qualities that Werner has in common with his home city of Stuttgart, an industrial hub that is home to other speed demons like Mercedes and Porsche. When Werner was a child, his father, Günther Schuh, made him run up the mountains surrounding the Neckar river for hours, building up the breakneck speed and affinity for high-intensity work that are evident today. Schuh, a former forward and well-regarded coach, promised Werner extra pocket money if he scored goals, a decision that burnt a hole in Schuh’s pockets. After Werner graduated to the senior sides, Schuh introduced a condition – he’d be paid only if he scored with his left foot or his head. Werner took up the challenge and continued scoring.

Watch a little closely, and you can see what certain footballers loved doing as kids. Callum Hudson-Odoi, who honed his fantastic dribbling skills while playing frantic games inside “cages” on the streets of South London, regularly revels in beating players with his twinkle-toes. That delightful nutmeg pass against Southampton came straight from those cages. Werner’s penchant for selfless work and whirlwind sprints during transitions are also qualities imbibed during tender years. They define his footballing identity and deserve equal respect.

Werner’s deadly finishing, composure and confidence may have proved elusive in his first season, but his tendency to leave his soul on the pitch has endeared him to the Chelsea faithful. He may not possess the aesthetics of a conventional forward – the Velcro-touch, a robust physique or clever footwork, but the truth is that for a player who once clocked 100 meters in just 11.1 seconds, performs most of his actions at high intensity and has 124 goals in just 323 career appearances, those skills are only secondary requisites. Jonathan Liew summed it up perfectly in a piece for The Guardian.

“Werner misses chances others don’t even create.”

Jonathan liew

There might be struggles against sides that sit deep, but when Chelsea score first (which they have done 9 out of 11 times this season) and the opposition begins to take risks to find an equalizer, Werner’s skillset can be a devastating asset. All that’s missing now is the lethal finishing touch that made all of Europe take notice of him since he broke out at RB Leipzig five years ago.

Encouragingly for Werner, 5 goals and 2 assists in his last eight games for club and country could indicate that the curse is waning. In a goal-shy Chelsea side last season, Werner contributed 12 goals, 12 assists and earned 7 penalties in all competitions. If those are the numbers he can produce in a bad season, it would be wise to keep faith to see just what heights he can reach in a good one. Werner’s time at Chelsea so far may have been an uphill climb, but it shouldn’t be difficult for someone who grew up running up mountains. 

Written by Maria Dulce (@CFCCentral3)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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