Timo Werner will have been disappointed to miss out on Germany’s game against Turkey on Wednesday evening, suffering with flu-like symptoms. His last trip back yielded a goal against Spain in Berlin but there was nothing unusual about that. The forward also scored seven goals in his final eight appearances for RB Leipzig, underlining his status as one of the game’s great goalscorers.
Four games into his Premier League journey with Chelsea, there have been glimpses of why Werner can be so dangerous. He has looked bright, particularly when winning a penalty against Brighton. There was also a fine strike to open the scoring in the Carabao Cup tie against Tottenham. But that first Premier League goal has eluded Werner thus far.
There is no cause for alarm. And yet, perhaps aware that forwards thrive on goals, Frank Lampard went onto the Stamford Bridge pitch to put an arm around his new £50m signing after the 4-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday. Werner never went more than four Bundesliga games without scoring last season. He would have liked to take a penalty.
There will be a certain irony if Werner’s start to life at Chelsea comes to be deemed as slow – and not just because he is one of the quickest players around. Nor because it took him just three minutes of his first friendly appearance to open his account. It is the fact that he cut short his time at RB Leipzig partly in the hope of ensuring he could hit the ground running.
Moving to London in the middle of July, watching Chelsea matches from the stands and his former club’s passage through to the Champions League semi-final on television could not have been easy. Becoming an instant hit at the Bridge would make it all more palatable.
So how are Chelsea planning to get the best from him?
Werner offered some insight recently in conversation with German journalist Raphael Honigstein when outlining his reasons for choosing Chelsea. It seems that it was a discussion with Lampard regarding his role on the pitch that helped to convince him to join.
“He said, ‘Timo, you will be free to make the right moves on the pitch, I trust you.’ It was a very good conversation.” Rather than detailing a specific position, Werner was drawn in by this idea that he would be trusted to roam around the pitch in search of space.
Lampard told him that he would be free “to make central runs from any vantage point or go wide or change positions” however the player saw fit. No fixed formation, no fixed role.
That has been evident in these early matches, particularly as Chelsea wait on the return to fitness of another new signing Hakim Ziyech as well as last season’s star performer Christian Pulisic.
Werner assumed striking duties against Brighton, albeit drifting to the left with Ruben Loftus-Cheek in an advanced role on the right. Against Liverpool, the plan appeared to have been to use Kai Havertz as a withdrawn forward with Werner again just to the left. Any hope of making that plan work soon faded following Andreas Christensen’s red card.
At West Brom, the introduction of Tammy Abraham to the starting line-up saw the German pushed into a wider role but still free to come inside when appropriate. The two men were actually switched late in the game – an instruction from Lampard on the bench – in a reshuffle that moved Abraham to the right from where he scored Chelsea’s late equaliser.
After that game, Lampard provided an explanation for his system changes so far.
“Timo and Kai don’t necessarily have favoured positions themselves but I have a clear idea of where I want them to play,” he insisted. “At the moment, injuries have not made it that possible and sometimes you have to be adaptable in those difficult times.”
Timo and Kai don’t necessarily have favoured positions themselves but I have a clear idea of where I want them to play. At the moment, injuries have not made it that possible.
Werner was back on the left against Palace, heavily involved without providing much thrust in behind. That passivity was a concern for Lampard with the score goalless at the interval.
“We cannot allow the Palace back four to go home thinking it was not too hard dealing with that front four. That was the message at half time. More speed, more movement.”
That is Werner’s game, of course, and there have been signs of that already at Chelsea. He made the most high-intensity sprints of anyone on the pitch against Palace, just as he has in all four of his Premier League appearances so far. He gives Chelsea something different.
But there have been limited opportunities for Lampard’s side to counter-attack so far. Werner is at his best on the transition but there was little hope of that against Palace. Instead, he found himself without space in which to run, playing a passing game instead.
Werner made 40 passes on Saturday, the same number that he made against West Brom. It is an evolution in the player’s game that was not there some years ago, as Julian Nagelsmann, the RB Leipzig coach who helped to facilitate this change, has explained.
“In the last few years, all his moments have come in transition, whereas now he has his moments in combination play, too. He’s much more involved in our build-up play and combinations. He’s having many more touches of the ball than in previous years and this new position has done his development good, playing in between the lines against teams who sit deep. That’s another trait he’ll need if he wants to be one of the best in Europe.
“There are a lot of teams who sit and defend deep against you and he needs that second way of being dangerous to opponents too, and he’s definitely developed that this year.”
It is to Werner’s credit that he wants to add new weapons to his game – “that versatility has been a big part of my development and I want to keep getting better” – but Chelsea’s principal reason for signing a player who scored 28 goals in the Bundesliga last season was surely to do what he does best. Finding a way to exploit those qualities is going to be key.
Werner scored more goals from fast breaks than any player in Germany last season. He was caught offside more than any other player too. Threatening the space in behind on the transition is where he can really hurt teams but Chelsea fans have not seen that yet. Expect him to be a factor against fellow top-six teams if his side can keep 11 men on the pitch.
Whether Abraham is the right foil for Werner remains to be seen. There was one moment in the first half against Palace when the England striker unselfishly tried to shovel the ball on towards his team-mate only to get it all wrong. They were making the same run anyway.
Werner might be better served by a centre-forward who can drop deep, drawing out defenders in order to allow him space in which to move. That left channel in a 4-3-3 is proving a profitable one for Sadio Mane and Heung-Min Son but Roberto Firmino and Harry Kane are both very different forwards to the target-man options at Lampard’s disposal.
If there is a question mark over what to expect from Werner, and indeed Chelsea, this season, perhaps that is it. Will Lampard be able to find the right blend in his team that maximises the undoubted talent that he now has in his squad?
In the right environment, Werner has shown that he can be devastating. The challenge now is for Chelsea to create that environment.