Chelsea left wondering what might’ve been as Timo Werner coup ends in failure

·4 min read

It was day two of Project Restart in the Premier League. As grounds were emptied, belts were tightened. Or most of them, anyway. Chelsea took advantage of others’ inability to spend, turning to the bank of Roman. They activated Timo Werner’s release clause at RB Leipzig. It was a time when deploying Roman Abramovich’s funds seemed more of a legitimate ploy. And, as budgets were frozen amid uncertainty elsewhere, Chelsea stole a march on the European elite by snapping up the Bundesliga’s two most coveted young talents.

A seemingly Real Madrid-bound Kai Havertz was redirected to Stamford Bridge. Werner, who had long looked headed for Liverpool, joined his compatriot in London. Havertz has a Champions League final winner to show for a mixed time at Chelsea, along with the possibility potential will be realised. Werner has the medal but as he retreats to back to Leipzig, it is for around half his initial price. A £25 million transfer fee would amount to a similar loss for Chelsea. Coupled with the probability that they will end up writing off far more on Romelu Lukaku, after his reunion came in the form of a loan back to Inter Milan, and the last examples of Abramovich’s largesse have not had the desired benefits for Chelsea. Rather than inheriting a potent attack, perhaps Clearlake Capital bought problems.

Werner was the coup who wasn’t. In all competitions, he ended with 23 goals in 89 matches for Chelsea: underwhelming but not as bad as his Premier League return of 10 in 56. In terms of goal-per-game ratio, it was sub Andriy Shevchenko (nine in 48) and just below Fernando Torres (20 in 110). His last Bundesliga season left him second only to Robert Lewandowski for goals, with 28. Over two years in the Premier League, he was in a class of his own, albeit as an expected goals underachiever. He ended up with 9.5 fewer goals than he should, according to the quality of chances, and a portfolio of embarrassing misses.

Along the way, there are comparisons and consequences. A week before Werner’s departure, Diogo Jota signed an improved contract with Liverpool. He had three years left on his previous deal but, as Jurgen Klopp explained, the Portuguese had been still better than he expected. Rewind two years and Klopp explained Liverpool pulled out of a move for Werner because they could not commit £50 or £60million to Werner without knowing what their income would be. They eventually acquired Jota for a low up-front fee and far smaller wages. He duly delivered far more goals.

It seems a case of Klopp’s uncanny ability to emerge stronger and the Liverpool manager has had no reasons to regret the ones who got away. Werner might, though, lament the move that wasn’t. Chelsea’s slow build-up play scarcely suited a runner who looks to get in behind defend defences, which is an issue Lukaku also experienced, and his goal-per-game ratio, while still disappointing, was better under Frank Lampard, amid a more open style of play, than Thomas Tuchel. Cautious, controlled football did not benefit him whereas many of his Leipzig goals featured the sort of high-speed bursts in the inside-left channel that characterised Sadio Mane’s strikes at Anfield and may now become a feature of Darwin Nunez’s finishes. Klopp likes forwards who excel at getting into goalscoring positions and that remained a strength of Werner’s at Chelsea: converting chances once there, however, did not amid a crisis of confidence.

But there was also the knock-on effect of the sudden availability of Werner and Havertz. As Chelsea emerged from their transfer embargo, as the era of Pedro and Willian seemed to be ending, Lampard was devising a new-look forward line. Christian Pulisic produced his best Chelsea form in the months when Werner’s release clause had been activated but he had not yet arrived. Hakim Ziyech’s arrival had been arranged in a pre-Covid world. Tammy Abraham was getting 15 Premier League goals in a season.

Ziyech may leave now. He and Pulisic have spent two years as deluxe squad players, plans for them ripped up while Havertz and Werner have often been preferred. Tuchel’s appointment was a fork in the road for Abraham but, while he and Werner are scarcely duplicates, the Englishman got more goals in one season for Roma than the German did in two for Chelsea.

Werner’s 23 at least included two against Real Madrid, one in a Champions League semi-final win, another in what threatened to be an epic quarter-final comeback. They were glimpses of the player he can be. Perhaps the familiar environment of Leipzig will enable him to recapture that ability to trouble defences more often. If so, the winners from Werner’s Chelsea career may be the club who have re-signed him for half the price and the one who decided, in 2020, they could not afford him then.