Naturally the Germans have a word for it. They call it chancentod: literally, “chance death”. Being described as a chancentod doesn’t necessarily make you a bad player. It’s not a tag you’re stuck with for life. All it means is that at the moment, you possess an unerring and uncanny ability to squander whatever goalscoring opportunity is presented to you. Which, for all his manifold qualities, feels like a pretty good way of describing Timo Werner at Chelsea right now.
To watch Werner of late is to be torn between pity and disbelief. The £52m summer signing has now gone nine club games without a goal in all competitions. But this isn’t your regular dry patch. Werner isn’t just not scoring. He’s dramatically, spectacularly not scoring.
There was the fluffed one-on-one against West Ham on Monday night. A scarcely credible miss against Leeds when he somehow managed to not score from one yard out, with no goalkeeper. Numerous glorious openings scuffed, ballooned, gently rolled wide. According to Premier League stats, Werner has missed eight “big chances” this season.
And yet, there are no visible signs of desperation or panic. Everyone from Chelsea fans to Frank Lampard to Werner himself seems satisfied that this is simply a lean patch, and that the form that earned him 28 Bundesliga goals for RB Leipzig last season – second only to Robert Lewandowski’s 34 – will return before long.
This is almost certainly true. Even at his apparent worst, Werner is still a brilliant, horrific forward to play against: quick, clever and aggressive, with an elastic turn of pace and a good, pressing engine. But, in a way, Werner’s dry spell raises questions that go beyond simple issues of confidence and rhythm. Rather, by analysing how Werner is missing, Chelsea may just learn a thing or two about themselves in the process.
The first thing to note before the Boxing Day game at Arsenal is that Werner has always been a curiously uneven striker. His first two seasons at Stuttgart brought seven goals in 62 games. Last year began with a run of one goal in eight games, and ended with 24 in 25. This season, he waited until October for his first league goal, then went on a run of seven goals in 17 days for club and country. Werner has always scored goals. But he tends to score them in clusters.
This is the pact you enter into when you build your team around Werner: he misses chances that others don’t even create. The intelligence of his movement, his speed in transition, the ability to slip past a defender and get to the ball first: this is what ultimately makes him so devastating. But Werner is not a natural finisher in the way most of us imagine the term.
Go through some of his attempts for Leipzig over the last few seasons and what stands out is the quirkiness of the technique. Werner strikes the ball unusually high on his foot, almost in the crook of his ankle. For this reason he tends to prefer the ball at his side, where he can wrap his leg around the shot, rather than in front of him.
Struck sweetly, Werner’s shot is a thing of terror: a snappy, violent motion that offers in extreme power what it lacks in finesse and repeatability. But if the timing is a fraction out, he often comes over the top of the ball. He rarely scores with the instep. He rarely scores headers. He rarely scores curlers. While he misses a disproportionate number of easy chances, he also scores a disproportionate number of hard ones. Asked once to describe his finishing style, Werner replied: “Don’t think too much, and hope the ball goes in.”
Now, perhaps, we see why Werner has needed a certain period of adaptation. Leipzig’s slingy counterattacking style, with its sweeping moves and quick interchanges, suited his see-ball-hit-ball game perfectly, allowing him to meet the ball in space and on the run. Cutting in off the left flank gave him the best opportunity of addressing the ball side-on.
Chelsea, by contrast, come up more often against deep-set defences and move the ball more slowly than Leipzig in any case. Take Werner’s two big chances against West Ham, where he received the ball in a static position and thus struggled to get it out from under his feet. “It’s tougher than I thought,” he says of his start in English football.
So how to get the best out of Werner? Julian Nagelsmann, his last manager, believes you need to start Werner deeper, even as a No 8, so he has momentum when he receives the ball. Initially Lampard deployed him as a centre-forward, later moving him to the left in order to accommodate Tammy Abraham. Abraham’s five goals and Werner’s four assists suggest it is working to a degree.
Yet the suspicion remains that somewhere out there lies an even neater solution, that a player of Werner’s bespoke gifts demands a bespoke approach, something more creative than simply giving him a rest and hoping he comes good.
Perhaps Werner is partially trapped in expectations. Signed in response to Lampard’s request for a proven goalscorer, his record suggested he would seamlessly fill that role. In fact, he is a far more complex player than that: a genuinely fascinating forward who defies easy categorisation. Not purely a poacher, not purely a creator, not purely a wide forward, but a puzzle: one that Lampard, an inexperienced coach still grappling with the riches at his disposal, is still trying to solve.