Manchester City and Liverpool have dominated the Premier League in an unprecedented fashion over the past two seasons, amassing a points total that places them in an echelon of their own.
The task for other Premier League teams is to bridge the gap. Making such strides will have to start by one club separating themselves from the chasing pack, a task that will be increasingly difficult in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent financial ruin. Yet with their expected £53 million signing of Timo Werner, Chelsea may have gone some way towards surpassing rivals such as Manchester United, Tottenham, Leicester City, and Arsenal.
The excitement surrounding Werner’s move is understandable. Over the past few seasons, he’s established himself as among the best strikers in the Bundesliga and one of the most talented forwards in Europe. His numbers for the current campaign speak for themselves: 25 goals and 8 assists in 31 Bundesliga appearances is a remarkable output.
Werner’s deft skill, intelligent movement, searing pace, and lethal finishing make him a prodigious attacking force. Those attributes are what caught the eye of Europe’s elite clubs, including Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and until recently, Liverpool. The Reds appeared in pole position to acquire the 23-year-old German until they suddenly pulled the plug on the move and opened the door for Chelsea. Werner’s quality is obvious, and it’s easy to see why Frank Lampard was eager to bolster his attacking options with the RB Leipzig forward.
Others are more skeptical. One criticism of the transfer is that it will stymie the development of Chelsea’s young talents. In his first year as head coach, Lampard has been lauded for his willingness to give the likes of Fikayo Tomori, Reece James, Billy Gilmour, Mason Mount, and Tammy Abraham minutes.
After years of ignoring their stellar academy products, Chelsea has finally begun to build their team around a core of young players. With the acquisition of a player liker Werner, some have argued that this will limit the game time of Chelsea’s young attackers and point to a philosophical shift in Chelsea’s approach, one that resembles the lavish and at times reckless spending that has occurred during the Abramovich era.
Yet in order for Chelsea to remain an apex predator in the league, they must strengthen their squad. Furthermore, as Seb Stafford-Bloor mentioned in his piece for FourFourTwo, adding squad competition is a necessary component for youth development, something Lampard will be intimately aware of given his own progression as a player. Werner’s acquisition will likely do little to damage Lampard’s commitment to youth development.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for Chelsea fans to temper their enthusiasm. For all of Werner’s quality, he doesn’t necessarily resolve a pressing issue in the Blues’ squad. With Kepa Arrizabalaga’s massive drop off in form, Chelsea could be in need of a new goalkeeper, either a stronger number two than Willy Caballero or a replacement for the Spaniard.
Emerson Palmieri has failed to convince at left-back, while Marcos Alonso appears to only be comfortable as a left wingback in a back three. Chelsea could also use at least one higher quality centre back, as their current options are consistent but not elite. With all these other problems, spending on the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Werner could limit Chelsea’s resources and leave them with holes in their squad come the start of next season.
Perhaps more pertinently, Lampard may struggle to find a tactical setup that can allow him to implement his ideas while getting the best of his players. For Leipzig, Werner has always excelled as one of a front two, normally with a hard-working, energetic striker such as Youssef Poulsen or Patrick Schick.
These players can act as a more physical presence, attract opposition markers, and drop off to link play, which allows Werner to play off the shoulder of the last line or drift wide to isolate defenders. Leipzig achieved this either with a 3-5-2 or a 4-2-2-2, neither of which are all that suitable for Chelsea. The latter is unfamiliar to the squad and Lampard, while the former provides no clear role for the likes of Mount, Hudson-Odoi, or Christian Pulisic.
One potential option would be to use a 3-4-1-2. Lampard has experimented with a back three, and this formation could allow Werner to play alongside Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham. It would also resolve Chelsea’s left-back issue as Alonso has shown himself to be a capable wingback. Ziyech could also thrive in a free role behind two strikers, and the role could also be filled by Mount. It may also facilitate the revival of Andres Christensen, once one of Chelsea’s most promising young centre-backs.
Yet this system creates new problems for Chelsea. Not only do they lack the number of quality centre-backs to play a back three regularly, but Jorginho has also failed to prove that he can be a viable number six in a double pivot. Given that Lampard has preferred to use Ngolo Kante as a box-to-box player, he would either have to use Kante in a different way or purchase a new defensive midfielder. There is also no clear role for the likes of Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic, who are both talented enough to warrant regular starting roles.
Lampard could also attempt to stick with the formations he has already used at Chelsea.
In the 4-2-3-1, Werner could play as a solitary centre forward with a dynamic number ten behind him, perhaps Mount or Ruben-Loftus Cheek. Having a creative ten behind him could relieve him of some build-up play duties and prevent him from having to play too much with his back to goal. It is worth noting, though, that Werner has struggled with playing in a 4-2-3-1 for Germany. Even if Lampard’s style is more dynamic and direct that Joachim Low’s, it may not be the best way to maximize the German’s talent.
In a 4-3-3, Werner could be used either as a lone front-man or as a winger, his original position when he burst on the scene for Stuttgart. With his pace, power, and movement, Werner could wreak havoc on the left-hand side. This could disrupt Chelsea’s midfield balance, as Matteo Kovacic would likely be more limited in the number of forward runs he could make, but it could allow Chelsea to get the best out of Werner without creating new gaps in the squad and preventing other players from having a clear role in the team.
When Timo Werner does eventually make his move to the English capital, Chelsea will be acquiring one of the best young players in Europe at present, but his success in the Premier League is anything but a foregone conclusion. Whether Chelsea can get the most out of him while maintaining balance throughout the rest of their squad remains to be seen.