Soccer

Champions League semifinals: Should Timo Werner or Kai Havertz start for Chelsea against Real Madrid?

If any players were the biggest coups of Chelsea’s remarkable show of financial strength last summer they were Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. The former was stolen from under Liverpool’s nose when the Blues did what the champions would not and paid his $75 million release clause. Signing Havertz was perhaps an even more impressive swoop. While clubs across Europe tightened their belts during the coronavirus pandemic and set aside the pursuit of Bayer Leverkusen’s bright young thing until 2021, Roman Abramovich loosened the purse strings in a $95 million deal.

It seemed that two of the finest talents in German football were set to be the cornerstones of Chelsea’s attack for the coming years around whom the rest would have to fit. That was perhaps easier said than done. Havertz arrived a thoroughly modern number 10 while Werner had always fared best with a strike partner alongside him.

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Perhaps then it ought not to be surprising that the two are increasingly unlikely to be spotted together in Thomas Tuchel’s starting XIs. They have started together on only four occasions since the manager’s appointment in January, the most recent coming in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Fulham where an amazingly attacking midfield trio of Mason Mount, Billy Gilmour and Hakim Ziyech suggested the manager was not working on strategies for the second leg against Real Madrid.

Speaking after that win Tuchel joked he might even “play no striker at all and [Sergio] Ramos has nothing to defend against”. The manager insisted he was waiting before making any decision on who would lead the line, adding that “what shape we play and where we try to hurt them” will be significant questions in his mind as he mulls how to put his frontline together.

Havertz and Werner offer particularly different skillsets when played at the center forward, the latter in particular is far more suited to games where Chelsea are looking to spring in behind a high defensive line. Werner’s best games under Tuchel have been some of the most significant: a win at Anfield, beating Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal. On those occasions he has relished the acres of space those defenses have left him in behind and whilst he has not always judged the offside trap to perfection he only needs to get it right once to set the Blues on a path to a goal.

Chelsea are a quicker, more direct team when Werner plays. In the Premier League and Champions League games they have played under Tuchel their direct speed – a statistic that measures how far a team advances the ball towards goal per second – is 10% faster. They are swifter still when Werner plays without Havertz.

Of course there is a problem that comes with Werner, one which was abundantly clear in the first leg. He is still missing guilt-edged opportunities at an alarming rate, one of only two forwards in Europe’s top five leagues who this season has missed two shots worth more than 0.8 expected goals (xG, a metric that assesses the likelihood of any shot ending up in a goal). One of those came in the first leg when the German international fired at Thibaut Courtois’ leg in the 1-1 draw.

Over the course of a longer period of time the fact that Werner consistently gets into scoring positions ought to be reflected in a strong supply of goals, but in one-off games his recent profligacy could hurt Chelsea dearly.

“We all have to accept that sometimes strikers miss chances, even big chances,” said Tuchel of Werner’s form. “This is part of the game. Not all decisions are made yet. We have another training session right now and it’s always about the last impression from the players: do they feel confident, do they show up today, are they strong in finishing today in what they’re doing?

“Don’t forget, to talk about the game and to split the game in defense and offense is a nice thing to do but you can get easily lost if you want to cut football into separate pieces. It’s a very complex game. Timo, like everybody else who plays up front, has a huge intensity against the ball and have a huge part in that we are so strong defensively. It’s a team effort how we defend and attack.”

That defensive work could be all the more important in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. After all, keep a clean sheet and Chelsea are through to the Champions League final. Tuchel was keen to note the work Werner does and that should not be understated. He attempts and wins more duels per game under his current manager than under Frank Lampard, makes far more clearances and his tackle success has increased from eight percent to 23 percent.

Still it was notable that Tuchel trusted Havertz as something of a defensive closer in the first leg, where the 21-year-old won four duels in just 24 minutes and consistently placed himself in the way of dangerous attacks that were being built by Madrid. It helps as well that Havertz is tall, mobile and two-footed. Of all the center forward options available to Chelsea he is the one who attempts the most pressures per 90 in the Premier League, according to fbref.

To focus on Havertz’s defense is to some extent to forget all the excellent flourishes he has brought to Stamford Bridge even in a difficult first season in England. His two goals against Fulham, the seventh and eighth of his Chelsea career, were a heady blend of physical play, smart running into space and composure in front of goal. It is easy to see why Tuchel has attempted to refashion him as a center forward.

Havertz is getting into scoring positions at a reasonably encouraging rate for a repurposed striker, his per 90 xG of 0.4 is only 0.07 less than Werner’s and crucially at the moment he is not spurning chances with the same regularity as his compatriot. Under Tuchel no Chelsea forward hits the target with a higher proportion of their shots than the 64.7 percent Havertz reaches.

Add to that his defensive qualities and his ability to create for others against a massed defense and Havertz seems to be the more logical choice for a game with these particular circumstances. A Madrid side who are hoping Sergio Ramos can play his first game in two months and who are without Raphael Varane seem unlikely to push their defense high up the pitch, at least early on. Should the visitors be chasing a goal in the closing stages at Stamford Bridge then a fresh Werner may be the ideal option to exploit the space they are compelled to leave in behind.

But as Chelsea look to defend their first leg advantage from the front, hold possession and engineer dangerous moments Havertz, their most expensive ever signing, seems to be the right call. After all, what do you pay $95million for if not for a player who can help win the biggest games?



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