In the short time between consecutive away games our columnist Pat Nevin focuses on the different ways Timo Werner’s speed can help Chelsea threaten opposition defences, and he makes room for a prediction, too…
If it is Tuesday it must be France, or more specifically Rennes. The travelling most of the Chelsea players are doing just now will be having precisely that effect, and I know the feeling. There have been times over the last few years with my jobs covering football around the world, that I have woken up in the morning and before opening my eyes I had to try hard to remember what bed, hotel, city or indeed country I was in. The travelling has its upsides and boy aren’t we all missing the chance of it now, but it can be disorientating.
But it is France today lads and a real chance to just about nail down qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League. What an opportunity to approach the final two games in the group with a chance to rest players and give others a bit of much-needed on-field time. It will not be easy obviously, that 3-0 win at home didn’t look anything like that easy when Rennes had a full complement of 11 men on the pitch. Nothing can be taken for granted in this game.
Rennes will have been watching closely when the Blues made the trip up to Newcastle at the weekend, and they will not have liked what they saw. Tammy Abraham and Timo Werner broke their hearts in our first tie three weeks back, and the two front men were looking, if anything, even more dangerous against Steve Bruce’s side.
Tammy got his goal after an amazing piece of work by Timo to guarantee the three points, but I suspect it was Timo who will have given the Rennes staff a couple of restless nights since the weekend. Here is the thing, I have heard it said that Timo had a bit of a nightmare because of the chances he spurned with only Karl Darlow to beat, but I have also heard it said that he was fabulous because of how well he got into those positions in the first place. What has been noticeable is that those of us who played a bit were just about all of the same opinion: we thought his display was brilliant.
Strikers will have days they will not take their chances, but as the cliché in the game goes, if you keep on getting into the right positions eventually the goals will come back. Nobody reckons Timo is on the edge of a barren spell, his numbers this season give the lie to that, but his movement if anything was his best this season in a Chelsea shirt, even though he didn’t hit the back of the net on the day.
There were plenty of examples but I particularly liked a little run he made near the end of the first half when he almost got on the end of a quickly-taken Hakim Ziyech free kick. It was a classic sign of top players really forging a special relationship and understanding of each other’s strengths and capabilities.
Maybe that moment wasn’t as ‘in-your-face’ startling as the run for the second goal, but it showed off his different talents well. But what about that second goal and his burst of lightning pace, his skills to beat players on the way and then his perfectly-weighted pass to Tammy? That was the moment when the Rennes players and indeed any other defenders who might be preparing to play against him this season must have thought: ‘How on earth do we stop that?’
Most defenders will tell you that the thing they worry about most is pure pace, or more specifically someone who is far quicker than them. More often than not, these total speed merchants aren’t the best football players, but now and again at the top level the two are combined and that is a frightening prospect. I am not sure everyone in England was absolutely sold on the story of Timo’s pace before that moment, but they are now.
So now that it is obvious that he can blaze past defenders like that, will they be able to counteract it? Actually, it is incredibly difficult because there is little you can do if someone who is faster than you puts the ball beyond you, pins back his ears and just motors. What tends to happen is that defences drop deeper to kill the space behind, but that leads to giving up a large percentage of possession, and then there is the problem of the likes of Ziyech playing pinpoint passes in tight areas to Timo and Tammy who are still making intelligent little runs, now in the final third. It is a Catch-22 for most opponents!
So why was there some uncertainty about Timo’s pace for a while? The thing is, he doesn’t look like a sprinter; well, his running ‘style’ doesn’t look like it anyway. In the past you could look at someone like Thierry Henry and think, yes with that graceful, elegant movement, he is also seriously fast. For Adama Traore, he has the build of some Olympic 100-metre runners. Gareth Bale at his height was a perfect powerful running machine and he looked like it from head to toe, but Timo moves in a different, almost slightly scuttling way. I remember I used to play against a guy called Stevie Nichol who turned out for Liverpool and was once English Footballer of the Year, even though he was Scottish! Like Timo, his physique and running style meant that he didn’t look a thoroughbred, but boy you were wasting your time trying to beat him in a sprint.
Put simply, at the moment Chelsea seem to be piling on layers of defensive problems for opponents and to be honest I would not like to be a manager trying to figure a way of stopping them. We didn’t even have Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic available at Newcastle, but it seemed to make little difference to the outcome or indeed the standard of play.
High-flying Spurs are coming up at the weekend and they have one or two speed merchants themselves to be fair. If we can somehow win these two games this week, however, then the Champions League group table is not the only table we will believe we can stay on top of this season.