It was very easy for Chelsea supporters to feel downbeat after the result against Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime in the Premier League.
There was little to get supporters off their seats inside Stamford Bridge, punctuated by the fact the European Champions recorded their lowest xG (Expected Goals) under Thomas Tuchel since his arrival at the beginning of the year.
The Citizens pressed intelligently and intensely from the off, forcing Chelsea back into their own half and cutting off the avenues to counter that had been so fruitful for the Blues in the three meetings at the back end of last season.
Though one thing that should give supporters encouragement is the burgeoning relationship between Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, two players that many fans have wanted to see fielded in a front two by Tuchel and can hopefully spark a productive partnership in the coming months.
Though for any of this to come to fruition, Tuchel will need to give his duo a bit more assistance in the final third, especially against a team as good as Manchester City. Far too often Werner and Lukaku were expected to work miracles against a flood of light blue shirts who outnumbered both on several occasions.
Until the arrival of Kai Havertz in the second half, the front two were distant from the rest of the team, causing Chelsea’s biggest attacking weapons to be nullified and City the platform to maintain possession and keep the pressure on, leading to Gabriel Jesus’s deflected winner in the 53rd minute.
Most of the hope over Werner and Lukaku working together is mainly propped up by similar dynamics at their previous clubs.
Lukaku struck up a brilliant partnership with Argentine Lautaro Martinez in his two years at the San Siro with Inter Milan. The striking pair spearheaded Antonio Conte’s bespoke 3-5-2 formation and worked in tandem to cause chaos for the majority of Serie A defences. The pair’s technical quality allowed Inter to build from deep and bring both wingbacks in Conte’s system further up the pitch to create overloads.
Martinez as the smaller, nimbler forward was happy to operate in more unorthodox areas to the natural forward in Lukaku – holding up the ball, occupying central defenders and being aerially dominant whenever a cross went into the box.
For Werner at Leipzig, he was the smaller of a front pair with the Danish forward Yussuf Poulsen under Julian Nagelsmann for RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.
A piece from Bundesliga.com noted how physical and aggressive Poulsen’s game was alongside Werner. Noting that “no Leipzig player contested more challenges per game (33.8), winning almost 48 per cent of them – an excellent return for a striker. In the air, the 6’3’’ Dane came out on top in over 52 per cent of duels and is no slouch in a footrace, reaching a top speed of 21.2 mph in the Bundesliga.”
In the same article, Werner praised his attacking peer for putting him in the best position to succeed. “It’s great for me with him upfront. We complement each other really well. He likes going for aerial challenges, which I don’t. He’s got an amazing set of lungs.”
It is easy to look at that quote and picture Werner referring to Lukaku’s work. Though with the Belgian you have got one of Europe’s best finishers, so the need for the 28-year-old to become a facilitator for another player is not required given the goalscoring talent Tuchel has in Lukaku.
For Lukaku, Werner is a very different strike partner to Martinez. Quicker, more direct but less technically gifted. The German’s best work is done in stretching defences and running in behind rather than dropping deeper to build-up play where he is less comfortable.
There are some adjustments to be made but given Werner’s tenacious pressing and speed it is understandable why Tuchel would see that as an intriguing partner for Lukaku’s obvious presence, especially in games Chelsea are looking to defend deeper and hit opponents on the break.
Though the evidence of Saturday shows they need a lot more. It is not just having a midfield runner to add a third man when the Blues look to break, but also getting the wingbacks into the game to provide width in Tuchel’s 3-5-2 who are so key to the way Chelsea progress the ball from deep. Guardiola understood this and City were exemplary in pinning both Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso back for most of the game.
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Mason Mount’s absence was probably most felt for Lukaku and Werner. The young English star has proven regularly how critical he is for his club tactically and his ability to find pockets of space would have provided Chelsea with an extra option when trying to find Werner and Lukaku bursting forward.
Whoever is used to assist the three, Thomas Tuchel should aim to persist with this new partnership, if the two find the magic chemistry they created with Poulsen and Martinez in the past then Chelsea could have a very exciting duo on their hands.
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