Timo Werner had scored 36 goals in his first year and a half at RB Leipzig but modesty prevailed when he was invited to assess his standard. “To become world class, you have to play in the really big teams,” he said in February 2018. “And then also play in big games like the final or semi-finals of the Champions League.”
The moment of anointment arrives in Porto on Saturday evening, or at least that is the idea. Last week Werner called his first campaign at Chelsea “the unluckiest season I have had and will have”, but the line between ill fortune and a place among the stars is vanishingly thin. All it might take is a 13th strike since his arrival last June: should he decide the biggest match of his career in Chelsea’s favour, most of the question marks that have accompanied him will evaporate.
How can one fairly assess a contribution to date that, taken at face value, falls short of the expectations bestowed when Chelsea activated Werner’s £47.5m release clause at Leipzig? Perhaps by waiting on what comes next. Werner has spoken with disarming honesty about his struggles in front of goal, the most troublesome a run of two in 31 games, but his willingness to do so smacks of experience. It is not hard to find moments during his career in which light and shade have followed in sharp succession. The common theme is the style with which Werner has always rebounded.
As far back as April 2015, the season after Werner’s record-breaking arrival on the Bundesliga scene, a goal-shy five months led Stuttgarter Zeitung to muse he had “reached a dead end in his development”; that summer suggestions followed that, by 19, living with his parents in their family home was holding him back. A year later, after a better mid-season run for an otherwise gloomy and relegation-bound Stuttgart, he had shaken it all off and was on the way upwards to Leipzig.
An element of streakiness remained. Werner quickly became a goal machine in Saxony but only twice did he score in more than three straight games and droughts of four or five matches were not uncommon. He scored 21 braces for Leipzig and three hat-tricks, accounting for 51 of his goals for them; the other 44 came across 135 appearances.
The comfort for those watching lay in knowing that, when it inevitably returned, Werner’s form would be much like his playing style: explosive and often at its most effective in short, irresistible bursts.
The overall point is that Werner has usually tended to come good, even if it has sometimes been difficult to predict how or when. It can be hard to get a handle on exactly where his potential sits given his relative youth at 25 en, against that, the fact he has made almost 350 senior career appearances.
Given Werner’s only genuine anticlimax before this year had been Russia 2018, when he and Germany flopped after he had won the Confederations Cup golden boot a year previously, the obvious gap in his achievements is a resounding contribution on one of the major global stages. “I’m still flying a little under the radar and can really only win,” he said in that interview three years ago, given to Die Welt, when asked if he could top the World Cup scoring charts. That was probably wishful thinking but there is no chance of evading scrutiny when he faces Manchester stad.
Plenty of his early work at Chelsea has, in werklikheid, stood up to inspection. Flashes of brilliance stick in the memory: the clean shot with which he got off the mark at Spurs; the electric spin past Jan Bednarek against Southampton that brought a thrilling first Premier League goal.
A finish at Burnley in October, opening his body up in once-familiar fashion, was another; while a first-time strike at West Ham resulted from own strong hold-up play and was arguably Chelsea’s most important of the top-flight season, even if he fluffed a sitter afterwards. When he nodded in a rebound against Real Madrid, the goal looked simple but it set them fair for the final.
While his conversion rate is the third-lowest in the top flight a more edifying statistic is that, in reaching double figures for goals and assists across all competitions, he has made more decisive contributions than any of his teammates in 2020-21. It all makes for a picture that, confusingly, looks different from every angle.
“When I was physically down, I would run up the mountains with my father to get my legs back on track,” Werner said early in his Stuttgart career. It partly explains his searing pace but perhaps it is a factor behind his unwillingness to hide, ook.
If his early life at Chelsea has seemed an uphill struggle at times, a glistening peak now lies within sight.