Chelsea‘s season continues to spiral downward, and you can pick your own poison when it comes to describing their plight. Winless in five games. Out of both domestic cups, 10 points away from a top-four finish in the league, beaten in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie by Borussia Dortmund. Two wins in their past 14 in all competitions. Two wins in the Premier League since Oct. 16.
Whichever way you slice it, it’s not good. And while there may be a gaggle of reasons put forward — some valid, some less so — ranging from injuries to a poorly assorted side in the summer, from Graham Potter’s lack of a preseason training camp to Potter’s lack of experience at this level to whether Potter is even any good at all, I’d like to focus on one that comes up time and again. Namely, Chelsea’s lack of a “proven center-forward.”
There’s a certain kind of fan and pundit that loves categorizing players and as fate would have it, the man who was played up front for Chelsea the most this season, Kai Havertz, isn’t considered a “proven center-forward.” Or a “natural striker.” Or a “true 9,” or whatever lingo you like to use. And so whenever Chelsea create chances but fail to convert them — which has happened in each of their past five games, when they racked up an expected goals of 7.05 but ended up scoring just one single goal — the issue becomes about Havertz and how he’s a center-forward.
There are two points to make here. The first is that Chelsea don’t seem particularly fussed. And the other is that maybe they’re right not to be fussed.
We know Chelsea aren’t particularly fussed by the choices they’ve made. They went into the season with two “true 9s” in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Armando Broja. Aubameyang hasn’t started a league game since before the World Cup, while Broja has been injured since mid-November. They did pick up David Datro Fofana from Molde, who is a legitimate striker, in January, but he only turned twenty in December and has just one season of Norwegian league football under his belt as a starter, which suggests he’s a Plan B (or C) at best.
Which leaves, well, Havertz. Could they be plotting some ambitious raid on a brand-name center-forward in the summer like Napoli‘s Victor Osimhen or Dusan Vlahovic from Juventus? Maybe, though having already spent big in the last two windows, the vibe from Stamford Bridge is they won’t. Plus, they invested heavily on Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, who will join them next season.
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Nkunku is a special talent and a prolific goalscorer and, yes, while he played most of his career as an attacking midfielder, he has played plenty up front of late, although almost always in a front two (usually alongside Andre Silva, who is a traditional center-forward). This suggests Nkunku will either play attacking midfield (though they already have Mason Mount in that role, plus Chelsea have the option of keeping Joao Felix around after his loan) or up front in a two (in which case he’ll need someone with him) or, possibly up front on his own, which again suggests Chelsea don’t believe they necessarily need a “true 9.”
All of which brings us back to Havertz and this “proper center-forward” business.
Even Havertz’s critics acknowledge that he’s tall, good in the air, strong and technically gifted. On top of that, he’s an excellent passer who often drops deep to receive the ball, a legacy of when he broke into the first team at Bayer Leverkusen as a teenager. Havertz could do so many things, and so well, that he was deployed all over the pitch: Midfield, out wide, up front. Even at Chelsea, he was used in a variety of roles by both both Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel before moving to center-forward on a regular basis last season.
Because he was introduced to the world as an attacking midfielder, he got stuck with the “false nine” label, which is frankly rather silly. Harry Kane and Karim Benzema regularly drop deep to set up teammates with passes, yet nobody in their right mind questions whether or not they’re center-forwards. Or, rather, in Benzema’s case, they did when he was younger. Some may remember Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, after Gonzalo Higuain’s injury, pointing out that while he’d “rather go hunting with a dog, sometimes you don’t have a choice, you need to hunt with a cat.” Benzema was the proverbial feline who turned into a Ballon d’Or winner.
This is not to say that Havertz will turn into Benzema. Rather that when you’re a younger player, coaches sometimes like ready-made boxes in which to put you. It happened to Benzema and it’s now happening to Havertz. Heck, even Kane wasn’t encouraged to drop and be the playmaker when he was younger.
So what’s the issue with Havertz?
Is it the lack of goals? Maybe. Among those who have racked up at least 1,500 minutes this season, he ranks seventh among Premier League center-forwards in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes and sixth in xG per 90. Not great, but not terrible either.
Is it that Chelsea as a team don’t score a lot when he’s up front? Or, more broadly, that they’re just not very good this season when he’s been up front? Now you’re probably getting warmer, and here, the question is whether he’s part of the problem or part of the solution.
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It’s true that Havertz has under-performed xG in each of his three seasons at Chelsea: 17 league goals with an xG of 22.21 is not a good return for an elite center-forward. (By the way, guess who else under-performed xG by a similar margin between 2016 and 2018? That’s right: Benzema.)
But does that mean it’s time to write him off? I don’t think so, and not just because he cost a whopping €80 million (plus another €20m in bonuses) and has a huge salary, which means unless you put him on the Romelu Lukaku plan whereby you basically subsidize him to play elsewhere, Havertz is going nowhere.
And more importantly, I don’t think Chelsea is writing him off either. If they did, they wouldn’t be assembling a team in the way they have. Oh, and by the way, consider who Brighton’s center-forward (and leading goalscorer) was in each of Potter’s three seasons at the club was… noted “goal machine” Neal Maupay, who scored a total of 26 over three campaigns. Hardly numbers to rival, say, Erling Haaland.
Havertz is entering the final two years of his contract next season, which means Chelsea will have a big decision to make. For now, it feels like Potter has decreed that he’s part of the future and not another pricey transfer blunder. It’s up to him to prove him right and, if he does, it won’t happen by suddenly turning into a “true 9.”