And then there were two. After Timo Werner followed Romelu Lukaku out of the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport, Chelsea were left with two genuine options to lead the line next season – and even that might be generous. Kai Havertz comes into this season with an underwhelming 12 goals in his 57 Premier League appearances to date, and this term is joined by 20-year-old Albania International Armando Broja. Of the two, only Broja can claim to be an archetypal number 9, with Havertz’s strongest position a mystery to all, and questions are being raised about the German’s capabilities as a centre forward after an anonymous showing at Goodison Park to begin the 2022/23 season. So, can Chelsea realistically secure another season of Champions League football with a roster of centre forwards with a combined 18 goals in their fledgling Premier League careers, or do the Londoner’s need further additions?
Broja caught a lot of attention from fans of his parent club when he bagged the sixth league goal of his debut season (on loan at Southampton) against Spurs in February. The academy graduate had been one of the revelations of the season, and his physical performance against Manchester United in his next outing – notable for bullying Maguire with his strength and movement – only added to the hype. However, the rest of the campaign passed without a goal for the Slough born forward, with many Chelsea fans wondering whether the club would decide to cash in on a young asset following a promising breakout season in order to help fund another summer spending spree. However, interest from West Ham and Everton never materialised into a bid and so the youngster was given his big break: starting a season for Chelsea with a realistic expectation of bagging 1500 or more minutes of competitive football.
Kai Havertz is in many ways the opposite of Broja. The German was bought in for a then club record fee, as opposed to being nurtured in Cobham from an early age, he was slight and technical, not physical and fast and he had the biggest clubs in Europe jostling for his signature when he touched down in London. Landing Havertz was seen as a major coup – many wondering if pandemic affected finances had enabled Chelsea to beat off the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to his signature – however Havertz has never really settled. A long-COVID affected first season finished in the most memorable fashion possible: scoring the winning goal in a Champions League final. Whilst that strike has written his name into the club’s history, the former Bayer Leverkusen man has yet to justify his fee. 5 goals in a 5-game stretch in the league in March and April seemed to be a turning point for Havertz, however six blanks and a series of costly misses against the likes of Manchester United and Everton to cap off the campaign left an underwhelming feeling lingering.
The departure of Timo Werner could result in this becoming a make-or-break campaign for his compatriot. No longer will Werner’s hapless finishing take the majority of the headlines, with the spotlight now shining on the under-performing Havertz. Ever since breaking through as the youngest ever debutant in Bundesliga history, Havertz’s talent has been abundantly clear. However, he is yet to prove to the Stamford Bridge faithful that he has what it takes to cut it as a centre forward at the top level. His frustrating propensity to drift through games without making any noticeable impact has also become a bone of contention with fans. Now the undisputed starting number 9 following Lukaku’s departure, it is up to Havertz to take his chance.
Early whispers suggested that Raheem Sterling could fill in as a false nine in Tuchel’s favoured 3-4-2-1 system, flanked by Mason Mount and Havertz. The season opener seemed to provide weight to this argument, as first Havertz and then substitute Broja often drifted left to create space for Sterling in the middle. While Sterling threatened for the first hour of play, and had a goal ruled out as well as a goal-bound effort brilliantly blocked, Havertz was anonymous. Although his movement may have assisted Sterling, it was not a style of performance fitting his enormous potential and price tag. His languid style is often mistaken for a lack of passion but here he did himself no favours with a mere 23 passes attempted the lowest of any of Chelsea’s outfield starters, illustrating his struggles at getting a foothold in proceedings. His most notable moment was a weak header into Pickford’s gloves from a first-half freekick. Broja was a bundle of energy when he came on, but bar one lovely turn he was unable to really affect the game, often left alone out on the left-hand flank.
All of these questions over the two youngsters prompt the question: are they good enough centre forward options to secure a top-four berth? The answer to this is hard to ascertain currently. Although neither has had a long career, both seem to score goals in spurts before going on a drought and Havertz famously is unable to hit top-form until after Christmas.
However, what is certain is that early investment from Boehly and co. suggests that Chelsea are building a side to be successful right now. The purchases of 27-year-old Sterling and 31-year-old Koulibaly are two examples of large sums being spent on players in their primes. Havertz and Broja could potentially need another season or two to acclimatise to the demands of leading the line for a top-6 side in the league, and even then they might not be of a title-winning level (think of the influence Drogba and Costa had on successful Blue’s sides of old). Sterling and Koulibaly are two extremely ambitious players who will have been promised a push for silverware from day-one, and so it is likely that the new ownership group will look to supplement the youthful attack with a sure-fire goal scorer at centre forward.
Herein lies another problem: there is a startling lack of talent on the market in this position. Clubs are having to take risks to secure players in the number 9 role. Think of West Ham’s £30.5 million purchase of Gianluca Scamacca. The Italian was initially wanted by top sides including PSG, however he seemed to be running extremely hot in Serie A, scoring his 16 league goals from an expected goals (xG) rating of 11.13. West Ham were willing to bet on the 6’5 striker carrying on his lethal finishing touch in a new, faster-paced league, but had to part with a considerable chunk of change to secure their man. Tried-and-trusted marksmen are in such short supply that Barcelona plunged themselves into further financial peril with the €45 million acquisition of soon-to-be 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski.
This all suggests that Chelsea find themselves looking for a proven scorer at just the wrong time. Two names heavily linked have been out of favour Barca duo; Memphis Depay and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. These two names understandably won’t have Chelsea fans salivating the way Lukaku and Erling Haaland did last summer. The former is a Premier League flop who has always been injury-prone and the latter captained hated London rivals Arsenal, and is 33 years old, a player very much entering his twilight years. Juventus have moved for Depay in the past day, leaving just Aubameyang as a rumoured target for Chelsea.
Gabonese forward Aubameyang actually hit the floor running in La Liga last season. Joining in January – after being sounded out as a disruptive presence in a young and impressionable Arsenal dressing room – he hit 11 goals and laid on an assist in just 17 league appearances, working out as a very impressive 91 minutes per goal contribution. This compares favourably to Chelsea’s current options: Havertz contributing a goal every 165 minutes of league action last term, Broja every 330 minutes. Interestingly, a lot of Aubameyang’s best work comes from drifting towards the left-hand flank, potentially dove-tailing nicely with Sterling in Tuchel’s system. Although the years will begin to catch up with him, much like Jamie Vardy, Aubameyang has maintained his blistering pace into his thirties, which will be another weapon for Chelsea as well as replacing a loss in explosive speed in the squad following the sale of Werner.
Although this paints a rosy picture of what Aubameyang could bring to Chelsea, it is worth pointing out the glaring drawbacks to such a deal. Disciplinary actions have plagued the forward’s career, which could cause issues in a youthful squad where he will be one of the senior heads. Chelsea also traditionally avoid signing players with no sell-on value and although that approach seems to have been eschewed with Sterling and Koulibaly, signing a 33-year-old forward with a patchy injury record would definitely be a risk. Large wages may also be an issue, with contract talks already beginning with Mount, Reece James and Edouard Mendy, and the new board won’t want to risk alienating these players waiting to sign on the dotted line.
Tuchel has known Aubameyang since his Dortmund days and got more out of him than any other manager in his career to date; impressively helping him to the top-scorer award in Germany ahead of the previously unstoppable Lewandowski in 2016/17. The German manager is playing a big part in Boehly’s recruitment drive and has previously stated multiple times that the focus is on winning now rather than building for the future (hence his stance on Colwill departing on loan). The pair of them will have to decide what is best for Chelsea, whether that means compromising long-term success for the short-term or not. In Havertz and Broja, Tuchel has two of the most talented forwards in England. However, Havertz may not be suited to a centre forward role and might benefit from dropping into a deeper role, whilst Broja needs a season or two of regular playing time before he can be viewed as a title-winning forward. Bringing in a win-now replacement in Aubameyang may hinder the development of the aforementioned pair, and there is no guarantee that it will end in success. But these are the tough decisions that Boehly will have to get used to if he is to fill the hefty boots of his predecessor.
By Daniel New