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The curse of the Chelsea marquee signing: could Timo Werner and Kai Havertz be the cause of Lampard's sacking?

(Image credit: PA)

It was the last meaningful action of Frank Lampard’s reign and it felt symbolic. Timo Werner won and took a penalty. Luton’s Simon Sluga saved it. The summer signing, the man Jurgen Klopp coveted and who surely would have joined Liverpool but a Covid-19 crunch on their finances, the forward outscored only by Robert Lewandowski in last season’s Bundesliga, walked off on Sunday with a solitary goal in his last 16 games. Even that came against League Two Morecambe.

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Kai Havertz had a prime view of his compatriot’s miss. It came during his 13-minute cameo. Under other circumstances, it would have felt he was rested against Championship opponents. But Havertz had been hauled off against Leicester five days earlier. Before that, he was an unused substitute, even when Chelsea needed a goal, against Fulham. He had only played 116 minutes in the previous five league games. He was scarcely overworked. Havertz scored one league goal for Lampard. It was not the return Chelsea had in mind for a player who had been expected to join Real Madrid. 

“The two German players have been massive disappointments,” said Harry Redknapp, speaking as Lampard’s uncle and a manager with a fixation with the transfer market. Redknapp implied the recent recruits were at fault. Chelsea presumably deemed the manager was. Mitigating circumstances – settling in a new country during a pandemic when life is frozen is presumably a lonely experience and Havertz’s difficulties were compounded by contracting coronavirus – may have meant a slow start was likely. Few thought it would be this slow.

Lampard rarely played Havertz as a No. 10 and was increasingly reluctant to use Werner as his centre forward. He stood accused of not using two of the major talents of their generation in their preferred positions. The alternative argument is that neither merited enough of a case for selection. But regardless of how much blame should be apportioned to underachieving players and a now unemployed manager, Werner and Havertz find themselves unwitting additions to an inglorious tradition at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea’s marquee signings, the players designed to take them to another level and who capture Roman Abramovich’s imagination, have a capacity to figure prominently in post-mortems of managerial reigns. Putting it bluntly, they can be a reason they are sacked. A common denominator is that the manager did not want the club signing; Redknapp suggested this was the case again.

Lampard can testify to it. Indeed, he has served as an indictment of the expensive misfits who have ended up damaging popular managers. He scored 21 goals in 2006/07. Andriy Shevchenko got just 13, only four of them in the league, as Jose Mourinho had to rip up his 4-3-3 blueprint to accommodate the owner’s friend. Relations frayed. The Portuguese was sacked soon into the next season, when Lampard was already outscoring the former Ballon d’Or winner again.

Fast forward four years and Fernando Torres was Abramovich’s shiny new striker. He scored one goal in 18 games under Carlo Ancelotti – Lampard got eight in that time – before the Italian was dismissed. 

Reference can be made, too, to Juan Sebastian Veron, the flagship signing of the first Abramovich spending spree who floundered under Claudio Ranieri, and to Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world’s costliest goalkeeper whose low save percentage hardly helped Maurizio Sarri even before his display of dissent when he refused to come off in the Carabao Cup final undermined the Italian and may have cost him silverware.

Torres achieved a measure of redemption, with a cathartic strike at the Nou Camp in the 2012 Champions League semi-final and 22 goals, one of them in the Europa League final, the following season. Yet like Shevchenko, Arrizabalaga and Veron, he still belongs in the bracket of Chelsea’s transfer-market mishaps.

Werner and Havertz, unlike all bar Arrizabalaga, arrived earlier in their careers, with more time to alter impressions, with the potential to become the building blocks of the side for the best part of a decade. Yet they will have to fly in the face of Chelsea history to do so. Finishing off a Chelsea manager, albeit accidentally, is rarely the shortcut to Stamford Bridge greatness for the big buys.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.