It is a sporting truism that some athletes “get better” by not playing. Absence is flattering to the reputation. Time dims the bad bits and illuminates the good. The problem for Timo Werner in this dynamic, the one flaw in the plan, is that there haven’t actually been any good bits yet.
Or at least, not enough. And not until now. Instead Werner has been a frantic presence in west London, a £50m player whose basic footballing range has been seriously questioned. Most recently he was compared by one pundit to a non-scoring Jamie Vardy – which is, let’s face it, no Jamie Vardy at all, a case of Bez minus the dancing.
Over to you then, old son. Werner made his fourth Chelsea appearance in the past five weeks at Wembley, asked by Thomas Tuchel to lead the line in this FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on the back of two goals in the past four months.
He did so, to his manager’s credit, in a system geared to Werner’s obvious strength. This was Tuchel’s Chelsea in its most tightly-stitched form, with eight defensive players in the XI. But the plan was clear. Chelsea would counterattack from those spaces where City like to play close to halfway, using Werner’s speed as a rapier, with the hope he could show the required certainty when a chance did finally arrive.
At which point it is worth taking a moment to consider the role of confidence for a professional footballer. It is fascinating and also galling to see the role basic human frailty can play in the professional lives of these superlative athletes.
The ballad of Timo, the sight of a man very obviously struggling with his own flickering vision of how to play this game, has been mirrored by the struggles of Raheem Sterling at City.
There was an obvious parallel here as both men returned to their lineups. Watching Sterling is a tender, painful business right now – painful mainly because he feels it most of all. Sterling has one goal in his last 12 games. That was against San Marino on this ground, when he let out a shout, not of joy but of anger when he finally put the ball into the net.
Doubt has found a faultline and crept in. Sterling will always keep coming for more. But at Wembley, as he misplaced passes or shanked his shots, he had a familiar look of the last few weeks, a kind of stunned helpless smile. It will turn for him. But not here, where it was instead the grimacing figure in deeper blue who found the day bending his way.
Again credit must go to Tuchel, who asked his man to pare his game back to a very specific movement. If there is a target-zone in this City team it is the space left by João Cancelo when he operates as an auxiliary midfielder, combined with the high positions of the centre-backs.
Werner lingered in those spaces. And with six minutes gone there was an exact rehearsal of the move that would eventually decide the game. Ben Chilwell played a though pass into the inside left channel. Werner sprinted in behind and crossed. Hakim Ziyech slotted the ball into the net. Werner had moved too soon. He was offside.
Fast forward 49 minutes. Chilwell again played a though pass into the inside left position. Werner again sprinted in behind. This time he had curved his run just enough, scorching away into all that empty green space.
Zach Steffen came haring out, taking away the choice, the doubt, the burden of the finish, and giving Werner the perfect angle to pass inside to Ziyech, who – again – slotted the ball into the net.
And that turned out to be pretty much that. This was a game where for long periods the only real entertainment came in some expert niggling violence from Fernandinho, who seems to have dispensation from the FA to play under 1970s rules while everyone else struggles with the unforgiving present. As the game wore on it was surprising not to see Fernandinho enjoying a punch-up with Kevin Keegan, a bout of cramp and a cold bottle of milk at full time.
Phil Foden came on and looked the most natural footballer imaginable, a 20-year-old capable of entering this game and making it look like everyone else has just been borrowing his ball. Sterling fought, and stumbled, to the end. Perhaps, if Pep could take a note from Tuchel, this is a player who might also do well to strip his game back, to stop trying so hard to score and to dribble.
Instead it was Werner who affected the game through his own hazy run of form, who also left the pitch grimacing at another goal blank, but who had his best Chelsea moment to date in between.