Last summer, a host of clubs had begun to express an interest in Kai Havertz. He seemed the model of the modern German attacking midfielder: powerful, quick, intelligent and with a capacity for scoring goals. That a year later he has chosen Chelsea is significant, not just for what he may bring on the pitch but because of what it says about the developing project at Stamford Bridge – particularly given Havertz was so keen to join he waived his signing-on bonus. This feels like a statement signing in the best possible sense and with that will come expectation.
Trying to rank leagues against each other is broadly futile, given differing histories, contexts and priorities, but there is something striking about the fourth-best team in England last season being able to sign Havertz and Timo Werner. That the Premier League can financially outgun the Bundesliga is no longer news, but that Chelsea are more appealing than Madrid or Barcelona – or at least prepared to spend money in a way the big two in Spain are not – does suggest a shift in the balance of power.
Chelsea’s spree may indicate nothing more than they have reserves after being banned from making signings last summer. Or it may be the club has underestimated the impact of the pandemic. But with Cristiano Ronaldo gone and Lionel Messi vocally unhappy and perhaps leaving on a free transfer next summer, and no Spanish side reaching the Champions League semi-final for the first time since 2007, La Liga is perhaps losing its allure. Judging on the results of one season is dangerous, particularly when that season is as odd as 2019-20, but all four Spanish sides went out in the same way, overpowered physically and tactically.
None of which will be of anything other than passing interest to Chelsea fans. Their club have signed one of the most coveted young players in Europe, a rangy midfielder/forward who has scored 36 league goals in a career that comprises 99 league starts. He has a capacity to make well-timed late runs into the box that recall two former Chelsea favourites – Michael Ballack and, more pertinently, Frank Lampard – although he is probably more creative and imaginative than either. Certainly he is quicker: last season he hit a top speed of 35.02kph in the Bundesliga, just over 10-second pace if extended over 100m.
He is also versatile. It may be Havertz is used centrally, as an attacking midfielder, against opponents who sit deep, when his capacity to make late runs and find space will be of most value, but wide against better opponents when there is need for more solidity and discipline than is offered by Hakim Ziyech. Havertz is a diligent tracker but can also attack the back post and cut in from the right on to his favored left foot.
Yet for all his creative and goalscoring abilities, Havertz’s greatest impact may end up being at the other end of the pitch. It’s not just that he’s 6ft 2in, adding height to a team that at times lacked it, which in part explains why Chelsea conceded so many goals to crossed set plays last season (only Norwich and Aston Villa let in more). It’s that he is used to operating in an aggressive press.
The biggest doubt about Lampard as a manager is the vulnerability of his sides to the counter. No club conceded as many goals to fast breaks in the Premier League last season as Chelsea and no side in the Championship conceded such a high proportion of goals on the counter as Lampard’s Derby in 2018-19. It is too easy to say that is an issue of personnel, although the experience of Thiago Silva may help, as would a return to form for N’Golo Kanté, who last season endured his least impressive Premier League campaign.
Counter-pressing is less to do with individuals than with structure, which is why Lampard must bear so much responsibility. Havertz has grown up with a pressing game at Leverkusen and has played under two of its more radical proponents in Roger Schmidt and Peter Bosz. Over his four seasons in the Bundesliga, he has averaged 1.29 regains and 0.93 fouls per game. Werner similarly, although his regain figures are not so high, has played consistently in hard-pressing systems at Stuttgart and RB Leipzig. They will still need direction and pressing is pointless unless it is a group activity, but at least both should have an instinctive sense of what is required.
And that is the doubt that must gnaw beneath the surface. This has been an extraordinary summer at Chelsea, the most exciting array of signings since the very beginning of the Roman Abramovich era. An ageing front three – Willian, Pedro and (almost certainly) Olivier Giroud – has been replaced by a thrusting new one – Ziyech, Werner and Havertz. Plus, in Christian Pulisic, they already had one of the brightest attacking prospects in the world. Three-quarters of a new defence has arrived and a goalkeeper may soon follow.
The spending spree has been facilitated largely by the sales of Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata, both of whom had been fully amortised, meaning the fee received counted as pure profit for financial fair play purposes. While Hazard is a player of undoubted technical brilliance, there was a sense that he was slightly too individualistic for the modern game. The same cannot be said for the new recruits: Rafa Benítez, who never trusted Hazard, would enjoy working with any of them.
The squad shimmers with promise. Expectations are raised – which at this stage probably means cutting the gap to the top two rather than a title challenge – and that means Lampard coming under far greater scrutiny than last season.
After that investment there can be no more excuses about his inexperience or the need to learn the job. Chelsea cannot again concede 54 league goals. This is an elite squad and that demands an elite manager. Lampard has to prove he is that. Havertz, Werner and the rest bring great opportunities, but they also bring scrutiny and pressure.
The Guardian Sport