LONDON — There was a point on Saturday when things felt depressingly familiar for Timo Werner. Chelsea were 1-0 up against Southampton courtesy of Trevoh Chalobah‘s ninth-minute header when the 25-year-old rose to head home a Callum Hudson-Odoi cross for a much-needed, confidence-boosting goal that may well have settled the contest. However, referee Martin Atkinson was encouraged by the video assistant referee, Mike Dean, to take another look at a fairly innocuous challenge from Cesar Azpilicueta on Kyle Walker-Peters in the build-up, and after doing so, he disallowed the goal, to the fury of those in blue.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel was booked for his protests, and the officials were greeted with howls of derision as they made their way off at the interval at a rain-sodden Stamford Bridge.
Werner is used to having goals chalked off, more often than not for offside, leading him to describe his debut year in England as “the unluckiest season in my career,” with a remarkable 16 strikes disallowed since arriving from RB Leipzig in a €60 million deal. It is one facet of his struggle that has led to speculation he could look to return to Germany after finding his path complicated further by Romelu Lukaku‘s €115 million arrival from Inter Milan.
Tuchel insisted during Friday’s pre-match news conference that Werner has no reason to feel frustrated, born of the belief that the German international remains committed to working his way back to form. And, on Saturday, Werner’s perseverance was rewarded. Nobody on either team had more shots than his six; his four on target was also a game high, and he turned the game back in Chelsea’s favour after James Ward-Prowse scored a penalty and was then sent off following another VAR intervention, this time for a late tackle on Jorginho.
Substitute Ross Barkley played a raking pass to Cesar Azpilicueta, who crossed first time for Werner to finish after 84 minutes, and after Ben Chilwell added a third in the 89th, the Blues transformed a difficult afternoon into one they ended top of the Premier League. In the process, Werner ended a nine-game run without a goal in the League — his first since April 24 against West Ham, and only his seventh overall — finally giving him something to build on in the weeks ahead.
“We have the feeling that every time he scores, there’s some VAR decision to take it away from him,” said Tuchel of Werner. “Very, very narrow decisions. I remember one against Liverpool, for example, that was super close.
“He has to keep on going. He can still improve his game — there are a lot of things to improve — but we are happy and relieved that he scored in the late minutes of this game because it was a very, very important goal for us to secure the win.”
Yet it could all have gone differently, and it threatened to be another troubling 90 minutes for Tuchel after defeats to Manchester City and Juventus in the past week. Chelsea had the ball in the net three times in the first half as they dominated proceedings, with the five changes to the starting line-up both a reflection of the fatigue evident in Turin and the energy those who came off the bench brought late on.
Chalobah, Chilwell, Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were all given the chance to pick up where they left off with Werner also drafted in, and the only real disappointment from the first half was they weren’t further ahead. Lukaku finished superbly in the 36th minute after a trademark marauding run from Antonio Rudiger but was correctly flagged offside before Werner’s effort was disallowed.
Tuchel, the master of the half-time change, was outshone in that department by his opposite number, Ralph Hasenhuttl, who introduced Ibrahima Diallo for Theo Walcott at the break and shuffled the pack to give Southampton more control in midfield. The visitors, without a win in the league this season, deserved their equaliser, coming just after the hour mark as Chilwell brought down former Chelsea defender Valentino Livramento in the box, giving Ward-Prowse the chance to convert.
Lukaku once again looked an isolated figure. He had just nine touches in the first half, a tally that rose dramatically to 24 at full-time but only as Chelsea maximised their man advantage following Ward-Prowse’s 77th-minute dismissal for a hard foul on Jorginho. Tuchel then proved he hadn’t lost his touch for game-changing substitutes, using his final change to introduce Barkley — ahead of Kai Havertz — and the midfielder promptly played a brilliant cross-field pass to find Azpilicueta for Werner’s match winner in the 84th minute.
“In the last two games, we lost and felt that something was lacking, so we decided to put Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] in because we were aware of the high pressing in midfield, but we still wanted to go through midfield. To have Ruben and [Kovacic], who cannot only pass, but drive with the ball to escape the pressing, that was the reason we picked them. With Ross [Barkley], we hope he can show what he shows in training. At the moment, he is very active, he does not feel the pressure and is ready to create something.
“We have to pay attention to actual form, we need to win games and today was a day where we needed a bit of a mix.”
Chilwell, in his first league start of the season, made certain of the points with a sharp volley in the 89th minute after Lukaku had somehow hit the post from inside the 6-yard box. The England defender is another looking to resurrect his career after a disappointing spell. Werner has company in that regard, and both men will want more afternoons like this.