England’s national lockdown ending meant that a few Premier League clubs were allowed to open their gates to a small number of fans for the first round of December fixtures. Chelsea were one of those lucky clubs, so 2,000 supporters were at Stamford Bridge for their match against Leeds. This was the resumption not just of live soccer but also a decades-old rivalry which had been on pause since the visitors’ unceremonious exile from the upper echelons of the sport back in 2004.
For the initiate, Chelsea-Leeds invokes blood and thunder. Their mutual hatred was forged in the 1970s, an era in which a studs-up challenge was considered a friendly greeting. For games stand out for the sheer violence of their content back then was astonishing, and has left an impression generations down the line. Would the home faithful see a return to gorey form? Nope. Instead they received something entirely different: one of the most gobsmacking misses in the history of the league.
Chelsea fans have seen their fair share of hilarious misses. My (now-former) personal favorite is owned by Ramires, who once contrived to backheel what should have been a back-post tap-in to mournful safety. That play led to me developing a little heuristic for differentiating the truly terrible from the merely bad misses: if the player literally passed out while trying to score, would the ball have gone in? Everyone makes mistakes, but if your body would have done better without the aid of your brain you have truly, truly, truly screwed up.
Anyway, Timo Werner has done even better than that here:
This isn’t just a miss. It’s an outright anti-goal. Had Werner passed out, the ball would have gone in. Had he been rendered ethereal by some intervening deity, the ball would have gone in. Teleported at random? Yep. Etc. The only way Chelsea could not have scored here was for Werner to intervene and do exactly what he did.
Even more remarkably, this was only the beginning. Because once Werner had contrived to stop Oliver Giroud’s flick from bouncing off the post and in, the striker still had a chance to score. But no. From point black range, his panicked swipe deflected off Illan Meslier’s gloves, onto the crossbar, and away to safety.
For an elite forward to accidentally prevent his team scoring a goal might be regarded as unfortunate, but to compound both that error and my wild perversion of Oscar Wilde, to then miss the easiest shot in history starts to look like negligence. Certainly Giroud thought so, and it’s worth watching the replay a few times just to take in his hip-thrusting incredulity.
Fortunately for Werner, Giroud got his goal a few minutes later, and was in a forgiving mood post-match. Unfortunately for Werner, a £54 million summer purchase from RB Leipzig, he’s going to have to live with the fact that not only is he missing golden chances to score, he’s now ascending beyond that mortal plane by actively thwarting his own teammates.
Embracing the ridiculous is perhaps the healthiest way for Chelsea fans to look at his struggles in front of goal (which haven’t been limited to just the Leeds game). Every striker goes through barren spells, just like many strikers have weeks or months where every shot they take seems to go in. Since Werner is still getting into dangerous scoring positions all the time and still missing, his dry patch is taking on an almost supernatural flavor.
In Interesting Times, the late Sir Terry Pratchett suggests that we have a skewed view of the miraculous. “When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that’s a miracle. But of course if someone is killed by a freak chain of events — the oil spilled just there, the safety fence broken just there — that must also be a miracle. Just because it’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.”
Ok, it’s not exactly a matter of life and death, but by Pratchett’s terms, Chelsea fans are witnessing an actual miracle in Werner’s recent play. We exist in a world governed by and understood through statistics and luck; this bizarre run is starting to look so monstrously innumerate that it’s actually threatening a suspension of belief.
Given that the team is winning, and that Werner is contributing to those wins despite the goal drought, my recommendation is to make like Olivier Giroud and gape incredulously (with some hip-thrusting, if that’s your thing) and laugh about it later.