It is to say the least somewhat curious that the two sides who will be vying to win the UEFA Champions League in Portugal on Saturday (on CBS and Paramount+) would struggle between them to field a traditional center forward who has consistently won their manager's trust this season. Indeed both Chelsea and Manchester City reached the end of the Premier League season with their top scorers not coming from their expensive strike forces but central midfielders.
Ilkay Gundogan's stunning run of form around the new year made him City's leading scorer with 13 goals to his name, good for ninth place in the golden boot race. Chelsea, meanwhile, did not have any player reach double figures over 38 games. Their top scorer was Jorginho with seven. All of them were penalties.
Speaking to CBS Sports, Jorginho had a tongue in cheek message for those Chelsea players operating further up the pitch than him. "Come on guys, I can't be the top scorer for the team too!"
When the strikers aren't scoring it is little surprise that Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel have tried others in the role. Indeed this could be a final where both managers line up with strikers who are rather more like playmakers or number 10s; Kevin De Bruyne for City and Kai Havertz for Chelsea.
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Havertz finally settles as Chelsea's forward
It is not guaranteed, particularly where Tuchel is concerned. The game plan that took him to two wins from two games against City was largely based around unleashing Timo Werner in behind the high line of the opposition defense, but the pacey striker has struggled in front of goal and missed a string of tempting chances this season. Olivier Giroud perhaps lacks the legs at nearly 35 to consistently start for Chelsea and Tammy Abraham seems to have slipped out of favor with his manager.
As such, in some of the biggest matches of the season, including the second leg of the Champions League semi-final win over Real Madrid, Tuchel has handed the central spot in his front three to Havertz. Though he moved from Bayer Leverkusen as one of the most universally admired young prospects in world football, there was always something confusing about the 21-year-old. He's a curious blend of height, speed and technical excellence that would be a more than natural fit in the striking position if he did not look so at home as a playmaker with runners either side of him.
"I used to play it sometimes at Leverkusen as well," Havertz tells CBS Sports. "I'm not like the real number nine, I'm just like something in between. That suits me very well, I feel very confident there and the last few matches were good. I hope I continue playing like this. Maybe it's harder for defenders that I don't make the runs they're used to."
For Chelsea, Havertz can do a bit of everything in that central role. His tendency to drop deep offers a link man between the deep-seating midfield duo and inside forwards such as Christian Pulisic, Werner, and Mason Mount when he plays that role. Unlike other options available to Tuchel at striker, Havertz is able to keep his side's attacks moving in the final third, he averages 91.9 percent pass completion in the final third when playing as a center forward, higher both than the mark he sets in other positions and than any other attacker who has played a significant number of minutes in the position this season.
He may still look better as a traditional creator with runners ahead of him and space to drive into. He's certainly more of a creative force from deeper considering he averages only 0.77 chances created per 90 when played as a striker as opposed to 1.05 as an attacking midfielder and 1.6 out wide, but anyone who saw his outstanding performance against Real Madrid would be convinced that Havertz as the central attacker is worth persevering with.
No player in a Chelsea shirt beat more opponents than him nor did anyone have more shots or win more aerial duels. On that night he was a dynamo in the press yet Havertz seemed to have all the time in the world when the ball was at his feet, nutmegging defenders one moment and clipping the ball against the crossbar in the lead up to Werner's opener. This was a far cry from the player who acknowledges he was weighed down by expectations when he arrived in England with a $100million price tag to his name. Injuries and a bout of COVID-19 seemed to weigh him down further but now the confidence that Tuchel gives to him is flowing onto the pitch.
"I think I knew when I came here that I needed some time to adapt. Everyone said that to me. It was a big change for me but now I feel good again, confident and I think now it's time to play good.
"Of course I feel the expectations. When I came here I tried to keep that away from me but of course when you come here for £80million and you have to perform it's not easy. I'm still very young. At the beginning it felt like I had a big backpack on my shoulder. It was very hard to play. I didn't feel fresh. For the last six, seven months I feel good again."
Kevin De Bruyne is happy to play anywhere
Meanwhile at City a key narrative of this season has been preparing for a post-Sergio Aguero team. Injuries have hampered the Argentine over the past two years, keeping him to just 14 Premier League appearances and four goals since football's return from its coronavirus-enforced break. In the future the likes of Harry Kane and Erling Haaland might be the ones to pick up Aguero's mantle but in the meantime it has fallen, at least partly, on De Bruyne.
"I've been playing for six years with Sergio since I came here and I think from the first second we had a very good connection on the pitch," De Bruyne tells CBS Sports in tribute to his soon-to-be former teammate. "The first goal I scored, he assisted it to me [a smart flick outside the box that teed up the Belgian to drive low into the bottom corner in a 2-1 loss to West Ham in September 2015]. After that we found each so other easily on the pitch that for me he was easy to play with.
"He was such a relaxed guy and obviously with me being a creator and him being a goal scorer it was like an obvious connection and we played great football."
This being a team managed by Guardiola, De Bruyne has not been doing anything as simple as just playing as a traditional striker. Indeed it is even up for debate in which matches the Belgian has played that position: consult Opta and they will say he has played just four Premier League and Champions League matches as a center forward, fbref place it at three, Transfermarkt have it at seven. All that they seem to agree on is that in the decisive games of the European season the 29-year-old has gravitated towards that central role.
In part that positional debate might be because he does things in this role that are so dissimilar to what has come to be expected of De Bruyne during his time at Manchester City. Under Manuel Pellegrini and in Guardiola's early seasons he tended to occupy channels on the right side of the pitch either as a winger or one of two 'free eights' with license to push forward from central midfield. As a center forward he has often drifted wide to the left, a position from which he will cut infield and strike at goal from outside the box.
As is the case with Havertz, De Bruyne's drifting out wide opens up space for others to dart infield. On perhaps no occasion was this more effective than against pre-Tuchel Chelsea in a 3-1 win in early January. City's first two goals came with the Belgian far away from the central attacking spot he would be expected to operate in.
For the second in particular, his movement out into the left channel dragged Kurt Zouma with him as the center back looked to stop the attack at source. All that did was open up a seam for Phil Foden to drive into. Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta both spotted the danger and felt compelled to act but the former's sliding interception merely served as a one-two with De Bruyne before he slipped the ball to Foden for the assist.
On other occasions, as in the quarter-final win away to Borussia Dortmund, De Bruyne might exploit those lines of attacks in a more direct manner. In the Westfalenstadion several opportunities came from the Belgian attacking the space inside right back Mateu Morey and pushing forward to take shots from the area around the box. He did not score but few players on the pitch looked more likely to do so.
The way De Bruyne interprets the role is undeniably different from Aguero at his best but both serve a similar purpose for Guardiola. The sheer gravity of their talent warps defenses around them, opening up opportunities for them and their teammates. It is a role that De Bruyne is happy to take on with no complaints.
"Obviously I had a few games there but how I play that role is totally different than how a striker plays it," De Bruyne says when asked what he learned from Aguero to apply to the center forward role. "I'm not a striker but I learned over the years to play there sometimes and sometimes we had to do it this year. It worked well.
"Honestly, I don't care where I play. I've been playing every position since the beginning of my career except for center back and maybe full back, I've played every position possible. I think I'm used to it. The last years I've played the same position mostly, but this year it's changed a little bit more and I'm fine with that."
It may only be a temporary posting anyway. Come the summer both City and Chelsea are likely to find themselves battling it out for the same strikers, with Guardiola and Tuchel evidently not entirely convinced with the options at their disposal. That Tottenham's Harry Kane is of such interest to them would suggest a desire to keep that playmaking quality in their center forward but ally it with players who are more natural finishers in the penalty area.
Still, such players are in short supply and it is intriguing that given the choice, both managers have gravitated towards central attacking options that are more focused on unlocking defenses than finishing chances. Past evidence of this game would suggest that there will be goals to be had between Chelsea and Manchester City -- only two of 37 meetings in the past 15 years ended 0-0 -- but should Tuchel and Guardiola line up as expected then those at the nominal tip of the attack may not be the ones to score them.