In the build-up to the weekend’s big clash between top-four hopefuls Liverpool and Leicester City, former Foxes centre-back Robert Huth spoke exclusively with Compare.bet. The former German international, who also played for Chelsea, touted Leicester youngster James Justin for Gareth Southgate’s EURO 2021 squad, comparing him to Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson. Huth spoke about Liverpool’s poor run of form coming into the tie, identifying the addition of Thiago as an area of concern. He also discussed Thomas Tuchel’s rejuvenated Chelsea squad, naming Mason Mount as the club’s best player and backing misfiring striker Timo Werner to find the back of the net.
DB: At this stage of the Premier League season five years ago, Leicester were three points clear of Manchester City and Arsenal with fifteen games to play. Was it really one game at a time or by this point were you starting to dream about a possible title?
RH: A bit of both. Certainly dreaming about the title for sure, we were so far removed from the normal contenders and the expectation was for us to drop out of the title race. But once you start kicking off into the games it seems to become more and more realistic. I personally had a couple of moments where you wonder what could be. But the reality is the games come so thick and fast through the season that you might allow yourself half an hour when you’re home, maybe have a smile and a laugh about what could possibly be but when you get back to work it’s full-on again.
DB: This time around Man City are five points clear of Manchester United with a game in hand. Can you envisage them not going on to win the title?
RH: They’ve been unbelievable really, what is it 14 wins from 14 now? So the chances are they’re going to lose a couple, but if there’s one team that can go unbeaten from now to then it’s City. It’s tough to ignore them, and the scary thing is they have been doing it without Aguero, De Bruyne and Laporte has had injuries this season. It’s scary to think about what they could put out when they have the full team back. For sure they’re the team to catch at the moment, they’ve got real energy and momentum – that’s so important.
DB: Your old club Chelsea seem to be benefitting from the buzz that usually comes with appointing a new boss, they’re undefeated under Tuchel in four games, following the poor run of form which saw Lampard fired. Do you think Tuchel is the right man to lead Chelsea back into title contention?
RH: Well, clearly Chelsea think so. He’s still figuring out his best eleven, he’s come in midway through the season when the team was a bit down. I’m not saying it’s easy to pick up a team, but when someone [new] comes in, he can give you a different chat, give someone else a chance as we saw with Alonso coming in, Mount got dropped. It gives the team a little bit more ‘oomph’ to players who haven’t been in a ‘feel–good’ mood recently, and we’ve seen that the last four to five games.
DB: We’ve seen Tuchel earn a reputation for being a divisive figure after allegedly falling out with Dortmund hierarchy and PSG director Leonardo. Do you think that’s a concern at a club like Chelsea?
RH: I’d say it’s not a concern for Chelsea, we’ve seen it recently with Lampard and Sarri – Sarri won the Europa League and it was ‘see you later’. So it’s not great having that in the back of your mind, but if there’s one club that can deal with these personalities it’s Chelsea. We saw Mourinho in his first tenure there, where he won two titles but then they fell out and asked him to leave nicely. I think Chelsea is the sort of club for Tuchel where he may not be a dominant figure in the club like he has been in previous clubs. We’ve seen Chelsea aren’t afraid to pull the plug if they feel the manager isn’t doing a good job.
DB: Tuchel has promised to get Timo Werner ‘smiling again’. He has just four goals in 22 Premier League appearances. How would you assess his time as a Chelsea player so far?
RH: He needs to get him scoring again, not smiling! It’s difficult for sure and circumstances don’t help, having no supporters there and taking a break in summer after the German league. But he has struggled – he’s come with a big price tag and you see it sometimes where the ball just doesn’t seem to go into the back of the net. But I like his body language, I like his work ethic, he’s had chances in the past so it’s not like he’s not getting into positions or creating chances, it’s just a matter of time before he does score. He’s not the sort of character who will give up, you hear him speak in interviews and he’s always positive. He still has enthusiasm and gets the ball and runs at defenders. So his confidence is affected in front of goal, but in terms of general play, he still looks sharp, fast and is a danger for defenders. Recently he’s had some airshots and the missed penalty, but one will go off his shin and then he’ll be up and scoring.
DB:Werner is Germany’s number one option up top. As a nation who has produced some top strikers over the years, what’s the perception of him in Germany and amongst fans of the national team?
RH: Well, he’s been scoring there so they love him! Germany in general has such an unbelievable history in football, so thinking about the past and how you compare to other strikers could be quite daunting. He’s everything you expect from a German striker – he’s hard-working, believes in himself, does the right things and that’s what the fans like to see.
DB:Could you see Werner becoming one of the Premier League’s top strikers under Tuchel?
RH: At the moment you’ve got to be honest and say he looks a bit off it in terms of goalscoring. But who was to know that Vardy was going to come onto the scene and win the Golden Boot a couple of years ago, it’s unbelievably difficult to predict. At the moment he’s got other worries though rather than thinking of how he’ll rank in the Premier League, he just needs to focus on getting on the scoresheet and getting his team up the league.
DB: While misfiring strikers seems to be the main concern for Chelsea at the moment, do you see any other areas of the team that need reinforcement?
RH: Centre-back would be one. I was surprised Rudiger came back in after he was frozen out for a while. Christensen obviously hasn’t been playing a lot and Tomori’s gone so it leaves you with Thiago Silva who’s injured now. He’s the wrong side of 35, and not to be ageist but that’s when you start looking to the future and youth and investing some freshness into the squad.
DB: Tuchel has employed a back three in his first few games in charge of Chelsea, a formation they won the title with under Antonio Conte. Do you think this current squad have what it takes to make it work and emulate that success next season?
RH: The reason Conte won the league is because Chelsea were so unbelievable defensively, weren’t they? They hit teams on the break and were just really difficult to beat. I can’t see Tuchel playing that way. He likes high–energy, offensive football. It might work for them, but it won’t be as defensive.
DB: With the shift to a back three, it seems Alonso has initially been preferred at the wing-back position over Ben Chilwell. Do you think he should be concerned with European Championships coming up this summer. Is he England’s best option in that position?
RH: Tuchel has got Alonso in, who played wing-back for Conte, so he has someone experienced in that role, in the first couple of games while he gets familiar with his squad anyway. I wouldn’t look too much into it in terms of personnel. Tuchel has probably looked at it and thought ‘he’s played 50 games in that role for Conte’. Chilwell has mainly played in a back four. It’s a different setup when you play as a wing-back.
I think Chilwell is England’s best option if they play a back four, for sure. I know Ben, he’s a hard-working guy and he takes these challenges very seriously. He’ll push hard, he’s been playing in the last couple of games again. He brings so much to the team – his energy, he started to score a few goals prior to Tuchel arriving. It’s something he’s been working on. I’ve been impressed with the way he’s been playing in his first year, after the big-money move. Now we see a little bit of a challenge, where he’s been dropped for the first one or two games [under Tuchel] and he’s got back in. He just needs to get his head down and make sure Alonso doesn’t get in.
DB: Another player that has been left out of the starting XI under Tuchel in Kante, who hasn’t started once, with Jorginho and Kovacic preferred. In January, Tuchel said he’s an admirer of Kante and plans to deploy him in a “double–six”, arguably his best position. Who do you think is Chelsea’s best midfield duo?
RH: Kante has suffered with injuries in the past, so it’s just a matter of getting some training under his belt before he gets back into the team. I think Kovacic, Mount and Kante starting would be something that Chelsea fans would get excited about. A fully fit Kante sometimes does play for two. We just haven’t been able to see enough of him. He brings energy and intelligence – reading the game really well, intercepting balls and starting attacks. I think it’ll be a matter of time, he’s too good to be on the bench.
DB: Having faced stiff competition for the centre-back spot yourself at Chelsea, what’s it like for a player at the club that is trying to fight for a place in the manager’s XI?
RH: Historically, the spine of the team rarely changes. For a young centre-back on the bench, in my day, it’s really difficult to break into the starting lineup. Managers have so much trust in these positions. You usually have a captain or a leader through the middle of the pitch. You tend to see more changes on the wing or up front.
DB: Someone who has become almost an ever-present in recent times is Mason Mount. He was left out of Tuchel’s first XI against Wolves, which caused some surprise, however, he was the man of the match against Spurs and scored against Sheffield United. Should Mason Mount be one of the first names on the team sheet in your opinion?
RH: Well, he has been, apart from that one game really. Even in losses, like the game against Man City, I always thought he’s Chelsea’s best player. With his runs and his energy, the one thing you can’t hold against him is his work rate. Whether they’re two or three goals down, he’ll still give it a shot. Tuchel probably thought he’s such a good player, maybe if I drop him he’s gonna become even better with that fire in his belly – and he did! He’s come back into the starting lineup and has looked really good, not that he didn’t look good before. After having that taste of disappointment being dropped, to show Tuchel “I’m gonna show you that I’m undroppable”.
DB: The introduction of academy players like Mount and Abraham was one of the bright spots of Lampard’s tenure. Do you think he was given enough time by the Chelsea board?
RH: No, of course not. Chelsea never do, do they? Reece as well, he’s done well coming through. Two months or so before his sacking, Chelsea were flying. They were flying in the Champions League, Mendy came in and kept eight clean sheets early on. Everything was looking really good. It went a bit flat, but these things happen in a season – you look at Manchester United and Everton, who also started the season off really well, winning so many games. I personally would have liked him to have a bit longer, just to see how he comes through. He never got the chance to fight his own corner, being let go so quickly. But it’s sport, he’ll know first hand how tough it can be with a sacking. Nevertheless, the supporters won’t forget his past.
DB:After his role at Derby, Lampard ascended quite quickly, landing a job at one of the Premier League’s ‘big six’. Do you think he has the credentials to land another big Premier League job?
RH: I think they’ll be far and few between. People are very quick to judge managers, aren’t they? They’ll say ‘oh, you didn’t get Derby promoted’, but there are only two teams that can go up automatically, then it’s a dog fight. If he had been promoted, it would have been a natural choice for Chelsea to get him. Sports has so many thin margins where it’s pure luck at times. But I think he’ll have a bit of time off, so he can analyse, see where he can improve. He might look to improve his backroom team and have someone a bit more senior working with him. If you were a chairman of a Premier League club you’d certainly acknowledge his application.
DB: Despite being sacked, he’ll remain a club legend for his time as a Chelsea player. Do you think the door is open for him to make a return further down the line in his managerial career?
RH: If we use Mourinho as an example, he got there, won two leagues, fell out with the chairman and went on to bigger and better things then came back and won the league again. But with managers coming back, I can only really think of Mourinho and Zidane at Real Madrid. I don’t know if you can think of any other managers that returned?
DB: Dalglish at Liverpool, albeit with a huge gap between the two spells.
RH: Yeah, historically I think it doesn’t really happen – once you go, you go. It’s only a slim chance that clubs will come back in for you again.
DB: Last week Harry Redknapp wrote in his column that Lampard had little input over which players Chelsea signed, such as Werner and Havertz. Similarly, before Liverpool brought in reinforcements on deadline day, Jurgen Klopp had said he didn’t know if they would. With many clubs employing sporting directors to lead transfer strategy, do you think this makes a manager’s job harder?
RH: Well theoretically it’s meant to make it easier for them. It gives a buffer to the manager between the Chairman and the board, you’ve got that cushion with the sporting director being there to support the manager in the club. But, we’ve seen with Marseille and Andre Villas-Boas offering his resignation because the club went behind his back in signing a player so that’s the negative side of things. Ideally, you don’t just buy a player. The sporting director should speak to the manager and narrow down three to five players that are available for each position within their budget. I would think you’d let the manager have the final decision as ultimately he has to play him on the pitch. It’s worked for some clubs and it hasn’t worked for others. Klopp is used to that sort of set up coming from Dortmund and Mainz, so he’s very accommodated to how that works and uses it as a good tool to get the best players he wants in.
DB:One club who has enjoyed great success in the transfer market in recent years is Liverpool. They’ve had some uncharacteristic performances this season and are now 10 points off top spot. Do you think they have a chance at winning any silverware this season?
RH: Well they’re out of the FA Cup and the League Cup. In terms of winning silverware, we’ve seen Liverpool before where they can turn it on and just blow teams away. I just think it’s tough at the moment with all the injuries they have. Some of the players’ performances have dropped off, naturally in my opinion, having been the best team in Europe, even the world for the last three years. Even if Gomez and van Djik come back any time soon, it looks like Liverpool have one good game and then three or four where teams get on top of them.
DB: In their last eight Premier League games, Liverpool have won just two — 3-1 wins against Spurs and West Ham. In the other six, they’ve scored two goals, often being stifled by low blocks. Their injury problems at centre-back have been well documented, but how much of their poor form can be attributed to their forwards?
RH: They are such an amazing machine Liverpool, when they have all the players available they’re literally 11 machines on a pitch. When you take a few out, you lose that sort of momentum, like Henderson playing at centre-back – people not playing in their positions. While it might be doable for the short–term, ultimately you want all your best players playing in their best positions and that hasn’t come. Where Liverpool used to be really threatening on the counter, winning the ball high up, having Thiago in there now, as great a player as he is, he just doesn’t have the energy. I mean [he’s had an] amazing career for sure, but he’s not going to be flying around like Henderson does, like Wijnaldum does, like all the other players. They need a real high energy player to break the lines when they win the ball. All that sort of thing is missing. Like Klopp used to say, it’s heavy metal football and they’d just blow teams away, but that sort of energy is missing at the moment.
DB: He was widely derided during his time at the club, but did Liverpool make a mistake letting Lovren go considering the injury history of Gomez and Matip?
RH: Hindsight isn’t it, it’s wonderful. He was 31 when he left, and as a board, you sometimes have to make a tough decision and let someone go. He’s on big wages, Gomez was coming through, Matip the year before had a decent season, obviously van Djik as well, so you think you’ve got three good defenders here. Do we need a fourth one on big wages? I’m guessing that was the logic behind it. But in hindsight now and not knowing that everyone was going to be injured, then you probably have to say, ‘no keep him.’ But like I said, it’s hindsight, isn’t it?
DB: City’s previous season somewhat mirrors this Liverpool campaign – the loss of Laporte was a huge blow in their title charge. He’s back this season, but Pep has stuck with the duo of John Stones and Ruben Dias. Do you think this means Laporte’s future lies elsewhere?
RH: No, actually. We’ve seen with Stones – for the best part of 18 months he hasn’t got into the team. It looks like Pep doesn’t hold grudges, he just assesses the situation as it is. When you’re injured and someone comes in and takes their chance, it’s your manager’s job to make a decision and he’s played with Dias and Stones and they haven’t conceded many at all and they’re unbeaten 12 games in a row. So sometimes, as much as it sucks to be on the bench, you’ve just got to think, ‘listen, the lads in front of me are doing a good job’ and you’ve got to be ready when you get in. Sometimes it’s very easy to think, ‘ah I’m just going to get out.’ But realistically who’s got that sort of money at the moment, £50–60 million I’m guessing for him at the moment with the circumstances going on with coronavirus and the lack of finances, and realistically he’s got to stay at City and fight for his place. We’ve still got Champions League, we’ve got the finals coming up, it sucks right now, but when you’re chance arrives you’ve just got to take it.
DB:Much of the talk around the title race so far has involved Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs, despite your former club Leicester being in the mix. It seems Manchester City are running away with it after this weekend’s results. What do Leicester need to do to establish themselves as title contenders next season?
RH: I mean every time at the moment when they start putting the squeeze onto the top two teams, they always then draw or don’t get a result. We’ve seen with Vardy being injured over the last couple of games that’s when it happens isn’t it? They’ve lost, they’ve drawn. I know it’s difficult and Vardy is so vital to the team, but I’ve always thought they need a really good backup striker. It’s a similar situation to Spurs, they’re so reliant on Kane for his goals. It’s a little bit similar with Leicester, in terms of having Vardy upfront — he’s so vital he’s so important. But what do you do, spend big money on someone who pushes them even more? It’s a tough one, but we have seen when he’s not playing it’s a different team.
DB: Wesley Fofana has come in and earned a place as a regular starter. What do you think of his start to life in the Premier League?
RH: Awesome, absolutely awesome. I watched his first game when he came in, Soyuncu was unavailable, and he came in and it was like, ‘who is this guy?’ I’d not seen too much of him before if I’m honest, but yeah he’s been absolutely awesome for someone his age. I don’t mean it disrespectfully, but he’s not the biggest. But at no point does he ever look out–jumped, out–bullied, out-run. He reads the game really well and he’s only 20 — that’s the crazy thing. I think it’s a really good combination, him and Evans, Johnny really helps him along helps him through the game but his one on one defending is something else. I don’t think anyone gets past him, he’s so quick and light on his feet, get’s a leg in. He’s really old school in his one–on–one defending; he gets out there, he doesn’t stand the striker up and wait for the ball, no matter where is on the pitch he just wants to get the ball off someone. That’s why he’s been so successful because not only does he defend well, but he starts attacks well which Brendan is a massive fan of.
DB:We’ve seen the likes of Kante, Maguire and Mahrez leave for the ‘big six’. Do you see Fofana following in their footsteps?
RH: I think from his point of view I think it would be good if he got another year or two playing at Leicester. And for Leicester it’s important you don’t become a selling club. If you’re serious about the top four and maybe in another five years winning the league, I don’t know the precise expectation from the chairman, but they got really close last year to the Champions League, so I’m guessing this year they’ll be looking at the Champions League places again. It becomes difficult if you keep selling players, and as good as they have done, at some point you need to hang on and get another Fofana through, pushing the other Fofana, so you have that real competition in the team. But I mean the finances are there for Leicester, so they wouldn’t have to sell him and I hope he stays.
DB: We spoke about Chilwell earlier. He’s found himself in and out of the side recently, and with James Justin looking promising at Leicester, do you think Justin has a shot at making the Euro 2021 squad?
RH: Yeah, I mean, if you’re Southgate watching a Leicester game, you’ve got Madison, you’ve got Justin, you’ve got quite a few players to watch. I really like him [Justin] defensively. I think he’s an absolutely terrific defender, one-on-one, you know. He can play on the left, he can play on the right, he can play at wing-back, he looks really comfortable almost anywhere on the pitch. Certainly, defensively, I struggle to think of someone —maybe Robertson at Liverpool— at full-back who’s as defensively switched on. He blocks balls, stays with the runner, you know, basic stuff, but he never gets done. He’s a dream to have on the team, he’s got your back, he covers the centre-halves whenever they come out, and he’s starting to get really confident coming forward.
DB: Madison has been in great form this season, but he’s often been snubbed by Southgate in previous England squads. In January, Madison said he’s convinced there’s a place for him in the England set up. There’s stiff competition in that advanced midfield position with Mount and Grealish, along with a potential resurgence from Lingard. Do you think he should be in England’s starting XI?
RH: Depends on who you play against. He should definitely be in the squad, for sure. It’s not a bad problem to have; you could play Henderson, Madison and Mount in midfield for England, Grealish just behind the striker, doesn’t sound too bad, does it? It’s just that managers, at times, get a bit scared of having too much talent in a starting eleven, you know? You need, sort of, not the workhorses but the ones who offer the nitty-gritty stuff, from the first to last minute. I’m not saying he doesn’t do it but… I would have him on my team, that’s for sure. He brings flair, set–pieces, and he’s very confident. He’s only 24 and I like the fact he’s come out and said there’s a place for him. He puts pressure on himself to produce. That’s what you want – I like that about him. He’s starting to add goals and assists since his injury, and I think he’s a good player.
DB: He’s been playing at a top-level for a couple of seasons now, why do you think Southgate hasn’t given him a chance?
RH: Only he [Southgate] can answer that really. I would say that sometimes you don’t select him and see what he’s really about. Sometimes selecting him would be the easy decision for Southgate, but I think the way Madison responded to not being selected is exactly what Southgate would want. He’s not bitched and moaned about it, ‘Oh the manager doesn’t like me’, he’s got his head down, worked, scored, assisted, and the next one will be interesting to see if he’s in there because it’s really tough to call. Having three or four similar players in your squad, certainly for the Euros… you might want more versatility.
DB: In the last five years, Leicester have finished in the top 10 four times, with one of those being the famous title-winning seasons you were a part of. It’s no coincidence that this period has also seen Jamie Vardy rise to prominence. He’s still one of the league’s top-scoring strikers well into his 30s, why do you think he’s been able to play at a high level for so long?
RH: I think it’s a bit more possession-based, with Rodgers. I think the penny dropped quite late in his career in terms of what he needs to do. I think he’s quite happy talking about that himself. His off-pitch lifestyle wasn’t as good as it could have been sometimes. Certainly, since I’ve been there, or since I’ve been there and left, he’s changed his lifestyle. Leicester play with more possession now, so there’s less of the crazy, hundred-yard sprints he used to do for three or four years, which is obviously easier on his body. Generally, I think he’s become a bit smarter with his gameplay. He used to fly into tackles to win us free kicks and throw-ins, which was great, but at the moment Leicester is the team with more possession. So what tends to happen is you get more time, you pick your runs, and it’s less physically demanding. Whenever he sprints he looks sharp, not tired. The way Leicester is playing at the moment really suits him.
DB: At 34 years of age, should Leicester be lining up his replacement, or is there a candidate already at the club?
RH: That’s where recruitment becomes interesting, doesn’t it. We’ve seen it with Fofana. They obviously thought it would be Soyuncu and Evans for a while, giving Fofana time to nurture, giving him a few games here and there to get used to the Premier League. It’s something to consider, for sure, getting a young, hungry striker and bedding him in, absolutely. Ihaenacho’s been there for about three years, and he’s got seven or ten goals. Perez the same. Vardy scores more goals than that in the first half of each season! So it’s something to consider. Vardy is someone they can learn from; his spirit, his fire has never gone out, his attitude… [players like that] aren’t easy to find. Leicester have, for the last few years, found good replacements.
DB: Vardy has shared some odd secrets to success, including the infamous Red Bulls and drinking port on the eve of every game in the 2015–16 season. Footballers are known to be a superstitious bunch, did you or any of your teammates have any strange habits or pre-match rituals?
RH: I remember Joe Cole at Chelsea didn’t want to touch the ball in the changing room, from the second we stepped in, to going out for the warm-up. He would get out of the way, you know, he’d think it would be the worst thing that could happen to him. So we used to just roll the balls to him and he’d run away. But apart from that you get the right boot, left shin pad, being third in the lineup when you go out to the pitch. But port is certainly one I wouldn’t recommend – not my choice, but it worked for him.
DB: Looking at a team that’s fallen out of the title race, Spurs have really struggled for form in recent weeks. You played under Mourinho at Chelsea, do you view him as the right man for the Spurs job, can he bring trophies back to Spurs?
RH: When you say ‘trophies’, I wouldn’t say the Premier League, no. In terms of winning a cup? For sure, Mourinho is the kind of guy who takes every game seriously, every cup game, so I think it’s more realistic for them. If they were to win any silverware, it’d be a cup before a league title. But the competition is tough up there, it’s not easy, it’s not a given. I know he’s a great manager, but so is Klopp, so is Rodgers, so is Pep, so is Ancelotti. You know, the competition is tough, and sometimes you associate these managers with getting out there and winning all the things all the time, but it’s not that simple. We’ve seen it, and they [Spurs] might not win the title for another 20 years ––it’s also a real possibility. So yeah, if they win a cup it’ll be awesome, but for now, they look some way off from winning the league, in my opinion.
They lose rubbish games, don’t they? They look really good, and Leicester goes there and they [Spurs] look absolutely terrible. You know, Leicester beats them 2–0, which is good for Leicester, don’t get me wrong, but they need to get ahead and not lose silly games.