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Timo Werner

RB Leipzig, 2016–

Timo Werner has become one of the most sought-after strikers in world football. Scoring consistently for Europe’s most exciting up-and-coming side – currently RB Leipzig – is a sure-fire route to a big-money transfer, so it is no surprise to see the likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United linked with him. Werner is well into his fourth high-scoring season at Leipzig, with 2019/20 his most productive yet: across Europe’s top five leagues, only Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Bundesliga legend Robert Lewandowski have scored more than Werner’s 21 league goals so far.

Beyond the goals, Werner’s all-round game is improving, too, with his manager at club level citing a change in role as key. “We’ve started him a bit deeper,” says Leipzig head coach Julian Nagelsmann. “We don’t want him right on the last line, because he needs a bit of a head-start, a bit of tempo, in order to really show his pace on the pitch. He’s having many more touches of the ball than in previous years, and this new position has done his development good, playing in between the lines against teams who sit deep. He needs to develop that further if he wants to be one of the world’s best.”

Tactical analysis
Werner’s primary threat is in front of goal – he has scored 83 goals in 138 appearances in league and European competition since his €10m move to RB Leipzig in the summer of 2016. In the age of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, any ratio under a goal a game sounds less impressive than it should – but few players ever maintain Werner’s scoring rate of a goal every 1.6 appearances over four years at the top level. Still only 24, he deserves extra credit for having done so in the early years of his career.

Werner is one of the quickest players in the German top flight, and does much of his work on the shoulder of the last defender. He hit speeds of 35km/h in 2018/19, so it was perhaps inevitable that opposition defences chose to drop off and reduce the spaces in behind them for Werner to run into. In that campaign, however, he appeared too one-dimensional in his approach – still looking to make runs in behind that, with space limited, forced teammates into rushed crosses or overambitious through balls that rarely came off.

As Nagelsmann pointed out, Werner had to develop another side of his game to get more involved in build-up play. He is now far more comfortable coming deep to collect the ball between the lines and create for others, with the wing-backs in the 3-4-3 formation that Nagelsmann has settled on – usually former Manchester City man Angeliño and one of Nordi Mukiele or Christopher Nkunku – moving further forwards to join the attack (below). This is a natural progression for Werner, a striker already comfortable when receiving to feet and capable of holding the ball up effectively. He almost never wins – and rarely even attempts – flick-ons, winning just five aerial duels from 26 attempts in his first 25 Bundesliga appearances in 2019/20.

Instead, Werner knows his strengths and plays to them. His main aim is to get into dangerous positions in front of goal – something he does to great effect, with only seven players across the top five European leagues having had more shots in 2019/20. The combination of his searing pace and clever movement can be devastating, and he is an efficient finisher, too. His ‘expected goals’ (xG) total in the Bundesliga this season is 18.49 – a full 2.5 below his actual total of 21. By way of comparison, Lewandowski has outscored his xG by just 1.3.

Werner is now more difficult to track, because defenders are constantly tested as to whether they should follow him into deeper positions or pass him on to a midfielder. He is always on the move, which is useful both for creating space for others and for losing markers. He likes to move on the blindside of the right-back and has developed a knack for timing late, stealthy runs into the box to meet a cross at the back post, often going unnoticed until it is too late for a defender to react.

Role at RB Leipzig
With opposition defences playing deeper, Werner has less opportunity to run in behind, but Nagelsmann now has his main goal-scorer playing in a free role, with clear instructions to come looking for the ball. His movement also creates space for wide players like Marcel Sabitzer, Angeliño and Nkunku to get in behind.

Werner is now happy to pick the ball up between the lines under pressure, before looking to turn or playing a pass around the corner for a runner. In the above example against Mainz, Werner comes short to receive a pass and disguises a first-time ball perfectly into Yussuf Poulsen’s path on the right. Poulsen then bears down on goal before crossing for Marcel Halstenberg to score from close range.

This is a common feature of Leipzig’s play under Nagelsmann, with attackers making runs in opposite directions to pull defenders apart and create a hole at the back. Werner is often not tracked into deeper positions between the lines and therefore has the chance to turn and face goal straight away, with midfielders or wing-backs joining the attack to guarantee numbers in the final third.

Werner has also played on the left wing for a small but significant number of games in the last year, with Nagelsmann looking for other ways to get his talisman into space. Where Werner was once drawn towards the ball and too often made the same run as his strike partner, he is now far better at holding his position and waiting for play to reach him (below) – an asset suited to him playing on the wing. When the ball does come his way, Werner then runs at the right-back and often cuts in to fire a shot off at goal with his right foot. The vast majority of his goals this season – 22 of 25 in the Bundesliga and Champions League – have come from his stronger right side.

When opponents do push forward and leave space in behind, though, Werner remains lethal. No player in the top five leagues in Europe has scored more than Werner’s four goals on the counter-attack in 2019/20. Regardless of improvements in other parts of his game, it is with space to run into that he remains at his best.

Werner is still a far more complete striker than he was a year ago, though. His goals might grab the headlines, but he has many strings to his bow. With the latest developments to his game, it appears that he may soon be able to make the next logical step in his career – to one of European’s football’s elite teams.

Timo Werner

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