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Timo Werner

RB Leipzig to Chelsea, £47.5m

Timo Werner has developed into one of the most potent strikers in world football, and had become hugely sought-after when Chelsea won the race to sign him. Scoring consistently for Europe’s most exciting up-and-coming side – in 2019/20 that team was RB Leipzig – is a sure-fire route to a big-money transfer, so it was no surprise Chelsea agreed to pay £47.5m to take him to Stamford Bridge. Having completed a fourth high-scoring season at Leipzig, with 2019/20 his most productive yet, Werner is hot property. Across Europe’s top five leagues, only Ciro Immobile, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo scored more than Werner’s 28 goals.

Beyond those goals, Werner’s all-round game is improving, too, with Leipzig’s head coach Julian Nagelsmann citing a change in role as key. “We’ve started him a bit deeper,” Nagelsmann said. “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 scored 89 goals in 147 Bundesliga and European games in four years at Leipzig following his €10m move from VfB Stuttgart in 2016. In the age of 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 a sustained period at the top level. Aged 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 opposing 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 succeeded.

As Nagelsmann pointed out, Werner had to develop another side of his game to get more involved in build-up play. He became far more comfortable coming deep to collect the ball between the lines and to create for others, with the wing-backs in the 3-4-3 formation that Nagelsmann has settled on – usually former Manchester City full-back Angeliño and one of Nordi Mukiele or Christopher Nkunku – moving further forwards to join attacks (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 eight aerial duels from 32 attempts in 34 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 a handful of players across the top five European leagues having 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 in 2019/20 was 23.45 – a full 4.55 below his actual total of 28 goals, suggesting he scored almost five more of his shots than most players would have been expected to. By way of comparison, Lewandowski has outscored his xG by 2.8.

Werner has become 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 penalty area 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 gave his main goalscorer 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 increasingly happy to pick the ball up between the lines under pressure, before looking to turn or play a pass around the corner for a runner. In the below 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 – 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 also played on the left wing for a small but significant number of games in his last year at Leipzig, 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 a centre-forward, he is far better at holding his position and waiting for play to reach him (below) – which suits him playing on the wing. When the ball does come his way, Werner then runs at the right-back and often cuts in to shoot at goal with his right foot. The vast majority of his goals during 2019/20 – 27 of 32 in the Bundesliga and Champions League – came from his stronger right foot.

When opponents do push forward and leave space in behind, Werner remains lethal. His total of five goals on the counter-attack means he scored the joint-most goals on the break in the top five leagues in Europe in 2019/20 – level with Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and Tottenham’s Harry Kane. Even with improvements in other parts of his game, it is with space to run into that he remains at his best.

Werner is a far more complete striker than he was a year ago. With the latest developments to his game, he has convinced Chelsea he is ready to make the step up to one of Europe’s elite teams.

Role at Chelsea
A concern for many so impressed by Tammy Abraham’s rise and the clear potential he has shown will naturally be that Werner’s arrival suggests Chelsea’s manager Frank Lampard is not willing to wait for Abraham. They are very different forwards, however, and while there is the possibility that Werner starting for Chelsea will mean Abraham does not, there is also good reason to believe they could play together.

Though Hakim Ziyech has been signed to play on the wing, Chelsea didn’t replace Eden Hazard when he left for Real Madrid. Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic provide alternative options out wide, but Werner is a Champions League-ready player who may find he spends a decent portion of his time at Chelsea on the left with Abraham playing through the middle.

He showed at Leipzig that he can play out wide, and he may thrive in the space that Abraham creates by dropping into midfield to link play. Abraham tends not to make runs in behind opposition defences, and he could prove the perfect foil for the lightning-quick Werner to get in behind. Lampard has at times looked to use Pedro in this way, but the Spain international is not the player he once was and has been frustratingly ineffective.

Lampard has only used formations at Chelsea that – nominally at least – contain one centre-forward, but Werner’s arrival means that he can stick with his favoured 4-2-3-1 while including two players who pose a consistent goal-threat. It will take time for Werner to adapt to the Premier League but he could be perfectly suited to Lampard’s Chelsea.

Timo Werner

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