Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at Chelsea’s new €53 million (£47.7m/$59.6m) forward Timo Werner.
First emerging as an enthusiastic, industrious winger at Stuttgart at the start of the 2013-2014 season, Werner has progressively developed and added to his hard-working and relentless-running approach to the point that he now comfortably masters most facets required for a top-class forward. But it hasn’t always been that way. Back in the early days at Stuttgart, Werner could be frustrating to watch, as more often than not he’d take on one man too many, hold on to the ball for too long and generally struggle to play an efficient style of football.
Enter Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director of the Red Bull “network” of football clubs — and former Stuttgart player and head coach. Not for the first time, this football guru had ideas in mind that weren’t immediately obvious to the rest of the world, prompting RB Leipzig to make a €10m move for Werner in 2016.
Rangnick recognised that Werner’s natural finishing abilities — often somewhat redundant from the wider role in which he was deployed at Stuttgart — would come more to the fore from a central position and that the ample space available to a centre-forward would benefit his roaming style. Very much in line with the RB system’s line of thought, habits like unnecessary hanging on to the ball and over-elaborating in tight spaces were slowly weeded out of his game.
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After completing almost four seasons at RB Leipzig, Werner has turned into one of the most productive forwards in European football — his tally of 76 goals and 34 assists in 125 league matches with Leipzig is extremely impressive for a player who was often criticised for his lack of efficiency during his formative years at Stuttgart. There’s little doubt that the 24-year-old has thrived in RB Leipzig’s direct and aggressive style of football, something perhaps highlighted by his failure to reproduce his form to a similar extent for the Germany national team, in which slower build-ups and more emphasis on possession are the norm.
Consequently, Werner is at his best when he can roam relatively freely — either from a central position up front or out wide on the left. With his exceptional pace — which kicks into turbo once he gets into proper stride — and mental alertness, few can catch him in one vs. one sprints once he’s found space in behind and has the opposing goal in sight. His sheer explosive velocity is clearly a useful physical feature for a footballer in itself, but when combined with general athleticism, balance, quickness of thought and determination, you have the make-up of a complete forward.
Perhaps atypically for such a direct, high-energy forward, the German also possesses remarkable finishing skills. The most obvious, eye-catching feature is the way he hits the ball cleanly and powerfully with his right foot. Though he often chooses to go with precision rather than power, he’s fully capable of hitting missiles from outside the box. Preferably he likes to cut in from a starting position on the left to finish, but he’s one of the rare forwards who’s also reasonably comfortable in performing the same drill from the opposite side (finishing with his weaker left foot.)
Craig Burley reacts to Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler saying Timo Werner wasn’t a steal at his buy-out fee.
Yet it’s the combination of technically well-executed finishing abilities and understanding of the players around him that makes Werner such an unusual breed of forward and prolific goal scorer.
The art of creating a spilt-second mental picture of space is most commonly associated with “poacher” strikers — those who tend to limit and energise their movements to smaller central areas — yet many of Werner’s close-range goals are courtesy of a subtle touch prior to the finish. On occasions he gives the ball a nudge to set himself up for the ideally timed finish, whereas in other instances it serves as a way to deceive his marker or the goalkeeper — who will have no option but to make the first move, and thus get sent in the wrong direction. In either event, successfully applying such mental skills for practical purposes is a sign of a highly developed spatial awareness, ability to process information (often referred to as “footballing brain”) and perception of the goings-on around him.
His smartness can also be quite cunning; there are few forwards more astute at taking advantage of the revised offside rules as he likes to linger in clear offside positions only to enter the play from a “legal” position a moment later, either from a diagonal run or a deeper spot, with the objective of confusing opposing defenders and gaining an advantage through appearing in unexpected fashion.
Very much in the same vein, Werner also likes to lurk in offside positions when the opposing defenders play out from the back, with the objective of snapping up a sloppy back pass or being ready if the high-pressing game forces the opponents into an errors (both of his goals in the 3-3 draw against Borussia Dortmund last December were born out of such well-calculated opportunism). However, with somewhat of a reputation as a diver in Germany, many think his natural cunning can sometimes tip over into conning.
The sophistication of the mental side of his game aside, Werner is not a fussy or “flash” player. He sticks to his core game, and he does it pretty much to perfection. Relentless, penetrating runs on the shoulder of the defenders are his trademark. While his off-the-ball movement is superb, it’s the determination and commitment in his runs — when he sets off he does so with 100% dedication, a trait which sets him apart from most other forwards or movement-based strikers.
When he comes deep to pick up the ball or to combine with the midfield, he’s also very practical — making a simple touch or two before taking off up the pitch. So if Chelsea are planning to field their new signing predominantly as a centre-forward, don’t expect a new Didier Drogba in blue. Werner is not particularly concerned with holding up the ball or engaging in physical battles with centre-backs — it’s simply not his game. (Neither is the aerial game, which is frankly less of a prerequisite for a player of Werner’s skill-set and technical profile anyway.)
All in all, Werner makes for an exciting Premier League recruit. While he undeniably possesses the attributes, general quality and the intensity to adapt well to his new environment, it’ll be interesting to see how he settles into a slightly more patient approach than he has recently been used to. On paper, the RB Leipzig forward immediately looked more suitable for Jurgen Klopp’s high-octane style of football at Liverpool, but all the same, Frank Lampard has secured an addition who can bring his Chelsea side a step closer to the runaway Premier League leaders.