Simplicity Is Key: How Subtle Tweaks Helped Werner Fire Leipzig Into Title Contention

When RB Leipzig shattered their transfer record to land VfB Stuttgart starlet Timo Werner during the summer of 2016, the deal raised plenty of eyebrows.

Touted as a future Germany international, the newly promoted Bundesliga side had built their forward line around a player with just 13 goals to his name across three seasons.

But Die Roten Bullen had a plan. They knew how they wanted to use Werner and he repaid their faith with goals. Plenty of them. 

During his first full campaign in Leipzig, the former left-winger struck 21 times in 31 appearances. He followed that up with a 13 in the Bundesliga and 21 in all competitions in what is usually described as the ‘difficult’ second season. The 2018/19 campaign saw the explosive forward hit 16 in the German top flight and a further three in cup competitions to give him a total of 19 in just 37 appearances. 

An average of 20 goals per season makes the €10million fee RB Leipzig paid to secure his services the very definition of a bargain. Werner was scoring, consistently, across all competitions and with it, his valuation was swelling. According to Transfermarket, the prolific forward is now valued at €75million. 

He was regarded by many as the second-best forward in Germany behind only the great Robert Lewandowski. But now he’s rivalling the Bayern Munich striker.

Julian Nagelsmann’s arrival as head coach at the Red Bull Arena has seen Werner’s game go up another level. In previous campaigns, the RB Leipzig No.11 would, naturally, drift to the left-hand side of the pitch before using his pace to burst between full-backs and centre-backs into the penalty area. But the former Hoffenheim tactician has looked to keep the prolific forward in central areas, as Werner explained recently.

“[Julian] Nagelsmann has said that I won’t be playing as an out-and-out striker for him as such, but more of a false 9,” Werner said.

“It has encouraged me to improve and develop myself, even when we come up against oppositions that sit deep. He’s helped me to make better use of space.”

The switch was subtle but has proved fruitful. Heading into the winter break in Germany, Werner had 18 Bundesliga goals to his name and 23 strikes in total. With almost half of the season left to play, the 23-year-old is having his most potent campaign to date. 

Nagelsmann’s decision to refine where his star striker is involved has played a huge role in this. That, coupled with the tempo he’s now being asked to play at, has transformed Werner from a great striker into an elite one. 

So far this term, Werner has averaged 1.1 more touches per 90 than last season. That isn’t a dramatic increase yet it has resulted in the 23-year-old doubling his goals per 90 average, increasing his expected goals average by 0.38, raising his volume of shots by 0.79, and his touches in the box by 1.16.

He’s also attempting three more passes per 90, which, over the course of a season, is an extra 102. All while attempting fewer dribbles in general. The changes make sense given he’s now less likely to find himself in one-on-one situations in wide areas.

Positioned centrally, he can’t afford to take too many touches if he’s to retain possession for his team and has converted those extra touches from previous seasons into passes and shots.

With Werner now operating in more central parts of the pitch, he’s able to get into dangerous areas on a more frequent basis. The shot map below goes some way to painting this picture. He has a high number of easy shots (the red dots) in and around the six-yard box.

By comparison, the above shot map from last season shows his efforts close to the goal were considered to be more difficult. This is perhaps because under Ralf Rangnick, RB Leipzig played a counter-attacking style. At times, Werner would be isolated and he’d be forced into taking trickier shots. Now though, Nagelsmann deploys a high press which sees RB’s No.11 better supported by his team-mates. He’s the man tasked with adding the finishing touch to team moves and these simple tap-ins are rehearsed moves straight off the training pitch.

Werner has added a ruthless streak to his game and is now more important to RB Leipzig than ever before. But while other strikers drop deep to get more involved, the Germany international has simply been unshackled in the offensive third. This increase in output highlights how players can be a lot more potent without needing more of the ball.

In football, timing is everything. Time in possession, the timing of the pass and the timing of the run. Nagelsmann realised the quicker Werner played, the more effective he could be for RB Leipzig, and it’s paying off.