Why everyone should be excited about RB Leipzig and Germany striker Timo Werner
You'd have to have been hiding under a rock for the past few years to have missed the emergence of RB Leipzig and Germany striker Timo Werner, but this 2019/20 campaign has seen the 23-year-old truly emerge as one of the most talented frontmen in world football.
This time a year ago, Werner sat on 11 goals in 18 Bundesliga outings with Leipzig. A respectable enough return, certainly, but Ralf Rangnick's side had just been narrowly beaten by leaders Borussia Dortmund in the opening game of the Rückrunde – the second half of the league season – leaving them 14 points adrift of the table-toppers in fourth place.
Fast forward 12 months and it's now Leipzig, with Julian Nagelsmann at the helm, who are sitting pretty at the summit of the Bundesliga, seven points clear of Dortmund – in fourth. Werner's brace against Union Berlin on Matchday 18 took him to 20 league goals for the season, nine more than a year ago, continuing a sizzling run of 15 in his last 11 assignments that has included a hat-trick and four doubles.
Watch: A closer look at how Werner is scoring so many goals
Slowly but surely, Werner has joined that elite category of player where the question is no longer, 'will he score a goal this weekend?' but rather 'how many?'. It is hardly surprising to see that he is neck-and-neck in the Bundesliga scoring charts with Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski, German football's predominant goal-getter of the past eight years, who in the early months of the campaign looked to be cruising towards another top scorer's cannon.
The Leipzig striker is also in esteemed company across the European game. His return of 25 goals in all competitions means he is behind only Lewandowski (31), new Dortmund starlet Erling Haaland (28), and Lazio's Ciro Immobile (26) in the five major leagues: Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France. He is currently ahead of the likes of Kylian Mbappe (21), Sergio Aguero (21), Cristiano Ronaldo (19) and Lionel Messi (17).
"This year, we've focused on having as many shots as possible," Werner confided to bundesliga.com earlier this term. "That's always a good thing for strikers: lining up the ball and focusing on how you strike it. We shoot a lot in games, and we do it very well. I'm at the end of the supply chain most of the time, so of course it's my job to score. That's what's expected of me and it's clearly working."
And how. Werner has long had an eye for goal – he netted 21 in Leipzig's maiden Bundesliga season of 2016/17, when they exceeded all expectations by finishing as runners-up to Bayern, and has 11 in 29 outings for the Germany national team – but under Nagelsmann, his raw finishing talent has crystallised into exceptional composure in the final third. His 20 league goals have come from just 77 shots, and France Football recently noted that he had the best xG conversion rate across the continent's top five championships, turning 12.5 expected goals into those whopping 20 strikes.
How, then, has Werner become so clinical? Curiously, it is in a slightly deeper role that the Germany striker has flourished, being given greater freedom by Nagelsmann to drop into attacking midfield and link up with his teammates. There are certainly no shortage of quality players with whom he can combine, including Marcel Sabitzer, Emil Forsberg, Christopher Nkunku and Yussuf Poulsen.
"We've got to get beyond this image of me only being the team's goalscorer," Werner pointed out. "I think that assists are also one of my strengths. You're always defined as a striker by how many goals you score, but now I play a new position under the new coach, almost as an attacking midfielder, which means I've got to play like the others do and get assists. Naturally, I've got to always link it all together."
Werner's pace has always been one of his greatest strengths, and when you throw in the impeccable timing of his runs and brilliant reading of the game, it adds up to a highly potent attacking cocktail, which most Bundesliga defenders struggle to get their heads around. Happy to stay central or drift out wide to tug opposition backlines out of place, the 23-year-old is a constant menace, whether getting into shooting positions himself or teeing up teammates. His confidence is also sky-high at the moment, as his sensational thunderbolt of an equaliser against Union demonstrated.
"I think he's a different player to a classic No.9," Germany coach Joachim Löw observed recently. "Timo can play off a centre-forward or out wide. I'm well aware of his qualities. He's scoring an incredible amount of goals for Leipzig. He's really quick and that can cause problems for the opposition. He's obviously a cornerstone of our squad."
Watch: Werner picked up where he left off with a brace on Matchday 18
As well as their goals, great strikers are judged on the number of trophies they help their club to conquer, something Werner will be well aware of as Leipzig compete on three fronts in 2020. The Saxony club have a slender four-point advantage over Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga, travel to Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB Cup last 16 in early February, then take on Tottenham Hotspur in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. There is also, of course, the small matter of UEFA Euro 2020 with Germany over the summer.
Werner's only piece of silverware to date came with Die Mannschaft, at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup – but on current form, you wouldn't bet against him adding a few lines to his CV later this year. A high-scoring frontman has certainly provided the blueprint for Bundesliga success in recent years, with Lewandowski netting an average of 25 league goals during his five full seasons with Bayern, all of which ended with his club lifting the Meisterschale. The outcome of the battle currently raging between the two goal machines could go some way to deciding who claims league, cup and even European honours in May.
"In the end, I thought it might be best to stick with Leipzig," Werner said at the start of this season, upon extending his contract with Die Roten Bullen through to June 2023. "We have a new coach and better players. I saw there was potential, and I've seen that we can really challenge this year, above all."
Inspired by their star striker, Leipzig have taken that potential and transformed it into a bona fide title challenge, with both player and club scaling new heights over the past five months. As Timo goes by, it's becoming increasingly clear that Werner will go down as one of the major talents of his generation - and who knows, perhaps the Stuttgart-born sensation will end up leaving his mark on football history. Watch this space.
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