A blatant dive which fooled the referee into giving RB Leipzig a penalty against Schalke last season has caused the unassuming Timo Werner to become the enfant terrible of German football, booed by sections of Die Mannschaft’s support when he represents Joachim Löwe’s national side.
Of course, the fact that he plays his club football at the Red Bull Arena, for “the most hated club in Germany”, has played no small part in the 21-year-old becoming a reluctant pantomime villain in his homeland. But Werner, to his credit, presses on, getting on with his task of leading the line for club and country, carrying out his duties with calm, resolve and ever-increasing proficiency.
Although a minority of the German football-watching public have decided that Werner is not to their taste, the same fans will undoubtedly hold a begrudging admiration for the young striker, as his form, work ethic and rapid development demands respect.
And for the rest, who are willing to forgive and forget the relatively minor indiscretion of a 21-year-old player, are giddy with excitement at the prospect of Werner spearheading the Germany attack for years to come.
Looking back to his time as a budding forward at Stuttgart, dividing his time between a role on the wing and a more central remit, few would have envisaged Werner becoming prolific in front of goal. His pace, close control, intelligent movement and application was there from the off, but his finishing was erratic at best, with returns of four, three and six goals in his three seasons in Die Schwaben’s first team – considering he made at least 30 appearances in each campaign, his record was far from intimidating.
But, it appears, RB Leipzig knew better. The East German outfit, who’d just earned promotion to the top flight, swooped to sign Werner for €10million – the biggest deal in the club’s history at the time.
Straight away the young attacker was thrust into a prominent role in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side, acting as the focal point of the attack, alongside Yussuf Poulsen as one of the centre-forward’s in the 4-2-2-2 set-up.
The Leipzig system, which last season stationed playmaker Emil Forsberg in the left attacking midfield position and Mauritz Sabitzer on the right, requires its two strikers to work relentlessly and make no qualms of running the channels in order to free up space inside for the creative men behind. Werner’s experience on the flanks at Stuttgart has made him an ideal fit.
Moreover, his blistering pace and intelligent movement means that he has developed into the identikit centre-forward for a team which looks to press diligently and counter quickly; perfect for Leipzig.
The Red Bull-owned unit’s system is predicated on exposing space within the opposition’s ranks, catching their rivals out of shape and punishing them through direct, efficient and creative attacking play; they press ferociously and explode when the ball is won.
Werner plays no small part in that entire process: harrying defenders looking to play out from the back; instantly on the move when the gifted, Liverpool-bound midfielder Naby Keïta takes possession and raises his head to survey his options; drifting wide to allow room for Forsberg and timing runs in behind to present the Swede with incisive passing options.
Perhaps Werner’s most valuable asset, though, the aspect of his Arsenal which has ensured his potential is uncapped, is his ability to learn and further his development at an extraordinary rate.
The young player whose finishing could not be relied upon at Stuttgart is now one of the most deadly marksmen in Europe, netting 21 times in the Bundesliga last term and ten more this.
Such a drastic improvement goes beyond the realm of what is achievable simply by investing extra time and focus out on the training field: it displays a high level of intelligence, an ability to gather information from past experiences of techniques used, the movements of goalkeepers, the varying demands of different angles and distances. This information must all be stored and processed at speed, in real time, under pressure, with the feedback of every outcome stored and utilised, informing his decision making for next time.
It’s not just in his finishing that vast improvements can be seen in Werner’s game either: similar leaps have been made in his movement and tactical understanding, too.
His goal against Hamburg in Leipzig’s third game of 2017/18 showcased how lethal the 21-year-old has become, standing as an example of every key attribute that he has shaped and augmented to become the feared striker he is today.
After Hamburg came within a hair’s breadth of scoring from a corner to make it 1-1, just nine seconds separated Kevin Kampl’s hurried clearance and Werner causing the net to bulge at the other end, effectively sealing three points for his side. In that time, the German striker had collected the ball inside his own half, held off the attention of two defenders, made a beeline for goal and confidently fired beyond goalkeeper Christian Mathenia.
In holding off the defenders’ challenges, he showed improved upper-body strength; the way he cut across the chasing opponent as he raced towards goal, putting his body between ball and defender, demonstrated intelligence and effective body positioning; and the emphatic finish was that of a man who knew he was going to score nine seconds ago.
According to Spanish newspaper AS, Werner’s scintillating form has made him a Real Madrid transfer target, while Liverpool, who have already wrapped up a club-record deal for team-mate Keïta to move to Anfield next summer, are also though to be monitoring the player.
Leipzig claim to be unworried by speculation surrounding their star man’s future, with general manager Oliver Mintzlaff telling Sky: “We play in the Champions League. We offer Timo the chance to make the next step. We are totally relaxed.”
However, Werner has admitted that his future may lie away from the Red Bull Arena. “Of course I want to play at a big club,” he told German tabloid Bild. “But we have not yet come to terms with the development in Leipzig. Perhaps RB will be a big club too – I’m quite sure.
“In Spain, there are a maximum of three clubs with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. In England, there are a bit more: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City. Bayern Munich is also a big club, but for me it is not a topic that I am concerned with.”
For now, though, he remains focussed on Leipzig’s Bundesliga progression and first Champions League campaign. One thing is for sure, however: for a young player who seems to improve his game on a weekly basis, there is no limit to where he can go and what he can become.