RB Leipzig beat Atlético Madrid 2-1 in the Champions League quarterfinals on Thursday night, a result that was even more impressive considering that they had to do it against one of the best defensive teams in the world without their leading goalscorer, Timo Werner, who was watching on television only, like the rest of us.
But afterwards, victorious head coach Julian Nagelsmann claimed that Werner’s absence really wasn’t a big deal at all, and not just because he had decided to leave the club and join Chelsea in July rather than stick around for these games.
“Atletico wouldn’t have been the best opponents for Timo Werner because there is not a lot of space behind the defensive line. That’s why we played with three offensive midfielders to create the space.”
-Julian Nagelsmann; source: Metro
And that sounds a bit ominous, since Chelsea tend to face a lot of packed defenses that leave little to no space behind their lines.
So, (how much) should we be concerned?
Obviously, we won’t know for sure until we see Werner play in Chelsea blue, but answering this question in hindsight also wouldn’t be very helpful at all.
Werner’s most obvious asset is his blistering speed and facing classic Premier League defending (probably on a cold night somewhere north) could negate most of that. Fortunately, he’s also an excellent (if perhaps sometimes streaky) finisher, with a ton of variety both in the types of shots he takes and the locations he takes them from. So even if he doesn’t get to enjoy running free like Jamie Vardy, he should have the requisite ability to find the back of the net when he does get into shooting positions. Even the best-marshaled defenses will give away opportunities, sometimes quite cheaply; we just have to take advantage of them — that’s often what separates consistent winners from inconsistent teams like Chelsea at the moment.
Case in point, despite the stereotyping of the Premier League as an unfriendly league towards the type of striker Werner is, some of the best goalscorers in the league are in a similar mould. Even if we claim that Vardy has an easier time thanks to how opposing teams tend to set up against Leicester, the likes of Aubameyang, Salah, Mané, Kane, Martial, Rashford, Sterling, Agüero, Gabriel Jesus, and even Tammy Abraham all play for big teams who face ten or eleven men behind the ball on a regular basis. Those names were 10 of the top 13 goalscorers in the league this season. (The other three were Vardy, Ings, and Jiménez.)
Werner’s versatility should help him to get into shooting positions as well, including the intriguing prospect of being able to play with two strikers, or wide left as part of a front three. Werner as a lone striker may not be the best idea against, say Sean Dyche’s Burnley, but we have options galore. And again, like some of Chelsea’s best strikers in the Abramovich Era, Werner may only need a chance or two to find the back of the net, which would certainly be a welcome change of pace.
Nagelsmann could of course be right — even if he did play Werner in literally every single match this season prior to the transfer, picking him to start 31 times out of the 34, including both times against Mourinho’s Spurs (alongside a center forward in Patrick Shick). Werner might wilt like a delicate flower when faced with towering man mountains of English beef, and might not be as useful in a non-pressing negative gameplan full of tactical fouling. Lampard, for better or worse, is in no danger of setting up his team like that.
In any case, this is all conjecture following a possibly throwaway quote from a manager who has long stopped thinking about Werner in his team. There’s every reason to be excited about the arrival of one Europe’s greatest goalscoring forwards in the last three or so years (who’s still just 24, mind you).