Timo Werner‘s proposed move to Liverpool seems the most likely of the rumours floating around Anfield at the moment. In this tactical analysis, this scout report will take a look at the impact signing the German forward might have on Liverpool and their tactics.
He makes an attractive signing for the Reds because of his versatility to play across the front three – particularly important in a year when the African Cup of Nations (if it takes place) would mean Jurgen Klopp would be losing his star wingers, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
Werner has netted 27 goals and has provided 12 assists in 36 games this season for Champions League participants RB Leipzig and his adaptability, which would serve him well in this Liverpool team, means Julian Nagelsmann has been able to deploy Werner down the middle as part of the front two, or as a lone striker and wide left in a front three in a variety of different tactical systems.
It’s no secret that Werner is quick and can get in behind opposition defences when there is space left behind for him to exploit, either coming off the wing – as Mane and Salah do – or from the more central positions.
Meanwhile, all but four of his career goals in the Bundesliga have been scored from inside the box showing his poacher-type style. It’s a similar story for the current front three at Liverpool, with a limited number of goals coming from outside the box.
In this part of the tactical analysis, we will take a look at the way Nagelsmann has used Werner this season and how that may replicate the same traits as we see in the current Liverpool side.
Playing as the centre forward in this game against Wolfsburg you can see Werner dropping deep off the last line of defenders, in between the lines to try and receive the ball from Angeliño. Much in the same way Roberto Firmino does in his role as the centre-forward for Liverpool. Linking the play between the midfielders and the others is key to Klopp’s system.
Werner also offers a threat in behind where he can use his blistering pace to exploit any space an opposition defence is willing to leave. Here you can see him taking his position from the centre of the pitch, looking for the ball in behind. Firmino doesn’t usually make those runs too often, but Werner has the acceleration to do this too.
In the next image, we see Werner playing as a left-winger against Union Berlin. It’s a similar run (albeit diagonal rather than straight), into the same space behind the back four, but from a much wider position – more in-keeping with a run we might see from Mane on the left, or Salah on the right.
Meanwhile, in the game against Bayern Munich we can see how Werner playing from the left-wing can isolate defenders one-versus-one situations and run at them into the space behind, again something we see often from Mane.
While teams have now started to offer Liverpool very little space in open play, counter attacks are still available, especially after a set-piece where opposition teams feel they might be able to get a goal.
The pace of Mane and Salah on the counter-attack is devastating and Klopp will want to ensure if one, or both of those are missing that there is still plenty of pace to exploit these opportunities.
Let’s explore the idea that Klopp wants to get Salah, Mane, Firmino, and Werner into his Liverpool side. This is something many have suggested Liverpool might want to try at home against sides who come to defend and try to steal a goal on the break or at a set-piece. It may look something like this:
4-2-3-1 was Klopp’s preferred formation while he was at Dortmund and something he used when he first arrived on Merseyside but that was with a genuine number 10 in Phillipe Coutinho. Firmino probably isn’t a genuine number 10 in that same mould, although he does occupy a lot of the same spaces.
The difference is, while a number 10 or an attacking midfielder would receive the ball between the lines, turn, and be facing the goal, a lot of Firmino’s current work is done with his back to goal, quickly moving possession on into the spaces he has created for Mane and Salah or shifting the ball out of the full-backs.
In comfortable possession in the opposition half, Liverpool currently look a lot like this:
But how does that change with a different formation and different personnel?
Is it realistic, or feasible to expect Firmino to lurk around on the edge of the box looking for scraps and knockdowns? Is that a good use of his ability?
It’s highly likely that Firmino would also have to be responsible for providing the first line of pressure to stop opposition counter-attacks. While Firmino does that to a degree at the moment, you would have to suspect that there are better players suited to doing this job and that Firmino’s talents can be used to better effect elsewhere.
It also affords less protection to the attacking full-backs, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho having to cover the ground previously covered by three players as they look to recycle possession or stop counter-attacks. Furthermore, it leaves more space and more opportunity for the opposition to exploit when trying to counter-attack, something that Liverpool currently shut down well with their pressing thanks to their structure in transition.
The shape, with Werner
As detailed above, we can see that Werner could slot in as the centre-forward in a 4-3-3 in place of Firmino. But what impact might that have on the rest of the players?
If he follows the mould of the way Firmino plays, you’d expect there to be little impact on Mane and Salah. It’d be a like-for-like swap.
However, with Werner’s natural pace, he will inevitably look to get on the shoulder of the last time and try to get in behind. This could be bad news for Salah who likes to operate in a similar way, and maybe even more so for Mane if Werner drifts to that inside left-hand side position. Two players in the same vertical zone will take something away from each other in terms of space and freedom.
If Klopp opts to use Werner as a direct replacement for Mane, it’s feasible to expect another like-for-like swap in roles regardless of whether he is playing left wing in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Firmino creates the space by dragging defenders towards the midfielders, leaving space for Werner to make his diagonal run from the left-hand side. The only other thing of note here may be that in a 4-2-3-1, there will be more onus on the right and left-wingers to work hard defensively. Something that might see Mane preferred over Werner in this system.
The current role of Firmino in the 4-3-3 is for him to drop between the lines in the hope that a defender follows him into the space, that in turn creates a space for Mane or Salah to run into. More recently, teams have wised up to this and now they let him go, opting to keep their defensive line intact.
The more teams have come up against Liverpool and the more other teams have found success, the more others have tried to copy. Atletico Madrid sat in a very deep block. Watford did the same and Manchester United opted for a back five too.
If Liverpool went to a 4-2-3-1, and let’s assume Werner occupies the centre-forward role with Firmino behind him, there is likely to be no space in behind for Werner to run into, especially against the deep block. So if he starts to drop between the lines, he will start to invade the space in which Firmino has to operate. It could cramp up an already compact area of the park.
Klopp has shown signs this season of occasionally adopting the 4-2-3-1 especially when Fabinho was injured. It allowed the less defensively responsible Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a little more freedom, so maybe this is with next season in mind and an additional signing.
It’s not broken …
What seems most likely is that Werner comes in as a rotation option for the front 3 and the system doesn’t change too much, if at all. Werner has shown he can play off either side or down the middle and with the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) scheduled to take place this winter, it’s likely both Mane and Salah will be missing.
While Origi may be scripted into Anfield folklore, we’ve seen he’s not quite good enough to step up to the same level. Takumi Minamino’s time has been limited, and Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott are talented youngsters but not direct replacements just yet.
Werner’s output this season in terms of goals and assists is better than anyone Liverpool have, which is a considerable feat given that Mane and Salah have been among the league’s top marksmen over the last couple of seasons. He doesn’t have stand-out comparisons statistically with any of the front 3 either, suggesting he could slot into any of those roles comfortably.
Impact on others
So what about the impact on the rest of the team? Adam Lallana looks like he is moving on, while Xherdan Shaqiri may also be surplus to requirements. So with those two out of the picture, there is space within the squad for the addition of Werner.
If Liverpool stuck with the 4-3-3 and Werner came in as a rotation option, their impact on the rest of the squad would be minimal. Everyone could carry on as they are, with a bit more rest for Mane and Salah when required (or when missing for AFCON).
However, a move to 4-2-3-1 leaves question marks hanging over a number of names. Fabinho and Henderson would be shoo-ins for the two defensive midfield positions, and Gini Wijnaldum has shown he can do a job there, while ‘Mr Dependable’, James Milner would do a solid job there too. The more expressive players may suffer the most though, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain probably wouldn’t be entrusted with that defensive midfield role, so that just leaves one attacking midfielder between Firmino and the two others.
Given that those two cost Liverpool a combined fee of £80-90m and were both Klopp’s signings, it would be an odd move to then freeze one or two of them out of any action.
It’s without a doubt that Werner is the most talked-about name as Liverpool’s top target for this summer for a reason, and probably the most realistic too. His versatility across the forward positions means he can slot in and play any of the roles currently deployed in Klopp’s 4-3-3. While it’s possible Klopp can migrate to a 4-2-3-1, it appears that the more likely scenario is that Werner comes into the system, rather than the system being changed to accommodate Werner.
While some might worry that Werner wouldn’t join Liverpool without the guarantee of plenty of game time, it’s feasible that Liverpool do need another rotation option of the highest quality and cover for the AFCON this winter.