Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at Chelsea‘s new €53 million (£47.7m/$59.6m) forward Timo Werner.
First emerging as an enthusiastic, industrious winger at Stuttgart at the start of the 2013-2014 season, Werner has progressively developed and added to his hard-working and relentless-running approach to the point that he now comfortably masters most facets required for a top-class forward. But it hasn’t always been that way. Back in the early days at Stuttgart, Werner could be frustrating to watch, as more often than not he’d take on one man too many, hold on to the ball for too long and generally struggle to play an efficient style of football.
Enter Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director of the Red Bull “network” of football clubs — and former Stuttgart player and head coach. Not for the first time, this football guru had ideas in mind that weren’t immediately obvious to the rest of the world, prompting RB Leipzig to make a €10m move for Werner in 2016.
Rangnick recognised that Werner’s natural finishing abilities — often somewhat redundant from the wider role in which he was deployed at Stuttgart — would come more to the fore from a central position and that the ample space available to a centre-forward would benefit his roaming style. Very much in line with the RB system’s line of thought, habits like unnecessary hanging on to the ball and over-elaborating in tight spaces were slowly weeded out of his game.
After completing almost four seasons at RB Leipzig, Werner has turned into one of the most productive forwards in European football — his tally of 76 goals and 34 assists in 125 league matches with Leipzig is extremely impressive for a player who was often criticised for his lack of efficiency during his formative years at Stuttgart. There’s little doubt that the 24-year-old has thrived in RB Leipzig’s direct and aggressive style of football, something perhaps highlighted by his failure to reproduce his form to a similar extent for the Germany national team, in which slower build-ups and more emphasis on possession are the norm.
Consequently, Werner is at his best when he can roam relatively freely — either from a central position up front or out wide on the left. With his exceptional pace — which kicks into turbo once he gets into proper stride — and mental alertness, few can catch him in one vs. one sprints once he’s found space…