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Timo Werner: Germany’s striker or left wing?

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Timo Werner’s game against Sweden was night and day from one half to the next: a move from center-forward to the left wing made all the difference for him, and potentially also for Germany.

Germany v Sweden: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Jogi Löw brought Timo Werner with the German national team to Russia as his first-choice striker, but it is no secret that Werner is not a conventional striker. Werner relies above all on his pace to break down opposing defenses and create chances. He is not a conventional target man or goal poacher in the mold of Miroslav Klose.

Werner has dazzled in the Bundesliga with his performances for RB Leipzig under Ralph Hasenhüttl, but his unique abilities can become a liability against a physical defense that closes off the space he needs to run, isolating him from the rest of the team. That is precisely what Mexico did to Werner in Germany’s opening World Cup loss.

Against Mexico, Werner managed just 3 shots (only one on target) — one fewer than the times he was dispossessed. Mexico’s defense isolated him almost completely: Werner managed a mere 29 touches over more than 90 minutes of play, the least on the team, even behind Marvin Plattenhardt, who played almost 20 minutes less (Plattenhadt’s dismal performance is another story).

By halftime of Germany’s match against Sweden, Timo Werner and with him Germany’s offense seemed destined for yet another invisible and frustrating performance against a well-disciplined, deep-lying opponent. Werner had again started as Germany’s center-forward, and again he had virtually nothing to show for his efforts. Löw had seen enough.

A transfiguration from striker to left-winger

At the beginning of the second half, Löw substituted Mario Gomez, not for Werner, but rather for Julian Draxler. Draxler, more of a central attacking midfielder displaced to the left wing by Marco Reus (and Mesut Özil), had had a fairly quiet half, punctuated by a mildly dangerous pass in the 41st minute. With Gomez coming on, Löw decided to move Werner to Draxler’s position.

The effect on Germany’s play was almost instantaneous. Werner went from all but invisible to the most conspicuous player on Germany’s offense. Within minutes, Toni Kroos found Werner with a diagonal pass to the left flank, where Werner was able to receive the ball comfortably and beat Sweden’s Mikael Lustig to deliver a cross to Gomez. Gomez couldn’t get all of the ball with his foot, but Reus was at hand to put away the deflection. Germany were back in the game.

Germany v Sweden: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Werner likewise was key in the decisive scene of the game. Again, Werner made a run with the ball from the left wing toward Sweden’s penalty area. This time, however, he was fouled just outside the box by Jimmy Durmaz, giving Kroos and Reus the opportunity to take the game-winning free kick.

Werner’s performance on the left wing was not lost on his teammate Reus (Kicker):

Timo brought in some real speed on the wing; he’s a massive weapon for us and showed what he can give us against Sweden.

Werner brought precisely the dynamism Germany needed on its left flank: a player with pace, able to open up space, and capable of creating opportunities either by crossing or driving inside with the ball. Werner looked like such a natural fit on Germany’s left wing that Jogi Löw should consider keeping Werner there, especially against opponents more inclined to defend and attack on the counter than to meet Germany on an open field.

Werner and Gomez should start against South Korea

South Korea is very likely to rely on the same highly physical, counter-attacking tactics that characterized Germany’s match against Sweden. Against Mexico, Korea relied on fast-break opportunities, compact defense, and rustic fouling. The Koreans fouled Mexico a whopping 24 times (versus only 7 for Mexico).

If Löw wants to prime Germany’s offense, he should start Werner on the left and allow Gomez to play the part of the distracting and disruptive goal-poacher ahead of Marco Reus. With Reus at the 10 spot and in outstanding form, there is no reason to start a player with a similar profile in Draxler on the left wing.

There is, of course, some risk for Löw, and it is the result of his own questionable choices: Mario Gomez is 32, soon to turn 33, and somewhat injury prone. He was never intended to be the starting striker at the World Cup, and if he is injured, Germany have no backup: Löw sent both Sandro Wagner and Nils Petersen home. Wagner, who arguably deserved to be selected instead of Gomez, would have been younger (30) and, at 6’4” and nearly 200 lbs, even more physical and robust.

Instead of two true strikers, a starter and a backup, Löw has a lightweight in Werner, an aging veteran in Gomez, and a superabundance of central attacking midfielders: Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, and Julian Draxler (not to mention Leon Goretzka) all play roughly the same position. Löw seemed obliged to honor both his veterans (Özil and Reus) and youth (Draxler, who led the team that won the Confederations Cup, and Goretzka).

Be that as it may, Löw may feel he has little choice but to start both Werner and Gomez: Wednesday’s match against South Korea is yet another must-win for Germany. Werner’s second-half performance against Sweden should tell Löw all he needs to know.