Tactical analysis: How would signing Timo Werner change the way Liverpool play?

Timo Werner has been one of Europe’s best strikers in all categories this season. Julian Nagelsmann’s guidance has evidently taken many of his men to the next level of their capabilities and development, his star striker perhaps most of all.

Not only has the German scored 24 goals and made seven assists in 27 Bundesliga starts, but he has simultaneously explored new roles and positions with excellent results.

As these types of results usually do, they have generated tremendous interest in the 24-year-old German from seemingly all of Europe’s top clubs — the £52million release clause inserted into his contract does nothing to reduce the level of interest.

However, even though clubs as Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter, and Manchester United have made their interest known, one club stands out — Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp has made his interest clear to the club’s hierarchy, Leipzig, and Werner’s representatives according to reports, and the player himself seems to prefer working under his charismatic countryman.

So, that leaves several question marks to be cleared up if Werner were to join the mighty Reds this summer.

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What formation would Liverpool operate with next season? How would Werner fit in and what role would he be deployed in? What would signing Werner mean for Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah? Would a switch of formation overall benefit or harm Liverpool?

This is a complex equation that needs investigation and analysis — and that’s what I’m aiming to do here.

What formation would Liverpool use if Werner joins?

To begin with, Jürgen Klopp is a pragmatic manager. One of his greatest strengths is knowing when to use which system. Regardless if Werner or any other striker would join Liverpool, Klopp would most likely still rotate systems depending on which system has the highest probability of beating the opponent. Thus far, at Liverpool, Klopp has mainly opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation against inferior opposition, or lower-risk fixtures, due to its counter-pressing prowess, compactness and numerical advantage. The 4-3-3 formation has been relied upon in the big games due to its’ stability.

Having said that, should Timo Werner move to the Red side of Merseyside, it’s likely that Klopp would change Liverpool’s go-to formation from a 4-3-3 to 4-3-2-1 formation to fit all his offensive star players in one lineup. The formation was Klopp’s go-to formation during his revolutionising and successful time at Dortmund, and he has previously experimented with the 4-2-3-1 formation for Liverpool in the past two seasons to give his side and tactics more of an unpredictable factor. Whilst deploying the 4-2-3-1 formation in that realm, Liverpool have managed to stay unbeaten — winning 12 and drawing one from 13 matches whilst scoring 31 goals and only conceding four.

The 4-2-3-1 formation’s success rate during Dortmund’s glory years in the early 2010s and at Liverpool in the past two seasons tells us that it’s a formation Jürgen Klopp knows well and can utilize successfully. It also tells us that Liverpool’s players understand it and can operate well with it. Usually, the 4-2-3-1 formation has been deployed against inferior opposition where the possession will be dominated. The defence is intact, and the attacking line is very productive.

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The 4-2-3-1 formation is generally seen as one of the most balanced formations in football, regardless of the team has a defensive or offensive nature. Klopp has defended as a 4-4-1-1 and attacked as a 2-4-4 whilst using the 4-2-3-1 formation both at Liverpool and Dortmund. The big difference then and now is that with Dortmund his focus was on counter-pressing, whilst now, it’s on possession. Regardless, it requires a lot of positional awareness, high work rate and cohesiveness to succeed, but there are some positions that are more important than others for the formation to function and for Liverpool’s football to be fluid, the central spine — central defenders and midfielders — and the wingers.

To simplify, we’ll dissect everything and explain:

Defensive phase

Liverpool’s defense in a 4-2-3-1 essentially bases itself in two phases.

The first defensive phase is the counter-press from LW, CAM, RW, and ST. This first line of defence kicks in immediately after the ball is lost in the offensive zone to quickly recover it. It bases itself in pressing the pass to the opposition full-backs where the striker, attacking midfielder, and winger aims to quickly create a numerical superiority, hunt the full-backs down as a pack by block passing ways and spaces, and eventually recover the ball. The formation’s close-space structure enables efficient counter-pressing.

The second phase of defence is the midfield pivot that forms a defensive quartet together with the centre-halves. They form Liverpool’s second phase of defence if the first — the counter-press — is bypassed. The second phase is constructed like a square-shaped quartet to form two defences in one. If the pivot fails to recover the ball, the centre-halves are ready in a second wave of defence like a safety net. The quartet will also give numerical superiority — when the opposition pumps the ball forward in a direct manner or if a player is dribbling at them — and to increase the options for combination play when the ball is recovered to pass themselves out of pressured situations. That is if the opponents get past the counter-press.

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The pivot has been a mixture of technique and tenacity. One of the central midfielders has tended to be a defensive-minded midfielder with the capability to connect the defence to the midfield, stabilise the gap between defence and midfield, and act as a deep playmaker. With the current squad, it would be surprising to see anyone other than Fabinho getting assigned to navigate this role. Fabinho’s good long-range passing, positional awareness, astute technical abilities, and work under pressure combined with his read of the game, physique, and great defensive skill set makes him tailor-made to fulfil all the tasks required for this role.

To Liverpool’s advantage, Fabinho, Keïta, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Milner — more or less every player in contention for playing in the pivot — have the positional and tactical discipline as well as being comfortable on the ball.

How Liverpool would generally look in the defensive phase

The wingers, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah are integral to the system. They work up and down the wings throughout 90 minutes and play key roles in both defensive and offensive phases of the game. As opposed to the 4-3-3 formation, where the three-man midfield takes on a lot of their defensive responsibilities. The three-man midfield does this by the outer central midfielders drifts out to the wide channels and cover those areas whilst the fullbacks and wingers are operating in the final third. In a 4-2-3-1 however, there won’t be enough manpower on the central midfield to cover the wide channels. The central midfielders concentrate their focus on the central areas in defensive situations when they’re one man less. Therefore, the fullbacks and wingers must work together to defend the wings.

One thing that remains unaffected by the switch of formation is the counter-press. The wingers, attacking midfielder and striker will continue to be Liverpool’s first line of defence by quickly trying to recover possession of the ball is lost in the offensive zone.

Offensive phase

The 4-2-3-1 enables direct progression with a Firmino naturally stationed between the lines and efficient combination play because of the formations close-space structure and unpredictability.

In the build-ups, the defensively-minded midfielder is tasked to drop deep, collect the ball from the centre-halves or Alisson and then either quickly hand the ball over to someone else to carry it up the pitch, or to distribute the ball with long-range passes to Mané or Salah diagonally deep into the wide channels or to Werner centrally over the last line of defence to run on. Jordan Henderson and Naby Keïta are other options for this pivot role.

The other central midfielder of the pivot must be able to cover the whole pitch with good positional awareness, transport the ball well over longer distances, and support on both ends of the pitch. Positional awareness, good ball retention, high work rate, durability, and technique will be important characteristics. Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, and Naby Keïta are the best suitors for this role.

The ball-sided midfielder has a responsibility to act as press relief in the build-ups — even though the box-to-box tends to take on this responsibility the most. The central midfielders have to seek out their teammates in pressured areas/situations, adding another option to bypass the opposition press. For Liverpool, this is usually in the wide channels for a full-back or a winger.

Positional awareness and cohesiveness will be key for the central midfielders forming the pivot. If the pivot stands in line, they leave space either in front of them or behind them to exploit, as well as they’re making themselves a target to the opposition who can pass or go between them.

The fullbacks are free to position themselves high on the flank or a bit more advanced than their nearest centre-half. In general, there isn’t much difference for them in the build-ups between a 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3.

The 4-2-3-1 formation will require two centre-halves who are composed and comfortable on the ball, with good passing. Defensively, it won’t be much different from a 4-3-3 formation, but offensively they will be more involved in the build-ups — Virgil van Dijk, especially, as the strongest passer out of Liverpool’s centre-halves.

If the playmaker gets man marked centrally in the build-ups, he’ll strive to draw his defender out wide to open the pocket for van Dijk to step into and deliver the passes in his place. Van Dijk has the passing, both short and long-range, to do this job successfully. He has completed 804 of 937 passes longer than 25 meters (85.8pc) this season — the most completed 25m+ passes in the league, and the highest success percentage on 25m+ passes. He also has the fifth-most passes into the final third in the league — first amongst defenders — with 167 and averages 5.76 passes into the final third per game. These statistics illustrate how merited van Dijk is for that responsibility.

If van Dijk gets man-marked, Fabinho will have to drop down and become a third centre-half to create an alternative for van Dijk to move the ball to. Fabinho can then proceeded to make the pass. The big difference between Klopp’s Liverpool side and his Dortmund side in the build-ups is named Alisson Becker. With Alisson, there’s an additional player in the build-ups for the ball-playing defenders to opt for if they’re pressured. At Dortmund, their goalkeeper, Roman Weidenfeller, was flawed with the ball at his feet. Alisson, on the other hand, can both control the ball and distribute it well with his feet on a level few goalkeepers in the world are able to.

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The wingers will always look to exploit the space behind the opposition’s full-backs. Especially if the ball is held centrally. As Werner and Firmino would roam the central channels, Salah and Mané will look out for when space the centre-half or full-back on their side of the pitch leaves behind when he is diverted by Werner or Firmino and steps up the pitch.

Whilst attacking Liverpool have usually played a 2-4-4 with the 4-2-3-1 formation. The wingers become narrow, drifts into the half-spaces — simultaneously attracting the opposition fullbacks — to open space for the fullbacks to exploit in the wide channels. The fullbacks stay wide to stretch the defence — creating more space for the narrow wingers, attacking midfielder and striker in the box area. They are all approximately within 20 yards of each other and within 25 yards of the opposition’s goal. Having the wingers, attacking, and striker so close together gives the full-backs more alternatives to aim their crosses for and creates a numerical overload in the central channels.

The 4-2-3-1 formation enables Liverpool to attack with six players at all times, seven if the box-to-box midfielder drifts up. A massive overload in and around the penalty box that will be very hard for the opponents to handle. It would also increase the chances of breaking down low blocks as four-five players will occupy the central channels as the full-backs will stretch the defence. The more options to circulate the ball amongst, divert the defence, to utilise in finishing of the attacks, and to tire out the defence mentally and physically, the better. This will also benefit the counter-press; ff possession is lost in the offensive zone, an immense counter-press will break out to try and quickly recover the ball and start the attack again. Given the large number of players in that counter-press, the chances of successfully regaining the ball increases.

In theory, attacking with seven players is entirely plausible for Liverpool as Fabinho, van Dijk and Gomez all have the defensive and physical capabilities to successfully manage in numerical inferiority together. Most realistic would be attacking with six and defending with four, though.

How Liverpool would generally look in the offensive phase

What role/position would Werner be deployed in?

Timo Werner would likely vacate the lone striker role, whether Liverpool deploys a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation. Werner can play as a left-winger as well, but if Sadio Mané were to be rested or rotated, Divock Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri, Takumi Minamino, or Curtis Jones would probably be the alternatives Klopp would opt for.

But with Werner comes versatility and options, he’s not only an out and out striker. Throughout the 2019-20 season, Nagelsmann has used him in a number of roles and positions where Werner has delivered good results. Number nine, false nine, left-winger, and second striker.

Seen to Liverpool’s system and philosophy, Werner’s integration could perhaps be swifter than those of Fabinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Andy Robertson. Werner already plays in a highly intensive counter-pressing system today in Leipzig with a fair few similarities to Klopp’s system.

Timo Werner’s 2019/20 seasonal heatmap

The heatmap shows that he’s an extensive contributor to Leipzig’s build-ups, attacks, and counter-pressing. He averages 4.88 ball recoveries and around 13 pressuring actions per 90 with a 24.4pc success rate, where the team regains possession within five seconds. For comparison, Roberto Firmino — the master of counter-pressing — has a success rate of 30pc.

Whether Werner plays as a second striker, false nine, or an out-and-out No.9, he tends to roam the final third enable himself as a passing option, create space for others, or simply to get himself into a good position to score.

This would to a certain extent remain unchanged playing as a lone striker for Liverpool. Klopp always advocates movement, collective support, and making yourself available to your teammates. However, in contrast to how Werner has played at Leipzig as a lone striker, he’d be tasked to operate a lot vertically, running deep in the central channels. He will not be as involved in the build-ups and roam the final third as much as he has under Nagelsmann at Leipzig.

When Salah has operated as a lone striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation, he has sought out the areas behind the opposition centre-halves to run and receive the ball in. He’s not been very involved in the build-ups but instead waited for the chances to come and finish them off. Werner doesn’t have the blistering speed that Salah’s in possession of, but he’s still fast and can compensate up with his great anticipation and smart runs.

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As he’s a natural striker, he’s more natural than Salah when it comes to where you should position yourself as a striker for optimal results on counters, what movements to make for your teammates to find you behind the defensive lines, etc. Overall, Werner would likely be less involved in the play and act as a spearhead on chances created or a diversion to open spaces for others. The difference with him as a lone striker contra Salah is that you get a natural striker who can clinically finish off chances. Werner over-performs his 20.55 xG by 3.45 goals as he’s scored 24 Bundesliga goals.

What would signing Werner mean for Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah?

How a Werner signing would impact Mané, Firmino, and Salah all depends on what formation Klopp will use. If we continue the thesis that it will be a 4-2-3-1, then what’s most likely is that the three will form the band of three behind Werner as a lone striker up top.

Proven by past use of the 4-2-3-1, everything points at Mané, Firmino and Salah would manage well with a switch of formation. Other than Liverpool scoring 31 goals from 13 games with the 4-2-3-1, individual stats show Mané, Firmino and Salah’s individual influences.

How Firmino operates as an attacking midfielder is the biggest question linked with a reorganisation of Liverpool’s attack. Mané and Salah essentially play the same roles in a 4-2-3-1 as they do in a 4-3-3, only with more defensive responsibilities. As for Firmino, there’s a significant difference in both responsibilities and positioning.

The stats above show that he hasn’t had the same offensive output as an attacking midfielder as he has had as a false nine. The question that must be raised with that, though, is; is this relevant? Liverpool traditionally creates through the full-backs and wingers — which will likely be the case even with a switch of formation. Firmino is a defensive forward who more than anything focuses on being a diversion for the opposition defence and the first defender in a counter-pressing philosophy. He’s not counted on being an offensive output, Mané and Salah are.

Defensively, Firmino’s done perhaps better as an attacking midfielder. During his time in Hoffenheim playing as an attacking midfielder, Firmino topped the charts for tackles won in the opponent’s half by an attacking midfielder. As can be seen by the stats above, whilst playing an attacking midfielder for Liverpool, Firmino has 56 ball recoveries in 13 games, averaging 4.30 ball recoveries per 90. For the type of attacking midfielder he’s set to become in a 4-2-3-1, which shows efficiency.

As for being the link between midfield and forwards, that’s what Firmino’s been doing as a false nine for the past three-four years. He has the holdup play, dribbling, spacial awareness, first touch and, passing ability to being able to take on that responsibility and for making sure that the ball circulates well throughout Liverpool’s attacks.

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Overall, would a switch of formation benefit or harm Liverpool?

It’s impossible to answer this with a yes or no answer, it entirely depends on the opposition. Liverpool’s success is much down to Klopp’s pragmatism of knowing which formation, system, and players to deploy that will wreak the most havoc towards a specific opposition.

The 4-3-3 formation will undoubtedly remain the go-to formation in the big games, as it ensures more calculated pressing and doesn’t rely as much on having possession because instead it’s offensive transitions and counter-pressing that are the main creative outlets. The more calculated pressing comes from Mané, Firmino, and Salah positioning themselves in the central channels and half-spaces to force a pass to the full-backs or a certain player — who they then hunt down in a pack.

The formation and the three-man midfield are freed from offensive responsibilities and can focus on covering ground, close spaces, and providing coverage and stability as a contingency towards any counters or opposition transitions. The outer two central midfielders can cover the wide channels when the full-backs push up to attack and let the winger unaffected of this in terms of having to provide coverage for the full-back. Or one the central midfielders can support the front three in the counter-pressing phase, whilst the team still has two central midfielders staying put with the centre-halves in a defensive quartet. Big games usually generate a great number of battles on the midfield as well, and therefore, a large number of players on the midfield is beneficial.

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Signing Timo Werner would, however, mean Liverpool could play a more complete version of the 4-2-3-1 formation as they’d have a natural striker with superb finishing to spearhead the attacks. Werner can score goals from half chances as well as good chances, and Leipzig score 1.49 more goals per game with Werner on the pitch.

The 4-2-3-1 formation overall is more unpredictable and harder to defend against due to a large number of attackers it generates in the offensive zone. It enables Liverpool to attack with up to seven players and make countless runs and transitions to give the opposition nightmares. With the player material Liverpool possess, most offensive players can play anywhere across the front three or attacking midfield, which generates even more havoc as the attacking players can switch positions amongst each other.

Historically, the 4-2-3-1 formation and system has largely been utilised against opposition where Liverpool are expected to dominate possession. However, as Liverpool themselves have become more and more of a dominating force in general, that would mean that the 4-2-3-1 formation, in theory at least, would be applicable towards most opposition — and that speaks for Klopp making the 4-2-3-1 his go-to formation if Werner is signed.

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Maxi Angelo

Just a guy who was made for loving, living, and breathing Liverpool Football Club.

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