3 Hot Takes: Timo Werner, Jadon Sancho, Franz Beckenbauer
Let's talk about some things more interesting than the FA Cup
It’s been, shall we say, a less-than-thrilling week of football on the pitch. Domestic cups reign supreme at this time of year, and I just don’t find them very compelling viewing. But, fortunately for the newsletter, things have been happening off the pitch, so let’s talk about them. I didn’t set out to have such a German theme to this one, but the topics ended up flowing into each other quite nicely. Let’s get into it.
Stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
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Feel the Wern
Tottenham are loaning Timo Werner for the rest of the season (and permanently signing Radu Drăgușin, but I don’t have a take on him). It makes sense on just about every level, but for one very minor question: is he actually any good?
Ange Postecoglou traditionally likes to keep his wingers very wide, push some of his central midfielders forward into the half-spaces, and keep the striker on the shoulder of the last man. At the risk of sounding like a meme, Werner is very well suited to the role of a number nine who spends half the game in an offside position. Chelsea never quite knew what to do with him. The Blues usually needed a “focal point” striker for others to run off, which totally nullified everything Werner offered in theory. That meant either playing him wide, as Frank Lampard did, or in a front two, as Thomas Tuchel more often did. Tuchel at least had an idea of how to fit Werner into the team next to Havertz, but ultimately decided a more complete nine was needed (even if Romelu Lukaku didn’t work out). But Werner, in theory, should fit the Postecoglou system like a glove.
I was very high on Werner before Chelsea signed him, and his poor form made me completely reconsider the Bundesliga’s relative standard. Everyone talks about missing chances and underperforming his expected goals, but that was never the main issue. What mattered was that the xG he actually generated went down by 43% season to season after moving from Energy Drink Leipzig to Stamford Bridge. He was taking about one fewer shot per 90 minutes, and the chances he still took were of a slightly lower quality. Werner thrives in attacking the half-spaces1 in fast counter attacks, and there just aren’t as many of those in England, where teams can sit a little deeper without the ball. He also probably lost some confidence as the season went on, which inevitably hurt his overall game, and then got benched for a year before going back to Leipzig.
“Finishing” has not been his issue in his Bundesliga return. He’s scored 11 times from 11.5 xG, bang on where he should be. But 11 goals in 18 months of league football is not exactly impressive. He had an injury-disrupted first season back at the Energy Drink Arena and then lost his place in the team altogether this year, which bodes ill. Leipzig should’ve been an ideal fit for his skills and he finds himself sidelined.
The main questions here are twofold: can Postecoglou get him back to his best, and is his best good enough for Spurs? It seems like his poor form is caused both by injuries and a lack of confidence, neither of which we can speculate on from the outside. His tactical system seems well suited to a forward who wants to run in behind rather than receive the ball with his back to goal. But this isn’t a league with a lot of fast transitions. Werner will have to accept large stretches of play where he can’t get into the game because the opponents have parked the bus and Spurs can’t work it into the box. Postecoglou’s system is good at creating space for strikers, but is that enough to work for a player who absolutely needs open space?
Whatever the outcome, if he fails, I don’t think it will be about “finishing”.
Jadon Sancho heading back to Borussia Dortmund
And now we get to the other player who made me rethink my opinions on the Bundesliga.
Jadon Sancho was so good at Borussia Dortmund. He was a creation machine, generating great chances from passes and dribbling non-stop. The only knocks against him were that he didn’t take many shots himself and that he lacked the physical qualities great players had. His slender frame might stop him from having the kind of ball-carrying value someone like Jack Grealish offers, while he never had the acceleration that probably stopped him from being a shot-taking winger like Mohamed Salah.
In hindsight, I definitely didn’t pay enough attention to his physical shortcomings. He has filled out a bit compared to his teenage years at Dortmund, but he’s never going to be an absolute unit you just can’t knock off the ball in tight spaces. Sancho grew up playing cage football on small pitches where the aim was often to pull off skills and tricks, “rip one of the older lads, like a nutmeg or something”, to show everyone how good you were. If you want to be that sort of player at senior level in the Premier League, you need a very specific body type which I’m not sure Sancho has.
But why was that fine in the Bundesliga? Is it just a lower standard? Does the dominant counter-pressing style mean those tight spaces aren’t quite as tight, suiting someone like Sancho better? Maybe he’s actually fine, and he’s just been struggling with everything that goes wrong at Manchester United. Or maybe he’s permanently broken and we’ll never see the player we thought he’d become. I honestly don’t know.
RIP Franz Beckenbauer, 1945-2024
When I talk about the Bundesliga and qualities specific to Germany, I pretty much exclusively mean the 21st-century variety. When you close your eyes and think of German football, you imagine fast transitions and counter-pressing, teams doing some slightly dodgy defending as well as smart attacks.
That was all popularised in the last 25 years or so. German football found itself in a rut at the end of the 1990s, summed up by the national team’s dismal Euro 2000 campaign. Postwar Germany has been such a success in so many fields because it has never been afraid to keep looking forward and reinvent itself. So when their football was crumbling, they embraced a radically different and modern style, implemented at all levels of the country’s game, remarkably quickly. That’s what Germany does well, at least to this outsider.
But there was a football culture that existed before this tactical revolution. It was more individualistic, it sat deeper, and it was certainly less fun to watch, but it was very successful. And no one embodied it more than Franz Beckenbauer. Der Kaiser defined the most German position on the pitch: libero. As I wrote in 2021 for what was once Eurosport but now seems to be TNT Sports,
“It’s not even a German word in origin. It comes from Italian, where it literally translates as “free”. In English, it’s usually referred to as a sweeper, but a libero in Germany is more than a sweeper. Franz Beckenbauer set the tone. In the days of man marking systems, the libero would be the free man without anyone to mark, who could clean up in behind. But Beckenbauer and Germany flipped this on its head, as he also became the free man in possession. Beckenbauer was Germany’s key playmaker fielded so deep you couldn’t pick him up. He could ping passes over the top at ease without anyone able to stop it.”
Beckenbauer captained West Germany to a World Cup win in 1974 and achieved the same feat as manager in 1990. Those teams were physical and direct, relying heavily on getting the ball wide to create chances. It all started from the libero at the back, who could have more space and time on the ball and saw the entire game. That was Germany.
The first thing German football’s revolutionaries, most notably Ralf Rangnick, did was move to a back four with no man marking in open play, and no libero. This focused the team on defending collectively, staying compact and playing higher up the pitch. It was an enormous success. But that cycle seems to be over. German football has emphasised its exciting style of football to the point where sides are open and sloppy defensively, creating a league in which players like Werner and Sancho find it much easier than they did in the Premier League. I don’t know what the next era of German football will look like, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past the country to completely reinvent itself again. To pull it off, they’ll need certain brilliant individuals like Beckenbauer.
Something to watch
My friend Mohamed Mohamed has been one of the very best football analysts around for a long time now. I don’t think anyone is better at breaking down a player’s strengths and weaknesses on a granular level, of the sort you might find in a professional scouting report. He launched a YouTube channel recently, and his most recent video looks at Matías Soulé, the 20-year-old Juventus hotshot on loan at Frosinone. I highly recommend you check it out.
Something that’s not football
Ok, just a heads up that this is about to get pretty deep and personal.
I was lying awake recently and had a sudden scary realisation: I care if I live or die. Like, a lot. (I’m not ill or in any imminent danger of dying or anything, these were just thoughts.) This is all pretty normal human behaviour because god knows if we’re programmed to do one thing, it’s survive. And yet, since some point in my teenage years, I’ve felt, at best, an ambivalence about being alive. I never got to the point of attempting suicide, but the thought was always there. And now it’s not.
Let’s backtrack a little. Despite years of being absolutely certain I was a transgender woman, it took me until this summer to finally get on hormones. That cloud of depression stymied my ability to achieve much of anything I wanted, along with a whole basket of other reasons. But I finally got there this year and I can’t put the difference into words. It took a couple of months to really make an impact (and getting my dosage right, get a blood test and check your levels if you’re not seeing an improvement), but I’ve suddenly never felt this good in my life. Oestrogen has essentially cured my depression.
I say this in part to share the good news that I’m doing well. But I also say this because, statistically speaking, some of you reading this will be trans without knowing it. Cisgender people don’t spend all day secretly wishing they were the other gender. It kind of blew my mind realising this, but they just don’t. I stumbled upon this old tweet recently (screenshotted below), and the most heartwarming thing was seeing how many confused repliers from 2019 were now living as their best selves after figuring it out. If you’ve got some confusing feelings in that direction, maybe ask yourself what it means. It might save your life.
There are also, almost certainly, some of you who have realised you’re trans but find yourself sitting in a holding pattern, trapped unable to do anything about it and live your life. And I’ve been there. It’s ok if you’re not ready yet. It’s ok if you can’t yet. It’s ok if you’re just feeling inertia from the fog of dysphoria clouding your judgement. But I promise you, it is worth it. There is light at the end of the tunnel. If I can do any good in my capacity as a moderately notable trans woman on the internet, it’s helping people realise that.
And some of you might be in situations where it’s very difficult to feasibly transition. Again, it’s ok if you need to wait. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Better things are possible. It’s never too late, and you’ll get there one day.
Thanks for reading!
The space sort of in between the full back and the centre back. It’s an awkward term, but it’s the one that stuck.