RB Leipzig's home game against Freiburg on Saturday is likely to attract more interest than usual, and not just because it will be among the first football matches to be broadcast live around the world after two months of stasis in Europe's five major leagues.
With Leipzig forward Timo Werner reportedly inching closer to a move to Liverpool by the day, Freiburg's trip to Red Bull Arena will be an opportunity for fans of the European champions—and his other reported suitors—to take a closer look at him.
Having found the net 27 times in all competitions this term, Werner is already enjoying his most prolific season. And at 24, the rocket-propelled former Stuttgart prodigy appears ready for the next phase of his career. But despite the rapid speed at which his career has moved since he joined Leipzig in 2016, the road towards the top has not been without its bumps.
Born in Bad Cannstatt, the Stuttgart district where the city's major football club plays, and with football in his genes courtesy of his father, Gunter Schuh, who had played for local sides Ludwigsburg and Stuttgarter Kickers, Werner always seemed destined to become a footballer. Schuh was a right-winger in his playing days, and he helped the young Werner to hone his athleticism by taking him on punishing training runs around the vineyards that cover the hillsides to the east of the city.
Werner joined Stuttgart from local amateur team TSV Steinhaldenfeld at the age of six and came through the ranks at the club's academy at the same time as his future Germany team-mates Joshua Kimmich (with whom he attended high school) and Serge Gnabry. His goalscoring exploits in Stuttgart's youth teams were the talk of the club.
"Every weekend, the youth department at VfB would produce internal bulletins on the performances of our various teams," Frieder Schrof, Stuttgart's former head of youth development, told Kicker (h/t World Soccer). "Next to Timo's name, there invariably would be a three, a four or a six in brackets. Even as a little boy, he was the one who scored the most goals."
Werner's emergence inevitably kindled memories at Stuttgart of Die Jungen Wilden (The Young Wild Ones), which was the nickname given to the band of homegrown youngsters—Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira, Serdar Tasci, Christian Gentner and Andreas Beck—who helped to propel VfB to the Bundesliga title in 2006/07.
Werner made his first-team debut in a UEFA Europa League qualifying match against Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv in August 2013 at the age of 17 years and 148 days, making him the youngest player in the club's history. While he was inevitably rough around the edges, his searing pace (he has been clocked running 100 metres in 11.1 seconds) immediately caught the eye.
"You could see from the beginning that he was extremely fast over the first few metres," says Oliver Trust, a German football journalist and author of VfB ein Leben lang (VfB a Lifetime Affair). "Of course, he wasn't on the same level as today because he sometimes couldn't put his speed and his finishing together. But you could see that he had a gift in terms of his speed. Expectations were high."
Werner made 34 first-team appearances in his first season as a professional and the records continued to fall. The teenager became Stuttgart's youngest goalscorer, the youngest player to score two goals in a German top-flight game and the youngest player to make 50 Bundesliga appearances (a record that has since been broken by Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz).
But while Werner could scarcely have asked for more first-team experience over his three seasons at Mercedes-Benz Arena, the wider context was problematic. Stuttgart were going through a period of instability that would see Werner play under six head coaches during his time at the club. Die Roten flirted with relegation in each of his first two seasons before succumbing to the drop in 2015/16.
Werner may have been Stuttgart's golden boy, but his status did not protect him from criticism during his final campaign at the club. After heading in a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Hoffenheim early in the season, he was accused by head coach Alexander Zorniger of being "so busy blowing kisses to the crowd...that he forgot to focus on scoring a winner."
He finished the campaign having scored only six goals in 33 league appearances, but where such inconsistency on the part of a young player might have been pardoned in a more settled environment, there was no room for such indulgences at struggling Stuttgart.
"He was 17 when he started to play for the pro team, and they were in big trouble," Trust says. "He was the wonder boy, and they put all their expectations and hopes on his shoulders. It was too heavy for him. He needed stability and consistency, but Stuttgart couldn't give him that. After a while, he knew he had to leave in order to survive as a footballer."
Enter Leipzig. Freshly promoted from the 2. Bundesliga and flush with owner Red Bull's cash, the club spent €10 million to secure Werner's services in June 2016. With a fellow Swabian, Ralf Rangnick, as sporting director and a commitment to fast, aggressive, counter-attacking football already in place, the club was a perfect fit for Werner, who scored 21 goals across all competitions in his first season, tripling his previous best tally.
Werner's goals helped Leipzig to finish second in the Bundesliga, enabling them to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time. But on a personal level it was an immensely challenging campaign.
Red Bull's role in Leipzig's rise up the German leagues encountered ferocious resistance from opposition fans, and when Werner blatantly dived to win a penalty—which he then scored—in a 2-1 win over Schalke, it turned him into Public Enemy No. 1. He eventually issued a mea culpa but not before initially trying to dodge responsibility for his actions in a mealy-mouthed post-match interview. Opposition fans were in no mood to forgive.
"His performances suffered in the weeks after that because he was booed in every opposing stadium," recalls Andreas Hunzinger, who reports on Leipzig for Kicker. "Loudly booed. It affected him mentally."
International duty provided no respite, with Werner roundly and continuously jeered by fans in Nuremberg after coming on to make his competitive senior debut for Germany in a FIFA World Cup qualifier against San Marino in June 2017. But he proved his value to the national cause later that summer at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, teeing up Lars Stindl for Germany's winning goal in the final against Chile and coming home with the Golden Boot.
Despite being an ever-present in Germany's group-stage debacle at the FIFA World Cup, Werner continues to enjoy the trust of head coach Joachim Low and has become a central figure in his attempts to shift the team on to more of a counter-attacking footing.
After failing to reach 20 Bundesliga goals in his second and third campaigns at Leipzig, Werner has gone up a level this season under new coach Julian Nagelsmann. He had already equalled his best figures for goals (21) and assists (seven) in the league when the season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic and had become a much more rounded player, as demonstrated by his display in Leipzig's 8-0 demolition of Mainz in November, when he scored three goals, made three goals and had a hand in two more.
"He had to learn to combine," says Hunzinger. "He's got better tactically and technically, and he's improved his understanding of the game. I think the biggest improvement has been seeing where the space on the field is for him to run into."
Two-footed and a nerveless finisher, Werner has also benefited from playing in a new position under Nagelsmann. Having spent the bulk of his career prior to this season playing either wide on the left or at the point of the attack, he has often been deployed as a support striker behind either Yussuf Poulsen or Patrik Schick. The role affords him the freedom to stray into his preferred territory on the left flank and in the inside-left channel while also enabling him to get into goalscoring positions in the penalty area.
"I'm playing in a slightly different position as a kind of No. 10," Werner said. "That helps me a lot. I've got a lot of freedom. You often have to wait a long time for your chance and stay patient. But I've developed in that regard."
Away from the pitch, Werner avoids the cameras and is regarded as an educated and level-headed character, having completed high school during his time at Stuttgart on the insistence of his mother, Sabine Werner, whose maiden name he adopted. Teetotal and tattoo-free, his only documented vice is a weakness for doner kebabs.
He might just have to get used to the limelight, though. Because although the stadium will be empty when he walks out to face Freiburg on Saturday, he will be the centre of attention.