Analysis: How Does Hwang Hee-chan Replace Timo Werner at RB Leipzig?

Timo Werner had undoubtedly played a significant role in RB Leipzig’s progress from a Bundesliga newly-promoted club to an established top-four side. In the last four seasons, Werner had made 159 appearances while also scoring 95 goals, racking up a record of 0.6 goals per match. Those numbers made him the all-time top scorer of the club and the most effective striker in the club’s history.

But, as the more he developed throughout his time at Leipzig, the better he would become on the pitch, and, as a result, more big names will be sniffing around for his service. He was linked to numerous clubs in the last couple of windows, including the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. Eventually, he chose Chelsea as the next destination in his career, and Leipzig did not waste any time in finding his replacement in Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Hee-chan.

Hwang has caught the attention of many fans for his performance in the UEFA Champions League this season alongside Erling Håland and Takumi Minamino. While the latter two both moved on to bigger clubs, Hwang remained at Salzburg amid Wolverhampton Wanderers attempts to sign him in the winter transfer window. Before this season, he had been a rotational option in Marco Rose’s squad that reached the Europa League semi-final in 2017/18 and had secured a loan move to Hamburg the season after.

At Hamburg, he was used as a winger on several occasions to support the lone striker Pierre-Michel Lassoga, while was also used up front as the main striker in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Back at Salzburg this season, Hwang was paired up alongside Patson Daka and, at times, Sékou Koïta and Karim Adeyemi. This will allow him to adapt to Julian Nagelsmann’s tactics as he will be used as one of two strikers in his 4-2-2-2 or 5-2-1-2 formations.

Attacking Contributions

One of Hwang’s strengths that made him a crucial player in Jesse Marsch’s system this season was his versatility both on and off the ball. When he is not controlling possession, the Korean striker tends to sit in between the channels or lurking around the space between the opposition’s defenders, similar to the situation below. It would allow him to either attract the attention of the defenders around him and create space for his teammates to move into or encourage long balls from Salzburg’s centre-backs for him to move forward.

With his pace, it is possible for him to turn up at the end of those passes and escape the pressure from the defenders at the same time. As a result, it would open up a great chance for him since he would be in a 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper on most occasions. Hwang also has the tendency of scanning the area around him and look for space to make a run into. Right before the pass, he would start the run while also monitoring the ball’s movement in order not to fall into the offside trap and still being able to receive the pass.

Leipzig can capitalise on this trait in a similar way to how they executed with Werner as the finisher. While Hwang might not be as quick as Werner, he is capable of bursting forward with the ball or breaking the opposition’s offside trap and pick up through balls from the likes of Amadou Haidara or Emil Forsberg.

Hwang is also extremely skilful when he controls the ball as he constantly shows his flair and technical ability to get past opposition’s defenders. Skill moves are something that we can constantly see him utilising to get past his man and enter the space where he can execute his next move.

Similar to the situation below where his movement also attracted one of Wolfsberg’s defenders out and opened up space for Masaya Okugawa to enter, the Korean striker himself also noticed the unoccupied space behind the defender closing him down. Using a simple nutmeg, it was possible for him to get to the area and sent a through ball to the former Holstein Kiel midfielder to open the scoring for Salzburg.

Intelligence and awareness are two other attributes that prevent him from overusing technical moves as it might prevent the play from progressing and could cause him to lose the ball. A situation that happened way back to the time when he was at Hamburg showed his trait of playing with his head constantly throughout the match.

From Julian Pollersbeck’s goal-kick, the ball dropped near Hwang, but he found himself being marked by one of Dynamo Dresden’s defenders. Instead of making a normal touch to control the ball and pass it back to his teammate, he turned around to escape the pressure while letting the ball bounced over the defender. It was a very risky move given that the defender could just out jump him to intercept the pass, but the decision surprised him and paid off for Hwang to receive the pass and continue dribbling towards the goal.

Many have drawn comparisons between Hwang and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino after the Korean’s performances this season. It is not because of Hwang’s goal scoring record, getting on the score sheet 16 times this season across all competitions, but because of his playmaking ability.

Hwang’s versatility allows him to play across all attacking positions, from partnering with another striker in a duo to playing out wide. Mindless the position that he will play at Leipzig, he is always willing to link up with the teammates around him and make through balls to set them up in positions where they can score. His key passes map below is a clear example of this aspect of play as besides from being dangerous around the box, he also registered 35 key passes in front of the final third.

If Leipzig can secure a permanent deal for Patrik Schick, the Czech international could be used as an advanced forward with the support of second best scorer this season Christopher Nkunku in Nagelsmann’s 3-4-2-1 formation. Both have proven themselves as threats inside the 16-yard box and their flexible movements can create space for Hwang to work into and allow the Korean to create chances for them. Similar to how he did with Håland and Minamino earlier this season.

Comparison: Hwang Hee-chan and Timo Werner’s key passes in 2019/20. [Instat]

Defensive Contributions

Even before the arrival of Jesse Marsch, Salzburg have applied an innovative pressing system under Marco Rose and Hwang had played a crucial role in both coaches’ systems. And with Nagelsmann also a type of coach who favours an aggressive press style of play, Hwang’s presence will benefit Leipzig significantly.

He will provide pace in order to close down the opposition’s ball carrier or an available passing lane, and he will utilise his intelligence to anticipate the direction of the pass to intercept it. As the situation below against Wolfsberg shows, with one of his teammates already approaching the ball carrier, he would have no choice but to pass the ball out of trouble. Hwang anticipated this and immediately closed the passing lane in front of the ball carrier down and won the ball back for Salzburg’s quick counter-attack.

In 1v1 situation, his intelligence and determined mentality also helps him to time his tackle well and avoids fouling the opposition’s player. This aspect of play covers up the aggressive mentality that can result in him committing unnecessary fouls inside the opponent’s half and makes the team’s pressing situation becomes unsuccessful.

This season, he registers 3.8 attempted defensive challenges (Werner’s record is 2.6), 1.58 (1.17) attempted tackles and 1.18 (0.93) interceptions per 90 minutes, the numbers that show how important he will be in Nagelsmann’s system next season. Hwang still needs to be calmer when making tackles, though, given his record of 1.43 fouls per 90 minutes this season – an alarming number.

Comparing Hwang’s pressing efficiency to Werner’s this season, it is fair to say the Korean will be a huge addition to Nagelsmann’s system and a perfect replacement for the German striker. While Hwang did play across numerous positions this season, which is why he manages to make a lot more tackles inside the middle third compared to Werner (65 to Werner’s 26), he also registers more tackles inside the final third.

In terms of stats, Hwang is also slightly better than Werner. As compared above, the Korean shows his willingness and efficiency to involve in the team’s press, which will benefit Leipzig big time. For Werner, though, a reasonable explanation for why his stats are lower than Hwang’s is because he is not as aggressive as the Korean striker during the team’s press, which makes the opponent’s player go pass him more easily. He tends to capitalise on the ball carrier’s mistake to steal the ball or attempts to hold off the opponent and knock him out of the way to regain possession. Hwang is different, he is aggressive and will go for the ball if it is near him, but he also tries to anticipate what will the ball carrier do in order not to foul him.

Comparison: Hwang Hee-chan and Timo Werner’s tackling areas. [InStat]

Leipzig have moved extremely quick to find a new replacement for Werner, a player who had played an important role in the club’s history, while still making sure that he is able to fill in the role that the German striker left and fits Nagelsmann’s tactics. Once again, they looked at their sister club, Red Bull Salzburg, to sign Hwang Hee-chan. The Korean had showcased his talent and ability earlier this season alongside Håland and Minamino, and a move to a bigger club is inevitable given the potential that he has.

Leipzig have secured a player who is at a similar age to Werner and has a somewhat similar style of play to the German international. He fits the tactics that Nagelsmann wants to apply at the club next season, and a huge future is waiting for him to discover during his time at Leipzig.

By Daryl Gouilard

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