PLAYER ANALYSIS: Konrad Laimer and Midfielders in Pressing Systems

A lot of the talk surrounding RB Leipzig has mostly been around the tactics of Julian Nagelsmann, the goals of Timo Werner and the talent in their defence; primarily Nordi Mukiele and Dayot Upamecano. But the player that has gone under the radar, while also showing the most prominent signs of improvement is Austrian midfielder Konrad Laimer.

Before properly watching Leipzig this season, the impression Laimer left was of a player liked by his managers for his intensity and versatility but didn’t have the same high ceiling as his teammates. Rangnick was especially a huge fan of Laimer. The former RB Salzburg midfielder played every minute in the Europa League group stages in 18/19, while also playing around 1800 minutes in the league, a massive spike from the 1300 minutes he played in 17/18.

The main area in which Laimer has stood out from day one in Germany has always been defensive actions. In the league, Laimer was winning 2.18 tackles per 90 last season, only placing him behind the captain and well-known tough tackler, Diego Demme. However, the real takeaway from this is where he was attempting these tackles. Laimer was attempting 0.91 tackles in the opposition third, far and away the most in the Leipzig squad (if you’re curious, Tyler Adams was second with 0.50). I presumed, before looking at his numbers this season, that he was attempting so many tackles in the final third because he was playing as a makeshift right-back. However, this isn’t the case. This season, Laimer has played entirely as a defensive midfielder but has still managed to attempt the same high amount of tackles as under Rangnick. Laimer is attempting 0.79 tackles in the opposition third, the most for any regular in the squad.

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Captain Diego Demme’s sale in January only went to further prove the importance Nagelsmann had placed upon Laimer as his primary defensive midfielder. RB Leipzig usually switches between alternative versions of 4-4-2 or 3-4-3, and Laimer is generally placed alongside a more attack-minded midfielder in Marcel Sabitzer or Emile Forsberg. I do think the pair do deserve credit for being able to adapt to a less attacking role and into a more supportive one, but it does further show just how good Laimer has been for Nagelsmann. Leipzig is fundamentally a pressing team, meaning during opposition build-up play. They will usually attempt to win the ball through pushing their attackers far up the pitch and cutting their opponent’s passing lanes; winning the ball back with a well-timed interception. Laimer is usually left on his own in the middle of the park, with Sabitzer regularly doing the more ball-dominant work. Yet, it makes Laimer’s role in the team that more vital. Laimer’s role in this team is to get the ball back as quick as possible, and play the football to the attackers; usually through vertical passes. It makes Laimer sound like your typical, old-school ball winner, but he is a lot more than that.

Firstly, having a job like this in such a press-heavy team is one a majority of midfielders in Europe would struggle with. You have to possess high energy levels to cover a lot of ground; as well as having the intelligence to position yourself in the right place. The amount of work Laimer does is actually incredible. He attempts a ridiculous 37 pressures per 90 (Important context; 22 is an impressive amount of pressures, so anything higher is worth heaps of praise). Laimer, as expected, is right at the top of the squad for tackles and interceptions, with the 22-year-old completing 4.2 tackles and interceptions per 90 for his side.

Talking about Laimer purely from a defensive point of view does to him a level of a disservice. I doubt Laimer would even be a regular in the team if he wasn’t at least adequate on the ball. Earlier, I did make Laimer’s role on the ball sound rather simplistic, but he can do a lot more than merely playing the ball long to the attackers. Laimer doesn’t look threatened when opponents attempt to dispossess him. Laimer is in the top twenty in the league for passes made while under pressure. One thing Laimer consistently does is make darting runs into the opposition third. It’s a very effective method to cause havoc since it’s unlikely your opponent is picking up the single defensive midfielder. Laimer is a very capable dribbler and takes advantage of the overloads he creates. This is perfectly showcased during RB Leipzig’s 1-0 win over Tottenham, where Laimer managed to win his side the decisive penalty through receiving the ball in Tottenham’s box.

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Defensive midfielders for top clubs are rare, especially those in the mould of Laimer. Tottenham and Manchester United are two clubs who look desperate for a real defensive midfielder. Tottenham may have Ndombele and Lo Celso, two genuinely elite midfield talents, but both would rather be doing the more glamorous midfield work. Manchester United are in the same boat. McTominay and Fred might be able to a bit of defensive work, but their best qualities are in the final third, whether it’s passing or making darting runs into the opposition box. If one of these clubs could sign Laimer, they could close that gap to the top a lot faster.

Where is the Best Destination for Jadon Sancho?

With the football season unofficially over, we might as well look at the summer. I was planning to do a lot of work on the European Championships. However, with that delayed until next year, transfers are the only real talking point in the football landscape. It might be somewhat irrelevant to talk about transfers, especially during the current health pandemic facing the world. Nevertheless, we might as well continue with business as usual. 

I’ll be covering some of the most wanted players in Europe, and deciding which club is the best place for said player’s development. We’ll be starting with England prospect and current Borussia Dortmund Jadon Sancho, who is wanted by pretty much every big club in Europe. He’s easily the best winger in the Bundesliga, capable of scoring, as well as creating for his teammates. His maturity in the opposition box is arguably his most valuable skill. Not many players at the crazy young age of 20 can lead the league in assists and be one of the leading figures for goals. Sancho’s decision-making is what’s made him one of the first names on the teamsheet. He never looks under pressure, and will always make the choice that benefits the team, instead of putting himself in the spotlight. So who should Sancho join this summer?

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Manchester United

Where else to start with than with the club linked to every player with a shred of talent? I’ve not been huge on a majority of players rumoured with moves to Old Trafford. Jack Grealish and James Maddison have been heavily linked since November. However, the signing of Bruno Fernandes negates the need for these players. Sancho will definitely cost over £100 million, but it at least makes a lot more sense. United haven’t had an actual right winger for years. The last real winger the club had was debatably Antonio Valencia, before being converted into a right-back by Louis Van-Gaal. Daniel James has primarily played on that right side, but I don’t think he’s good enough to start for United in the long term. Sancho possesses a vast skillset, making him a deadly weapon for Solsjkaer, no matter the opposition. Sancho also holds that star power the Manchester United board are obsessed with. 

I don’t think you can argue against Sancho being a massive improvement over all of United wingers. My only reservations are related to United’s other requirements. A winger is definitely needed, but there is still a gaping hole in the centre of the park. Fernandes has taken a lot of the creative burden from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial; who have proven they are capable of scoring the goals needed to take United into a title race. I would only sign Sancho when the rest of the issues are resolved. There are plenty of players in the team who’s futures are uncertain. Sancho feels like a final piece of a puzzle, but United need to solve the rest of it first. 

Chelsea

With their transfer ban finally over, Chelsea looks ready to unload a chest full of funds in an attempt to return to the top of the table. Hakim Ziyech was an early arrival, with the Ajax playmaker confirmed to be a Chelsea player in February. With Ziyech’s arrival, it’s made clear that if Sancho was to sign, his role would be very different than the one given if he was to sign for Manchester United.

A versatile winger, able to play on both sides is a player Chelsea are desperate to bring in. Willian and Pedro have needed to be moved on for years. Their off the ball work is worth praising alongside their reliable chance creation, but both forwards are over thirty and take a lot off the wage bill. If it weren’t for the transfer ban, I doubt the pair would still be in London today. Sancho would bring an insane spike in creativity and shot quality. The Borussia Dortmund winger is averaging over 0.84 non-penalty xG+xA; a better output than Willian (0.45) and Pedro (0.47). 

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A move to London makes sense for both parties involved. Chelsea’s young squad has been a delight to watch, and adding another prospect to the project only makes things better. If Sancho was to return to England, Chelsea would be the best destination, in terms of developing his game. The goalkeeper problem is obviously is a big one, and it is one of the significant issues, next to Lampard, which is holding Chelsea back. Sancho is not only a perfect Eden Hazard replacement but could surpass the Belgian.

Liverpool 

Similar to Chelsea, Liverpool needs to start looking at moving on some of their attackers. The difference between the clubs is the reason. Chelsea needs to clear up space and sell two players whose impact are dwindling as they age. Liverpool, on the other hand, should sell because it’s the right thing to do. If I had to choose one, it would be Sadio Mane. The decision isn’t even a difficult one. Mohamed Salah is far more talented and is left-footed; a rare and exceptional trait for a right-winger to have in the modern game. Mane has just come off a golden boot winning season in 18/19 and scoring 14 goals before the season’s suspension. Mane might be better than Firmino, but the Senegalese international is younger and worth more, especially with some of Europe’s elite keen to add world-class production from the wing. Liverpool has become one of the best clubs in Europe when knowing when to sell their players. They sold Coutinho for a lot more than anyone expected and let Suarez go at the perfect time. 

Sancho is among a handful of excellent players who could replace one of Liverpool’s acclaimed front three, and it’s another which makes so much sense. Not only does Sancho excel on the right side, but is more of a threat on the left, since he’s naturally right-footed. Sancho might not be as good of a scorer as any of Liverpool’s front three, but this is something that could easily improve overtime. He’s still so young and could be a key player in keeping Liverpool relevant at the top of the table. 

Barcelona 

The current La Liga holders have had a lot of their most significant issues exposed over the last six months, primarily with their squad. It still surprises me that a club of Barcelona’s size and stature can be so idiotic in the market. Their team has been built so poorly. A majority of their signings just haven’t worked out. The likes of Andre Gomes, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Nelson Semedo and Samuel Umtiti have all failed at the Camp Nou for varying reasons. The most significant and most inexcusable act from the club is how they’ve been unable to even look for replacements for Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi. The core from their 2015 treble-winning season is even more critical than ever, even when they are evidently declining (excluding Messi of course). Barcelona doesn’t even look like they have a plan to replace the greatest player of all time and will continue to rely on him until he retires.

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Barcelona should do everything in their power to sign Jadon Sancho. They’ve already made a huge mistake in signing Antoine Griezmann and would make it even worse if they decided to resign Neymar. Their hunt for one more Champions League for Messi is blinding them from future-proofing their squad. Having a young and incredible talent in Sancho at least gives them reassurance in the future. 

Borussia Dortmund 

I include Sancho’s current club because that’s where he should be next season. I think one more season in yellow will not only help Dortmund in their title challenge but will give the club enough time to find the perfect replacement. The team has looked more settled as the months have progressed this season. The back three has helped solve their huge defensive problems, while Emre Can has given the midfield that extra steel needed in the big games. Dortmund’s insanely high level of attacking talent will always keep them in the conversation for the title. If they manage to add some extra pieces in terms of depth and defensive personnel, they could pose a real threat from the beginning, especially with Haland at the club from matchday one. 

The only issue is if Dortmund can keep him. Most clubs outside of Europe’s elite are going to be affected by the lack of matchday revenue and complications regarding television rights. I highly doubt any Bundesliga clubs will face anything as drastic as liquidation, but lack of finances could propose a problem in the summer. Dortmund might have to sell their most valuable asset if they wish to improve other parts of the team.