RB Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann is widely known as one of the brightest minds in modern football management and tactics. After moving his youth coaching career to Hoffenheim’s TSG Academy, Nagelsmann rose up the ranks before becoming manager of the senior side in February 2016. Almost exactly a year earlier, another young German had completed a similar path; Nadiem Amiri. The fluid, assertive attacking midfielder is considered “a special player” by Nagelsmann, and his recent move from Hoffenheim to Bayer Leverkusen has continued to further his development. This tactical analysis scout report will dissect Amiri’s style of play and examine how Amiri has performed in his new manager’s system.
Nadiem Amiri was born in Ludwigshafen, Germany after his parents had fled Afghanistan during the wars in the 1980s. He played for a number of youth programs before eventually joining TSG Academy at age 15. There, he and Nagelsmann progressed through the U-17 and U-19 levels in near-unison and led the club to the 2013/14 U-19 Bundesliga title, which saw Amiri scoring a brace in the Final against Hannover. Less than a year later, Amiri made his senior team debut. After playing in an incredible 106 Bundesliga matches for Hoffenheim, Amiri left the club shortly after Nagelsmann’s departure, transferring to Leverkusen this past summer on a modest €9 million transfer fee. Now at age 23, despite splitting time in the starting eleven this season with fellow former Hoffenheim midfielder Kerem Demirbay, Amiri is seen as a potential centrepiece at the North Rhine-Westphalian club.
The half-space attacking midfielder, or “free 8” as some have coined it, has become one of the more popular utilities of modern attacking systems. Under Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz, Amiri has recently begun to take up this position after beginning the season as a wide attacking midfielder.
Amiri’s heat map illustrates the areas the midfielder primarily occupies. While the ‘hottest’ area of the map implies Amiri plays on the left side of the attacking midfield, his varied skillset and licensed fluidity allows him to move freely both laterally to the opposite side of the pitch and vertically into the final third and defensive half. Julian Brandt was a similar type of player who excelled in this position under Bosz last season, and after Brandt’s move to Borussia Dortmund early last summer, Leverkusen were able to find and secure a like-minded replacement in Amiri. As you can see in the heat map above, Amiri has also played along the areas outside the half-spaces, similar to the role of an interior winger. This is largely due to the formation and personnel involved, as Bosz’s formations such as the 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 4-1-4-1 are often flexible.
Bosz utilised a 4-3-3 for much of the latter half of last season, with Brandt positioned alongside Kai Havertz and Charles Aránguiz placed as the single pivot in the defensive midfield. This season, after the departure of Brandt and the acquisitions of Amiri and Demirbay, Bosz and co. seemingly have decided that Demirbay is the more league-ready player between the two newcomers for now, as the manager has shifted mostly to a 4-2-3-1, which is better suited to Demirbay’s defensive abilities. Yet Amiri’s attacking prowess, while not quite at Brandt’s 2018/19 level yet (the German led the league in key passes with 87), is strong enough that the Dutchman could and arguably should begin a more consistent transition back to the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 to better suit the younger midfielder, especially with the highly successful output of last season’s midfield structure as partial evidence.
Regardless of the formation modification, in the creative, quick-attacking, Dutch-style system that Bosz studied and developed while at his former club Ajax, Leverkusen currently hold the second-highest average possession percentage in the Bundesliga, at 59.9%. In this possession, Amiri’s positioning moves across two stages of progression.
The first stage involves buildup from the back. When the back two lines are under pressure, Amiri will often drop back into the defensive half to provide a passing outlet. In this example, Bayern Munich apply pressure to defensive midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger. Amiri drops back to receive the pass and all ball progression to continue.
Due to the lack of pressure on himself along with his ball control, Amiri is able to turn and complete a diagonal through pass to Moussa Diaby, who is making a run down the left wing and is also pegged as a future staple in Leverkusen’s attack.
The second stage of possession that Amiri is involved in is final third play. Both in quick attacks and in heavy possession, Amiri moves into spaces between the lines to make himself available for the ball.
On this quick attack, as the rest of his attacking teammates continue their movements toward the top of the box, we see Amiri fading off his run to both stay above the defensive line and to provide a passing option to Kevin Volland, who is under pressure by the full-back.
Again in this picture we see Amiri taking up space between the lines, this instance being in a more structured possession setup. Even against a more organised defensive low block, Amiri finds space to exploit. This positioning in the half-space shows Amiri in one of his more central positions, and in space he would occupy in the attacking free 8 role.
In the wide attacking position Amiri initially played in at Leverkusen, he typically sat beside a central attacking midfielder. When central ball progression by Leverkusen reaches this attacking midfielder, Amiri makes a run into space to receive the ball. Following reception of the ball, Amiri progresses and distributes using a wide array of methods.
Ball progression and distribution
In these various levels of positions and areas on the pitch, Amiri’s primary responsibility is the distribution and progression of the ball both in heavy possession and in transition. Leverkusen have the third-highest pass completion percentage in the league at 84.8%, and Amiri follows that up with a respectable percentage of his own at 84.4%.
When in the deeper positions he occupies, Amiri will often look to progress the ball up the pitch quickly. In this instance, Amiri is under no pressure on the ball and therefore can dribble and set up a long ball to the far side winger into space.
Here is another example of Amiri’s fast and effective ball progression from the midfield. After a long dribble through the middle zone of the pitch, Amiri invites pressure before passing the ball out wide.
With the ball continuing to be distributed forward via his teammates, Amiri sees an opening in the opposing back line due to the centre-backs being stretched as a result of numerical superiority. He continues his run towards the central open space.
The ball is then returned to Amiri in the open space inside the box. Amiri once again patiently waits for pressure to reach him, knowing that the ball-far centre-back must either remain marking Havertz and leave the space in front of Amiri open, or press the ball directly and risk opening space on the far side. He opts for the latter in the 2v1 situation, and Amiri is able to selflessly complete the pass to the open man and assist Havertz on an easy goal. Amiri is seventh in the Bundesliga in xAp90 with 0.30.
When in the final third, Amiri again emphasises fast-paced ball progression with his exceptional distribution.
Completing the action from the third gameplay image in the previous section of this article, Amiri’s possession in space freezes the centre-back. This allows Volland to make a run in behind the ball-side defender, while the other three defenders in the back four have dropped back onto one line. This resulted in a shot on target for Volland and therefore a key pass for Amiri. Amiri is currently seventh in the league in key passes per 90 with 1.11.
One vital aspect of Amiri’s passing play is the ability to lure a defender out of position. Notice in each of the previous three images, Amiri draws out a defender before completing a pass into the area that defender previously occupied.
On the ball down the left half-space, Amiri dribbles directly at the opposing right-back. The defender stops his back-tracking run, and the lure has worked. Amiri simply completes a through pass vertically to the outside attacker into a dangerous area.
This method of taking advantage of opposition movement is extremely beneficial to Bosz’s system’s structural fluidity in fast attacking possession; if you move the defender out of space, you can move the ball.
In the advanced wide spaces, Amiri has proven himself to be a sound crosser of the ball from either side of the pitch and has also taken corner kicks and free kicks at various times in his career.
Where Amiri could improve on the ball is his decision making after completing a significant action. He has been prone in the past to attempting too long of dribbles followed by either dispossession or a poorly-controlled pass, but this has already begun to lessen over time, as proof of his smart passing statistics this season.
Just over halfway through the season, Amiri not only has the ninth-most smart passes per 90 in the Bundesliga with 2.06, but he also stands in third in smart pass accuracy with 53.85%, behind only Mainz’s Levin Öztunali and Bayern Munich’s Philippe Coutinho. This smart pass chart above illustrates that Amiri’s best ball progression events happen in the half-spaces in the attacking half. He also leads his team in the latter four of the five statistics mentioned in this section. Amiri’s distribution of the ball is the principal aspect of his game, from the deeper, more central areas of the pitch up to the forwards in the final third.
Amiri isn’t renowned for his finishing, and he has yet to score a goal this season. As an attacking midfielder he is rarely looking to shoot, and a majority of his shots have come from outside the box.
Here we can see Amiri’s shot distribution and effectiveness on the pitch. While shooting from outside the box tends to statistically lower the probability of a goal, we can see from the chart that Amiri’s success on shots up to a certain distance doesn’t drop dramatically. He manages 37.5% of his total shots on target; not exceptional, but not necessarily poor for a midfielder either, especially when taking into account his long-range shot frequency.
Off a throw-in, Amiri in this example makes a dropping run inside the left half-space into space between two defensive lines. He controls the ball with his first touch and attempts a strong shot on target with the next.
Regardless, with Leverkusen currently hitting the fourth-most shots per game in the Bundesliga at 16.2, it isn’t necessary for Amiri to attempt too many shots. As stated, Amiri scans and looks to pass far more often, even when inside the box.
In this situation, Amiri is occupying the central attacking midfielder position and receives the ball from Diaby on the left. Instead of using the small window of time and space he has to attempt a shot on goal, Amiri completes a quick pass to the right side of the box, where Bellarabi has more time and space to attempt a better quality opportunity.
As the result of both Bosz’s tactics and the players’ styles of play themselves, Leverkusen’s defensive efforts this season have led to a league second-lowest 22 goals conceded. Emphasising possession typically clues that a team will apply a counter-press defensively, and this is precisely what Bosz instructs.
Even when winning 2-0 in the 88th minute against Fortuna Düsseldorf, Bosz’s side continues to counter-press. After Leon Bailey loses the ball on a pass, he immediately presses the nearest opposition player in front of him while also blocking the wide passing outlet. Amiri pushes forward from the half-space to press the ball directly.
Despite Düsseldorf avoiding these initial pressing actions, Leverkusen don’t stop pressing. Bailey intelligently sees the opportunity to continue his press on a tangent without the need to decelerate. Amiri sees this and drops back to identify and cover the next level of opposition as Bailey presses the ball. Bailey’s pressure this time is enough to disrupt the pass, and it falls to Amiri. The German then avoids a return counter-press by transitioning to attack and completing a pass away from the opposing numbers.
Amiri’s work rate is excellent in the attacking half. The durable midfielder- who has only missed more than two consecutive matches due to injury once in his entire career- is no stranger to aggressive pressing, having been a part of Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim side for years.
In this match, Hoffenheim’s forceful front press disrupted Borussia Mönchengladbach’s buildup from the back. The press forced the possessing player into a hurried back pass, which was poorly executed, and Amiri’s high positioning on the press resulted in an easy interception and goal.
Additionally, Amiri is also defensively energetic in the defensive half, often seen proactively cutting off passing lanes or pressing the ball directly.
In this example from last season at Hoffenheim, Amiri sees the slow pass from the Schalke midfielder. He immediately makes a run to both intercept the pass and progress the ball forward quickly and smoothly.
Bayer Leverkusen have conceded a league-low zero counter-attacking goals this season and league-low two set-piece goals. There is little doubt upon analysis that Bosz’s defensive tactics and Amiri’s defensive contribution have both played a part in that success.
The race for the Meisterschale is the closest it’s been in years, with only six points separating first place(RB Leipzig) from fifth(Bayer Leverkusen). This, along with the continued influx of youth talents such as Erling Håland, Exequiel Palacios, and Dani Olmo has made the Bundesliga arguably the most intriguing league to watch in Europe the second half of this season. Nadiem Amiri is part of this invigorating youth movement. The midfielder who considers himself a street footballer has many tactical and physical tools with which to succeed in Peter Bosz’s system, and with Leverkusen still alive and well in two additional competitions (the DFB Pokal and the Europa League), Nadiem Amiri will surely find playing time easy to come by.