The group stage phase of the U21s European Championships came to a close over the last international break at the tail end of March with the knockout rounds to be played over the summer. There were some incredible young talents on display at the competition as well as some fascinating teams.
Germany had the oldest squad at the tournament but were certainly one of the most impressive. They were quite flexible tactically throughout the three group stage games, using a 4-1-3-2, a 3-4-2-1, and a 4-2-3-1. Niklas Dorsch started every game for the German side managed by Stefan Kuntz and was key for their ball progression from the first two-thirds of the field to the final third.
The 23-year-old, formerly of Bayern Munich and 1. FC Heidenheim, plays in Belgium as of last summer for KAA Gent, managed by Hein Vanhaezebrouck, for just €3.5 million according to reports at the time. Dorsch has been very good for the Belgian team in what has been quite a woeful season for them, sitting in 9th place as of writing, but the midfielder will certainly need a move away eventually if he wants to further his career and reach his potential.
This article will be a tactical analysis in the form of a scout report of Dorsch at Gent in the Jupiler Pro League as well as with Germany’s U21s squad at the European Championships. It will be an analysis of the player’s strengths, weaknesses, and style of play as well as how he fits into both sides’ tactics.
Style of play and positioning
Dorsch is not a very physically imposing player in the midfield. He is very light on his feet and possesses great agility to skip past his opponents while dribbling. The German stands at 5’8” and weighs just 76kg so has quite an average build. Despite this rather slim build though, Dorsch is not easily pushed off the ball and his low centre of gravity and excellent close control makes up for the physical deficit in the middle of the park.
As stated in the introduction, Germany used a 4-1-3-2, a 3-4-2-1 and a 4-2-3-1. Dorsch, who wore the number six jersey throughout the three games, was utilised as a single pivot in a diamond midfield as well as playing as part of a double-pivot alongside Arne Maier.
He is a very flexible player in midfield and is capable of being used in a whole host of formations and positions in the centre of the park, including as an ‘8’ not just as a ‘6’.
As we can see from the data representation above, Dorsch has mainly been utilised as a left central midfielder and has played there in 31 percent of his games this season. We can also see that the German midfielder has played as a single-pivot in 21 percent of his matches.
There is a nice even spread across the positions that Dorsch has played in which means that he is very tactically flexible should the manager change formations mid-game or from game-to-game.
Dorsch is a very elegant player and one who is easy on the eye when watching him play. His first touch is excellent, and he rarely loses the ball from a stray touch. He likes to take the ball on the half-turn a lot and is always creating passing angles for his nearby teammates. Dorsch does not overexert himself on the pitch though and his heat map reflects.
Here is the player’s heat map from the group stages of the U21s European Championships. He typically remains in the second third of the pitch and rarely moves out to the flanks unless the situation forces him too. Dorsch also does not really get involved in the final third attacking play with his club or country and prefers to sit back and spread the play from deeper positions in front of the backline.
For this scout report, we compared Dorsch at Gent to all of the central and defensive midfield players in all senior competitions in European football this season in a handful of metrics to see how he fared. His stats are solid but there is a lot that needs massive improvement. However, it also has to be taken into consideration that Gent have really underperformed this year in what is quite a poor side so it may not be a truly fair reflection on his ability.
Starting with one of his most impressive stats, Dorsch has averaged 76.61 percent in his forward passing accuracy (FP%) this season which is quite a high number considering they are all usually line-breaking passes or progressive passes of some kind. He has also averaged 8.17 final third passes per 90 (P3/90), as well as 4.29 long passes per/90 (LP/90).
Dorsch’s defensive stats are decent too, averaging 8.52 recoveries per 90 (REC/90) for Gent and 5.16 interceptions per 30 opposition possessions (PAI), a solid showing from a player who is not a defensive player. His defensive duels percentage rate (D%) is less impressive but still not poor, winning 48.06 percent of his duels.
Looking at his weaker statistics, Dorsch’s lack of final third end product has reared its ugly head with the midfielder averaging just 0.06 assist per 90 (A/90) as well as 0.17 key passes per 90. However, these numbers are not something to read too much into as Dorsch does play in deeper areas so low numbers regarding his end product are quite likely.
Progressing the ball from the back
Dorsch is very important for both Germany and Gent at spreading the play from deeper positions on the pitch, but he also plays a key role in his teams’ build-up play, ball progression, as well as ball circulation with the backline while they look for openings in the opposition’s press.
When his sides are in the build-up phase of play or are in a deep positional attack, Dorsch positions himself behind the opponent’s first line of pressure, which is generally a two-man line. Midfielders sometimes drop into the backline when their side has the ball in order to allow the fullbacks to get forward by essentially creating a back three but doing so also creates a numerical advantage with the opposition’s forward line.
With Gent, as they already play with three centre-backs, Dorsch does not need to do this, but with Germany, it is the role of Maier and the 23-year-old rarely does so, opting to limit his movement, staying central, and positioning himself behind the first line of pressure so to be a wall pass for the backline or else a passing option that can progressive them further up the field.
Dorsch is very smart in these scenarios and scans numerous times in a matter of seconds to check his shoulder and see the space and time he has on the ball before the ball is even played to his feet. When a player is pressing his blindside and is quite close prior to him receiving the ball, Dorsch will simply act as a wall pass with his back to goal and play to one of the player’s facing his direction to keep the ball circulating.
However, when he scans over his shoulder and sees that he has a lot of time and space on the ball, Dorsch takes the ball on the half-turn, which he is excellent at executing successfully, rarely losing the ball, and then looks to play forward in order to progress his side up the pitch.
This is really useful for beating an opposition’s high press as space is created from baiting the press which gives him a better opportunity to find a teammate in space or potentially play a ball in behind the backline who will have pushed higher up the pitch to support the press.
Dorsch is a fantastic asset to have in the build-up phase when playing out from the back because of his intelligence on and off the ball as well as his ability to play line-breaking progressive passes.
The German attempts 7.02 progressive passes per 90 with a very high success rate of 83.95 percent. He also attempts 13.33 forward passes per 90 in all competitions and has a high success rate yet again of 76.94 percent, while also boasting an overall passing accuracy of 89.14 percent, which are very impressive numbers.
Ability to switch the play
With club and country, Dorsch plays with sides who dominate possession in games. Gent have averaged close to 55 percent possession this season in games including in the UEFA Europa League.
A player who can sit deep and switch the play from the middle of the park is very important for a side that dominates possession as they will mainly be looking to try and break down their opponent’s defensive block for large parts of the game. A deep-lying playmaker, which Dorsch is, moves the opposition’s block constantly switching the ball from side to side that ultimately creates space by disorganising the other team’s defensive set-up. It also allows for quick ball progression to get into the attacking third of the pitch.
In this image, Mechelen are sitting in a 4-4-2 compact mid-block with little room centrally to play forward into. Dorsch spots the wingback for Gent out wide on the right and so hits a pinpoint pass on the border of the attacking third which also disorientates the defensive block as the players must shift across in order to close down the wide player.
On average per 90 in all competitions, Dorsch averages 4.62 long passes per 90 with an accuracy of 63.45 percent. He is also averaging 8.02 passes to the final third per 90 with an accuracy of 76.61 percent, which is quite high considering he sits just in front of the backline for the most part.
Very useful defensively
Dorsch is far better in possession rather than out of possession but he is certainly no luxury player off the ball. The midfielder, while not particularly over-exerting himself when his side has the ball, breaks his neck to get back and defend when possession is lost.
As stated in an earlier section, Dorsch averages 8.52 ball recoveries per game playing in a more defensive midfield position and the 23-year-old also has competed in the fifteenth-highest number of defensive duels this season in the Jupiler Pro League with 229, averaging 9.58 per game with a success rate of just under 50 percent.
When Germany or Gent lose the ball, his first reaction from a defensive standpoint is to get close to the ball-carrier and smother them in order to delay the counterattack or win the ball back as quickly as possible, even when the rest of his teammates are dropping off to get back into shape.
Of the 8.52 ball recoveries per game in all competitions, 44 percent of them are in the opposition’s half of the field.
In this example, Germany have just lost the ball high up the pitch and the surrounding players are dropping off into shape. Dorsch instead pushes up quickly and closes down the ball carrier, winning possession back in the final third and completely nullifying the opposition’s counterattack.
The German isn’t blessed with pace, but he is not slow either and so can get up to his man and get close when pressing rather quickly.
Improvement in his attacking game needed
Dorsch is a very well-rounded midfielder apart from his attacking play. Whilst he is a renowned deep-lying playmaker, his contributions to the attack are very limited with just 0.19 key passes per game and 0.06, a woeful return.
In terms of goals scored, Dorsch has four in all competitions with two of those coming from a converted penalty and a converted rebound from a penalty. In the Belgian top-flight division, the Gent star has an average of 0.13 expected goals per game (xG) and manages to get just 0.38 shots on target per 90. This is because of the ranges that the midfielder takes shots on goal at.
Looking at all of the player’s strikes on goal this season in the league, excluding penalties, the majority of Dorsch’s shots are well outside the box in very low xG zones hence why he has not managed to score a single goal outside the box all season. Out of six of his shots inside the 18-yard box, only one has missed the target, with two troubling the goalkeeper, and hitting the back of the net.
Dorsch is clearly quite efficient inside the penalty area, but the problem of course is that six shots inside the box are not enough for an entire league campaign. If the player wants to start contributing more goals to his game and contributing more for his team in the attacking third, he will need to be braver and make more runs into the box to get himself into higher xG positions.
Despite a rocky season with Gent, Dorsch has shown his quality numerous times throughout the campaign in all competitions. With a transfer value of just €7 million according to Transfermarkt and a fantastic showing in the U21 Euros so far, one could be certain that many European clubs in the top five divisions will be adding him to their list of players to keep a close eye on.
Rangers are said to be heavily interested in the midfielder which could be an interesting move but teams like Brighton and Hove Albion, Hoffenheim or Sassuolo could seriously benefit from a player of Dorsch’s skill set considering the styles of play that their respective managers have implemented.