The 52-year-old German coach Thomas Letsch is very much a part of the new breed of football coaches. He has secured opportunities in first-team settings without ever playing the game on a professional level. That does not mean, however, that his current position as head coach of Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie represents an overnight success. Instead, Letsch has spent time building and learning his craft as a coach, most notably as part of the coaching setup at Red Bull Salzburg and he is now in a position to be able to show his game model to the watching world.
He initially made his first steps in professional coaching through different clubs in the German lower leagues. He was an assistant at Stuttgart Kickers and then at SSV Ulm, where Ralf Ragnick also coached, before moving across the border to join the coaching staff at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Even then his position was never truly in the limelight as he was in charge of the U16s and then the U18s before becoming the caretaker coach in charge of the first-team for a couple of matches when Peter Zeidler left the club. He then took charge of FC Liefering, a side that plays in the second tier of Austrian football but effectively act as the B team to Salzburg.
In 2017 we saw Letsch move away from the Red Bull umbrella to move back to Germany with Erzgebirge Aue before then moving back to Austria the following season with Austria Vienna.
Prior to the start of the 2019/20 season we saw Letsch agree to take charge of Vitesse as the club looked to transition to a more modern playing style. Now, having adopted many of the tactical concepts that are synonymous with the Red Bull group we are seeing Vitesse emerge as surprise challengers for the Dutch title.
There is no doubt that Thomas Letsch is a coach to watch going into 2021.
Style of play
So far this term, at the time of writing, we have seen Vitesse favour something approaching a 3-4-1-2 system with a very structured look in the attacking phase. They look to attack their opposition through quick combinations of vertical passes that move the ball through the thirds and towards the attacking goal. There are interesting rotations throughout the attacking structure as players rotate in and out of pockets of space in order to empty space and receive passes that break the lines of the opposition defensive structure.
In the defensive phase, perhaps unsurprisingly for a coach brought through the Red Bull system, Vitesse defend aggressively and press the immediate point of transition. In more prolonged periods out of possession the 3-4-1-2 system will quickly transition into a 5-3-2 with a compact defensive structure that makes it difficult for the opposition to play through and break down the defensive block.
While Vitesse are aggressive in the initial stages when the ball is lost, at the time of writing they have a PPDA (passes per defensive action) of 9.65 this does not mean that they do not cover the threat of the press being played through or beaten with relative ease. Their initial defensive action tends to see the two forwards move to press and engage the man in possession for the opposition while the ‘10’ will typically drop onto a deeper line to cover the threat of a central pass being played past the line of pressure. While one striker presses they tend to angle their run to try to force the player in possession into the area that the second striker is occupying. This is intended to force the opposition to either play into a dangerous area or into a long pass to escape the press.
This press also has a secondary purpose as behind it the rest of the Vitesse players will typically drop back into a more structured shape in order to cover their defensive third.
We see an example of this here where the opposition have outplayed the two man press from Vitesse and, with the ‘10 having dropped in to form part of the block, there appears to be time on the ball for the opposition player in possession. What Vitesse have achieved here has been to effectively deny PSV Eindhoven any opportunity to play vertically into the central areas of the pitch. Under Letsch they work hard to deny these spaces and passing lanes and as such the opposition is typically forced to look for ways to attack down the outside spaces in an attempt to play around the defensive block or to force Vitesse to break players away from the main defensive structure.
In this example there is an option for a switch of play diagonally to the far side of the pitch. The Dutch side, however, are extremely flexible and well coached and the defensive structure moves well in a pendulum style in order to move over to close down threats in the wide spaces.
We see a similar situation here with the two ball near Vitesse players working to ensure that they keep their bodies positioned in such a way as to prevent the Emmen players from finding passing angles or lanes that will allow them to access the central areas in the field. This forces the opposition to continue recycling the ball backwards towards their own goal and as they do so the defensive block for Vitesse can simply press forward to control the space on the pitch and deny the opposition attack any space into which they can attack.
In the attacking phase there are many aspects of the game model that Thomas Letsch uses that mirror those of teams within the Red Bull group but the main focus surrounds two key concepts, vertical passing and rotation movements.
Under Letsch Vitesse are not a team that progresses the ball slowly or through slow passing in the build-up. Quite often the ball is played quickly in a direct manner with the former Ajax player Riecheldy Bazoer in particular being a key part of their ball progressions. Bazoer was highly rated as a young prospect but seen more as a box to box midfield presence. Now, Letsch is getting great success using him as a controlling player in the middle of the three man defence.
We see an example of this vertical passing style in this example with Bazoer in possession just inside his own half in the match between Vitesse and PSV. We can see that there is a teammate in a lateral position that is demanding a pass. Bazoer, rightly ignores this option and plays a vertical pass that cuts through the central area of the PSV structure. We can see that with this single pass Bazoer takes five opposition players out of the game and creates an opportunity for his team to play from an advanced platform.
This time we see a slightly different situation from the match between Vitesse and Fortuna Sittard. The opposition on this occasion were defending in a much deeper and more compact defensive structure. This time the vertical pass is a tool to affect the defensive positioning of the opposition.
The defender for Vitesse is not under any significant pressure in the first instance and as such he has the time to wait for a teammate to move into position to receive. This is achieved through rotation with players emptying the passing lane and then others moving to occupy the space. As these rotations take place the vertical pass can be played. This pass then forces opposition players within their structure to move out to try to engage with the ball.
The third example that we are going to use to show the use of verticality in Thomas Letsch’s system shows a defender taking the initiative to move into advanced areas before playing the vertical pass through into the feet of advanced players.
The defender stepped forward in possession of the ball and attracted pressure from the opposition team. Eventually players step in to engage him and stop the run and he can again find the pass that breaks the lines of the opposition.
In the more established attacking phase Vitesse are dangerous to play against because of the way that they so effectively space the pitch and stretch the opposition’s defensive structure. We see an example of this in action here as Vitesse are in possession on the left-side of the pitch. The space is created within the opposition’s defensive line by the positioning of the two wing backs who have moved quickly on to a higher line when Vitesse won possession and started their attack.
This spacing forces the opposition fullback, on the ball near side, to move out to engage. Immediately this stretches the connection between that fullback and the central defender on that side of the pitch and these are the spaces that Letsch tends to want his team to attack as they move through into the final third.
Rotations in the possession phase are an incredibly important part of the game model that Letsch has implemented at Vitesse. At times their attacking players can seem to be in constant motion with people dropping or stepping up on to different lines and with the opposition defensive players being pulled and dragged all over the pitch.
In this example Vitesse have possession on the right. The two nearest players move and rotate with one dropping deep to provide and angle and one moving wide to give an option outside. These rotations pull players out of their position defensively and allow the man in possession to play a penetrating pass to the highest line in order to progress the ball through.
When the ball is in the final third these rotations also take place with players moving from positions that are deeper and more intended to offer support lanes. These movements tend to take place on the blind side of the opposition players with attackers moving into advanced areas in order to connect with the man in possession and create opportunities to play into the penalty area.
In this example the player in possession is initially positioned to the right and Vitesse have created a strong structure on that side of the pitch. The supporting player makes a vertical movement though into the highlighted space in order to collect possession and attack the penalty area.
In a short period of time Thomas Letsch has firmly imprinted his game model and tactical identity on this Vitesse team. He is part of a growing group of coaches that are positioned around Europe who have their roots in the Red Bull system and who are taking lessons learnt there and putting their own spin on things.
There is no doubt in our minds that the German coach is one to watch for 2021 with the potential to make a bigger move at some point.