Having finished third in their 2018/19 Bundesliga campaign, RB Leipzig will play Champions League football this season for the second time in their 10 year history. With promising coach Julian Nagelsmann arriving from Hoffenheim, they will also be hoping to close the gap on rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the race for the title.
Much like his new coach, centre-back Dayot Upamecano continues to defy his age. Despite being just 20-years-old, the French youth international has already racked up 4439 minutes in Germany’s top-flight. This scout report will outline his strengths with the support of statistics.
As we will see later in this tactical analysis, Upamecano consistently displays a high level of positional sense and decision making during the defensive phases. However, his ability on the ball is what makes him stand out as one of the most exciting young talents in Europe.
Much like his teammate Ibrahima Konaté, he is a multi-dimensional asset to his side in possession. The former RB Salzburg youngster has the capacity to break opponent lines with passes, as well as dribbles.
His passing range allows him to vary between exploiting the space in behind, finding attackers between the lines, and switching the play. In the example below, Upamecano spots the run of Marcel Sabitzer, before playing a perfectly weighted pass over the top of Hoffenheim’s defence.
As mentioned, he can also find teammates between the lines. He has an impressive ability to weight passes appropriately so that the receiver can control the ball in tight spaces. His pass accuracy is also crucial in this regard, recording an average of 86.2% over the course of last season.
The next example illustrates this talent, with the Frenchman playing a lofted ball towards withdrawn striker Timo Werner. The pass overcomes two Napoli midfielders, while the pressure from his direct opponent isn’t enough to cause the defender any panic.
As shown by the following sequence, Upamecano’s press resistance is exceptional for a central defender. During his career so far, he has gained some experience at the base of midfield. His future almost certainly lies in defence, but his spell in the pivot role emphasised his ball-playing gifts.
He completed 1.47 dribbles per game in the Bundesliga last term, with a success rate of 63.6%. For comparison, Matthijs de Ligt performed 0.78 dribbles for Ajax, while Manchester United target Harry Maguire registered 0.87.
In the image below, the centre-back is pressed by a Dortmund attacker. Instead of panicking or returning to the goalkeeper, he backs himself to bypass the pressure and exploit the zone behind it. His drop of the shoulder shifts the defending player, creating just enough space for progression.
Having beaten his marker, Upamecano has the awareness to select the right pass, allowing his team to continue progressing the play. He breaks a second defensive line with a quick and accurate ball into the feet of Emil Forsberg, who feeds the advancing left-back on the wing.
His progressive passing numbers are impressive, making on average 6.66 passes to the final third. 22.05 of his 46.7 passes per game were played forward, with just 2.2 going backwards. He also made 0.53 passes to the box per 90.
Although these numbers aren’t close to those recorded by the likes of Aymeric Laporte at Manchester City, they do compare well with players such as Virgil van Dijk and Harry Maguire. Leipzig had an average possession statistic of 48%, so Upamecano’s passing numbers are likely to be even better under Nagelsmann.
The next example highlights these traits once more. After collecting a loose ball, Upamecano recognises the space behind the counter-pressing striker. He shields possession with his body, driving beyond the Gladbach player with ease.
Having continued his dribble, three opponents are drawn towards him. This action frees up space further forward, with Werner again the beneficiary. The striker drifts out to the left to receive a well-timed ball into the channel. This sequence again highlights Upamecano’s capacity to remain composed under pressure.
Another important aspect of any ball-playing defender’s game involves switching the point of attack. Unsurprisingly, the France U21 player also excels in this department. In order to limit the opponent’s chances of shifting their defensive block to close out the opposite wing, the switch pass must be played as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, it should ideally be played diagonally to allow the receiver to come onto the play, as well as forcing the opposition to reorganise. Upamecano normally ticks these boxes, ensuring that his team can maximise the space and time available on the underloaded side. The example below shows this, with his pass overcoming the Spanish unit to find the winger in an isolated scenario on the left.
Overall, Upamecano is one of the most well-rounded young centre-backs during the offensive phases. He provides his team with varied passing, as well as having the ability to progress the play on his own when teammates are occupied. As we’ve seen in this analysis, his dribbling often draws pressure from multiple opponents, creating more space in the final third. Additionally, he is composed and confident enough on the ball to overcome this pressure.
In an era where defenders are often judged more for what they contribute to the attack, Upamecano displays a high level of competence in all phases. Leipzig conceded just 29 league goals last season, the lowest tally in the division. The Évreux born centre-back played in 15 of their 34 games, missing out on a more regular berth due to injury. He enjoyed almost twice as much game time during the previous campaign and is expected to play an important role under Nagelsmann.
Perhaps his most notable defensive attribute, he has an impressive sense of positioning. On occasions when the opposing team has managed to progress into their attacking third, he often angles his approach to limit the ball-occupant’s options.
The example below highlights this, with a Werder Bremen forward carrying possession into the box at pace. Upamecano positions himself to shut off the possibility of a shot to the far post, narrowing the angle and forcing the attacker to move onto his left foot.
Having successfully stifled the play, the defender times his sliding challenge perfectly to clear the danger. Over the last 12 months, he has made 2.73 clearances per game, also recording 0.2 blocked shots. He completed four slide tackles on average, winning possession 50% of the time.
His capacity to read the game and position himself accordingly is once again illustrated below, as the 20-year-old cuts out a dangerous cross towards the back post. With the Mainz attacker moving on the defenders’ blindside, Upamecano retains coverage of him while also paying attention to the ball-carrier.
He manages to end the threat with a late clearance, stopping an attack that would likely have resulted in a goal. He registered an average of 5.93 interceptions per 90 last season, bettering Konate’s 5.27, but falling slightly short when compared to his other defensive teammates Willi Orbán (6.4) and Nordi Mukiele (six).
Upamecano consistently displays excellent awareness of his surroundings, as well as an understanding of what the most appropriate angle of approach is in a given situation. These traits are rare in such a young defender, emphasising his incredible potential.
Another common attribute in top-level defenders involves being proactive in their approach. Instead of simply reacting to the attacking team, proactive players have the ability to anticipate the next move. Once they have predicted the trajectory of a pass, or the intentions of the ball-occupant, they can act accordingly to complete the turnover.
An important consideration to make here is that acting too soon can also have detrimental effects. If a defender moves in response to an implied action, they hand the advantage back to the player on the ball, who can simply carry out a reverse action and exploit the space that has been left behind.
Upamecano, however, typically moves as the ball is being played. He reads the intentions of the ball-carrier, moving out to intercept in the exact moment that the pass is made. The sequence below illustrates his proactive mindset in the defensive phases, this time recovering possession after a lofted pass upfield. He reads the flight of the ball well, while also recognising the space to move into.
Having used his physical strength to force his way in front of the attacker, Upamecano takes the ball down on his chest before feeding his midfield teammates with a simple pass. Had he misjudged the situation, Dortmund might have found themselves through on goal with the defender on the wrong side of his marker. The confidence and conviction he shows in these moments is noteworthy, with panicked decisions a rarity in his game.
He frequently displays this level of intelligence when deciding when to push up and when to drop off. In the next example, we see him move out of the backline to deal with the threat of a withdrawn attacker.
He maintains the appropriate distance before his marker receives possession, waiting to pounce at the ideal moment.
Instead of allowing the opponent to turn on the ball and dribble towards him, the centre-back pushes up further to prevent the pivot. He recovers possession for his side, setting them off on a counter-attack down the left. During the 2018/19 season, he completed 14.32 recoveries per game, with 13.5% coming in the opposition’s half.
He made 1.3 fouls on average, which is a relatively high figure. However, his proactive, aggressive approach provides some explanation, with Arsenal’s Sokratis registering the same number.
As evidenced by this scout report, Upamecano is a defender that prefers to take a proactive stance during the out of possession phases. His ability to anticipate the opponent’s actions and move out to intercept at the correct moment is one of the most impressive features of his game.
Adapting to Nagelsmann’s system
As we discussed briefly earlier in this analysis, Upamecano is likely to excel under Nagelsmann’s tactics. His talents with the ball at his feet will suit the former Hoffenheim coach’s game model well.
With the ability to execute passes over varying distances, as well as having the close control required to exploit dribbling lanes, the young centre-back is expected to be a prominent player under his new coach.
From a defensive standpoint, he may be tasked with covering more space than he was used to last season. Nagelsmann’s three at the back system with offensive-minded wing-backs will leave significant holes in either channel. Upamecano will need to put his positional sense and pace to good use in order to ensure that transitional moments are managed effectively.
Although the frequency of these kinds of scenarios may increase in the new system, he has already given us sufficient reason to think he can marshal large spaces well. The example below illustrates this, with the France youth star racing back to cover after a teammate had surrendered possession carelessly.
The defender uses his speed to maintain a goal side advantage over the ball-occupant. He again creates the appropriate angle, shutting off direct progression towards goal and presenting the attacker with two weak options.
He can either dribble down the line, engaging in a direct duel with Upamecano, or he can turn and play the ball backwards. In the end, the England forward chooses the second option in order to retain possession.
Overall, the arrival of a new coach with innovative attacking ideas will likely help Upamecano to shine even more. Meanwhile, his pace, intelligent positioning, and proactive defensive style should see him cope well with the additional space he will be expected to cover in wide areas.
Having endured fitness problems last term, big things are expected from Dayot Upamecano this season. It will be interesting to see how his game develops under Julian Nagelsmann’s tutelage in the coming months.
The likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Barcelona are said to be keeping track of his situation, with a reported €100 million release clause dropping to €80 million next summer. Should he continue to improve at the rate he has shown so far, Upamecano has the potential to become one of the best defenders in world football.
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