Jonathan Tah 2019/20 – scout report
With Niklas Süle suffering from a major injury that would have seen him miss the Euros earlier in the season, Germany needed to find a centre-back that could adequately fill his large boots given the forced retirements of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels. While there are plenty of prospects that could be considered, Jonathan Tah has made himself a standout candidate to become Germany’s undisputed starter in defence. The 24-year-old has been a stalwart in Bayer Leverkusen’s defence and has displayed characteristics that could make him a future great in his position.
Given Leverkusen’s struggles of putting together a squad and style that can compete with the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund over the last couple of Bundesliga seasons, Tah has yet to live up to the wonderkid status that he came with when signing from Hamburg. However, this season, he has improved his game in a system under Peter Bosz that makes it difficult for a player of his style and position to excel in. This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Jonathan Tah’s contribution to Leverkusen’s campaign that will showcase his playstyle, defensive solidity and his excellence in passing.
As a defender, it is obviously the most important thing to stop the opposition from scoring. One of the ways in which Tah can get this done is by successfully taking up great positions to reduce the space for opponents or prevent attacks from happening. His intelligence in defensive situations has led to him making 5.05 interceptions per 90 in the Bundesliga according to Wyscout. The first example showcases this well and it comes from Bayer Leverkusen’s match against Mainz.
The image was just taken prior to the opponent ahead of Tah getting the ball. Leverkusen’s defence is trying to play the offside line but, as shown by the dotted line, one of the defenders is slightly too deep. This gives two opposition players the chance to make runs in behind, which Tah is aware of. The German international immediately closes the opponent who is about to receive the ball in order to prevent a pass going into the open space behind that could lead to a dangerous chance. He gets to the ball and wins the 1vs1 duel against his opponent, which ended the chance for Mainz to go through on goal as Leverkusen were able to clear their lines. This move looks quite simple but as a defender, the fundamentals are the most important to help the team be solid at the back. Also, if the challenge goes awry, it leaves Leverkusen in an inferior position or could result in Tah picking up a booking.
Under Bosz, Leverkusen are a side that press aggressively and thus, play a very high line to reduce the space for the opposition to beat the press. Therefore, the opposition can only go direct and in behind Leverkusen’s defence, which means Tah has to be able to read situations and make the correct decision without rushing in unnecessarily to stop the counter-attack. This is shown in the example below which is from the same game as the previous example but just a few minutes later.
Mainz launch a counter-attack and find themselves with three players attacking the Leverkusen defence. They look to take advantage of the numerical advantage around Tah, circled, as the player in possession is driving with the ball is hoping his teammate can provide two different options. The first is for his teammate to drag Tah into a bad position, leaving him with space to drive into or make a run in behind into the space to receive a through ball.
Tah recognises this and paces himself extremely well and keeps himself in a space that can stall the attack just for a few seconds. This allows Kerem Demirbay to close the player in possession just enough, which forces the opponent to play a rushed pass for his teammate who can’t get to the ball after Tah displays some great strength to hold him off. Once again, it is a relatively simple action, but his sensational positional awareness is crucial for Leverkusen’s style of play under Bosz.
In addition to his ability to read the game, Tah’s physical gifts are another key part of his game which may make him a difficult opponent for opposition attackers to overcome. Standing at 6ft 4in, the German is quite big even for a defender and his size allows to be a great threat in the air. This is highlighted by the fact that he wins 4.07 aerial duels per game with a success rate of 66.34%. Tah is well aware of his size and strength, and the defender can often be seen utilising it to effectively nullify opposition attacks. It is a reason why his duel win percentage is very high at 67.91%.
The first image is from Leverkusen’s fixture against Wolfsburg where Tah is going up against Wout Weghorst who is slightly taller than the big German defender. The Dutch striker is looking to hold the ball up as he so often does with Tah closing him down to win the ball.
Given that Weghorst is a great target man and has a slight size advantage, you would expect him to retain the ball or make it difficult for Tah.
However, the image above is the outcome of the challenge between Weghorst and Tah, which shows that Tah comfortably won the duel between him and his counterpart. Tah firmly stamps his authority on this passage of play by outmuscling the forward and essentially giving him no space to manoeuvre.
The 24-year-old holds the attacker off in a seemingly effortless manner, ensuring that he wins the ball back before again outmuscling another Wolfsburg player and using his skill to play his way out of trouble and help Leverkusen retain possession.
This passage of play not only gives us yet another example of Tah’s composure, but it provides us with a glimpse of his physical attributes in action. The German can often be seen simply outmuscling opposition attackers and placing himself in between them and the ball, before ushering it back into the feet of his teammates.
When defending higher up the pitch, Tah benefits from not being required to make a quick challenge. He thrives when he has room in behind him to drop off into and essentially take his time before committing to a challenge given his physical advantages can bail him out if he is caught in the wrong position. When he draws the attacker into making the first move through his intelligent reading of the game and impressive composure, Tah’s physicality can be a very useful asset in helping him nullify opposition attacks.
Tah’s ability on the ball is undoubtedly one of the 24-year-old defender’s most impressive attributes. Tah is an asset for his side when attempting to play out from the back, as his composure carries over from his defending into his play on the ball. Furthermore, the German exhibits confidence and coolness on the ball which his ability generally backs up.
He ranks as the fourth-highest defender in passes per 90 in the league with an accuracy of 91.37%, which is really impressive. He is great at short passing, which helps with the build-up for Leverkusen, but his long-range passing is superb too. It is a key reason as to why Tah is ninth in progressive passes in the league with 12.9 per game for defenders.
Mainz are playing a relatively higher line than usual, leaving space for Leverkusen striker Kevin Volland to run into. With no pressure on Tah, he plays a superb long ball in behind the Mainz defence for Volland to collect. With two players on the striker, it allows Nadiem Amiri to occupy the space left by Volland if he needs support. In this scenario, Amiri gets a shot off but not one of high quality as the Mainz defenders were able to put enough pressure on him. In just one action, Leverkusen were able to transition into attack and have a shot on goal, which can be put down largely to Tah’s great ball-playing ability.
The big German can play tough passes when he’s under pressure, a quality that is required for a modern-day ball-playing centre-back. In the example below, Tah is under pressure and with the ball being a difficult one to control.
With both teams struggling to have possession in this passage of play, Tah can aid Leverkusen out with his passing ability. Kai Havertz has found himself in lots of space, which Tah sees before the ball comes to his feet. There are four Leverkusen teammates close by for Tah to pass it to, with two options being relatively simple and a safer option.
However, the German opts to go for a much tougher pass to give Bosz’s side a better opportunity to attack Mainz who have a somewhat disgruntled shape. He plays a great hooked pass with his weaker left foot straight into Havertz’s path. Even though the midfielder chooses to play it back to a defender instead of attacking, the option was given to him by Tah. It also showcases the fact that Tah can bail out Leverkusen on occasions given his great skillset.
How Leverkusen’s style of play hinders Tah
Speaking of bailing out Leverkusen, Peter Bosz has a system that makes it difficult to be defensively solid. They are superb at pressing the ball which is shown by the fact that they have the second-best PPDA of 7.51, which is only 0.22 behind leaders Bayern Munich. This means that they only allow the opposition to have just over seven passes before intervening with a defensive action. It’s a reason why Tah ranks 10th in counter-pressing recoveries per 90 with teammate Aleksandar Dragovic 8th in the rankings.
While the press is effective for the most part, when it goes wrong it leaves Leverkusen exposed. This can be seen in the image below with Bosz’s team suffering what many teams come across when they adopt a high pressing style.
The red lines indicate the distance between Tah and the midfielders, which becomes too big when the press fails. This gives the opposition two options: to either play through the midfield space or go direct and exploit the space in behind, which is shown by the blue box. Either way, it results in the opposition attacking the Leverkusen defence with usually only two defenders covering for Leverkusen, Tah included. When the opposition is attacking via the midfield, Tah will have to step in to fill the gap of a midfielder who is further upfield, committed to a wave of pressing. When the opposition goes direct, Tah will have to cover huge amounts of space behind the backline. Both of these tasks are very taxing on a central defender and can cause the defender to be often caught out of position. Tah can use his great pace and defensive intelligence to minimise the quality of opposition attacks but it can cause mistakes to happen, which centre-backs are judged harshly on.
In terms of build-up, Leverkusen also play a high-risk style. They are a side that likes to play from the back and keep possession, as evidenced by their 59.9% possession per game – the second-best in the league. One of their favourite plays in the build-up phase is to start very deep in order to bait their opponent into pressing higher up the pitch to draw some of them out to create a numerical advantage going forward. However, Leverkusen can risk losing the ball very close to their own goal because of this.
In a situation like the one above, a Leverkusen defender only has a single passing option, which is the pass to the full-back. Of course, the opposition also recognises this and therefore, one of the opposition players will press the defender in possession and the full-back to win the ball back. This system does not help a defender as it brings added risk and pressure to not lose the ball and requires the passing to be near perfect.
Despite the tough system and tactics that Bosz has implemented for his defenders, Tah is able to use his great pace, passing and defensive intelligence to minimise the quality of opposition attacks. The style can cause mistakes to happen, which centre-backs are judged harshly on. Another big issue for Tah is that he lacks a partner that is good enough in these areas too as it puts a bigger strain on him to cover for his partner’s weaknesses.
As this analysis can show, Tah can be a superb player in the future as he has all the attributes of a top modern-day centre-back. If he can be given a structure that could benefit his style of play a little better, the big defender can fulfil the potential he showed as a youngster.
His performances this campaign have reportedly made Arsenal interested in triggering his £35m release clause. They will also add to his claim in being Niklas Süle’s partner for the German national team for the foreseeable future. At the very least, Leverkusen have a very dependable centre-back that, if given the right partner, can help them solidify their defence and challenge for the title.