Leon Goretzka 2019/20 – scout report
“I am in a top condition, the best of my career”
In the last match before the Bundesliga was suspended, Bayern Munich just won their match against Augsburg 2-0 at home in the Allianz Arena. In what was a difficult match, Leon Goretzka scored the second goal that eventually secured the win. All good, then? Not for the 25-year-old, who started on the bench once again. After the game he gave vent to his displeasure, making clear his claim to be a regular starter week in week out.
This situation gives a first indication of the player and character Leon Goretzka has become. The 1.89 m tall midfielder learned his skills in the youth academy of 2. Bundesliga-side VfL Bochum before joining FC Schalke in July 2013. Even then, almost everyone was aware of what a great talent he was. Although his time with Schalke was marked by several injuries in the beginning and many ups and downs, Goretzka continued to develop and was inevitably called into the national team by Joachim Löw. When his contract expired in summer 2018, he chose the German serial champions as the next step of an ambitious career.
Goretzka’s first season in Munich was decent. It wasn’t an easy year for the Bavarians in general but Goretzka made 30 appearances in the Bundesliga, 23 of which as a starter. While he missed large parts of the start of this season due to an ankle injury, he had established himself at the beginning of Hansi Flick’s tenure and earned a lot of praise from his coach. However, as indicated above, this has slightly changed in previous weeks, which led to his dissatisfaction.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine Leon Goretzka’s abilities in transition, his offensive drive as well as his defensive contribution. In addition, will also take a look at his weaknesses while we’re now going to start this scout report with his physical attributes.
Role model athlete
Goretzka’s physical attributes are one of his main strengths. Earlier in his career, Goretzka was repeatedly thrown back due to various injuries, thus never able to perform constantly in his first three seasons in the Bundesliga. However, after a chronic inflammation of the intestines was diagnosed in him in 2016, the then 21-year-old started to change his nutrition. From then on, he did without gluten, cow’s milk, pork, nuts. Whether or not this was the main reason – Goretzka was less frequently injured since then, which played a key role in his development.
At 1.89 m, Goretzka is a very tall midfielder and only weighs 76 kg. Despite his rather skinny appearance, he has a strong musculature and hardly a gram of fat. His size paired with his stature plays a crucial role when defining the “player type” Goretzka. One particular advantage is that it allows him to cover large amounts of spaces in midfield with his long stilts. Notwithstanding his size, he does that at a very high pace. Especially in transition phases after winning the ball, you can frequently see him bridging the midfield at full speed pushing the ball forward. Although he is not the typical dribbler, his excellent acceleration and impressive dynamics make it almost impossible for the defence to stop him. Once Goretzka reaches his full running speed, he is arguably one of the fastest central midfielders in Europe. We will talk about that in more depth throughout the article.
Whether in his own penalty area, in the opponent’s or just in midfield: Goretzka impresses in aerial duels. This is a skill that already stood out in his early years and which he has constantly developed. He thus radiates enormous danger, especially in the opposing penalty area, as he is often to be found in the box waiting for crosses from the flanks. He convinces with excellent timing paired with impressive jumping power, body tension, and targeted precision.
All this naturally has a positive effect on his defensive work too. Obviously, Goretzka possesses a larger cover shadow due to his size compared to all other midfielders of Hansi Flick’s squad. While he does not have that low center of gravity like Thiago for instance, his long legs allow him to tackle players or intercept passes that normally seem out of reach. In defensive transitions, it’s once again his speed and dynamics that allow him to cover ground quickly and eventually stop or interrupt counterattacks. I can still see it vividly at Schalke when Goretzka made those crazy runs over half the pitch to stop the counter with a clean tackle, followed by standing ovations from the fans.
Pressing and defensive intensity
When it comes to his defensive duties, Goretzka not only possesses the physical attributes to compete on the highest level, but he is generally a very disciplined and aggressive player against the ball.
Before examining his defensive contribution, it’s worth noticing that Bayern’s pressing has changed since Hansi Flick took over in November 2019 towards a higher intensity than under Niko Kovač. The first pressing line usually consists of Lewandowski and the wingers with Goretzka behind them looking to support. Bayern’s 8’s act in principle relatively man-oriented and try to prevent a build-up through the opponent’s pivots/central midfielders.
Due to his more advanced role in midfield and since Bayern press high as a team, Goretzka is frequently involved in high pressing situations. He is very intelligent when blocking passing lanes and doesn’t blindly move out of the defensive shape to execute pressure when he would leave uncovered gaps in behind. Nevertheless, if the defensive protection is ensured and he can make use of his cover shadow, he likes to leave his position and press the opponent. Poor passes or players receiving the ball with the back to the goal in central areas are the main pressing triggers. Every now and then he has to take care that he doesn’t get too over-confident and intense in these situations so that he can be taken out of the game by a single movement.
His defensive behaviour is also very beneficial to Bayern when faced with opposition’s counterattacks. Due to their dominant strategy, they push up very high, inevitably leaving space in behind. Goretzka’s work rate in this kind of situation is very impressive. As soon as the ball is lost, whether by him or another teammate, he transitions quickly and tries to win the ball back. He is not too bad about making long runs back to support the defence and hunt the ball-carrier. If he eventually finds himself in 1 vs 1 situations, he is also able to stand up against smaller, tricky dribblers. Despite his size and the lack of a low centre of gravity, he maintains his strengths and balance, which allow him to get back into a duel even if he was surprised by the dribbler’s feint in the first place.
Relatively cautious passing
Passing is certainly an area, in which Goretzka has improved a lot since his transfer to Munich even though it is still not the most innovative and by no means comparable to Thiago or Coutinho. Instead, it is rather cautious and more focused on retaining the ball, rarely opting in for risky passes. His passing accuracy of 86.6% is very good, but as indicated, also a result of the risk-aversion.
When Goretzka receives the ball during the build-up phase, he usually works with horizontal or back-passes rather than vertical line-breaking ones. He mostly joins the build-up to provide an extra passing option in order to create numerical superiority and circulate the ball. Bayern have great ball progressors, who can build up from the back excellently such as Alaba, Kimmich, or Thiago. This is helpful for the 25-year-old as he has fewer duties in this part and can operate in higher areas.
His passing in higher regions is a little riskier and sometimes aims to break through the opponent’s defence. Nevertheless, it’s in principle more geared to shift the play to wider areas as Bayern generally have many players in central areas with one or two players occupying width.
With all of that said, it would be wrong to deny him qualities of passing in any way. He is quite able to play opening passes or even the last pass into the channel but does not show this in particularly high consistency, especially compared to his competitors in midfield. The fact that he’s playing with some of the best deep-lying playmakers and creators in the world allows him to focus on other abilities as we will see in the next section.
Whenever his coaches are asked what makes Leon Goretzka unique, part of the answer is always his offensive drive and his threat to the opposition’s goal. As soon as he discovers a gap, he starts his runs trying to take advantage of it. He is not only physically fast to exploit these gaps, but also in his mind by recognizing and anticipating situations earlier than others.
As the example above shows, Goretzka likes to prepare the emergence of his thrusts with a shift from the centre to the wings. The basic idea is to create 1 vs 1 or 2 vs 1 situations in wider areas with the advancing full-backs to eventually cross the ball or play a through ball from a deeper area. It’s interesting to observe that he often slows down a little after he passed the ball, only taking some small steps, and waiting until it’s likely that the cross is about to come. At that moment, he starts his run from deep, which allows him to arrive in the box running forward at a high speed. This gives him an important edge over his opponents who usually stand still. If the box is already occupied with enough players, Goretzka lures for second balls at the edge of the penalty area.
What should be emphasized about his offensive thrusts are his movements into the box and his positioning. While Thomas Müller is known as the personalized Raumdeuter, Goretzka also displays some similarities (although to a lesser extent) when identifying spaces in and around the final third. We can see his spacial awareness when he tries to attack the vertical channels between opposing defenders. Most often, this results in far-side runs behind the defence, using the gap between the opponent’s CB and the FB. While the centre-back is usually focused on the ball-carrier and his marker, not aware of his blindside, the full-back’s attention is often divided by the advancing Goretzka and the winger who tucks inside. With Alaba, Kimmich & Co., he is numerous teammates that master these passes behind the defence.
Even if he arrived in the box early on, he doesn’t just wait for a cross but tries to evade his marker by sneaking away into open spaces.
His offensive drive and his ability to turn up in dangerous areas are additionally underlined by his shot map. While he likes to take some long-range shots here and there, the locations look extremely impressive for a central midfielder. Most of his shots do not only come from inside the box, but also from very central positions. His heatmap will confirm his preference for these areas later in the article.
Another interesting stat about his shooting: More than a quarter are headers, proving his dependency on good crosses and his ability in the air. In fact, 44.4% of his shots are the result of crosses and his conversion inside the box in total are an impressive 25.6%
Bridging the midfield in transition
Even though Bayern are not a typical counter-attacking side, Goretzka can really excel in offensive transitions. What makes him so exceptional in these situations are his long, space-filling steps which allow him to bridge the midfield in the shortest possible time. He is not the classical dribbler with a repertoire of numerous tricks, but once he has picked up speed, he is very hard to stop with fair interceptions.
A perfect illustration for his abilities in transition phases could be seen during the Confederations Cup 2017, where Goretzka played next to Sebastian Rudy as a central midfielder in Jogi Löw’s 3-4-3. The division of roles between the two was clear: Rudy supported the build-up while the former Schalke player interpreted the role more offensively. Due to the fact that Germany applied a more defensive approach at this tournament than one year later at the World Cup, there were many counterattacks and spaces that Goretzka could penetrate into.
Transitions were usually initiated by effective pressing in Germany’s own half or around the middle circle. Goretzka either won the ball himself or received it in the centre of the pitch, carried the ball forward before eventually passing it to a teammate on the flanks. Subsequently, Goretzka marches through the midfield with his long strides towards the box.
Even if it’s not him who initially carries the ball forward, Goretzka always tries to exploit gaps and join the offence if opportunities occur. A big advantage at the Confed Cup 2017 was the very flexible interpretation of the 3-4-3 formation with many rotations. The rotations of the attackers dragged opponents out of their position and allowed Goretzka to execute runs from deep in behind.
I already indicated it in the first sentence, and I think it’s fair to say that this ability is required to a lesser extent at Bayern. They just play such a dominant style that they rarely sit deeper and lure for counterattacks. This was different at the Confed Cup and with Schalke: They often sat deeper and he was the key player when it came to transitioning from defence to offence. His goal for Schalke 04 against Ajax Amsterdam in the Europa League 2016/17 is still one of the most memorable ones and describes him quite well – a goal full of willpower and pure athleticism.
Areas to improve
One area where Goretzka can certainly improve is his decision making, especially in the final third. As an attacking midfielder, he inevitably finds himself in situations where he is in possession shortly before the penalty area and it’s up to him to create something: Shot? Through ball? Penultimate pass? It often seems as if he lacks a little vision in these situations to take all possibilities into account while focusing too much on the ball.
Similar situations can be seen in deeper areas of the pitch. While he has a good spacial awareness when it comes to exploiting gaps of the opponent, he sometimes lacks the awareness when he receives the ball due to a lack of scanning. Also, his first touch in these situations is not always optimal, so that he cannot continue playing the ball with the second touch. This can cause problems, especially under high pressure in tight areas.
Positioning issues and his role at Bayern
With all his strengths and weaknesses in mind, his best position is probably as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation, in which he enjoys the freedom to drive forward and turn up in the opposition’s box. Bayern coach Hansi Flick might agree to that. He usually uses Goretzka in this position or even as a number ten when deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation.
When talking about his positioning, it’s important to notice that Hansi Flick has reimplemented several facets of positional play. The build-up is done by the centre-backs, Thiago and Kimmich, one of whom often drops between the centre-backs. As we examined in the section about his defensive duties, Goretzka occasionally joins them to create numerical superiority and provide an additional passing option. Once Bayern manages to break the opponent’s press or if no pressing is executed at all, Goretzka can move into higher areas again.
His heatmap shows that he mostly occupies the 10-space in the middle zone or the half-spaces, pre-dominantly the right one. He positions himself intelligently in relation to the opponents and his teammates offering passing lanes to progress the ball. Under Hans Flick, even Robert Lewandowski acts more spacious and drops out of the last line cover to be involved in build-up phases. In such situations, Goretzka can occupy the missing depth in the centre. Another aspect that the heatmap illustrates very well is his ability to turn up between the 6-yard area and the penalty spot.
Goretzka possesses a lot of valuable qualities, many of which are unique advantages to a very competitive and strong Bayern squad. He combines defensive intensity with his offensive drive and the ability to get into dangerous situations inside the box. One of his biggest strengths, his contribution in transitions, is not even regularly visible at Bayern due to their strategy. We could see how he can excel in these situations at Schalke, the Confed Cup 2017, and hopefully next year at the European Championship.
What has come a little short in this analysis are his leadership qualities. Already at Schalke, he was one of the leaders and most likely even captain today, if he had stayed. He undoubtedly has the potential to take on more responsibility at Bayern and in the national team if he can establish himself as a regular starter. Even off the pitch, his public perception has increased significantly in recent months through many intelligent statements.
With all of that said: The 25-year-old is entering his peak and he won’t accept being benched in the most important games of the season going forward. He made his demands clear and whenever he played, he has performed well. However, others have also shown similarly good performances. Ultimately, it’s certainly also a question of Hansi Flick’s tactics and the player role that he wants in his starting lineup: the raumdeuter Müller, the playmaker Coutinho, or a box-to-box midfielder in Goretzka?
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