Melanie Leupolz at Chelsea Women – 2019/20 – scout report
Chelsea Women are a side that have performed beyond expectation this season and even more so in their recruitment since last summer. Their acquisitions since the 2018 summer transfer window have been shrewdly led by chief negotiator Marina Granovskia and head coach Emma Hayes. They scouted and picked up Norwegian sensation Guro Reiten and later Sam Kerr who added much needed quality and depth to an already impressive Chelsea side. However, their quest to topple and conquer a mighty Olympique Lyon side off their perch on top of European women’s football doesn’t stop there. Chelsea announced the signing of Melanie Leupolz as another piece of the puzzle from German heavyweights Bayern Munich. The German international joins the squad ahead of the 2020/21 season where Chelsea will hope to conquer the Champions League.
In this tactical analysis, we will discuss Leupolz’s all-round ability by examining her qualities and any shortcomings. In addition, we will explore the possible ways she fits into Chelsea’s tactics and where she best fits into the side and even look at the data and numbers behind the player to further analyse her role.
As part of any recruitment process, clubs will take a data driven approach before even looking at any footage to understand if the player is one who can contribute and be an asset to the squad. In this scout report, I will be conducting an extensive data analysis first to see how Leupolz compares to the rest of the squad’s midfielders who she will be competing with. For this data comparison, I have chosen Sophie Ingle, Ji so-Yun, Drew Spence, and Maren Mjelde. These four players are the current crop of players who are natural central midfielders and have played a significant number of minutes this season. Leupolz is a natural ‘8’ and one that keeps possession moving along. While we will dive deeper into her playing style and strengths later in this analysis, it is important we identify the metrics we will use to compare these players. We will look at metrics involving chance creation, passing, and defensive actions due to an initial assumption of Leupolz’s position and play style. Across the three graphs, we will look to understand where it is that Leupolz stands out and whether the data suggests if she should be considered by Chelsea Women.
The first graph is a comparison between the aforementioned squad players on their average Expected assists (xA). Using this statistic will give us an indication of the likelihood of them providing service and supply to Chelsea’s strikers. As the graph illustrates, the overall numbers aren’t too high. Ji averages the highest xA this season at 0.16, with Leupolz next with 0.09. Spence and Ingle have the lowest figures with 0.04 and 0.06 each. Spence has played a fewer number of games and hence the lower number.
The next graph indicates the average number of received passes vs the average number of passes into the box. Through these metrics, we’ll be able to identify which player has been core to the team’s transitions between thirds effectively. Starting with Leupolz, the German averages 39.25 received passes and 2.5 passes into the box per 90 minutes. Ji averages 36 received passes and 3.08 passes into the box per 90 minutes. Both of these players are in the top right quadrant of the graph which places them as the players with the highest averages this season for club and country. Spence’s figures are 13.07 received passes and 1.21 passes into the box whilst Ingle averages 29 received passes and 1.94 passes into the box.
Lastly, we are going to look at the average number of recoveries vs average number of accurate passes. This will give us an indication of the players’ abilities to work hard off the ball in winning back possession and effectively pass it off to a nearby teammate to control possession. Once again, the top right quadrant will be indicative of the best performing central midfielder this season based on their averages. Leupolz averages 8.6 recoveries and 45.87 accurate passes per 90 minutes. Ji has figures of 6.9 recoveries and 44.5 accurate passes per 90 minutes. Spence’s data shows her averaging 4.07 recoveries and 15.9 accurate passes whilst Ingle averages 10.5 recoveries and 36.7 accurate passes per 90 minutes.
After conducting an initial check on the data presented, it is conclusive that Leupolz is an effective passer of the ball and one that has the ability to recover possession through hard work. There seems to be a lack of a possession based midfielder who is able to control possession and link play between the thirds. While Ji averages more passes into the box this season, her playing style is predicated on powerful dribbling and running between the middle and final third whilst Ingle is a more defensive minded player who is excellent in the build-up and cover and is needed for that role. Leupolz could bring a skillset bereft at Chelsea and be used as a tactical weapon in certain games given the level and type of opposition Chelsea will face especially in the Champions League. In the FAWSL alone, they will come up against the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City who are possession hungry whilst the likes of West Ham and Manchester United are likely to sit back against the Blues.
Role at Bayern Munich & Germany
Leupolz usually plays a central midfielder as part of a three in a 4-3-3 that she plays in at Bayern Munich or as part of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 for Germany. In both systems, her role doesn’t differ too much as she is primarily the team’s link player. A deep-lying playmaker, Leupolz can play either side of the two central midfield positions but prefers the left. As her heat map from this season below indicates, she spends most of her time sitting in and around the central area assisting both thirds linking play when possible.
Leupolz might seem like a simple player but her positional awareness and ability to control the tempo of the game is crucial to her role in any side. The yellow areas that stretch out to the wide areas are part is when the midfielder steps forward into the half-spaces to act as a liaison between the full-back and winger/striker on that side. Her passing range isn’t limited to simple passes, Leupolz is equally adept at using her ball-playing skill to ping long passes over defences to help break down low-block systems allowing full-backs and wingers to penetrate in the final third.
This pass map gives us a better understanding of her role on the pitch. This is against SC Sand where you can see how Leupolz has been able to distribute passes all across the pitch both forwards and backwards recycling possession. This season she’s averaged 61.24 passes per 90 minutes with an 82.3% success rate controlling the game and leading Bayern Munich to a 3-1 win.
Transitions, movement and positioning through passing
This scout report will initially be split between Leupolz’s attacking and defensive capabilities through her main strength which is her passing range and movement. As we’ve mentioned earlier, Leupolz’s main weapon is her passing ability, she doesn’t contribute too much in the final third in the form of goals or assists but rather moves into attacking positions to help facilitate the movement of other players and provide her teammates with a passing option. Her movement also helps pull players out of position because of her ability to retain and pass under pressure.
When talking about her passing range, she usually plays short, simple passes to keep possession recycled and also plays the ‘quarterback’ role by pinging long passes from deep. In addition, she has the ability to make short accelerations through midfield to bypass a couple of players and then release a final pass. It is here where she is slightly let down by some inaccuracy when attempting riskier passes. Leupolz averages 1.06 through passes per 90 minutes giving her something she needs to work on. This can also be seen in her solitary assist this season, however, this shouldn’t solely be taken as a negative, if anything it’s a reflection of her importance in the team to be able to keep things ticking over and allow the other attacking players to be more effective. Leupolz averages 21.49 forward passes proving her want to keep play moving in a forward direction rather than taking the safe option of going back. Both of these statistics on the surface back the notion of Leupolz being a link player.
Bayern Munich are quite patient in possession and usually instruct their full-backs to push up against less dominant teams. They try to create dominance in the central areas to allow their two full-backs space to drive forward and receive passes through switches of play or patient build-up play. This is where Leupolz’s strength in linking play comes in, she will move between the base of midfield and the full-back’s position to create a connection or pathway to ensure Bayern are assured of possession and not liable to a counter-attack. From here she is able to use her quick passing to keep it together.
Here we can see moving from her central midfield position to the half-space, where Leupolz is able to pull two defenders towards her allowing Carolin Simon ample space to receive possession. This is also a good example to show Bayern Munich’s shape in possession, where both full-backs are high and wide with space whilst the team crowds the central areas. In this situation, Leupolz attracts the players and passes back to the central defender who plays a long pass towards the full-back as shown in the second image below.
The defender that rushed out to cover Leupolz has vacated the space which forces the opposition full-back to go out towards Simon, there is now space in defence for Bayern to attack. This is just one variation of Leupolz’s ability to affect the team offensively. We will now explore her more penetrative passing skills and see how she’s able to control play from her deeper midfield position.
Like many deep-lying playmakers, Leupolz relies on her excellent range of passing to dictate play and affect the final third. Her playing style in many regards is similar to Chelsea’s Jorginho, who sits at the base of midfield and plays long passes into forward areas whilst the attackers make runs in behind the opposition defence. This role requires the striker and wide players to be mobile and pull players out of position whilst holding a slightly higher line. Throughout the season, Leupolz has been picking up possession from her defenders and looking for long passes when the opportunity is available. These passes do not often end up in assists but rather passes that put other players in a position to create a goal-scoring chance. Looking at her season’s statistics, Leupolz averages 5.29 long passes with a 54.5% success rate which shows her willingness to try and play these long passes with relative success. While the success rate might seem underwhelming for an adept passer such as her, it comes down to the fact that opposition teams play with low-block systems that would intercept these passes. Even if we look at the number of passes into the final third, we can see an average of 12.36 passes per 90 minutes with a higher success rate of 72.8%.
In this example, Leupolz quickly receives the pass from the throw-in and uses her exquisite touch to take the ball away from the onrushing player to drive into the vacant space. In this moment, Leupolz recognises the opportunity to push forward and switch to the opposite side. This pass starts to create small gaps between the opposition’s tight backline.
Here we can see the opposition full-back pushing out towards the winger and leaving a gap between herself and the centre-back. This forces the defence to shift across leaving the Bayern forward on the near side an opportunity to make an advantageous run towards goal. This scenario is one that is similar for Leupolz where she will adeptly drive into space bypassing players using her great touch but will sometimes be wayward with her long-ranged passing. I still believe it’s a core strength of the German midfielder but it’s one that can still be improved upon to become more accurate.
Whilst analysing Leupolz’s footage, I noticed there was a lack of clear defensive actions throughout my analysis, however, the data suggests that she has a good average of recoveries per 90 minutes, so why is that? This comes from the fact that Leupolz is not a defensive player by nature or role. Having said that, the German midfielder is someone who is hard working and still contributes from a defensive point of view through her positioning and movement between the thirds. Being someone who has good positional sense and an ability to work under pressure, there are a few methods in which Leupolz contributes in a defensive capacity.
Firstly, through interceptions where she tries to position herself in areas around the 18-yard box to try and get in between the player and ball. Secondly, is through trying to close down opponents to try and force them into a misplaced pass or pass back. Through these methods, Leupolz is able to contribute to the team but it is no secret she is much more comfortable on the ball.
Regardless of how she contributes defensively, the common denominator of these methods is her ability under pressure. When the team comes under pressure regardless of where she is on the pitch, Leupolz is also able to dribble and pass her way out of trouble. The former Munich midfielder uses her incredible ability to keep possession and pass to assist her team from danger. Not only does this keep possession away from the opposition but is useful in preventing opposition counter-attacks.
In this first example, we can see how Leupolz is able to deal with the triangle of players she’s in between. As she receives the pass from her teammate she is fully aware of the onrushing player but remains calm and is able to lay the pass back to her other defensive teammate. The defender, in turn, quickly plays in Kathrin Hendrich who is free down Germany’s right side. Another player in Leupolz’s situation could have lost possession and allowed Sweden to counter-attack and leave them in a 2v1 situation.
Here we can see Leupolz pressing the Swedish midfielder in the same game as the example above. In this scenario, she showcases her athleticism and grit off the ball that she may not show in her attacking tendencies. Putting pressure on the player as she receives the pass forces the midfielder to make a decision quicker than she would have liked and allowed Leupolz to intercept the ball and have momentum.
How does Leupolz fit in?
Now that we’ve taken a look at Leupolz as a player, it now makes sense to investigate why Chelsea signed her and how she fits into the overall squad. First, we’ll look at the options Chelsea currently have in central midfield, they include: Ji so-Yun, Sophie Ingle, Drew Spence, and the versatile Maren Mjelde. Considering Chelsea Women use a 4-4-2 formation, four players for two positions seems enough. However, we’ve seen Mjelde used in a more defensive position at right-back due to the injury to Hannah Blundell earlier in the season. Mjelde has excelled in this position so far and has retained her place in the side. Ji and Ingle have been very dependable in central midfield leaving Spence as the only option off the bench. So, Leupolz’s transfer makes sense from a squad depth perspective.
Based on the earlier analysis, we know Leupolz’s strength lies in her passing and possession recycling ability and there have been games where Chelsea could use a player of her calibre to keep possession and find openings. Combined with the pace available on the wings in Guro Reiten and Erin Cuthbert, Leupolz could allow Chelsea more control in midfield. Ji is an excellent ball carrier and shooting specialist from range, who also possesses off the ball intelligence too.
Ingle, however, seems to be the closest in terms of style of play to Leupolz. Ingle is an adept central midfielder who occupies a more defensive role and plays a part in Chelsea’s out of possession tactics by invoking pressure, allowing teams to push up higher to open space in midfield. Her presence on the pitch allows the team to carry out their offensive responsibilities by providing defensive assurance and aids the team in build-up by receiving possession and distributing simple passes. Leupolz carries out a similar role but without the defensive assuredness that Ingle provides. Ingle averages 5.16 interceptions and 10.5 recoveries per 90 minutes whilst Leupolz averages 4.46 and 9.54 for the same metrics. While they both share similar qualities, the two players are suited to playing with another midfielder.
Leupolz was brought into the squad to add quality depth and competition as Chelsea gear up towards inevitable Champions League qualification next season. Leupolz’s international experience and being captain of Bayern Munich will add an invaluable amount of leadership and experience to navigate through the latter half of the tournament. I believe Leupolz can play in a variety of roles and is best suited to a double-pivot in games where Chelsea will dominate possession. This will free her from having to really focus on her defensive responsibilities whilst playing in a more attacking system.
A tactical asset, ideally, her skillset suits a three-person midfield due to the cover she will be provided from the other midfielder to allow her to play her natural game without having to perform her defensive duties as much as she would in a double-pivot in any type of game. Alternatively, she could excel as the team’s fulcrum as the number ‘6’, giving them a team a different option and someone who can dictate play from deep given her ability to play long passes from deep. With two excellent, mobile strikers, Leupolz will be encouraged to try and play riskier passes towards them and could help in both breaking down low blocks or if used against a team with high possession, in initiating quick counter-attacks. Both Sam Kerr and Bethany England could see supply coming from both the central and wide areas.
Leupolz is a strong, adept central midfielder who can really add a lot to this Chelsea side in terms of her leadership, passing, and positional awareness. Her ability to dictate the tempo and create better links between thirds is an excellent tool to provide Chelsea with more fluid movement. At the moment, Chelsea rely on the direct passing of Ji from the central areas in Fran Kirby’s absence this season, otherwise, they mainly build out from the wide areas using Reiten as a primary crossing weapon. Leupolz will bring another dimension to the side, though, she has some weaknesses to work on, there is no doubt Leupolz will improve as a player and improve Hayes’ squad in the long run.