Sebastian Schonlau 2019/20 – scout report
Paderborn have unsurprisingly had a very difficult season so far. Especially defensively, they look vulnerable and have the second-worst defence according to Expected Goals Against. However, despite their position in the table, Paderborn have some interesting players, one of which is Sebastian Schonlau, who plays his first season in the Bundesliga.
Apart from a one-year loan to fourth-division side SC Verl, the homegrown defenceman has played for SC Paderborn since 2012. Schonlau was an integral part of coach Steffen Baumgart’s squad, which marched through from the third division to the Bundesliga. It took the 25-year-old German centre-back until October 2019 to make his debut in the Bundesliga. After he missed the first six games due to an injury, he has been on the pitch every minute since then and showed some promising performances, which makes him an attractive prospect for many ambitious clubs.
Composure on the ball
As already mentioned, Paderborn have struggled defensively and sit at the bottom of the table. However, Steffen Baumgart’s team doesn’t play like a typical relegation candidate. By no means would they opt-in for a “Kick and Rush” approach and try to compensate their individual lack of quality through aggressiveness and hard fouls. Instead, they remained true to the recipe for success from the second division and continued to rely on an offensive style of play consisting of many duels and shots.
Schonlau possesses many qualities that you would expect from a modern centre-back and perfectly fits Baumgart’s tactics. For one thing, the 25-year-old has impressive composure on the ball and is able to resist the opponent’s pressing. Even if the opponent’s striker closes him down close to the own penalty area, he always tries to find a controlled solution. This makes his pass accuracy of 89.5% even more noteworthy. Furthermore, he knows how to drive the ball forward or bypass the opponent’s pressing lines with targeted ground passes through the centre.
If you watch a Paderborn game, you will see him a dozen times at the left side of the penalty area close to the touchline. Steffen Baumgart’s philosophy is built upon a structured build-up with flat passes and the centre-backs possess a key role. When he receives the ball on the left side of the penalty area, Schonlau always tries to have an open body posture which keeps all possibilities open for his next action.
What makes Schonlau such a good fit for Paderborn’s approach is that he’s not the type of player that hooves the ball upfield blindly when pressured. Instead, he radiates an enormous sovereignty and as soon as he plays the ball, he tries to offer a passing lane to receive the ball again. He either drops off as in the picture above or moves higher as we can see below.
Left-back Jamilu Collins is the most frequent recipient of Schonlau’s passes as he’s often the only option when passes into the centre are blocked. Nevertheless, sometimes even Collins is not able to receive the ball because the opponent man-marks every teammate. This is exactly what happened in the 77th minute in the match against Dortmund. While Schonlau is in possession and gets attacked at the left sideline, his teammates are marked. In addition, his body posture limits him to play the ball either back to the goalkeeper or into the centre.
Considering Paderborn’s 3-1 lead away from home in Dortmund, Schonlau would have all arguments on his side to opt-in for the long ball to clear the situation. Still, he refuses to do so and dribbles past his opponent with a short but effective move to the left. With this move, he opened himself two passing lanes forward. The defender of Dortmund is confused as he suddenly has to pay attention to two players, which allows Schonlau to progress the ball down the line or into the centre.
This was just another instance that illustrates Schonlau’s composure on the ball and his press-resistance. Another little, but decisive detail is that he always keeps his head up to look for possible passing lanes and options in his decision-making. The last example already gives us a first indication of his ability to break the lines with his passing which we will further point out in the next section.
Breaking the lines
In general, Paderborn are a team that gets pressed very high at their own penalty area. Due to a lack of individual quality, Paderborn often fail to effectively progress the ball into higher zones and further operate from there. In that way, Schonlau’s relatively low number of final third passes of 3.68 per 90 at a success rate of 63.5% can be explained. There are only a few teams in the league that sit deep against them and allow Paderborn time on the ball. However, in those matches, where Paderborn have more possession, Schonlau can really show off his abilities on the ball.
Until Steffen Baumgart took over in 2017, Schonlau’s main position was actually as a central midfielder in front of the defence. Not least due to this experience, the 25-year-old is comfortable in higher areas of the pitch and likes to operate from there. In these situations, his team can benefit the most from his excellent passing and his ability to break the lines.
As you might have noticed, the forward pass above was played with his left foot, which is not a coincidence. Even though he’s predominantly right-footed, his left foot is not much worse. The next analysis highlights his left foot again and additionally illustrates a typical play of Paderborn. As Schonlau is in possession, central midfielder Vasiliadis drops from a higher position and pulls the opponent’s central midfielder out of the second line.
Once Vasiliadis receives the ball, he plays it back to Schonlau, who has the field in front of him. As we can see, the move of Vasiliadis has opened up a gap in Cologne’s second line. Despite being surrounded by three opponents, Schonlau is able to progress the ball through the smallest gaps of space bypassing two lines and reaching his striker.
Looking exemplary at his pass map from the second half against Cologne, we can not only see where he operates but also his passing distribution, which is mostly forward and very accurate. He amassed 36 passes in the second half, 18 of which were forward with an average length of 20.29 m and a success rate of 92%.
Next to his abilities on the ball, this is probably the part of his game that impresses the most. Schonlau does not overly frequently step out of the last line to intercept the opponent’s attack. But when he does, he makes sure it’s for the right reasons and he has a high likelihood of winning the ball. On average, Schonlau amasses 8.16 interceptions per game, which is an outstanding number and the second-highest in the Bundesliga. This number is not possession-adjusted and if we would do that, the ranking might look slightly different in relation to other centre-backs. Nevertheless, his high figure is not a coincidence as the following examples will prove.
In the first situation, Dortmund builds up from the back and Witsel passes the ball to Brandt who is positioned behind Paderborn’s first line. Schonlau covers the striker.
As soon as Brandt receives the ball from Witsel, Schonlau already gets tighter with the striker anticipating the pass and reacting before the situation occurs. He reads the game very well and eventually gets on the ball before his opponent.
The analysis above is not a one-time-accident. Schonlau generally tries to act proactively to avoid situations before they occur rather than waiting for the opponents to make their move first. He also benefits from the fact that he played in defensive midfield until 2017. He just has a good for feeling for situations where he should step out. Below, we can see it again: He anticipates the pass and doesn’t wait for it to be played. Instead, he successfully tries to intercept the ball before it reaches the opponent’s teammate.
Two more things have to be mentioned when talking about the benefits of anticipation. First, his high football intelligence and his ability to read the game enable him to intercept crosses and through balls just by his positioning. Second, due to his proactive defending approach, he doesn’t go for tackles too often. In fact, he always tries to stay up and only makes sliding tackles in absolute emergencies.
In the instance below, Schonlau is faced with a one vs one situation against Bayern striker Joshua Zirkzee who fakes a shot. While most defenders would have made a tackle hoping to block the shot, the 25-years-old stays up and eventually forces Zirkzee to play the ball backwards.
Covering depth and Isolations
We already touched upon Paderborn’s defensive issues. Their occasionally unorganized defence will inevitably cause situations where the centre-backs are faced with one vs one situations on the wings or in the centre. Covering for his partner at centre-back is in general not a problem for Schonlau. He’s capable of taking over midfielders that make runs from deep behind the last line.
However, more frequently, he has to provide cover for his left-back Jamilu Collins. These situations are a bit more difficult as he has to move wide and leave his position in the centre. When isolated on the wings against faster opponents, it’s once again his anticipation that helps him a lot – whether it’s about starting the run a few seconds earlier or reading the next move of his opponent.
When defending these situations, Schonlau is either very close to the opponent or he keeps the necessary distance so as not to allow the opponent to pass him with a fast acceleration. In the situation against Wolfsburg, he follows his opponent very tightly and eventually manages to intercept the ball before it reaches his opponent.
Things look different when he has to move wide to take on an opponent, who was not his initial opponent that he covered in the centre. Instead of being overly-motivated to attack, Schonlau keeps a certain distance and adopts an obliquely twisted posture towards the ball while waiting for the right moment to win the ball.
As he lures the attacker into the centre, he takes the chance to tackle him at the right moment.
He succeeds relatively often in this way to stop players who are faster than him and have clear advantages in isolated situations. This approach is basically a perfect reflection of his general playing style, which is very calm. We mentioned the fact that he always tries to stay up and to avoid rash tackles, which was visible in our last example. This also helped him to only commit 0.8 fouls per 90.
Areas for Improvement
Long-range balls are not necessarily a weakness of Schonlau but an area where he can improve. According to Wyscout, he only plays 4.38 long passes per 90 and the eye-test tells us that he plays most of them under pressure. Therefore, his relatively low success rate of 46.6% comes as no surprise. That said, there are instances in which he has shown that he is capable of playing those accurate long diagonal balls that shift the play to the other side. Considering the importance and the value of those passes in modern football, improving his passing range would add another component to his skillset.
Furthermore, Schonlau has to improve in aerial duels only winning 55.6% per game, which is a fairly low number in his position. With 1.85 m, Schonlau is not very tall for a centre-back and will obviously never become a monster in aerial duels like Virgil van Dijk. However, he appears a bit lean in some instances and more physicality might help him when competing against stronger strikers.
As this scout report has shown, Schonlau is defensively a very solid centre back who possesses great abilities in possession. It is more than doubtful whether Paderborn will still play in the Bundesliga next year or not, however, Sebastian Schonlau will almost certainly do so. He has established himself as a regular starter and with only one year left on his contract, he could be a bargain for many clubs who look for a relatively cheap quality-defender.