Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen developed a more than decent reputation in the Bundesliga as well as Europe. The ex-Salzburg coach had been employing his high pressing style at the German club before enduring a poor run of results and getting fired subsequently. Credit should go to Schmidt for the nurturing and the development of a certain 19-year-old German-Ghanaian player into the first team squad. Benjamin Henrichs just turned 20 this February 27th and has already cemented his place in the first team squad.
Adding to that he has also received his first National team call up when Germany faced San Marino in a World Cup qualifier last November. Henrichs is a more than familiar name to those who follow the Bundesliga and is garnering more attention worldwide. The youngster has enjoyed a very fruitful season in his first full season at the club. He has been a regular and put in consistently good performances that earned him his National team call up. So why does Henrichs feature in our Breakthrough of the Season section, ahead of many other potential candidates?
The youngster is a tremendously talented and versatile player who can play in both the full back positions. Having been a central midfielder initially, Henrichs was converted into a full back by Schmidt and he has reaped the benefits of having played in the midfield as his position under the coach’s system required him to do so. It felt fitting that a player who is not exactly a flashy playmaker or a goal scoring forward and yet a tactically proficient and technically sound defender should get the nod on the basis of this season’s consistent performances.
Brilliant reader of the game – The anticipating hawk:
The most striking feature of Henrichs’ defensive arena is his ability to read the game. The German youngster is a really good anticipator of the ball and is brilliant at doing so. Roger Schmidt is known for his high level of pressing and the system requires all of his players to perform multiple actions in both defensive and offensive phases. Henrichs being the full back, mostly on the right side, is required to put in the hard yards and maintain the compact structure by optimally positioning himself in relation to his team mates. Having been a central midfielder, Henrichs has honed his skills to anticipate and intercept further as he looks to nip the attacks off the bud. His use of momentum and change of pace is quite remarkable in this aspect as he adjusts his pace just about enough to carry on with the ball after intercepting it.
The tactical intelligence displayed by Henrichs for this aspect of his game is astounding for a 20 year old. The fact that he is not a natural defender adds to his brilliance here. The man/ball oriented nature of pressing from Leverkusen is a very complex scheme. The timing of the press trigger and the relative spacing in positioning is very crucial as optimal spacing is essential in order to avoid gaps and expose the back line. With the man oriented nature of pressing, Leverkusen’s 4-2-2-2 becomes a lopsided 3-4-3 with density in the ball near region.
The compact nature of the team shape is a very striking feature in Schmidt sides and all this adds to how important it is not to make an individual error. This can lead to very poor spatial organisation while also opening gaps for the opponent that is convenient to play a simple line breaking pass. The proactive defending from Henrichs is very commendable as he has averaged an astounding 3.5 interceptions and 3.4 tackles per game throughout the season (according to whoscored.com). This is mightily impressive and in some ways necessary for a full back in a system as that of Roger Schmidt’s.
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We see here that the man oriented press leads the winger to press the opposition full back which is immediately compensated by the pushing up of the full back (Henrichs) to give rise to a 3-4-3 in shape.
Having been involved in Leverkusen’s youth set up from the age of 10, Henrichs predominantly played in the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This education in his younger days has molded into his footballing style and German Ghanaian is very comfortable playing almost anywhere across the pitch. The qualities obtained from playing in a midfield role are all put into good use here as he is a creative source from the outside right. He is equally good in playing on the opposite side at full back as he was used as a left back in some of the games over the season.
Being involved in a very counterpressing minded team, Henrichs understands the initiation of a press trigger and usually kick starts a counter attack once he has won the ball. Due to the nature of Leverkusen’s intense pressing and counterpressing, whenever the ball is won, it does not necessarily ensue in a free environment. Henrichs’ decision making and dribbling capacities are evident here as he is more than capable of carrying the ball out and playing the correct pass in the correct speed. The accuracy of the pass along with the choice of pass is usually sound here as he makes the correct choice here as Leverkusen is a team that relies on its press as a source of creativity for goal scoring chances.
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Henrichs’ movement inside is crucial in drawing defenders and create gaps in between the lines for his team to exploit. In many situations, Henrichs is adept enough to play the through ball himself and create a chance for his team.
Henrichs’ comfort at playing on either side of the wide back positions and also be at ease when he is further up the pitch during transitions and attacks speaks volumes of his versatility. His pressing is fantastic and understands the triggers to press very well. His access of the defensive areas across the flanks is impressive as he is ready to either anticipate and intercept or position himself in such a way so as to block a passing lane. His movement from the full back position is key when their shape changes to a 3-4-3 as he is extremely proactive in his movement forwards to fill the space and make sure the angles are not improper so as to leave his team exposed in transition.
Outlet out wide and the creative presence:
Henrichs’ most impressive aspect apart from his intercepting skills is his dribbling. The German youngster is an excellent dribbler of the ball and combines his dribbling with dynamic movements. Henrichs does not usually have all the space in the pitch to dribble forward and his right full back position stifles his dribbling to a certain extent. This is because the play starts out from there and Henrichs is right footed.
This is why his dynamic movements were mentioned as he uses them to cut inside diagonally and occupy the half spaces if need be further up the pitch. His awareness, both tactical and positional, is fantastic as he does not faze under pressure. His decision making under those pressure situations does not falter and makes the correct decision mostly. He also paves his way out of trouble at most times with his use of close control and deft dribbling.
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Here we see a situation from a Leverkusen match where Henrichs is afforded time and space to drift into midfield. He plays an excellent ball over the top and breaks all lines of defense with a single pass for his teammate into the 18 yard box.
Henrichs’ positioning in relation to his team mates is optimal in order to preserve a good structure so that he can offer a passing option. Henrichs’ movement once past the half line is interesting to note as he is usually found making a lot of diagonal runs. These runs solve two purposes- a diagonal passing option into the inner lanes while also offering better spacing and structure for counter pressing. A compact team such as Leverkusen can make use of very small openings due to dense occupancy in the ball near regions.
This is achieved by committing defenders by drawing them out and playing the pass through. Despite being a youngster and a full back in the team, Henrichs achieves this with relative ease and averages 0.7 key passes per game. He also completed 1.1 dribbles per game. Any loss of possession such an attempted dribble can lead to a dangerous counter attack and is generally avoided by exercising caution in such attempts.
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Here we observe the importance of Henrichs’ movement. His off the ball run helps in moving the back line across as the opposition full back has to track his movement. This in turn creates space in between the lines which can be exploited by the forwards or advancing midfielders or wingers who slot in.
What do forthcoming seasons hold in store for Benjamin Henrichs:
Henrichs is just 20 years old and already has earned his senior National team call up. While the depth in quality in the German National ranks is phenomenal, Henrichs would definitely be in contention if he keeps this rate of consistency up. He is in Leverkusen, a club that can offer him first team opportunities and also to an extent, quality football. He has already established himself as a first team regular thanks to Schmidt and despite the subsequent departure, has been preferred to start by the current manager Heiko Herrlich.
There are two areas that Henrichs would have to work upon if he has to reach the elite levels his potential promises to be- his defending in a back four is questionable at times as he is not the type of defender who would be able to sit back in a back four and absorb the pressure. The concentration levels required for that with the focus is quite lacking in Henrichs and in that view is not out and out a pure defender.
Also, Henrichs misplaces a lot of his passes in the final third which is mainly due to the fact that Leverkusen up the tempo once they win the ball and look to mainly progress vertically. The passes are bound to be misplaced in such situations but Henrichs does not take into account that the teammate may have to re orient himself to complete the pass properly. In that way, Henrichs’ offensive and general contribution to build-up play can and should improve.
By the looks of it, Henrichs seems to be a gem of a player and Leverkusen would do well to fend off interest on him beyond a season if he keeps this rate up. A tactically sound defender who is versatile and more than capable of dribbling and finding a through ball that can break the lines seems to epitomize modern day football where one dimensionality seems to be fast fading, if it has already not. This is the reason why I felt that Henrichs would be a good choice to feature in our Football Bloody Hell’s Breakthrough of the Season.