A large part of RB Leipzig’s success this season has been their miserly defence, conceding just 26 goals and therefore boasting the joint-best defensive record in the Bundesliga, alongside Bayern. Whilst the Bayern backline usually features the vastly experienced duo of David Alaba and Jerome Boateng at its heart, the mean Leipzig defence is marshalled by a relative rookie.
At just 21 years of age and not yet a full French international, Dayot Upamecano has reportedly garnered interest from several top clubs across Europe this season due to a series of eye-catching displays. This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Upamecano’s impressive performances, which have contributed much to Leipzig’s rise to genuine Bundesliga title challengers.
Tight, aggressive and proactive
Whilst certainly not a small defender at 185cm, Upamecano is not what you would call a dominating aerial presence either. His aerial duel percentage success rate of 65.08% in the Bundesliga this season is by no means poor, placing him 18th in the division for this particular statistic, but it is also not elite level when compared with other players across Europe’s top five leagues. Virgil van Dijk has won 74.62% of his aerial duels this season whilst the top performer in this regard, Parma’s Bruno Alves, has won 80.9%. Clearly, Upamecano’s main strengths lie elsewhere.
One of the key features of his defensive game is his ability and willingness to get very tight to the opposition strikers and to be aggressive and proactive in his defensive work. A good example of this approach can be seen in Leipzig’s recent Champions League victory over Spurs. In the first image shown below, Toby Alderweireld has threaded a pass into Dele Alli’s feet just inside the Spurs half, with Upamecano positioned a few yards behind him. Upamecano aggressively closes the gap between himself and Alli whilst the ball is in transit and, in the split second between the first and second images, Upamecano has engaged with Alli and nipped in to get a foot to the ball from the side to dispossess him.
In a second example from the same game, a ball has again been threaded along the ground to Alli near the halfway line. This time Upamecano realises he isn’t able to get to Alli before the ball arrives (first image below), but as soon as Alli turns he engages and dispossesses the Spurs attacker (second image).
On occasions when he is happy to stay goal side of the attacker, Upamecano often gets very tight to his man and uses his upper body strength to shrug his opponent off the ball. Another example from the Spurs game, below, shows how tight he is willing to get to aggressively hunt the ball and halt another attack.
As well as showing a proactive and aggressive nature to his defensive game, examples such as these demonstrate how Upamecano is willing to step away from his starting position in the middle of the back three to assert himself on the game and force the issue from a defensive standpoint. This takes a certain degree of assuredness and confidence and also requires the trust and tactics of his manager, which Upamecano clearly receives from Julian Nagelsmann.
This approach to defending results in Upamecano posting exceptional numbers in the percentage of defensive duels he has won this season, a remarkable 79.04%. This places him fifth across Europe’s top five leagues this season and highlights how effective he is defending at close quarters.
Powers of recovery
As detailed above, Upamecano is more than willing to step into midfield areas to track opponents or hunt the ball. This approach can lead to situations where he is caught higher up the pitch than a central defender normally would be, or in wider areas relative to his central starting position. When these situations arise, Upamecano has shown the ability to recover and quickly get back into position, in large part due to his athleticism.
Examples of these situations can be seen below in Leipzig’s goalless away draw with Wolfsburg in March. In the first image below Upamecano (circled) has been drawn into the half-space between defence and midfield by the Wolfsburg number nine, Wout Weghorst, who has laid the ball off to a teammate on the right-hand side of midfield. Josip Brekalo is spare on the Wolfsburg left, with Xaver Schlager about to make a run through the middle of the pitch.
In the second image (below), Wolfsburg have quickly switched play to Brekalo on the left and RB Leipzig are stretched. A cushioned first-time pass from Brekalo leaves Schlager bearing down on Gulacsi in the Leipzig goal, with Upamecano a few yards behind the striker.
Luckily for Leipzig, Upamecano has read the danger and is able to use his speed to make up several yards on Schlager in a short period of time and clear a dangerous situation, as shown below.
In the second example from the same game, Upamecano finds himself in a right-sided centre-back position after Leipzig have turned over possession near the right touchline. Brekalo plays a weighted through ball to Weghorst, who has made a run into the space between Upamecano and his left-sided defensive partner, Halstenberg. Note in the image below how Upamecano is already on the half-turn in anticipation of where the danger lies.
In the next image, Halstenberg has missed his tackle on Weghorst, leaving the Wolfsburg man in competition with Upamecano to get to the ball first in the penalty area.
Again, Upamecano shows tremendous speed to sweep up the danger and bring the ball away, as shown in the third image below.
Positive and superb in possession
A key part of Upamecano’s game that sets him apart from many central defenders is his technical quality on the ball, both in terms of advancing with the ball at his feet and playing penetrating forward passes. He has demonstrated his dribbling ability in high profile games this season, including the Champions League last 16 tie at home to Spurs and the Bundesliga away fixture against Bayern. The Spurs example begins with an aspect of his game already mentioned above: aggressively engaging his opponent to win a defensive duel. In the image shown below, Upamecano anticipates the ball into Erik Lamela’s feet, makes up the distance between them and dispossesses the Spurs man.
Immediately after coming away with the ball (and leaving Lamela on the floor), he has the opportunity to clear the ball or play a long ball over the top to Timo Werner (not in the image), occupying an advanced position on Leipzig’s left-wing. Upamecano does neither and decides to drive straight through the middle of the Spurs midfield with the ball, as indicated by the black arrow in the image below.
After beating two Spurs players, Upamecano is now running at their defence. Still not content with his work, the image below shows Upamecano playing a one-two with Amadou Haidara and running in behind the Spurs backline.
The return pass from Haidara is slightly overhit, allowing Hugo Lloris in the Spurs goal to rush off his line and claim the ball, in the process denying Upamecano the opportunity to score what would have been a spectacular goal (image below).
In the Bayern example, Upamecano moves across to dispossess Serge Gnabry in the second phase from a Bayern corner, taking the ball into the right-back position in the process (image below).
Again, from this position Upamecano has the option to clear the ball upfield to relieve pressure. Instead, as the image below shows, he turns defence into attack and powers forward all the way into the Bayern half, leaving Gnabry in his wake, before finding a teammate. The sequence ends with Leipzig winning a corner from the left-hand side.
These examples demonstrate how Upamecano is willing and brave enough to take the difficult option. This is also reflected in his distribution, where he will frequently attempt ambitious forward passes. In this first image below, he has three passing options open to him: a simple sideways pass to the right-sided centre back, a vertical pass into the half-space, or (the most difficult option) a lofted pass over the opposition left-back to Christopher Nkunku making a run in behind.
Upamecano takes the ambitious route and executes a perfectly weighted lofted pass which releases Nkunku inside the Wolfsburg penalty area (image below).
The second example comes from Leipzig’s thrilling 3-3 draw away to Dortmund in December. The first image below shows the simpler passing options Upamecano has available.
The second image (below) shows the option he takes. A ball clipped over the top of the opposition full-back releases the onrushing Nordi Mukiele, whose shot is blocked by the goalkeeper before Patrik Schick fires in the rebound to secure a crucial away point.
A third example, against Koln, highlights a combination of his dribbling and passing ability. Picking up the ball just inside the opposition half, Upamecano drives forward into space, as shown in the image below.
The next image shows that a simple ball out wide is on, but again Upamecano plays the tougher pass: a weighted through ball to Nkunku inside the penalty area, who is brought down to win his side a penalty.
In addition to these, numerous examples can be found of Upamecano bypassing opposition players with firmly struck passes between the lines. This variety in his passing: long diagonals, balls between the lines and weighted passes into the final third, means he isn’t just a defender who is comfortable in possession, he is excellent with the ball at his feet.
His passing statistics for this season in the Bundesliga prove this: an overall pass accuracy of 90.1%, a forward pass accuracy of 83.1% and a pass to final third accuracy of 82.9%. When you consider the ambition he often displays in his distribution, these numbers are very impressive. They also compare favourably with top-level defenders. This season Virgil van Dijk has completed fewer forward passes per game (22.8 vs Upamecano’s 27.15) at a lower completion percentage (81.1% vs 83.1%). The same is true for forward passes into the final third, averaging 9.11 per game (at 71% completion) against Upamecano’s 10.77 per game (82.9% completion). These are elite distribution numbers that Upamecano is delivering.
Big numbers in big games
An obvious question, if he were to move away from the Bundesliga, would be how Upamecano would adapt to a new league. One way to answer this would be to look at how he fared against the strongest side in the Bundesliga, Bayern. When Leipzig travelled to the Allianz Arena to face Bayern in early February, Upamecano made a remarkable 17 interceptions and eight clearances, won all three of his aerial duels and also won four of his five defensive duels as he spearheaded a fantastic Leipzig rearguard performance. Leipzig earned a 0-0 draw and Upamecano picked up the man of the match award for his efforts. If he can post those numbers away to a side as strong as Bayern, the chances are he will be capable of performing in any of the top leagues in Europe.
Arsenal are one of the sides most strongly linked with a move for Upamecano. Whether a transfer to Arsenal would be a sideways or even backwards step at this point is open to debate, but a player possessing the qualities outlined in this scout report would almost certainly improve an Arsenal defence that has proved porous over the last few seasons.
A statistical analysis highlights how he could improve the Arsenal team. Arsenal’s defensive duel win percentage as a team in the EPL this season is only 58.4% (the fourth worst in the EPL). In terms of their central defenders, David Luiz (61.8%), Sokratis (62.5%) and Shkodran Mustafi (67.3%) are all far inferior to Upamecano in this regard (79.4%). Their aerial duel win percentages are also inferior, with the exception of Mustafi (70.6% vs Upamecano’s 65.1%).
So far, so good. But which aspects of his game could Upamecano improve on? The first one will sound trivial (and in many ways is not for a defender) but is worth highlighting anyway: he should score more goals. This season Upamecano has an expected goals rating (xG) of 3.27, but he is yet to find the back of the net. Throughout his career to date, his xG is 9.61, yet he only has four goals to his name in professional football. Chances like the one in the image below are ones that a player of his technical ability, defender or otherwise, really should be taking.
Having said that, if finishing is a highlighted weakness for a 21-year-old centre back, it should be seen as a sign that he isn’t doing too much wrong.
As for improvements to the defensive side of his game, he could probably improve his decision making in terms of not getting too tight to his man too often. At times his eagerness to engage and force the issue can result in him conceding cheap free kicks or getting caught the wrong side of his man. In these situations, he is often able to utilise his physical attributes to recover and limit the damage, but it is still something to be worked on. He also has a tendency sometimes to overplay and get caught in possession. However, as his dribbling and distribution is also a major strength, the issue here is to find the right balance. This decision making is likely to improve with age and experience.
It looks set to be an interesting summer for Upamecano as he enters the final year of his Leipzig contract, with Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern all credited with an interest in him recently. Arsenal reportedly launched a £50m bid to sign him last summer that was rebuffed by Leipzig. However, with fresh reports claiming his release fee is now around £50m due to his contract situation, many clubs are sure to be interested.
It can be hard to justify £50m being a bargain price to pay for any player. However, Upamecano is only 21, is already performing at a very high level, should improve even further and could potentially provide several years of service to whichever club can snap him up. All things considered, with the qualities he possesses that are outlined in this scout report, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t be worth it.