After Euro 2000 there was a shift in emphasis within German football. The reasons for this shift have been extensively written about elsewhere but can be summarised simply; following a catastrophic showing in the European Championships, those within the German game recognised that the game had passed them by both technically and tactically. A restructuring was called for, with greater emphasis to be placed on youth development at all levels of the game.
This restructuring led to the implementation of several development centres around the country and an increase in the number of qualified coaches. Professional clubs were now required to have a youth academy within their organisation with checks and measures in place to ensure standards.
These requirements have had the desired effect with the national team winning the World Cup in 2014 and consistently playing the type of football that was envisioned by those that suggested the changes.
Fast forward to 2016 and the results of the improved coaching and development infrastructure is firmly being felt. The Bundesliga is awash with young players that have been developed at their clubs and have been given exposure to first team football. One of the most promising of these young players is Benjamin Henrichs of Bayer Leverkusen.
Henrichs is very much the prototypical modern footballer. Initially developed as a midfielder capable of playing in deep or advanced areas, he has found his first team niche at right-back, a position that he seems to have been born to play.
Physically strong and very quick, Henrichs has the capacity to support in both the defensive and attacking phases. He recovers position extremely well and reads the game effectively enough to provide efficient cover for his defensive team-mates.
Having originally been played in midfield, it comes as no surprise that Henrichs is extremely comfortable on the ball and he has the ability to play difficult passes through the defensive lines of the opposition. Having become firmly ensconced as the first choice right-back for his club, Henrichs has now, at just 18, won his first cap for the senior national team, and whilst the opponent for his debut was San Marino, he didn’t look out of place in international football.
Henrichs has already been linked to some of European football’s heavyweights, with Manchester United and Chelsea both known to have expressed an interest. That said, there is no guarantee that the young German would favour a move at the moment with the real possibility that he would instead stay with the club that has shown such faith in him at this early stage of his career.
Supporting the attack
With the increased awareness of tactical responsibility in the modern game, empty space on the pitch is at a premium. The creation and use of space is now key to the tactical battle and momentum of a match, and players have to have a working knowledge of the use and manipulation of these spaces in the attacking phase of the game.
Whilst in the centre of the pitch the available space has become marginalised, the full-back position is still one in which a player can expect a certain amount of space when they receive possession of the ball. It is in this area that Henrichs excels. He is capable of driving into the empty space with the ball or picking the correct passing options to connect with his team-mates in more advanced areas of the field. He will often look to burst forward to offer width to the attacking movement in the final third.
In this Bundesliga match against Mainz, we saw Leverkusen look to counter-attack with rapid transitions to catch the Mainz defence out of position.
As the ball is positioned centrally there are already three players on the far side positioned ahead of the ball and looking to attack space in the defensive line. Henrichs has the awareness to make a vertical run on the near side into space in the wide area. Even if the man in possession does not play the ball out to him, in this area his positioning alone will force the defensive line to shift and cover him, and this shift could well open up space for the rest of the attacking players to exploit.
This time Henrichs displays his awareness to open up space in the deeper area. As he is positioned right on the touchline, a team-mate starts to carry the ball forward from a deeper position in the same vertical lane. Henrichs moves beyond the defender into the space behind, and since there is a possibility of the ball being played over the top, his immediate marker moves with him.
This simple piece of movement is enough to open up space underneath for the central player to drop into and collect possession of the ball.
Positioning and recovery
As a young player, whether within a professional environment or at grassroots level, it is incredibly beneficial to become comfortable in multiple positions. The understanding of spaces and roles and responsibilities in other parts of the field helps a young player to improve their positional awareness and tactical flexibility.
This is important with Henrichs when we consider his ability to read a game and recover position when the opposition bypass him and play the ball into an area in which the defensive structure of Leverkusen is vulnerable.
With Werder Bremen looking to break forward quickly we see Leverkusen caught out of position and trying to recover their defensive positions. The man in possession quickly identifies that they have an overload on the far side of the pitch and he looks to play the ball to the man in space. It is here that we see the athleticism and reading of the game of Henrichs at his best.
Not only does he have the ability to quickly identify the danger, he also has the speedto get back into position and intercept the pass.
In this match against Dortmund, Henrichs found himself filling in on the left side of the pitch. As Dortmund attack through the centre. the ball is played into the feet of an attacker in an advanced area of the pitch. The attacker’s first touch was excellent and took him inside the defender who was off balance at the time. One again, though, Henrichs was able to read and identify the danger and get across to the central area to make the challenge and win the ball back.
In this scenario, many young players would choose to hold their wide position and track their man. That Henrichs was able to identify the threat and then act on it speaks highly of his tactical nous and understanding.
Passing and vision
The versatility of Henrichs can most clearly be seen with his use of the ball in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch. As a former midfielder – and a player who may end up back there one day – he is comfortable in possession and has the vision to choose the correct pass at the correct time.
There are times, however, when he can perhaps be drawn too centrally, hence loosing the natural width that his role dictates that he provides. That said, with his efficient use of the ball in central areas, he rarely gives the ball away and leaves his team vulnerable to a counter-attack.
In the image above, Henrichs picks the ball up centrally having moved inside from the right wing. The opposition is positioned in a deep defensive block and there appears to be no way to easily play through them.
As three of his advanced players are attracted towards the ball, Henrichs is confident enough to pause and evaluate his options. As the fourth attacker makes a move to access space behind the defensive line Henrichs has the ability to loft the ball over accurately and play the striker into goal.
This time Henrichs takes possession of the ball in the right half space with the opposition pressed back into a deep defensive block. The temptation for many full-backs in this position would be either to slip the ball wide to the advanced winger or to clip the ball back into the so-called danger area of the penalty area.
Instead, Henrichs again displays his composure on the ball as he pauses and assesses his options before sliding the ball through into the box to an attacking team-mate who is making a dangerous run forward.
While being versatile is without doubt a positive, Henrichs will have to settle in a preferred position at some point in the future to ensure his full development. Whether that position is at full-back or in the centre of midfield remains to be seen but his emergence has once again shown that the Germans have become masters at developing their young players.
The national team have been searching for a viable right-back since the exceptional Philipp Lahm announced his international retirement. It is still early days but they may well have found his natural replacement in a player who was moulded from the failures of Euro 2000.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis