PROFILING HIS BEST ATTRIBUTES ASSESSING HIS FUTURE ANALYSING HIS STATS LEARNING ABOUT HIS STORY SO FAR
Note: This profile was first written in October 2021. All statistics and facts are correct to that time period.
Update – February 2022: SC Freiburg defender Nico Schlotterbeck has undoubtedly been one of the star performers in his team’s push for European football this season. But with a favourable contract situation that sees the 22-year-old become available on a free transfer in 2023, it is unlikely that we will see him take part in any eventual European adventure next season.
As is the case with just about every talented young defender in Europe, Newcastle United reportedly made the German a transfer target in January, though the player is said to have turned down the offer. However, the most natural links are to Bayern Munich, who will be tasked with replacing the outgoing Niklas Süle this summer.
Who is Nico Schlotterbeck?
It is easy to forget about Freiburg. Squirreled away in the south west corner of Germany, its population of 230,000 people is not even enough to push it into the top three cities by size in Baden-Württemberg.
The same can be said for its football club; SC Freiburg often feels like the forgotten club of the Bundesliga. Always surviving. Regularly over-achieving, relative to its financial resources. But never really excelling to the extent that football fans sit up and take note.
When it comes to player development, this is curious. Known primarily for blooding goalkeepers, since Christian Streich became head coach in 2011 there have also been a litany of centre-backs moving through the club on their way up the footballing pyramid. The legacy of producing Robin Koch, Çağlar Söyüncü, Matthias Ginter, Ömer Toprak and Marc-Oliver Kempf shows it is a club who are in the business of developing centre-backs.
The latest player to emerge in this genealogy is Nico Schlotterbeck. Growing up in a suburb of nearby Stuttgart, Schlotterbeck arrived in Freiburg with his older brother, Keven, in 2017. Since then, both have had stints in the Freiburg youth teams, on loan at Union Berlin, and in the Freiburg first team.
Three years the junior, Nico has overtaken his brother in the pecking order after putting up some of the best defensive numbers in the Bundesliga last season with a Union side that ultimately qualified for European competition.
The 21-year-old’s performances in Berlin earned him regular appearances in the Germany under-21 team and eventually a senior international call-up this September. With Schlotterbeck the Younger now firmly ensconced in the Freiburg back line, it looks inevitable that he too will follow a similar step up to his predecessors.
Nico Schlotterbeck's style of play
Nico Schlotterbeck is the instantiation of a ball-playing centre-back. Primarily a ball carrier, he is good with both feet (the left being his dominant), exceptional at reading space around opponents when ball-carrying, and has the perfect physique to be a mobile central defender.
Largely playing as an outside centre-back in a back three this season, it is not unusual to see Schlotterbeck driving with the ball deep in the opposition half, attacking space opened out by his captain, the left wing-back Christian Günter. This ability with the ball at his feet is reflected in the numbers.
Plays on the left-side of Freiburg's back three (significant factor that must be kept in mind) but such a good defender on the move, reads play adeptly and is solid in the air. Progressive on the ball too, driving down his side or pinging switch passes. Big future ahead.— Scouted Football (@scoutedftbl) October 3, 2021
Last season, per StatsBomb statistics, Schlotterbeck found himself in the 90th percentile when it came to centre-back dribble volume with 0.6 dribbles per 90 minutes at Union Berlin. Given his role for Freiburg this season, his dribble volume is through the roof: 1.9 per 90.
As football trends towards more complex pressing systems, defenders with this sort of skillset will become increasingly sought after. If you can break a team’s initial bank of pressure with your centre-back, you can pose problems for the opposition in deeper defensive areas, unbalancing them structurally and opening gaps that can be exploited by team-mates.
When it comes to passing, there are some areas of potential improvement. Schlotterbeck is by no means a bad passer of the ball. With short passes, he is comfortable using both feet, and in confined spaces, he is good at moving the ball out to a team-mate – an extension, no doubt, of his dribbling prowess.
But there is a lack of consistency here which can lead to breakdown of possession. As a good ball carrier, he sometimes invites opponents towards him in order to beat them, but this makes any potential pass out of trouble more difficult. His long passing is good, especially when he has time on the ball.
All too often, this blend of on-ball attributes might lead to questions of his defensive credentials, but on that score, Schlotterbeck is also exemplary. The athleticism that lends itself so well to ball-carrying is an important part of this.
With the capacity to respond quickly to the on-ball movement of opposition players, the German is able to track opponents and pick his moment to make tackles. Unsurprisingly, he scores well in interception metrics, placing in the high 90th percentiles for volume across the last two seasons. This mobility, which is central to Schlotterbeck’s game on and off the ball, might raise questions as to the young German’s physicality. At 6′3′′ and 85 kilograms, Schlotterbeck is not small.
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But his skillset is more circumspect and positional when it comes to engaging in duels, as shown by his good interception numbers over the last two seasons (2.5 and 2.4 interceptions per 90 minutes, respectively). Any worries about a lack of physicality, though, were put to bed after an impressive performance against Borussia Dortmund earlier this season.
In that game, Schlotterbeck proved up to the unenviable task of keeping Erling Haaland quiet across 90 minutes, largely matching the Norwegian for athleticism and refusing to be intimidated. Beyond this, Schlotterbeck is good aerially, both defensively and in the opponent’s box.
Across the last two seasons, he has remained consistently above average when it comes to headers won by centre backs, picking up three aerials won per 90 last season and 3.1 aerials won per 90 so far this season.
Forecasting Nico Schlotterbeck's future
Having made the step up to Germany’s senior team, Nico Schlotterbeck will obviously be on the radars of recruitment departments around Europe. There is also the added bonus that he has performed well in two different Bundesliga systems in separate seasons.
In a market boasting a glut of young centre-backs, Schlotterbeck enjoys two advantages over his contemporaries. Firstly, he is left-foot dominant. As the build-up phase in possession becomes increasingly central to elite football clubs, the need for left-footed players has never been higher, given the benefit of having a dominant-footed centre-back on the left in your back line.
Secondly, Schlotterbeck plays for a club who are renowned for talent ID and player development, with a strong history of moving these players on for relatively affordable sums of money. This will make him an attractive commodity by the time next summer swings around.
The sky’s the limit, then, for Nico Schlotterbeck. Given Bayern München’s propensity to pick up the best talent in German football, an impressive season could see him making the move to the Allianz Arena, where a good ball-playing centre-back can thrive. But even if that does not materialise, there is little doubt that Schlotterbeck will be playing Champions League football sooner rather than later.
Nico Schlotterbeck is an athletic, mobile and progressive centre-back that is adept at defending on the move and is strong in the air. He reads play quickly and intelligently, and is very good at driving possession into attacking areas by carrying and passing the ball.
Nico Schlotterbeck lacks some consistency as a passer, which can lead to turnovers in dangerous areas. He also invites too much pressure when carrying the ball at times.