Llew Davies

June 8, 2021

niklas dorsch at the 2021 under-21 european championship

Niklas Dorsch is no secret. He’s been a favourite of online scouting communities for some time now. We’ve watched him semi-regularly as a German youth international. Sam Tighe picked him out as far back as 2016, when he was making brief cameo appearances for Bayern München’s first-team in pre-season. Plenty more highlighted him as an interesting player to follow during his two-season stint at 1. FC Heidenheim in the 2. Bundesliga.

After a couple of strong years in the German second division, he was picked up by KAA Gent – a club renowned for its intelligent recruitment of younger players from smaller markets – for a pretty chunky €3.5 million fee 11 months ago. In Belgium, he has accumulated almost 3,000 minutes in a good top-flight league and started all but one of Gent’s nine European games. Make no mistake, the 23-year-old isn’t a new discovery.

But his performances at the recent Under-21 European Championship will have introduced him to a more mainstream audience, as is common of players to do so in these flagship youth international tournaments. Germany came into the competition with little fanfare – largely owing to the presence of an extremely talented but ultimately flawed French squad – yet they fielded a balanced, functional team, one primed to perform well in a competitive setting, that featured good players at every level. Dorsch was at the heart of it.


Germany implemented a shape which typically included four attackers – two fluid forwards in Mergim Berisha and Lukas Nmecha, a link player (latterly Florin Wirtz) and the all-round right-sided dynamism of Ridle Baku – which required a strong midfield base behind them. Dorsch was the deepest, screening the two centre-backs, with captain Arne Maier being more of a box-to-box presence.

Dorsch played an important role in the German team, assuming significant responsibility in the way they built from the back, moved through pressure, reset play in attacking phases, and defended transitions. The role in itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but the execution of it was excellent, which was testament to Dorsch’s ability.

As shown above, he more often than not filled the space directly ahead of Nico Schlotterbeck and Amos Pieper at in early phase build-up, providing a consistent option in the central channel to receive a pass. Whilst he dropped between the centre-backs at times, he usually held his line intelligently as not to crowd the centre-backs or draw in unnecessary pressure. His awareness and discipline to always present accessible options for his team-mates was very impressive.


Dorsch’s fundamental technical skills are good, typical of a player developed at an elite academy: he scans regularly when showing for the ball, checking for pressure and assessing options, orientates his body adequately, and receives with clean, positive touches on either foot. They enable him to take up intelligent positions and play with the up-tempo style that he does, particularly as a passer.

That was especially evident in the way he helped Germany build play from the back. Dorsch’s clever positioning and adjustments to show for the ball opened up channels to progress play. He was adept at relieving pressure with short, quick passes when dropping toward his centre-backs, or sliding off the shoulder of opponents into spaces where he could offer an outlet and move the ball to the open man/space.

Above is a really good example of the pressure release he provided. He creates an option for Maier, then adjusts against with a clever movement to escape Kluivert’s cover shadow, creating the angle to receive and break the Netherlands’ press. His subsequent pass directly leads to Germany attacking in a two-on-one situation. The speed and simplicity of it established an effective outlet for Germany in build-up too. It ensured the ball was constantly circulating, which moved teams around and created opportunities to transition possession into better areas.


When Dorsch was afforded the space to turn in deeper areas, he spread play really well. The 23-year-old needed little time nor invitation to get the ball out of his feet and smack a big switch pass to a team-mate on the touchline – a useful skill when Germany had Baku and David Raum, both big threats in different ways, pushing high and staying wide to occupy those spaces.

It was a dangerous dynamic. Not only did it advance the team up the pitch, it released Raum, an excellent crosser, into situations where he could immediately attack adjusting defences with whipped balls into the box or inside passes. The fact Abdou Harroui was the only midfielder to complete more long passes than him per 90 minutes highlights its frequency; the accuracy and fluency with which Dorsch executed those passes to access situations like that underlines his awareness and technique.

He also punched through lines regularly with shorter, sharper passing. Dorsch was good at finding angles into players sliding between lines. Again, his quick and clean technique injected tempo into sequences. It was understated but effective all the same; his punchy passing broke defensive lines, forced defences to drop off and commit players to engage the immediate threat the receivers of Dorsch’s passes posed.

If anything, he can push play a bit too aggressively at times; his constant punch passing can be difficult to control and put receivers in situations where they can be pressed off the ball as a result. A sequence against Hungary sticks in the memory where Dorsch put Maier under pressure with a fast pass, when he could’ve held onto the ball a bit longer and controlled the tempo.

All in all, Dorsch displayed a very adaptable range of passing. He recycled possession, relieved pressure, penetrated lines, spread play, and switched the point of attack. Crucially though, his pass selection was excellent – he always knew what was needed relative to the situation, and that contributed significantly to his impressive distribution.


There were two principle traits to Dorsch’s defensive performance throughout the tournament: intelligence and aggression. Both were key contributing factors in the way he supported attacking phases of play, and controlled transitions once they broke down.

The 23-year-old consistently put himself in positions to cover attacks, and constantly adjusted it relative to where the developing sequence was likely to break down. In the example below, Dorsch is already moving into a good covering position before Raum even plays the direct pass down the line. When it’s intercepted, Dorsch is in place to recover possession, bursting ahead of his opponent, and then has the presence of mind to calmly reset play.

He was very quick to read and react to the game in general, a trademark of his game and a skill which forms the basis of his aggressive counter-pressing. When play broke down in higher areas of the pitch, he was always looking to pounce on the opponent’s first pass after recovering possession – and was often effective in doing so.

This sequence in a group stage game ultimately results in Dorsch conceding a foul, but it’s an important intervention which pins the Netherlands’ in their defensive third as Germany look for a winner, and prevents a potentially dangerous counter-attack with little cover behind him.

The featured clip above is an excellent example of Dorsch’s passing-plus-pressing package, with a dollop of dribbling for good measure. Many would be content to hold their position after playing the pass into Baku, but Dorsch follows through and pounces on the breakdown – then moves the ball into an even better position. That said, it also showcases how he can push play a bit too quickly at times – his succesive punched passes are difficult to control and lead to a turnover, even if he was there to control it himself.

Overall, what his aggressive counter-pressing did to good effect was control breakdowns and any ensuing transitions. Dorsch was on hand to tenaciously engage when needed, stopping counter-attacks at source, or at least slowing them down. It was key in how Germany contained the Netherlands’ fast-break threat in their two games


When defending in deeper positions, Dorsch combined his aforementioned aggression with impressive poise and technique. Much of his work was done in tighter spaces, where his sharp burst and tenacious mindset hassled and harried opponents off the ball, but he was also adept at covering bigger spaces.

The clips above showcase the two sides of his game in more compact defensive situations. He compresses space quickly but doesn’t go too far. Instead, he slows down, sets himself with a wider base, reacts, adjusts, and demonstrates patience to pick his moments to engage the ball. His tackling in these situations was consistently clean and effective. Dorsch’s coordinated footwork and body control to harry opponents like he does is impressive, and indicative of a decent athletic skillset in general.

His good positioning and quick assessments were key in how he was able to contain larger areas of the pitch, but Dorsch showed he has the legs to cover longer distances. When Germany committed players to the attack, the 23-year-old had plenty of lateral space to fill and did so adeptly on a number of occasions. He has a good burst off the mark, as we’ve already established, and a bit above average turn of pace once he hits full stride.


Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Dorsch’s entire tournament is that his performances across the five-game campaign was distilled into a single standout outing in the final against Portugal. He stepped up when it mattered, putting in probably his most effective performance of the competition.

His quick passing helped Germany handle pressure and play out of from the back, as well as exploit the weaknesses of Portugal’s compact and technical midfield that had dominated for much of the tournament. They struggled to defend the wide spaces outside of their diamond shape, with neither full-back (Abdu Conté) nor wide forward (Dany Mota) committing to cover it down their left side. Dorsch targeted those areas with quick passing that spread the play out to Baku, who was especially dangerous from the start. It was his swing pass that directly lead to the only goal of the final, with Baku receiving and driving into space before slipping Nmecha in to round the goalkeeper.

He also made a number of timely contributions without the ball throughout the match up. His aggressive but clean approach disrupted the rhythm of Portugal’s technical playmakers – Fábio Vieira, Vitinha and Daniel Bragança – who struggled to control the balance of possession and knit together attacking moves like they had done throughout the tournament. He closed down space and bit into tackles, imposing his robustness on them at every opportunity. Two big tackles within 30 seconds of each other in the 81st minute summed it up – the first a big block which stopped a dribbling Bragança in his tracks before he could drive at Germany’s defence, and the second an excellently-timed slide tackle following a recovery run which curtailed Conté’s dangerous carry into the penalty area

NIKLAS DORSCH in the future

Dorsch was already on the shortlists of top-five league clubs prior to this two-legged tournament, but his performances on the European stage will have bumped him up some club’s priority targets.

LOSC Lille were in negotations for him earlier this year, according to Transfermarkt, and they have a Boubakary Soumaré-shaped hole to fill, with the midfielder on his way to Leicester City. I suggested Albert Sambi Lokonga as a high-upside Soumaré replacement this time last year, and I stand by it – even if the departurres of Luís Campos and Christophe Galtier throwing up legimitate concerns about the competence of their project.

If I were to pick a couple of clubs for Dorsch to move to this summer, Southampton and Bayer Leverkusen would be high up on my list. He has the up-tempo tenacity to play for Hasenhüttl and Seoane teams. They typically operate with a double-pivot, behind a quartet of narrow attackers, and the 23-year-old is a more than compatible for one of those roles. He is also exactly the type of profile both clubs target: younger, cheaper, with room to develop and a point to prove. That sort of move would suit the player too, who has taken sensible steps in his career so far – starting of in senior football by dropping down a level to second-division Heidenheim.

There are no obvious reasons why Dorsch couldn’t be a starter for a European-level team in a top-five league. It seems entirely within his ability to reach that standard, whether this summer or in a year or two. When he does, many will remember his triumphant Under-21 European Championship campaign as the kickstart for a strong career.

Up-tempo style, clean technique,intelligent positioning and tenacious mobility – Dorsch is a deep-lying midfielder who can receive, pass, press and break up play to a good level. In the right shape/system, he is a very effective player.

As much as his up-tempo style is a strength, it can be a weaknssess too, especially in the way he uses the ball. He could be more measured in his pass selection in certain situations. Holding onto the ball when necessarry is a valuable trait.