• Dakir Thanveer

Robin Koch: Scout Report | Can He Replace Ben White At Leeds United?


By Dakir Thanveer

 

When Leeds United's Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta, Angus Kinnear and Marcelo Bielsa sat down to draw up the plan for the transfer window after clinching the much-desired Premier League promotion as winners of the Championship, re-signing Ben White was on top of their list. And, for a club that managed to pull off the signing of a player they were not actively pursuing at the start of the window, having landed Rodrigo Moreno from Valencia on a club-record deal, bringing back White might have sounded plausible. But, it ultimately proved harder than they had first anticipated.


Graham Potter, over at Brighton & Hove Albion, was adamant that he will not let the young Englishman leave the Amex Stadium this summer. The Seagulls held on to the centre-back, as tight as possible.


Leeds' first offer came in. An £18.5m bid. "No chance", was the message from Brighton as they turned the bid down. The Whites, determined to get their man, returned with an increased offer of £22m almost immediately. And yet, it wasn't enough to turn Brighton's head.


Radrizzani, Orta, Kinnear and Bielsa huddled up, discussed the matter again and assured they returned, with a third, and what would turn out to be the final, bid. £25m. Brighton's response, if there was any, was the same. A solid no.


And so, Leeds, who dedicated almost one month for their pursuit of White, were forced to look elsewhere. Initial feelings were that they would search for alternatives within the boundaries of England. But, incidentally, their eyes turned to Germany, where 24-year-old Robin Koch was plying his trade for SC Freiburg.


On 28th August, nine days after the final offer for White was tabled, it emerged that Leeds were on the verge of striking a deal with Freiburg for Koch. A day later, the centre-half was in Leeds, putting pen to paper on a four-year contract. £13m. Done and dusted.


On paper, the transfer seems like a bargain. At the time of writing, Koch has three international caps to his name while White has none. Koch has 82 first division appearances, White, again, has none. A German international and Bundesliga regular for half the price of what they offered to pay for a player who is yet to play a game of football in the English top flight. A steal, as they say.


But the reality is much different, and complex for someone who did not follow Leeds last season, as Koch is now tasked with replacing a player, who The Athletic's Phil Hay described as 'Bielsa's perfect centre-back'.


Ben White Defensive Stats 2019/20 [Whoscored]


Robin Koch Defensive Stats 2019/20 [Whoscored]



Koch is in no way, shape or form a panic buy. In fact, Orta, Leeds' director of football, monitored the centre-back for months and had placed him on the list of alternatives for White.


The German has a skill set similar to that of his predecessor and ticks quite a lot of boxes that made White such an important piece in Bielsa's team.


For starters, Koch, like White, is versatile. He was part of both a back three and a back four at Freiburg last season and is also comfortable operating in the middle of the park as a midfielder.


Bielsa appreciates this versatility and makes use of it, as evident from his pushing of White into midfield in the absence of Kalvin Phillips, 'the Yorkshire Pirlo', a few times last term.


Physically, Koch and White have more similarities than dissimilarities. Although the former is 10 centimetres taller than the latter, both of them are lean and could do with a short fitness regime under Bayern Munich's Holger Broich. One of Koch's major weaknesses is dealing with physical attackers, which was evident when he was pitted against Jhon Cordoba in Freiburg's 4-0 defeat to FC Koln last term. [Explained in detail by Tactical Football Analysis]


But the German is durable, just like White. The Englishman remarkably did not miss a single minute of Championship football last season while Koch missed just seven games through injury since joining Freiburg in the summer of 2017, as per Transfermarkt (with two of those games missed due to cold). In case you are wondering, there are no disciplinary concerns when it comes to the 24-year-old. He was not sent-off once for Freiburg.


But, some of White's and Koch's major, and more relevant, similarities can be seen on the pitch.


Both players were part of a defensive line that included their respective team captains in it (Liam Cooper at Leeds and Christian Gunter at Freiburg). But neither, despite being just 22 and 24 years old, shied away from being vocal and dictating from the back. White was the organiser for Leeds at the back and Koch was no different at Freiburg.


The two defenders are also good readers of the game, with their anticipation worthy of praise. White foresees danger, constantly scouring the pitch for potential threats, and is good at dealing with them. He is as quick to react as he is to spot threats and rightly was given the freedom to leave his defensive line to put an end to attacks at Leeds. Similarly, Koch's good reading of the game means that he is rarely caught out of position and is almost always correctly placed to halt attacks. He is also happy to forget his defensive line if it means he is pushing the opposition ball-carrier away from the goal and into the opposite half. The German was allowed to be aggressive with his defending as well at Freiburg, to the point that he was almost kicking at the opponent's heels. His intensity to win the ball is commendable too.


Now, White is not the fastest central defender out there but his acceleration, coupled with his anticipation, makes him well equipped to deal with tricky attackers. Koch, on the other hand, is fast enough to hold his own against pacey forwards.


However, Koch is prone to the odd error. He made three mistakes leading to a shot from the opponent last term and each of them ended in the back of the net. The defender was also vulnerable to momentary lapses of concentration at Freiburg, but that will not be accepted at Bielsa's Leeds.



All the aforementioned points aside, what truly stands Koch in good stead to be the right replacement for White is his ability on the ball. It is the same quality that put White on the radar of Premier League big guns like Liverpool and Chelsea, and Koch possesses it.


Robin Koch (Freiburg) - Passing Stats


Robin Koch (Freiburg) - Ball Carrying Stats


White is daring with his passing choices, often going for the progressive, rather than the easy, option. Apart from spotting and executive an array of passes, he is also a good carrier of the ball.


It is highly likely that Koch's ability to do that same paved his way on to Orta's radar, and then to Elland Road.


Koch is naturally attack-minded and often pushes into midfield according to the pace of the game. He reads space well and slots into half-spaces to receive the ball past the opposition's first line, after which he looks to put his good passing ability to good use.


He is very composed with the ball at his feet and is also ambidextrous. Add his passing range to that, and he is well-placed to be the anchor in build-ups, that often was the case at Freiburg last season.


Like White, Koch is always looking to make a progressive pass and almost keeps going lateral as his last option. Even if he does make a lateral pass, the defender is already looking to receive the ball back and move it forward. Koch's decision-making in possession and when making passes is top-notch too.


The variety and range of his passes are astonishing. Whether it be playing a long ball or threading a pass along the pitch, Koch does it all, with impeccable ease.


Another point that makes this quality of Koch's even more praise-worthy is that there's rarely any hesitation before a pass is played. There's hardly any gap between him spotting a pass and executing it. Immaculate is the word.



In conclusion, Koch seems like an ideal replacement for White, at least on paper. The player certainly has the skills that made White a hit at Elland Road, although it remains to be seen if he can display that on the pitch.


But one challenge that Koch faces that White necessarily did not is having to hit the ground running. Now, hitting the ground running is required of any Bielsa signing but a little more than extra will be demanded of Koch.


White became a Leeds player on 1st July last year and had a full pre-season with the team before he started in Bielsa's backline against Bristol City in their Championship opener. Koch does not have that luxury.


The defender linked up with Joachim Low's Germany side after signing his Leeds contract on 29th August and is expected to return to Thorp Arch only after Die Mannschaft's UEFA Nations League game against Switzerland on Sunday. Leeds begin their first Premier League campaign in 16 years with a trip to title-holders Liverpool next Saturday.


White had time for four sessions of Bielsa's infamous Murderball, usually held on Wednesdays, while Koch has time for one, that is if El Loco does not cramp more into them.


Can Koch win the race against time and be Bielsa-ready for the trip to Anfield?


(Top Image: Leeds United)

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