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Scout Report: Jonathan Tah | Leverkusen’s confident defender

Josh Sippie takes a look at Bayer Leverkusen’s powerhouse German centre-half Jonathan Tah

Germany has become a bit of a defensive factory in recent years.  However, this looks less like a one-off golden age and more like a lengthy golden era. Players like Per Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels may be closer to the end of their careers, but that’s okay when you have names like Jonathan Tah coming in to pick up what is left behind.

Bayer Leverkusen had pressed up the Bundesliga table in recent years, becoming regulars in the Champions League, but that came to a screeching halt last year, as they finished twelfth. It may not be a coincidence that two seasons ago, when they finished 3rd, Jonathan Tah dominated at the back. While this past year, the young German defender suffered a handful of injuries, nearly cutting his appearances in half.

Who is Jonathan Tah?

Jonathan Glao Tah was born in Hamburg on 11 February, 1996 to an Ivorian father and a German mother. He grew up Hamburg in the district of Altona, which is where he began his footballing career at Altona 93 at the age of four.

Growing up with the team of your hometown is one thing, but the team of your home district is even closer to, well, home. Tah spent nearly a decade at Altona 93, drawing the praises of any coach that had the pleasure of managing the young man. While numerous clubs clamored for Tah throughout his development, his family, namely his mother, who remained at home while separated from his father, who lived abroad, decided to let him develop in the peace of his hometown. It wasn’t until he needed to step up to that next level that he left Altona, and it’s not like he went that far.

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Tah was snapped up by Hamburg SV at the age of 14 and became the youngest Bundesliga debutant for HSV in fifty years when he debuted as a 17-year-old on 21 September, 2013. That year, he was voted the most popular player of the outfit ahead of his soon-to-be-team-mate-again Hakan Calhanoglu,

Throughout his career, it has been remarked just how relaxed and seemingly shy the towering German defender is, but he is often quick to point out that he is not shy at all. “I like it just quiet and calm, but I’m not shy,” he said while at Hamburg SV. Yet when you see the aggression with which he defends, it seems a stark contrast to his reserved nature.

Then there is his size, which is another thing about Tah that sets him apart. One of his former coaches noted that “as a teenager, Jonathan was bigger than all teachers. It was not so easy to find the right approach. We sometimes went with him as early as with an adult, but he was still a youth.”

What is his Style of Play?

When you are blessed with the stature that Jonathan Tah has, it’s almost by default that you have to learn how to use that stature and Tah certainly does do that. He defends with a seemingly impossible blend of calmness and aggressiveness that you wouldn’t traditionally see in a towering center back. But if you were to task him with the usual role of sitting back and absorbing attacks, he’d do that just fine as well, seeing as how he is well aware of how to wield his size and strength to his advantage as well as how not to over extend his zone of coverage.

Calmness, size and aggressiveness combine to form his primary style point, but where Tah’s style really sets itself apart from his contemporaries is in his almost-swashbuckling confidence. Tah is a controller of the ball and has skill moves and dribbling ability to ward off opponents, just in case his size and strength gets too boring for him. He pushes play forward when the opening is there and isn’t afraid to fire audacious balls down the pitch searching for over-the top runs.

When it comes to defending one on one, he is blessed with a solid dose of speed and agility that allows him to go head-to-head with just about any attacker and call himself their equal. He is adept at winning the ball back and even better at keeping it.

What are his Strengths?

Jonathan Tah’s list of strengths is a near-perfect match to a list of the ideal central defender’s strengths, but you have to start with his calmness.

This calmness has been the subject of praise since his youth days, as it allows him to remain composed no matter the situation. There is no panic in him, nor has there ever been. For a young defender, that is massive, as one of the main problems that plagues young, central defenders, is a misplaced sense of urgency on and off the ball. Tah does not have that panic button.

He is also obviously one of the larger players out there, standing at 1.94m and 95kg. Having had this plus-size from his early teen years, he has had time to master how best to wield this physical strength to not only win the ball back, but maintain the ball. In terms of using his strength and size in the air, he can check that off his list as well. While aerial dominance was a later development for the German, he can now add that to his list of personal improvements.

Normally, when a defender has the strength that Tah has, that is his endgame. You either have strength or you have speed, with the exception of a few hybrids that fit in between. But Tah is different. Tah is, as mentioned, one of the biggest defenders around, but he also has a solid dose of speed to boot. He uses that speed to perfect his quick reflexes and dexterity, the likes of which you’d see in a ball-winning midfielder.

Then there is his assertiveness. Along with having tremendous strength and reflexes, Tah has the confidence to go after just about any ball, which, thanks to his solid judgment, has worked out well. And, in the rare situations where he is left exposed after over-committing himself, he possesses excellent recovery speed, which is something not many of his contemporaries can claim.

Calmness, strength, speed and harnessed aggression. You can’t ask for much more from a defender, let alone a defender who is only 21 years old.

What are his Weaknesses?

As mentioned, Tah has the ideal lists of strengths, which makes it hard to pinpoint a weakness. Although if there were to be a weakness for Tah, it would be his decision making, which is a byproduct of his confident, assertive style. As is the case with any aggressive defender, even one as composed as Tah, there is always that risk of overplaying a ball or lunging out of position. He is still prone to leaving himself exposed by pursuing an attack more aggressively than necessary, especially when he is facing a situation where he has to make a split-second decision.

However, Tah’s judgment in these scenarios has been his biggest improvement from his younger days. During his time at HSV, he even noted “I need to solve certain situations better. How do I have to stand when the opponent flanks so I can see the ball and the opponents at the same time.” There are still inevitably going to be times when he leaves himself burnt by the opposing attack because he pushed too far up or over-commits on a ball. These mistakes are dwindling, though.

Josh Sippie

Josh Sippie

Josh Sippie is a Yank who lives in New York City and follows all football (the real kind) religiously. He is a diehard Arsenal supporter and has found a practical use to his tortured fandom by serving as the site expert of the aptly named “Pain in the Arsenal.” He despises flopping and is proud that his fellow Americans are finally getting the picture and taking football (the real kind) seriously.
Josh Sippie

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