Die Roten Bullen from former East Germany have had a good start to the season. With the first round in the DFB Pokal and three rounds of Bundesliga already played, RB Leipzig has three victories and one draw. They have scored eleven goals while letting in only two in all competitions.
Bundesliga in the 2020/21 season will feature more fixture congestion than usual. What is usually called an ‘English week’ – a week with two matches – will take place at times with the league trying to wrap things up within a normal time schedule. This brings more excitement to the league with teams having to pay closer attention to player fitness and rotations.
Leipzig doesn’t have the squad with the most depth outside of the first team, and injuries or fatigue to key players might prove to be a challenge. Together with Borussia Dortmund, they are considered the most realistic contender to challenge the Bayern Munich hegemony.
This scout report will take a closer look at what Leipzig have looked like in attack, more specifically their structure in the final third. The tactical analysis itself will summarise their in-possession tactics from the first four games, and the analysis will also go into some of the trends that can be seen so far.
Pentagon and the front five
To nail down a team coached by Julian Nagelsmann to a single formation in a match, not to mention over a period, is hard. The team varies the structure a lot depending on how the opponent press and defend, and how they press themselves. Whether the opponent press with one, two or three in the first line presents vastly different challenges.
What this section of the analysis will try to do instead of narrowing it down to a set of formations that the team use, is to describe its’ structure in the attack. By structure, the meaning is how do they space out to attack the opponent. This is mainly in the opponents’ half in the case of Leipzig.
The opponents they have faced so far is 1. FC Nürnberg, 1. FSV Mainz 05, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and FC Schalke 04. They all have mostly one or two broad trends in common against Leipzig. They defend with two players in the first line in a medium block and using that as a basis for specific pressing situations.
This, in most situations, leads to Leipzig playing with three players in the first line which not necessarily are centre backs. As can be seen in the animation above, the most common structure over the first four matches resembled something like an asymmetric 3-4-2-1.
There have been many personnel changes in the first part of the season. To give a general idea of the line-ups, an emphasis has been placed on the three league matches over the first round in the cup. Péter Gulácsi has played all the minutes in goal. The most used players occupying the three-structure so far is Lukas Klostermann on the right, Dayot Upamecano in the middle and Marcel Halstenberg on the left.
Angeliño has been a mainstay on the left flank, while the other three in the middle has seen a lot of changes. The three with the most minutes is Tyler Adams, Kevin Kampl and Amadou Haidara. The right flank has seen all three of Haidara, Klostermann and Nordi Mukiele in various scenarios.
The three most advanced players have usually been Emil Forsberg on the left, Yussuf Poulsen in the middle and Daniel Olmo on the right. Some other players that have featured less due to injury and other circumstances that might play more as the season goes on are Marcel Sabitzer, Ibrahima Konaté, Konrad Laimer, Willi Orban, Christopher Nkunku, Hwang Hee-chan and Alexander Sørloth.
The importance of space between opponent lines
On to three underlying trends that were some of the more prominent in all four matches. The first one is the importance of the space between the opposition midfield and defensive line. This importance is seen through a few habits of the team. Having players generally occupying this area – often two – seems like a base which they work from.
From this base, some of these habits can be said to have their origin. Whenever a flank player receives the ball facing forward with space, a player starting in this space will often make aggressive runs behind the opposition backline. This prompts a deep cross from the ball carrier on the flank. When this is pulled off it might leave the receiver on a one versus one with a keeper. The extra space with the ball being played so early gives the receiver more time to control a lofted ball before the shot.
In the case above the runner was Haidara, one of the central midfielders in this match. Other times it has been a winger/number ten, a striker or wingback. Another advantage of these types of runs is that the receiver has a positional/dynamical advantage. Either he is on the blind side of the opponent in front, or has a head start on the one behind.
The space between the lines is not only from afar. A second habit with a basis in the importance of this area happens using small-space dribbles followed up by cut-backs. Especially when the player executing the dribble comes from a deep starting position it seems to be most effective.
The natural tendencies of the defender are to focus on the ball carrier and the player most likely to be the next ball carrier. This can be used to the attacker’s advantage through the usage of dribbles. The closer to the goal, the more focus the opponent grants you. In the photo below we can see exactly this situation played out.
Kampl is the player who has carried the ball from deep and has dribbled the ball into the edge of the box. At the same time, he has attracted two players to his position and all the opponents in the picture have their eyes on him. This allows the player marked in the red circle to receive unmarked while facing the goal. A good first touch and previous scanning in this scenario could have alerted him to the 3v2 on the far-side, but unfortunately not.
Utilising the space between the lines to such a good degree that Leipzig does is easier said than done. One aspect of their attacking structure that helps in opening the space is their well-spaced staggering of the team. A good staggering refers to how the positioning of the players is within the total depth of the team. This then means that players are positioned on both different heights and depths within its’ own structure.
Even though Leipzig played with a narrow structure against Leverkusen, the trend was showing. As the image above shows, the team quickly establishes several lines of players when they win the ball back. At any given time, there are usually four or five players inside the structure of the opponent and on different heights. This staggering of players makes it harder for the opponent to mark and are consequently pulled out of position. This creates spaces between the lines.
Up-back-through the Leipzig way
A concept known as the up-back-through is a way to progress the ball through opponent lines. It can also be used to find the free man. The concept is well known in Spanish football and consist of an initial pass, the ‘up’, to a player facing your way. He lays it off to a teammate that is facing the opponent goal, the ‘back’. This player can now play quickly or carry it before he does. The idea is that he has more time than the initial ball carrier to pass a penetrative ball, the ‘through’.
With most teams, the lay-off is usually to a player offset to one of the sides. This largely dictates where the through ball can come. He will then have it more difficult to play longer to the other side. This makes it easier to defend against as the defending team can mostly concentrate on pushing the carrier to one side.
Leipzig solves this problem by arguably flipping it on its’ head. The ‘up’ is often here a diagonal ball to an offset player from a central point of view. He then lays it off to a player centrally positioned and facing goal. Now the player has all the options ahead of him and the defenders must cover both sides of the field.
Here is Haidara who plays the initial pass to Hwang who lays it off to Haidara again. If Hwang had invited to the combination from the other side, Haidara would have a much harder time playing free Nkunku running between. Instead, Haidara can make it a 3v3 with good conditions for creating a dangerous attack.
Even though the structure is there does not mean that the players always use it. Sometimes they might perceive a situation differently than the ones around. The interesting thing to see is that the foundations for the move are their even when the back pass is used as in the picture below against Nürnberg.
First, the pass from Upamecano is exceptional. It bypasses six opponents diagonally while still hitting the foot of Hwang towards the centre. Here the foundations are present for him to lay it off to Sabitzer in the white and red marked circle who can play it through to Angeliño. Hwang chooses instead to turn with the ball but has to much pressure and loses it.
So far in this section, the examples have been when Leipzig are facing a situational poor structure and open space. Leipzig cannot always count on having open spaces. In the next image, there is considerably less space available for it to be pulled off. Both the ‘up’ and the ‘back’ is played within three to four meters in a tight area.
Schalke have a very tight structure in the image above. Forsberg and Olmo attract the attention of those around and Angeliño keeps the opposite fullback wide. Haidara makes a run between the centre-back and fullback. He gets the ball in space but can’t finish it off.
The last concept of this analysis will go through is position changes and rotations. Leipzig has its fair share of rotations to create a free man. The nature of higher pressing situations lends its more to man-marking. Because of this, position changes might have a higher chance of disrupting a pressing scheme. Being able to find the free man can be the difference between a successful build-up and a dangerous loss.
Leipzig has three main rotational changes which they have utilised so far in the matches analysed in this scout report. The first and second to mention are often seen in unison. The first one is a rotation between the number tens, or narrow wingers, and the central midfielder. The second is a rotation between a number ten and a flank player, most notably on the left flank.
In the image above these two rotations can be seen working in unison. Nkunku has dropped deep, Haidara moves out to the flank and Angeliño pushes high up. At the same time, they have maintained a triangle in between them. They can play through the press, or a possible diamond with Upamecano to play two versus four.
This triple movement has also opened a large space behind Nkunku that the striker or Angeliño can use. The Leverkusen defender needs to be quite adventurous to follow the Leipzig striker. Thus, there is a good chance to receive and turn for the striker. Another option is for Angeliño to cut in and receive a lay-off from the striker.
The third type of rotations common to see, though less than the first two, is between the central midfielders and backline. Most often Kampl or Adams will drop deep between Upamecano and either Klostermann or Halstenberg. This not only opens up for interesting structures in the build-up in the opponent’s half. It allows the wide centre backs to receive higher in the field or carry the ball out and bypass the first line of pressure as seen below.
Changes with Upamecano still happen but are rarer than the changes with his companions at the back. This might be because in scenarios where the press is already there, this rotation takes away and an option for a second. By the time the central midfielder has taken Upamecanos place, the press is too close. Another reason might have to do with the individual qualities of Upamecano.
His passing range and deep dribbles are both among the leagues best, and a central part to why he is wanted by several European top clubs. He can play the hard and flat laser passes through lines. Bypassing the press with quick changes of pace and dribbles as well. These two qualities might be harder to use when he is facing his own goal.
Analysing Leipzig’s structure under Nagelsmann is an interesting task. As mentioned, they change their approach a lot according to who is on the other side of the field. Not only in attack as explored in this analysis, but out of possession too. The habits they have in the final third keeps the opponents guessing. Where the next ball will come is never sure, and they have several aces up their sleeve in both counters and positional attacks. It will be interesting to keep an eye on how far Nagelsmann can take Die Roten Bullen this season.