In this season, RB Leipzig has been one of the best teams in the Bundesliga so far. They were always in the position of the European competition and were top of the table for five consecutive matchdays. Leipzig finished third in the Bundesliga behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. This is a huge step for a team that was founded only 11 years ago.
Continentally, Leipzig has been a massive revelation. Even though they were booted out of the Champions League in the semi-finals against PSG, they have made an excellent run to that stage. A pivotal reason for their success is the tactics that Julian Nagelsmann has employed to make his team prosperous. Defensively, Leipzig has been strong, which contributed to their run so far.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Nagelsmann set up his team for success defensively. This analysis looks at the underlying statistics of each of the defenders in the team as well, while looking at some standout players.
Naglesmann’s most-used formation is a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-4-2 so far this season, utilizing this formation eight and seven times respectively. Leipzig is a very flexible team, shifting or starting with three at the back as well when required. Their defence generally looks like one of the two scenarios below:
This is a normal four-at-the-back formation, where Angelino from Manchester City plays at left-back, Dayot Upamecano pairs up Marcel Halstenberg at central defence and Lukas Klostermann plays at right-back.
This is their three-at-the-back lineup with a left wing-back and a right wing-back. Angelino gets a more attacking role at left wing-back while Nordi Mukiele plays at right wing-back. Klostermann moves centrally to play at right centre-back while Upamecano shifts to left centre-back.
RB Leipzig is one of the best sides defensively in the league. They conceded 37 goals in the Bundesliga and 12 goals in the Champions League. Leipzig is not a very aggressive pressing side, with a Passes Per Defensive Actions or PPDA at 11.79, which is just higher than the average of the Bundesliga at 11.22. This means that their opponents perform around 12 passes before Leipzig attempts a defensive action. Leipzig undertakes 68.85 defensive duels per game on average, which is much higher than the league average at 63.27. So, Leipzig attempt to dispossess their opponents way more compared to the rest of the Bundesliga. Their defensive duels success rate stands at 64%, which is better than most teams in the top 5 European leagues on average. This statistic highlights Nagelsmann’s side’s brutal efficiency when winning back the ball. This style is complemented by looking at the defensive recoveries of RB Leipzig, which sits at 84.12, the highest in all of Bundesliga and far above the average at 77.80. We can see the breakdown of recoveries below:
Most of their recoveries took place in the ‘Low’ category, meaning that Leipzig wins the ball back mostly in their own third. Medium indicates the middle third of the pitch while High indicates the opposition’s third. This gives us an insight into the defensive structure and tactics that he uses.
Off the ball, Leipzig plays a high-pressing system, but not as intense as Ralf Rangnick’s system. The first line of defence is the strikers, where they play with two strikers up top, generally Werner and Poulsen. We can see the press in advanced positions below:
The first two players here against Bayern Munich are performing two functions: To mark the defensive midfielder in the pivot and to trigger a press to the centre-back on the ball. Instead of taking the usual approach of pressing by forcing their opponents to pass backwards, the Leipzig attacking pair pressure their opponents into wider areas, or to distribute to the wide players. This is done by cutting off the passing lanes to the central players. In this example, Niklas Sule on the ball passes the ball to Benjamin Pavard. This is when the mobility and flexibility of the midfielders come into place. Emil Forsberg’s run is triggered the moment Pavard gets the ball. The left defensive midfielder (Demme) and the left-back (Angelino) join the press as well, creating defensive overloads on the wing. This takes place on both sides with the right-side players. We can see how this works below:
To understand the diagram better, we will be breaking down Leipzig’s defensive process into steps. The first step is what we looked at previously. The two strikers in Nagelsmann’s tactical system work together to press the player in the ball while staying compact and covering off any passing line to the central midfielders or opposition strikers.
Next, we can see the sideways arrows of the wing-backs and the left and right midfielders. When the strikers move the ball sideways, the players on that particular side pounce on the ball and attempt to press their opponent. In this situation, the central defensive midfielder remains at the centre to mark the opposition’s central attacking midfielder or their number ‘8’. If the ball gets past the five midfielders in the 3-5-2, the three defenders are ready to pounce in the particular direction.
The interesting part about Leipzig’s defence is the amount of fluency and positional rotations that are visible in play. The players are comfortable in moving on all sides of their domains, creating interchanges when pressing their opponents. This means that the central defensive midfielders can take on either side of the press, and the three central defenders can exchange positions based on the situation in front of them.
To build upon Leipzig’s preference of shifting the ball to the wings and blocking off the centre, Nagelsmann’s side has various shapes in defence. This includes, but is not limited to, a 5-3-2 as we saw above, a 5-4-1 when Dani Olmo plays as a free-roaming ‘10’, a 4-4-2, or a 3-5-2 based on their opposition’s structure.
The 3-5-2 comes into play when the opponents have a talented number ‘6’ or a roaming playmaker like a number ‘10’. Against Tottenham Hotspurs, Leipzig had to deal with Dele Alli who dropped deeper to create chances and feed the attackers. To counter this, Leipzig’s centre-backs stuck with a strict man-marking system, keeping their target close at hand.
Dele Alli (in green) drops back to create positional superiority in their own half. Leipzig does their usual of forcing their opponents wide and are successful in doing so. Dayot Upamecano (in blue) moves forward to cover for passes to Alli and put him in an awkward positioning when receiving a pass. to prevent progression.
The Player in Focus – Lukas Klostermann
While there have been many talented defenders in the squad, the player I would like to highlight is Lukas Klostermann. Klostermann has been a defensive mainstay for Nagelsmann’s side, playing 31 games so far. Klostermann has played as a right-back in a four-at-the-back formation or as a right centre-back in three-at-the-back or five-at-the-back formation. Below, we can see his average performance in each position.
PAdj Interceptions are Possession Adjusted Interceptions. It is made by adjusting the values for possession of a player depending on the average possession of their team in a game. The PAdj interceptions value is similar for Klostermann at both positions. However, the rest of the data shows a different story. In terms of ball recoveries, Klostermann wins the ball back more as a right centre-back than a right-back. He makes approximately two more recoveries while providing positional stability due to his forward-thinking ability and attacking mentality. However, as a right-back, he attempts a lot more defensive duels on average compared to him as a right-centre-back, with a difference of 3.2. This is because of the ideology of Nagelsmann that we have covered multiple times previously, about how he forces defensive play to the wings instead of the centre. So, the full-back has more responsibility in winning the ball back and should be aggressive in doing so.
While looking at how RB Leipzig defend, there is no doubt as to why they have been very successful this season. Their numbers defensively are largely due to how great they have been when playing as a unit. He trains his players well to play a great game defensively and uses positional interchanges to defend against opportunities.
There are some places to improve, however, but is not due to a fault in the tactics. Leipzig tends to make a lot of individual errors when defending, mainly due to the lack of defensive awareness from players like Ibrahima Konate by not judging the defenders around them. The defence is still relatively inexperienced and untested at a level of high competition as they are younger than their peers in other teams. Thus, what needs improving from the players is developing a sense of maturity and getting that defensive awareness, especially considering they play a high line.
Of course, this is just Nagelsmann’s first season in charge, and there is a lot more to see from them. It is sure that, once the team clicks, they will make it to the top.