The German national team lined up against Serbia last Wednesday with two unfamiliar full backs both from the same club. Lukas Klostermann earned his first senior cap, while Marcel Halstenberg earned only his second cap. So why are these two RB Leipzig players breaking through into the national team now? In this analysis, I’ll look at both players impressive seasons and how their styles of play have contributed to Leipzig’s impressive season.
Both players styles of play benefit from their physical attributes, which set them apart from many other full backs. Both players are 6’2″ inches tall, which benefits them in aerial duels, an often overlooked part of defending as a full back.
This season, Halstenberg has averaged 2.5 aerial duels won per game, while Klostermann has averaged 2.0 aerial duels per game. To put this into context, as we can see, Joshua Kimmich, the best full back in the Bundesliga in my opinion, averages only 0.5 aerial duels per game while Leverkusen’s Weiser averages only 0.8 aerial duels per game. So why is this important to Leipzig’s style of play? Leipzig as a team are particularly strong in the air, with them currently sitting second in the Bundesliga for aerial duels won. Both centre backs are also very strong in the air, so if teams look to push up the pitch through long passes, their target man is likely to position them self on the full backs from goal kicks or crosses. Teams cannot do this against Leipzig due to both full backs prowess in the air and so this limits sides to how they can build, which I will look at later with pressing.
As well as impressing in aerial duels, RB Leipzig have also impressed in duels in the Bundesliga this season, as they lead the league in duels won. Halstenberg ranks 24th in the league for duels won with all of Leipzig’s recent back four ranking in the top 100, with Klostermann the lowest, which I suspect is down to offensive duels.
How Halstenberg and Klostermann benefit the press
Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 formation means they play with a fairly rigid back four, so when Leipzig are out of possession, the back four tend to stay compact and the full backs don’t press unless in certain scenarios. However, the skills the full backs possess can help the team structurally when organising the press as I will touch on. In the picture below we can see that the inverted wingers of Leipzig can press the wide players while the strikers press the central areas, meaning Leipzig’s back four can remain in a compact shape.
A key characteristic of effective pressing players is pace. Players have to be able to make quick pressing runs to the ball, as well as quick recovery runs if the press is beaten. We can see here Leipzig are being exposed in transition, and Klostermann’s recovery speed allows him to catch opposition players. This also allows for him and the players around him to push on further in attacking phases in the game, as he knows he can make up the ground if needed.
Below we can see an example of Halstenberg’s pressing benefiting Leipzig. This may be less of a coordinated press and more a demonstration of Halstenberg’s defensive awareness. Halstenberg has to press here to close the space through the middle of himself and the central defender, usually Konate, and to prevent Dortmund from turning to play against Leipzig’s defence. This is something often seen with Leipzig, with their full-backs aggressively pressing balls played to players receiving with their back to goal, as it forces the opposition to continually go backwards.
From the stats below it is clear to see where Klostermann needs to improve. He has the worst key passes per game figure of the four players and has only registered one assist all season. Halstenberg meanwhile has registered six assists and even averages more key passes per game than Kimmich. But as a younger player, if Klostermann can maintain his impressive defensive performances, then his offensive side of his game should gradually be able to improve and due to Leipzig’s system, a more defensive minded full back may suit them.
The full back positions appear to be up for grabs in the German national team, with Joachim Löw seemingly keen to play Kimmich as a central midfield player. Klostermann and Halstenberg, therefore, have a chance to secure their places in the side if they can continue to impress at Leipzig. Klostermann faces much less competition at right back and impressed on his debut against Serbia, with Germany having no real natural right back to replace him when he left the pitch injured. Halstenberg, however, faces greater competition from the likes of Nico Schulz, who impressed against Holland recently. One thing is for sure, Germany’s current full back situation is likely to give Löw a welcome dilemma and certainly looks more optimistic than the start of the season.