In the Bundesliga this weekend all attention was on Bayern München against Borussia Dortmund. But there’s one game that was more tactically interesting, especially when talking about pressing: Bayer Leverkusen against RB Leipzig.
Played at BayArena, Leverkusen were humiliated with a score of 2-4 even though they led 2-1 at half-time. Leverkusen indeed had more ball possession, although the number of shots between the two teams was not much different (11-8). Leverkusen played with high-pressing and Leipzig with counter-pressing. The following tactical analysis will point out the reasons why Leverkusen’s own high-pressing caused them to be overwhelmed.
Both teams with both managers are famous for their pressing style. Leverkusen’s manager Peter Bosz is famous for his high-pressing, while Leipzig’s manager Ralf Rangnick reliably plays reactive football by counter-pressing. In this match, both teams lost their key players; Karim Bellarabi for Leverkusen and Yussuf Poulsen for Leipzig.
Bosz played his pressing style with an initial 4-3-3 formation. Leipzig seemed to use a 4-3-3 formation too, but by relying on two forwards and one attacking midfielder to press the opponents, we could see that on the field they actually played with the 4-1-2-1-2 formation.
Leipzig’s pressing transformation
In addition to the final result, there are several reasons why the Leverkusen match against Leipzig’s was more tactically interesting than Bayern against Dortmund. Leipzig and Leverkusen both shoot a lot: Leverkusen take the third most shots in the Bundesliga (384 shots) while Leipzig take the fourth most (375).
Likewise when looking at key passes statistics, Leverkusen (the third most with 96 key passes) and Leipzig (fourth most with 92) both showed high intensity. Even before the kick-off, on paper, this match has promised us to have a lot of goal scoring opportunities.
Then the two managers also relied on pressing in their gameplay, although Leipzig were more reactive. Based on Wyscout, Leipzig are the team with the most defensive duels in the Bundesliga with 1903 times, and also the side with the third most fouls committed (362).
In this match, the pressing of both teams can be seen in Leverkusen who recorded 21 recoveries in the opposition half, while Leipzig have 28. Although Leipzig had more recoveries in the opponent’s territory, Leipzig’s pressing started to be more intensive when Leverkusen had entered the middle third.
When the ball is still in the Leverkusen’s defensive third, Leipzig’s two forwards move wide to guard and close the passing route from one of the central defenders. In the middle, there’s Emil Forsberg who oversees and closes the passing route for the opposing defensive midfielder. But Leverkusen tried to involve their goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký more, so the pressing duties of the Leipzig players changed.
This change depends on which side of Leverkusen’s build-up. In the example above, Leverkusen tried to attack from the left, so Timo Werner guarded the passing route to Leverkusen’s right centre defender and defensive midfielder, Forsberg guarded the passing route to the left centre defender and left full-back, Marcel Sabitzer guarded the opponent’s left flank area, then Amadou Haidara (later substituted by Matheus Cunha) guarded the right full-back.
On the other hand, if Leverkusen tried to do a build-up from the right, the passing route to the right centre back and right full-back will be guarded by Forsberg because Werner will only keep on putting pressure on the opponent’s right flank’s territory. Then Sabitzer will look after the left centre defender and defensive midfielder, while the opponent’s left full-back will be guarded by Konrad Laimer.
This gameplan changed somewhat when Leipzig trailed by a goal, so they applied more pressure since their own final third. An example can be seen in the picture above. That’s why in the end they recorded more opponent half recoveries than Leverkusen.
The problems with Leverkusen’s high-pressing
Unlike Leipzig who looked more patient, Leverkusen applied high-pressing with the aim of winning the ball in the most advanced position possible in the opponent’s half. This can be seen in the picture below.
However, because in this match Leipzig did not have a lot of ball possession, we rarely saw Leverkusen able to put pressure on the opponent’s build up in Leipzig’s defensive third. This is also supported by Leipzig’s goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi’s distribution. When he has the ball, he often passed long and far ahead (including in the goal kick situation).
Throughout the match, Gulácsi only made two short passes, the remaining 14 (with six of them off target) were long balls forward. This was very different from Hrádecký who did 32 short passes (one off target) which confirmed that Leverkusen also involved their goalkeeper in the build-up.
This meant Leverkusen’s high-pressing styles were shown time and time again in the situation after they lost the ball when they’re attacking.
Incidentally, Leverkusen have a more free-flowing attacking philosophy. When they’ve got the ball, there could be five to six players attacking at one time (as shown above). When the opponent stole the ball, Leverkusen immediately applied high-pressing (as shown below).
Here sometimes they can immediately win the ball back again. But if they fail to win the ball, they’re very vulnerable against opponent’s counter-attack. This problem highlighted that Leverkusen have a sloppy transition from attack to defence, just as it was shown when they lost 1-3 against Werder Bremen last month.
In the sequence of three pictures above, we can see that Leverkusen’s own high-pressing just after their attack failed actually made susceptible to the opponent’s counter-attack. The latest picture above eventually results in a foul committed in front of the Leverkusen penalty box. Sabitzer’s free-kick then made the scoreline 1-1.
Leverkusen unable to maximise Leipzig’s weakness on the flank
For the match that very promising on paper, the goals of Leverkusen and Leipzig didn’t result directly from their tactical choices.
Four of the six goals created came from set-piece situations: Kai Havertz scored a penalty kick (1-0), Sabitzer scored a free-kick (1-1), Havertz then scored a goal that started from a corner kick (2-1), and Forsberg scored a penalty kick (2-3).
Only Sabitzer’s free-kick goal originated from Leverkusen’s tactics and Leipzig’s response. The penalty incident before Forsberg’s goal was even controversial. Then two goals that didn’t come from the set-piece situation were Werner’s equalizing goal and Cunha’s spectacular goal in the 83rd minute.
One of the things that made Leipzig unable to play their usual attacking style was the absence of Poulsen. Throughout the 27 gameweeks of the Bundesliga, Leipzig recorded 1903 passes to the final third (second-most among all teams in the league) and 50.55% aerial duels won (the best among all teams in the league).
Passes to the final third and aerial duels are key to the Leipzig’s attack. By sending lots of long balls which combined with the superiority of Poulsen’s height, Leipzig became the team that most often controlled the ball in the final third. But the absence of Poulsen made it difficult for them to play a high and long ball to the front line and then to win the aerial duels or the second balls.
Leipzig also showed different composure when they defended. Before this match, Leipzig had conceded the least goal (with 20 goals conceded) and the second lowest number of shots conceded (231). But in this match, Leverkusen took 11 shots (four on target) because Leipzig showed weakness in their full-back area.
Right full-back Lukas Klostermann and left full-back Marcel Halstenberg have put in some stunning performances so far this season. But the areas of Klostermann and Halstenberg were exploited many times by Leverkusen’s right winger Havertz and left winger Leon Bailey. Klostermann then had to be replaced by Nordi Mukiele after half-time.
The involvement of full-backs who were too advanced when attacking and took their positions too narrow when defending were thought to be two main reasons why Leverkusen were able to get a lot of attacks from the flanks.
Throughout the 90 minutes, Leverkusen were able to initiate 10 attacks from the right and 15 from the left. Of the 11 shots they recorded, eight of them were also from inside the penalty box. Both teams managed to record four shots on target. The difference is, all the shots on target Leipzig had resulted in four goals.
This match demonstrated two teams who play pressing football with their own respective style. Leipzig counter-pressed more patiently in their final third and only pressed intensely when the ball enters the middle third. This often opens a space in their flanks, which resulted in many chances for Leverkusen.
Leverkusen attacks that are too free-flowing combined with their high-pressing often lead to Leverkusen being hit by a counter-attack when the majority of their players were still in the opponent’s half. They still showed weakness in defensive transition. That’s what distinguished the two teams in this match. There was a bit of controversy over the Leipzig penalty incident involving VAR, but it was all able to be covered due to Cunha’s spectacular goal for Leipzig’s fourth goal.
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