This tactical analysis takes a look at the near dead rubber tie between Werder Bremen and Leipzig. Leipzig had third place tied up with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich ahead of them. Bremen were heavily reliant on favourable results in other fixtures to secure seventh place. Leipzig rested the big hitters head of the DFP Pokal Cup final against Bayern Munich next week. This included Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg being placed on the bench.
Straight away, we noticed the team sheets weren’t all there was to be seen. Leipzig set up in a 4-4-2 diamond, however at many times it more resembled a 4-1-3-1-1 with either striker alternating in dropping between the lines.
Werder Bremen had a plan
If playing out in the first phase, Nuri Sahin would drop out in between the centre-backs. If defending deep he would also drop into a back five. Once Bremen reached the halfway line both defensively and offensively he would step back into midfield. In the offensive phase, this was presumably in order to create a three versus two in the back against Leipzig’s two pressing strikers.
Defensively, it gave Bremen an extra man in the last defensive line to give the centre backs the ability to go tight with the strikers or half space players. Additionally, it allowed Bremen’s full backs to address Leipzig’s full backs when they came extremely high.
Werder Bremen set out to frustrate RB Leipzig by not allowing them to set their usual pressing traps around the halfway line. They did this by playing directly on the counter and having a very low proportion of established phases of possession.
Leipzig in general use transitions expertly. They do so in order to exploit dangerous positions in which the opposition are in a disorganised shape. As Bremen rarely retained the ball, Leipzig’s transition play suffered as a result.
Bremen attempted to play out with a very similar structure to their defensive structure. This meant they weren’t in as much danger of being caught out in transition. Bremen’s players were risk averse in taking up positions which if the ball broke down they could retreat quickly and secure their lines. This meant that Bremen also struggled to play out.
Therefore the majority of the first 30 minutes was played in Bremen’s half. Bremen struggled to counter for two reasons. Firstly, they had a large number of players behind the ball. Secondly, Leipzig are thorough in their use of tactical fouling. Potentially they also expected the fouls to occur. Reason being that this set up a favourable set piece scenario for Bremen with their aerial and height advantages. Bremen’s plan seemed to rely on the rare times they could break through.
In the end, it worked. With a penalty forthcoming after a counter attack in the 35th minute.
The Bremen game plan also functioned well as it meant Leipzig had to try and break down a compact defence. Leipzig rely on penetration from runs that start deep. This is because these run types build momentum. As there wasn’t so much space to run into, Leipzig struggled in the third phase to gain penetration. This issue was compounded by the height of Leipzig’s full backs. Because Leipzig’s full backs were lower, the back five of Bremen could remain more compact. In the second half, Leipzig addressed this issue. The penalty they received was directly related. Marcelo Saracchi’s positioning caused a momentary sideways movement from Marcos Friedl. This created the space for Bruma to exploit and win the resulting penalty.
Surprising change at the break
The second half started with an interesting change in personnel. Werder Bremen seemed to have success with Sahin as an occasional centre back. Regardless, they introduced Johannes Eggestein. In the second half, we saw only midfield movement between the centre backs in ball possession. This alternated between Davy Klaassen and Maximilian Eggestein. What struck me most was how quite far from a normal Leipzig performance this was. They were nowhere near their usual compact self.
Because of Leipzig’s staggered midfield, they have 5 lines of staggered players vertically. This allows greater space coverage for Leipzig when pressing.
This in combination with extremely closed distances between each line mean that Leipzig are usually very compact. The defensive line can afford to stand extremely high due to the excellent pressure on the ball. Both of these factors are absolutely key to Leipzig’s press play, however, both if not one, were often lacking in the match.
Tyler Adams regularly jumped out of his defensive midfield position in the press, leaving a huge gap in between the lines for Leipzig.
Werder Bremen aimed to exploit this by missing out the midfield line of Leipzig with lofted balls and playing into the vacated space left by Adams. Bremen set up with a trident of the central striker and two inside wingers.
It worked to great effect, with Bremen often bypassing Leipzig’s press. Adam’s frequently leaving his zone in order to press the spare man higher up the pitch caused many problems for Leipzig. This is where we see the bedding in process for new signings in a new tactical system. In football, however, the spaces that open up are usually a result of improper positioning in another area. This was a perfect example. Adam’s poor decisions to jump were in reaction to improper positioning on behalf of the wider players. Ralf Rangnick responded in kind, taking out Adam’s, with Laimer dropping deeper. This in conjunction with the addition of the regulars in Poulsen and Forsberg turned the game on its head.
Another key to Leipzig’s defensive pressing system is their extremely narrow shape and use of pressing traps. They take up a narrow space, leaving the opposite side to the ball free. Their aims differ depending on the area of the pitch. In high pressing scenarios, Leipzig will aim to force the ball back to the keeper to go long. Whilst the pressing traps occur more around the halfway mark.
The horizontal compactness occurs with the wider players tucking in. This compactness allows Leipzig to press in an access-oriented way in which they can mark two players at once. Because the wide players did not tuck in, it left an extra player for the central player’s like Adam’s to address. In reality, it wasn’t his player. Adam’s was also not helped by the deeper position of the back four who should have been able to step up in certain moments of pressing.
The two photos clearly show the difference the wide player positioning can have. In the second photo, the wide player is Bruma and he subsequently wins the ball as he can access both players. However, even in this instance, Dayot Upamecano should also be closer and pressuring from behind.
The big hitters enter the fray
Leipzig brought in the heavy artillery with Poulsen and Forsberg entering the fray in the 70th minute. Leipzig somewhat settled after this, with their shape returning to baseline levels. They began winning the ball in the target areas and their back four stepping up higher due to the increased pressure on the ball. The quality of Poulsen and Forsberg led to increased chances for the away side. The pressure built and they clawed a goal back through a set piece. It was a typical Leipzig goal in one sense, exploiting a disorganised defence that was stepping up after a set piece. This is one of many ways Leipzig always look to exploit disorganised opposition in certain moments of the game.
Claudio steals the show
However, it was not Leipzig’s substitutions which would have the biggest effect on the game. There has been much speculation as to the future of Claudio Pizarro. Currently, the oldest man to have found the net in the Bundesliga at 40 years of age. Werder set the atmosphere alight pre-match announcing that Pizarro had signed a one-year contract extension. In poetic fashion, the Peruvian striker scored the winner in 88th minute. This sent the home fans into raptures and further cemented his cult status at the club.
The intensity and quality of the game certainly did not match the ferocious atmosphere in the Weser Stadion. Much of this can be attributed to RB Leipzig having an eye on the DFB Pokal final coming up next week. They lacked their usual structure and intensity in the press. This was the key factor which gave Werder Bremen the chance to come away with the three points.
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