The football season has reached the halfway stage and the Bundesliga has produced an incredible German success story in RB Leipzig. The side from the East of Germany sits top of the Bundesliga with only two losses. They are two points clear at the top and have scored 48 goals which is better than any other side. They only conceded 20 goals which highlight their defensive solidarity. The Red Bulls have been excellent thus far and provided fans with exciting attacking based football and solidity in defensive areas.
With them also reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League and an exciting clash against Tottenham Hotspur coming up, things are looking good. Julian Nagelsmann has had a huge impact on their improved form. Being one of the youngest coaches in the game at the young age of 32, he has provided the squad with a recognisable style of play that has suited the young and exciting squad that Leipzig has in their possession.
Leipzig have some of the hottest prospects in European football. Ibrahima Konaté and Dayot Upamecano, for example, are proving why the interest from huge clubs such as Real Madrid and Manchester City is truly justified. Timo Werner is one of the most clinical strikers in Europe. He has attracted interest from all over the continent and has proved this season why he is being touted for a Premier League move. Therefore, this excellent squad mixed with Nagelsmann’s excellent tactical set up has put them right at the top of the table.
This tactical analysis will attempt to look at how Julian Nagelsmann’s tactics have managed to make such an impressive impact on the Leipzig team. We will also be focussing on the tactics in which they can maintain these standards for the rest of the season and the ways they can potentially look to push for a title. This will be done by analysis and looking at the tactics used. Hopefully, the scout report will do justice to the excellent start that Leipzig have made and give credit to the excellent job that Nagelsmann has done thus far.
As opposed to simply looking at statistics and the formation’s used by Leipzig, images from the games they have been involved in will give a much clearer indication as to why they have been so successful.
The aspect of Leipzig’s game which has been a testament to their attitude and work ethic, and largely explains why they are where they are, is their excellent and strategic based pressing. The press they operate is a high press and they attempt to win the ball back high up the pitch in order to create counter-attack based opportunities. In terms of the structure of the press itself, it is likely that it will be done in a 4-4-2 based shape. This is to prevent any direct balls in behind the high defensive line and also to prevent the other team’s central midfield getting any time or space. This can be seen as a reason why Leipzig have done well against good technical teams in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League.
The pressing structure that Julian Nagelsmann operates in this Leipzig team has been in place since his time at 1899 Hoffenheim. It allows the attacking players to benefit from the centrally based pressing. Below is an example of the structural usage of the 4-4-2 based pressing. We can see all the players engaged with one of the opposing players. When there is an opportunity to press against the opposition they will do so in order to gain possession. When the ball is won back therefore, they will have a numerical advantage in which the likes of Werner will likely be able to capitalise on. This is an excellent example of the benefits of this pressing system.
The objective of winning the ball back in higher areas of the pitch is important to the needs of the team itself. As will be discussed later, Leipzig enjoy counter-attacking in behind the defensive line and often enjoy balls in behind and across the goal. Winning the ball back deeper in the opposition third not only allows them to have a numerical advantage but it also forces the opponent to play passes they are not comfortable with. As they also play with a high line it allows them to do this more effectively. This is likened to Liverpool in the very early days of Jürgen Klopp. Winning the ball back is essential for Leipzig as it plays into their philosophy of counter-attacking play.
Below is an example of them attempting to win the ball back on the edge of the opposing box. This is, therefore, an explanation as to why they have the highest number of goals in the Bundesliga. Their ability to win the ball in opposing half’s is key to chance creation. Below is an example of Leipzig pressing as a group. This form of pressing is much more effective as it meant that they can get more men forward to create chances from. They are able to win the ball back as the opponents cannot get out of the box based shape that they have created as a result of their structure.
As mentioned previously Leipzig are a team that enjoy playing on the counter-attack and try to get bodies forward when they win the ball back in higher areas of the pitch. The likes of Werner and Yussuf Poulsen benefit from receiving the ball in higher areas where they can use the spaces to have chances on goal. This counter-attacking based system stems from their desire to press the ball high and win it back.
Counter attacking for Leipzig often comes in runs forward from the midfield players and in behind the opposing midfield and defensive lines. This is in order to cause problems for the opposing defence using their pace and technical ability to find the pass in behind. This suits the attacking play that Leipzig like to use and counter-attacking is a reason for the 48 goals they have scored.
Below is a good example of this. When Leipzig win the ball back in higher areas of the pitch there are runners available to make good runs in behind the defensive line. Horizontal based runs from one side of the pitch to the other represent the way in which they attempt to counter-attack through the pitch in transitions. Multiple Leipzig players are making runs through the pitch and are able to score as a result.
This type of counter-attack is therefore significant for chance creation. Putting the opposing defenders under pressure is crucial in forcing mistakes and benefiting from these mistakes is what Leipzig have done extremely well. Therefore, capitalising on these mistakes is what has made Leipzig so successful this season. Using their pace is important also in this aspect as it helps to beat defenders and get more men in behind to cause problems for the opposing defence. It is testament to their tactical setup that they are able to create that number of chances going forward.
Below is a further example of the counter-attacking usage that they traditionally find themselves in. The attacking players are in excellent positions to receive the ball in the transitions and have a chance on goal. Furthermore, it is vital in their build-up play that the forwards get into good positions. Getting bodies as quickly as possible is, therefore, part of both their counter-attacking and pressing styles.
As mentioned in the introduction, Ibrahima Konaté and Dayot Upamecano are absolute world-class prospects and have been impressing throughout the season. Both have been equally responsible for the good defensive record that has been maintained. People may associate Leipzig with Timo Werner’s ridiculous record in front of goal – bagging 23 goals in 25 games. However, when looking at the analysis it is clear to see that by having the pair at the back it allows the front players to score the goals. The positioning and individual ability defensively are what makes the two centre backs so worthy of a mention when looking at Leipzig’s early success.
When analysing the pair, their ability to recover into spaces is admirable. Leipzig often operate in a high line, which means that balls in behind their defensive line is a way in which teams look to counter their pressing system. The pace of the two central defenders is excellent and their positioning allows them to be able to make these recoveries in those areas of the pitch. Below is an example of Dayot Upamecano making a good recovery run to stop the ball going in behind. Notice how high the Leipzig line is, however, the defensive positioning Upamecano takes up is excellent and allows him to make a recovery.
The positioning of the two centre-backs when they play together is consistently solid. They understand each other’s game very well and make each other look good. With Leipzig operating in the high-pressing counter-attacking manner that they do it is important to keep this defensive solidity. Aggression in winning the ball back and moreover finding a good pass forward have meant that Leipzig have been solid at the back as a result of the defensive pairing. The duels when trying to win the ball back are incredibly important in any team and the pair do this extremely well.
Below is an example of the duels that the pair often find themselves in and their ability to win the ball back. Konaté is engaged with an opposing centre-forward and is able to win the ball back and spur Leipzig forward on the counter-attack. The pair therefore consistently show signs of world-class talents and no doubt Leipzig will be hoping to hold on to the pairing for as long as possible.
The final piece of analysis looking at why Leipzig are top of the Bundesliga is their inverted wingers. Leipzig’s wingers are not traditional in the sense that they do not operate as normal wingers. They are essentially roaming attacking midfielders playing in slightly wider based positions as opposed to the traditional winger who situates by the touchline looking to get in behind.
The ‘wingers’ that Leipzig operate with traditionally find themselves in inner based positions. This is not only to help with the press, however, it is also for chance creation. As Leipzig traditionally operate in some variation of a 4-4-2 it is important that due to the lack of an out and out attacking midfielder that other players are able to create. This, therefore, falls onto the likes of Emil Forsberg who are acting as inverted wingers looking to provide the likes of Werner with goal-scoring opportunities.
Below is a good example of this. We can see how narrow the two ‘wingers. They are taking space in areas where it would be normal to see an attacking midfielder or a central midfielder pushing forward. This allows the two central strikers to remain central and allows the full-backs to make overlapping runs if the opportunity is available.
Having inverted based wingers is something that of course brings its benefits. It allows the wingers to be closer to the strikers. It also allows the wingers more space to operate in and it further means that they are able to play with more freedom. As mentioned earlier when counter-attacking the chances of them getting into better positions to create chances on goal is much higher. This is, therefore, something that Leipzig have taken into strong account and reaped the benefits of using such a system.
Manchester City, for example, use a completely different system when it comes to their wingers. They will stay wide which gives more space for the central attacking midfielders to create. Leipzig however, flip this on the head and use the inverted wingers as secondary central midfielders.
The image below once again highlights this excellently. The narrow nature of the inverted wingers causes problems for the opposing defenders. By operating in holes further in the opposing half it means that there is often confusion as to who should be marked and stopping them creating chances is often difficult as seen below.
To conclude, Leipzig have made an incredible campaign thus far and have provided the Bundesliga with incredible attacking play and some real solid defensive structural play. Their ability to transition from attack to defence has meant that they are scoring goals at a free rate and causing huge problems for the opposing defensive line. Julian Nagelsmann has improved this Leipzig team exceptionally and has shown why he is one of the best coaches in the game at this moment.
Massive clubs such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich should strongly consider looking at the 32-year-old if they are going to be changing managers in the upcoming future. To continue what has been an excellent start they must keep their best players. Timo Werner has scored a ridiculous amount of goals and replacing this amount of goals would be impossible given the tight nature of the January transfer market. Therefore, keeping their best players and maintaining their excellent tactical work thus far they are for sure within for a shout of the title and Champions League success.