The Bundesliga returned and began the second half of its season this weekend. RB Leipzig, who ended the hinrunde at the top of the table, looked to get off to a hot start at home against Union Berlin. Urs Fischer’s men from Berlin looked to spoil the evening for Julian Nagelsmann and his RB Leipzig team.
After a quick start that saw Union Berlin go ahead in the tenth minute from Marius Bülter, RB Leipzig put three past the visitors, securing all three points in the process. Timo Werner, the rumoured Chelsea target, started and ended the scoring in the 51st and 83rd minute, with Marcel Sabitzer scoring the winner in the 57th minute.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics that RB Leipzig used in order to earn the three points today. We’ll also provide some analysis as to what Union Berlin attempted to accomplish with its game plan in Leipzig.
Julian Nagelsmann’s squad was able to demonstrate a large amount of tactical flexibility on Saturday, as they began in a 4-2-3-1, then switched to a 4-4-2, then a 4-4-1-1, and finally concluded the match in a defensive 5-4-1. To start, Nagelsmann put Péter Gulácsi in goal with the defence consisting of Marcel Halstenberg, the highly coveted Dayot Upamecano, Lukas Klostermann, and Nordi Mukiele, with Mukiele and Halstenberg operating as right and left-back, respectively. Tyler Adams and Konrad Laimer began the game as a pair of holding midfielders, with the attacking trio of Timo Werner on the left wing, Christopher Nkunku as the attacking midfielder, and Marcel Sabitzer on the right wing. In front of them, Patrik Schick operated as the lone striker for the first half, where he would later pair up with Timo Werner as RB Leipzig switched to a 4-4-2.
Union Berlin set up primarily to defender and counter-attack in a 5-4-1. Urs Fischer started Rafal Gikiewicz in goal. In front of Gikiewicz were outside backs of Christopher Lenz and Julian Ryerson, with the three centre backs being Michael Parensen, Neven Subotic, and Marvin Friedrich, with Subotic being the central defender with Parensen to his left and Friedrich to his right. Marius Bülter, Union’s goal scorer on the evening, started on the left flank, with Robert Andrich and Christian Gentner operating in the centre of the pitch while Marcus Ingvartsen took up position on the right side. Sebastian Andersson started the match as the lone striker, and he was eventually subbed off in the 75th minute.
Union Berlin’s 5-4-1
For the majority of the match, Union Berlin set up in a fairly defensive structure, a 5-4-1. While they primarily set up in this formation, they would adjust accordingly based on what RB Leipzig players did. Many times, Leipzig’s forward, Patrik Schick would check back towards the middle of the field. If he did, either Parensen, Subotic, or Friedrich would follow him into space, and the back five would become a back four, with a central defender between the defensive lines.
Primarily, Union Berlin defended with this setup. While appearing incredibly defensive on their behalf, Union Berlin looked to draw Leipzig into their half, in order to hit them on the counter. As Leipzig would progress forward, they would leave a lot of space in behind their backline. The 5-4-1 also allowed for Leipzig to progress the ball up the field relatively easy, as they assumed that Union Berlin would become more compact and defend their own penalty area. Union Berlin’s ability to capitalize on Leipzig mistake brought them their only goal of the match.
Leipzig’s right back, Marcel Halstenberg, plays a sloppy pass to Tyler Adams, and as the American attempts to win the ball, Christian Gentner dispossesses him and quickly plays his teammate Andersson, who dribbles at the centre back Klostermann, who is closing him down.
While Klostermann closes Andersson down, Marius Bülter runs into the space that Klostermann vacates. Andersson doesn’t have a lot of room to operate as Klostermann has done a good job, but he puts the ball between Klostermann’s legs, and all of a sudden, he’s beaten his man. Andersson lays the ball off to Bülter, who finishes cooly for the goal.
Berlin’s game plan seemed clear enough: force RB Leipzig out into the wide areas by overloading the centre of the pitch. For the first half, Leipzig were kept at bay as they couldn’t quite break down Union’s defensive structure. When Union were able to find their shape and stay organized, they were a formidable opponent that caused a lot of problems for RB Leipzig.
Attacking — lofted ball to lay off
Union Berlin had the same attacking success rate as RB Leipzig, with 24% of their attacks ending in shots; however, they attacked only a total of 33 times, compared to Leipzig’s 59 attacks. When Union did go forward, they tried to play into Andersson, who looked to lay the ball off to a supporting player. Andersson, who is 1.90m, is a big target, and was often either winning aerial battles or forcing Leipzig’s central defenders, Upamecano and Klostermann, to not win the ball cleanly. While effective, it doesn’t result in much if Andersson doesn’t have support.
Off of a throw-in, Andersson checks into space as the only target man. His teammates are clearly anticipating his winning the ball, as there are four of them spaced out in the shape of a diamond. Anywhere the ball lands from Andersson’s challenge will result in Union potentially gaining possession in the advanced area. In this particular image, Andersson didn’t even win the ball, but Klostermann, who was challenging, lets it bounce off of his chest, where it falls to Robert Andrich, who fires a first time shot towards the far post.
The data also suggests that this was Union’s plan going forward, as Andersson was credited with a total of 19 aerial duels in the match, 11 more than anyone else on his team. He also averages 16.5 aerial duels over the last five matches, which is also 11 more than any other player. This data points to the fact that Union Berlin are targeting him often, looking for him to either win the ball or cause enough of a problem that the ball still finds its way to his teammates’ feet.
Even after Andersson was subbed off, Union continued to attempt to get to goal with this strategy. After making a nice run into space, Sebastian Polter gets the ball played to his head as his defender trails him.
As the defender follows Polter, Anthony Ujah runs into the space left by the defender. Polter is able to flick the ball into that space with his head, where Ujah has a good look at goal. Unfortunately for him, his first touch betrayed him and allowed Leipzig to safely dispatch of any danger. Union Berlin looked to draw defenders out of space with lofted passes to their forwards’ heads so that they could exploit the area that the defender just left. Unfortunately, they were not able to finish their chances against Leipzig, and ultimately lost because of this.
Leipzig’s 4-2-3-1 in 1st half
RB Leipzig must have come into the game anticipating that Union Berlin would sit in their 5-4-1 formation, because they had a concrete plan to try and create chances moving forward. The plan was to either overload the right-hand side and attempt to pass their way through Union’s defence, or to play out from that overload and find Timo Werner on the left-hand side in some space with a single defender. They did this by setting out in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Here, Leipzig overload the right-hand side. They have seven players on the right side of the pitch, with their left-back, Marcel Halstenberg, stepping into the midfield. What left Julian Nagelsmann frustrated is that these players are essentially operating on three lines of attack, with zero players in between the defensive lines of Union Berlin. However, by overloading the right-hand side, Timo Werner, not even in the above image, was isolated in a 1v1 situation with Christopher Lenz on the left-hand side.
While RB Leipzig were able to create opportunities with their counter-pressing and willingness to run and overwhelm Union Berlin, they struggled to break down the defensive block. This counter-pressing did lead to their best chances of the half in the first, but Nagelsmann was clearly not satisfied, as he switched his formation in the second half. Some of those frustrations, as previously mentioned, stemmed from their inability to get in between the defensive lines of Union Berlin.
The forwards are all marked and outnumbered by Union’s backline. Leipzig have one attacker in between the lines, who is unable to be reached by a pass because of how compact Union are with their midfielders. The amount of space between Leipzig’s midfield and Union’s suggest that Leipzig were trying to draw out the midfield defensive line in order to create more space for their attackers, but Union was disciplined enough to stay put and not close down Leipzig’s players. This led to a lot of passes from Leipzig going from the left-back to the centre backs and then out to the right-back, which isn’t exactly effective in breaking down an opposition. This passing pattern led to Nagelsmann switching his formation at halftime, which helped yield results rather quickly.
Leipzig switch to 4-4-2 to begin 2nd half
Leipzig switched from their 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 as soon as the second half began. Defensively, this structure is what you would expect: four defenders in a line with the four midfielders forming a similar line in front of them, and the two forwards working together.
When in possession, with the defence dropping, the outside backs, Mukiele and Halstenberg, looked to get almost as wide as the touchline, while the “wingers” in the midfield tucked in more centrally, forcing Union Berlin’s defensive line to have to deal with four attackers. This also creates an overload in the middle of the field, and allows more room for Mukiele and Halstenberg to run into space on the flanks. In fact, Timo Werner’s first goal stems from Mukiele being played a ball after he attacked the space on the right side of the pitch. Union Berlin were able to clear the ball, but Leipzig quickly won a foul off of the clearance. As the ball was lofted towards the penalty box from the free-kick, Marius Bülter got to it first, but mistakenly played it to the top of the box, where Timo Werner absolutely thrashed the ball into the back of the net. Yes, the goal came off of a mistake, but that mistake was a result of Leipzig’s change in formation and ability to exploit the space on the flank.
The change in formation also allowed Leipzig to get more players in between the defensive lines of Union Berlin.
Above, Leipzig has three to four players between the two defensive lines. The ball gets played into the man in space, who lays it off to Patrik Schick. At the same time, Halstenberg, the right-back, makes a run that drags a defender with him as he is about to be in on goal.
This creates a lot of space for Werner to run into, as his defender has to recover to provide pressure. Werner creates enough space for himself to get a shot off, which is blocked by the goalkeeper. Leipzig continue to attack on the left hand side in the penalty box, and ultimately win a corner kick, off of which they score. Leipzig’s final goal came seconds after Union Berlin switched to a 4-4-2 formation, as they needed to get forward to score. Union’s miscommunication combined with Leipzig’s overloading over Union’s backline allowed for an open Timo Werner to receive a cross on the far post, which he emphatically buried into the back of the net.
In the end, Julian Nagelsmann’s ability to diagnose the problem and provide a solution proved to be the difference. While Union Berlin saw slightly more possession in the second half, a lot of was provided to them by RB Leipzig, who dropped into their own 5-4-1 after their third goal. Leipzig defended well, and Union never truly looked threatening when they had the majority of the possession.
Leipzig maintain their position in first place, where they sit four points above Bayern Munich. They’ll continue their campaign next Saturday against Eintracht Frankfurt. For Union Berlin, they’ll be happy with their first-half performance, but frustrated at their inability to adapt to Leipzig’s change in formation. While they currently sit in 12th position, they’re only three points from the relegation zone. They look to earn three points against Augsburg next week as they fight to remain in the Bundesliga.