Heading into this game, RB Leipzig from the German Bundesliga had already secured their spot in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League. Meanwhile, after a lacklustre Champions League campaign, Benfica looked poised to come last, being four points away from Zenit St. Petersburg in third. However, there was still hope, and so Benfica travelled to Germany knowing that no points would almost certainly guarantee an exit from Europe’s most illustrious campaign.
In this tactical analysis, we will breakdown the tactics used by Julian Nagelsmann and Bruno Lage and provide analysis in regards to Leipzig’s press, Benfica’s defensive setup, and how Benfica looked to build out from the back.
Benfica started somewhat unusually with a 4-4-1-1 with former Serie A striker Vinicius alone up front, as opposed to Lage’s preferred 4-4-2, and whilst the difference may seem insignificant, it definitely had an impact on the game. Additionally, whilst Nagelsmann started his preferred formation, he did move players around, most notably moving the versatile Nkunku to the left striker position.
If we compare the image above to the one below, we see the point of the 4-4-1-1 being different. Often, the attacking midfielder/false nine of Chiquinho was deeper than Pizzi, and this is even explored later in this analysis, when we look at how Benfica looked to build out from the back.
RB Leipzig’s press
During the first half, Leipzig looked lethargic and flat in their pressing, seemingly lacking intensity. However, after what we can assume was a stern scorching by Nagelsmann at half time, Leipzig’s pressing dramatically improved.
Let’s start off with some data showing how impressive Leipzig’s press was. Throughout the second half, RBL had a PPDA of 4.5, an almost unheard-of figure. Additionally, Benfica’s average possession length was nine seconds, compared to 19 for Leipzig. Another impressive stat is that 80% of Leipzig’s possession ended up reaching Benfica’s half, compared with 42% the other way around. The final metrics I will supply to show how good Leipzig’s press was in the second half, is the fact that Benfica never had the ball for longer than 45 seconds throughout the whole half.
Evidently, the metrics show an outstanding press from Leipzig, but let’s look at it in depth using annotated images now.
Here we see the ball being played wide to Grimaldo. As soon as he is about to receive the ball, we notice Werner going to press Dias at left centre-back, whilst the rest of the players press intelligently, closing in on the man in possession whilst vastly limiting his passing lanes. When Dias gets the ball, he beats his man one on one, but then is faced by this dilemma.
As we can see again, the man in possession has been isolated and cut off from all potential passing lanes, with Leipzig practically going man-for-man across their attack and midfield, with Nagelsmann committing seven players into the opposition’s half during a press. This leads to a misplaced pass by the Benfica centre-back, and therefore a turnover in favour of Leipzig – very impressive stuff.
Benfica’s defensive setup
As we discovered in the previous section, Leipzig were relentless in their pressing, which resulted in them averaging over double the time on the ball per possession. This meant Benfica, as they would have expected and prepared for, had defending to do, and in long spurts as well. The image below gives us a good starting point for seeing how Lage set up his team to counter the 3-5-2 of Nagelsmann.
Here we see Benfica dropping into a basic 4-5-1, with Chiquinho dropping from his attacking midfield position to a central midfield position. This was done to reduce the gaps in the midfield line and prevent Leipzig from using deeper runners to influence the play. As we can also see, Leipzig had a hard time breaking this down all game, being forced to recycle possession commonly due to a lack of plausible passing options.
Moving on a bit, we see Chiquinho coming out to prevent a pass from Upamecano. This leads to a potentially exploitable gap behind him. However, this is where the tactical versatility of Benfica comes in. The midfield double pivot stagger themselves into different lines to prevent balls into the pocket between the defence and midfield, whilst also shuttling to the right to occupy the vacated space. This defensive rotational play made it very hard for Leipzig to find a consistent and reliable way through to resilient Benfica.
This final image again provides evidence for Benfica’s approach of cutting passing lanes whilst in a deeper block. Despite there seemingly being space for numerous players in white and red, none are actually free. This is because the passing lane has been blocked. The perfect example of this is the space afforded to Werner, but his inability to affect the game at this stage due to Upamecano not being able to progress the ball to him.
Despite not maintaining possession for long periods of time, as we discovered in the section about Leipzig’s press, Benfica did successfully build out from the back on a few occasions. Let’s look at how they managed to break the ferocious press of Leipzig.
The Benfica centre-backs would look to split very wide, and the full-backs were given permission to start the build-up phase as high up as they liked. Ultimately, the supporting players in the build-up would be the two central midfielders, which worked perfectly when an aggressive press was not on for Leipzig. This is because with the centre-back staying wide, the closing strikers would have to make a choice over whether to close the wide areas or the central ones, but either way, there would be an outlet available.
Additionally, this next image shows a great bit of rotational play from Benfica, as Chiquinho from false nine drops into the centre-back role to facilitate for Dias carrying the ball wide and Almeida inverting. From here, the man on the ball would look to play a long ball over the top to cause havoc in the opposition’s half, and potentially win the ball and create a chance to score from.
Leipzig’s patterns in build-up and chance creation
Despite struggling to break through with a great level of consistency, Leipzig still did create enough chances to win the game, with expected goals (xG) putting the scoreline at 2.89–0.73 in favour of Leipzig. In this section, we will look at how they managed to build out from their defence when Benfica did press, and how they managed to create clear cut chances in the game.
One of Leipzig’s preferred methods of chance creation was through progression on the wing followed by a narrow ball inwards towards Werner, or a third man running from midfield. Leipzig would look to switch the ball from side to side on the ground between the two outermost centre-backs. Following that, the ball would go to the sole wide player on the side most viable for a breakthrough. Usually, this would be the left-hand side as Leipzig had a preference there, as that was where Nkunku usually tucked into in order to create the rotations. These next images will show this phase take place.
We see this situation with Upamecano on the ball after Ampadu plays a quick pass to him on the ground. He then progresses a few yards and is not confronted by any Benfica player and is left free to pick his pass to his teammate on the left.
Next, Nkunku, as previously described, drops into the left-hand side, which forces Dias to go with him, and therefore opens up space behind him for either one of the midfielders, or Werner to exploit. Saracchi, who is on the ball in the image above chooses to pass the ball to Nkunku and underlaps to receive the ball back, and either provide a rotation option for Nkunku again, or play the ball to Werner.
As we see above, Benfica quickly congest the area behind Dias, but this leaves a gap in front of the defence for Werner to exploit. As the ball goes from Nkunku to Saracchi, Werner drops deeper, and when Saracchi receives the ball again, he can play a quick pass to Werner immediately who will only be faced by Ferro and will be able to create space, or take a shot himself. These examples show the success of the wide build-up involving Nkunku for creating space and opportunities.
Across this tactical analysis, we have seen how Lage managed to counter Nagelsmann throughout the game, and almost managed to pull through with a win against the group leaders. Despite the late goals, Nagelsmann will feel hard done by, as his team dominated the proceedings but lacked the finishing to make Benfica pay, resulting in a fascinating draw between two divergent European forces.