The Incredible Tactical RB Leipzig Machine, Part Two: Defensive Cogs in Need of Repair
Yesterday, in part one we looked at RB Leipzig's attack. Today, it's the defense's turn, and in this analysis of Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, we come into contact with the first thing you might associate with Leipzig: pressing. They are a side that focuses heavily on pressing high. Nagelsmann’s approach to this is unpredictable, as he plays the game of anticipating how his opponents will lineup and catering entirely to that, which can be as fascinating as it is risky. It's not enough to say that they press, which their heat map makes clear, it's important to examine how they press in order to understand their strengths and weaknesses.
The changes in shape are what dictate how they lineup in attack, mostly, too. And, just like the frequency of his attacking changes, there are plenty of tweaks to the press he makes throughout most games.
vs. Union Berlin
In the league season opener against Union Berlin, Nagelsmann started with a 3-5-2 that featured Marcel Sabitzer trigger pressing onto Union’s number six up from his position as the right-sided central-midfielder, be it from a zonal position, or as a slightly distanced marker. When it came to the former, he could arrive somewhat unexpectedly and force a mistake or two, just like in the clip below, which led to a dangerous chance.
vs. Eintracht Frankfurt
In a 3-5-2 once again, the centre-forwards would narrow themselves to block access into the middle, whilst attempting to curve press the ball towards Frankfurt’s right so that they could distance Frankfurt from their stronger left side. In combination with this, the left-sided central midfielder, Christopher Nkunku, would press onto David Abraham (their right-sided centre-back) when the ball was played across, which aimed to trap the receiver.
vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
Here, they set up in a way that looked to defend in a similar way to how Schalke 04 did against Gladbach in the first game of the season, using a 4-4-2 against a potential 4-4-2 diamond. Instead, Marco Rose, purely based on how Gladbach pressed Leipzig on the night, seemed to try and outsmart Nagelsmann by assuming he might try to match up with a 3-4-1-2 shape.
Whilst neither side appeared to predict each other exactly correctly, there was a good adjustment from Leipzig, which also stayed true to their original plan of directing play to Gladbach’s weaker left side by having Emil Forsberg, the left-sided wide-midfielder, press intensely from a wide angle to force play back across, with Sabitzer on the far-side inviting the pass across with his conservative positioning. From there, the near-sided help would join up to press onto their respective opponents, and then force turnovers.
vs. Bayern Munich
Against Bayern, Nagelsmann set up in a very particular 3-5-2 that accepted the underload against their back-line and instead aimed to use Forsberg as a trigger presser onto the very widely-positioned centre-back, Benjamin Pavard. He would then shape his body to cut off the inside and force balls down the outside, where the defenders waited, tight to each attacker.
vs. SL Benfica
Against Benfica in the Champions League, their 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid press – akin to Porto’s successful defensive setup a few games previous to this one – was nigh on perfect, with the way the strikers split to block access into the number six, and the way the Werner – the highest of the front two – curved his press to narrow play towards one side, just like Porto had done in their 2-0 win, there.
What is also worth noting here are the distances between the Leipzig players and their opposite numbers. Despite being so man-orientated, the space they allow between them and their opponent means they’re not so vulnerable to options between the lines, or slight blind-sided movements in each matchup.
Something they do using this space is, when the wide presser moves out to the ball-holder, they’ll shape to go the obvious way but quickly jolt back the way of the inside route. Even though the opponent often plays straight ahead, that lane doesn’t require coverage given the marking ahead. As insurance, then, if they do try to step inside, they’ll be stopped easily.
vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Against Leverkusen, they appeared to replicate the 4-2-3-1 shape that Dortmund had used a few games back in a 4-0 victory. The difference here was, again, the positioning and awareness, or lack thereof, of Werner and Cunha as the forward-most players. To begin with, it looked like a solid setup: they blocked the far-side by covering the central centre-back and holding midfielder, whilst the far-sided wide midfielder tucked in to block the midfield option across, and the near-sided midfielder pressed up onto the receiving wide centre-back.
Working individually; struggling as a collective
The tactical versatility of Nagelsmann is admirable but it’s not always perfect, and it’s there where the problems lay for this side. Although there have been plenty of instances where he’s altered his pressing shape quite well – like when he moved from a 5-3-2 to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half against Bayern – he sometimes prefers to gamble on unsuccessful shapes a little longer with the risk-and-reward factor, given its potential attacking threat.
What quickly becomes clear when this is the case, however, is that Leipzig struggles to control games when their press isn’t working – hence their average possession figure of just 51% in the Bundesliga this season, fifth in the league but significantly behind the other top sides – and this is mostly because Leipzig’s players defend so individually.
Up front is where it’s clearest to see, though, as Werner is the biggest culprit – he rarely shows any solid level of awareness for the opponents behind him, meaning he often steps out and/or holds positions which leave players outside his line of vision accessible. This was perfectly illustrated in his performance against Bayern, which allowed the visitors to take complete control and consequently exhaust Leipzig.
Of course, Werner was never the only culprit. The majority of the team deserve their share of the blame when it comes to recognising where their opponents are around them, and how they should then adjust their positioning and actions.
Because of this, yet another intriguing tactical plan (vs. Leverkusen), struggled to come off as the end shape failed to close off access into the opposition’s number six since the strikers were failing to account for the option outside of their eye line.
Even worse was the fact that the strikers became so detached when Leipzig was pushed back and forced to defend as a block. This has made it a lot more difficult for Leipzig to stem the flow of pressure from the opposition since it doesn’t force them to play around the outside, but instead gain access inside where they know they won’t face much pressure from behind.
The example above, for Aránguiz’s goal in their 1-1 draw, highlights this expertly as the strikers aren’t fully covering the space in front well enough, meaning the midfielders are then torn between holding the line and leaving the deep midfielder open, or stepping out and resultantly opening access into the attacker between the lines. The end result sees neither happen fully, leaving the midfielder in question stuck between them and thus easily bypassed.
Against Frankfurt, also, the strikers never adjusted to the fact that they were regularly being bypassed, which allowed the opposition to gain greater control. Part of the issue might’ve been that Nagelsmann had possibly anticipated a 3-4-3 from Adi Hütter, rather than the 3-4-1-2 that he ended up playing, but the compactness from Werner and Poulsen to cover the lanes into the number six should come naturally to them, whether or not that was what they expected.
This ties into the general issues they’ve come face-to-face with when having to defend resolutely as a block. Whilst Leipzig can be very good in their closing of spaces between the lines, it’s in bigger spaces where the individuality of the players’ actions become apparent.
Against Gladbach, this was highlighted in the defending from the double pivot. Kampl and Laimer, here, were simply to reactive to what was ahead of them, and not what was behind them, or what they needed to do to account for the movements of their teammates.
Their 3-0 away win over Werder Bremen showcased mixed examples of how they are capable of defending as a block but are also still very susceptible to blind-sided movements, even when the compactness appears to be good.
This, whilst defending their lead with only ten men, highlighted a strong use of trigger pressing to limit Werder’s options and also to block inside lanes.
However, examples of the midfielders making subtle movements that opened up spaces between themselves and their teammates still crept through, which allowed for access through the lines.
Despite predominantly collective issues, arguably the most damaging aspect of Leipzig’s defence have been the individual slip-ups. Unfortunately, they have been let down by players such as Nordi Mukiele and Ibrahim Konaté at the back losing sight of what’s going on around them, similar to how the strikers act, in terms of defensive awareness.
Evident in the above examples from the Frankfurt game, both players were let down by fixating their view almost solely on the ball.
Their 2-0 defeat to Lyon also provided two more perfect instances of those two specifically making further individual mistakes which unfairly cost them the match. The first of which came from Konaté, whose first touch into the space in front was inappropriate and consequently gave the ball away. The second from Mukiele – who thought he had turned away from pressure well – was completely unaware of the other Lyon attacker pressing in from his blind-side, which gifted Lyon their crucial doubler.
When defending leads, Nagelsmann’s side plays a risky game but one that has so far paid off for them, with the notable exception of their loss to Wolfsburg. They play the only way they know how: playing forwards.
Like in the match against Benfica, this has seen riskier passes played out from the back which could potentially leave them heavily exposed but the drilled aspects of their approach play gives such fluency to it that you can trust they won’t give the ball away so cheaply. This is particularly evident in the passage against Werder, where their use of positional rotations, as players constantly moved for the ball once laying it off, helped to unlock spaces for circulation from side-to-side.
Whilst Leipzig’s attacking qualities are unquestionable, their defence is yet to click into gear. The defenders – Willi Orban aside – are very young and inexperienced still, so they are currently something of a weakness, which is why Nagelsmann getting the press right from the get-go can be make-or-break.
When they setup just right, the pressing both on a collective level as well as on an individual level is at its very best; the way each player knows how to press players comes like second nature to them. So, all that needs improving is, from the players themselves, a self-realised ability to adjust to the opposition, and, of course, greater communication and awareness between players defending within their line.
These reasons combined are why they have only managed to keep two clean sheets in all competitions this season, and why they haven't conceded fewer than one expected goal since their first three matches of the season.
Given, however, we’re just past the ten-game mark, it’s far too early to suggest this defence won’t improve over the course of the season once Nagelsmann gets his ideas across. And, when that begins to click into place, this team will most certainly be reaching for the top.