Matchday 4 of the UEFA Champions League saw both Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig gain positive results in their quest for qualification to the knock-out rounds. Julian Nagelsmann’s side cruised past Zenit St. Petersburg with a 2-0 win, while Jesse Marsch’s charges secured a point against a Napoli side who failed to capitalise on their dominant performance. Let’s take a look at the key tactical points from each game.
Zenit St. Petersburg 0-2 RB Leipzig
Zenit St. Petersburg (5-3-2): Kerzhakov – Smolnikov, Osorio, Ivanović, Rakitskiy, Santos – Erokhin, Barrios, Ozdoev – Dzyuba, Azmoun.
RB Leipzig (4-2-3-1): Gulácsi – Mukiele, Klostermann, Upamecano, Halstenberg – Laimer, Demme – Sabitzer, Poulsen, Forsberg – Nkunku.
1. Leipzig’s in-possession structure provides attacking advantage
Leipzig started without Timo Werner, with Nagelsmann opting for Emil Forsberg and playing Nkunku in the no.9 position instead. Against Zenit’s 5-3-2 formation, Mukiele and Halstenberg were seen playing in advanced zones on each flank. This allowed them to pin-back Zenit’s full-backs, while Forsberg and Sabitzer occupied zones in the interior. This gave Leipzig a 4-3 overload in midfield, with Laimer or Demme moving forwards to provide support in possession to the 3 attacking midfielders including Poulsen. The German’s were consistently able to find space in and around Zenit’s midfield. One example was right before Halstenberg’s disallowed goal, where Zenit challenged for the ball closer to Leipzig’s right flank before Sabitzer switched play. Zenit lacked cover and Halstenberg took advantage of the isolated situation to open the scoring from outside of the box before the goal was disallowed.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Leipzig, however, as Zenit had so many players defending close to their own box. Leipzig had to remain patient throughout the game and were only able to score a 2nd goal in transition later on in the game.
2. Counter-pressing woes
Although Leipzig had a decent structure to create chances they risked being caught out because of the advanced positioning of their full-backs, leaving gaps on the outside of their defensive midfield base, as well as on either side of their back line. This allowed Zenit to create opportunities on the break several times throughout the 1st half, with both Santos and Azmoun going close to opening the soaring, the latter was inches away after a 1-on-1 with Gulácsi.
3. Leipzig sharpen their transition play in the 2nd half
Marcel Sabitzer’s goal provided the first example of the sharp transitional attacking that has defined Leipzig so far this season. The opening half proved difficult to do exactly that because of Zenit’s conservative approach which gave them adequate cover in central and wide areas as soon as they lost the ball. But as they tired, they failed to maintain a compact defensive shape and Leipzig only needed one chance to take advantage of space in between their lines. This was a crucial moment as they weren’t afforded much space in-possession throughout the match.
The game ended 2-0 to Leipzig, with 3 points in the bag and only one win required to qualify for the knockout stages.
Napoli 1-1 Red Bull Salzburg
Napoli (4-4-2): Meret – Di Lorenzo, Maksimovic, Koulibaly, Rui – Callejón, Ruiz, Zielinski, Insigne – Mertens, Lozano.
Red Bull Salzburg (5-3-2): Coronel – Kristensen, Pongračić, Onguéné, Wöber, Ulmer – Minamino, Junuzović, Szoboszlai -Hwang, Håland.
1. Jesse Marsch opts for a 3-man back line to deal with Napoli’s dynamic striker duo
Salzburg lined up in a 5-3-2 formation presumably to deal with the dynamism of Dries Mertens and Hirving Lozano. Another assumption is that because Napoli are such a brilliant team when it comes to outplaying high-pressing opponents, the 3-man back line would provide good cover/rest defence. Unfortunately, this made absolutely no difference as Salzburg were outplayed in all areas of the pitch time and again, and struggled to control the central areas as they usually do so impressively.
2. Salzburg’s performance after Håaland’s opener
Erling Håland’s penalty put Salzburg 1-0 up in the 10th minute and the game seemed balanced up until then. Unfortunately Salzburg’s pressing scheme was exposed immediately after the goal with Napoli finding plenty of space within their structure. Essentially, Håland, Hwang, Szoboszlai and Minamino provided the first two lines of pressure with the wing-backs arriving to press Napoli’s full-backs once the second line was bypassed. This was a flawed tactic as Napoli’s one-touch passing and Insigne and Callejon’s movement into the interior channels during the build-up allowed them to get progress up the pitch consistently. With Kristensen and Ulmer moving forward to press Napoli’s full-backs, Lozano and Mertens were free to drift into the spaces on either side of Salzburg’s back line to receive long passes from deep. Napoli’s dynamic movement, neat passing and good dribbling was certainly impressive but could they have imposed themselves on the game by reverting to their usual compact 4-4-2 formation? Maybe.
Napoli’s full-backs were key to their ability to resist pressure by stretching Salzburg and combining with the forwards to create progressions. Their influence might’ve been decreased if they were marked more tightly or if Salzburg were able to discourage passes from the centre-backs if Minamino and Szoboszlai remained close to that passing lane.
3. Napoli fail to convert promising chances
Napoli created several quality chances from crossing positions. They did well by attacking Salzburg to one side before switching to the underloaded opposite side.
Unfortunately, in the end, the game was defined by Napoli’s poor finishing, which saw them rack up 29 attempts with only 4 of those attempts ending up on target.