Analysis: RB Leipzig 3-1 Union Berlin

RB Leipzig’s first Bundesliga fixture after the winter break saw them face a newly promoted Union Berlin side at the Red Bull Arena. It was an interesting match-up as Union, now in 12th place, have adapted to the Bundesliga in impressive fashion.

RB Leipzig’s line-up.
Union Berlin’s line-up.

Union used a 5-4-1 formation and aimed to remain compact and have good access, to defend wing-overloads of Leipzig, allowing them to take an early lead in the 10th minute.

Leipzig lined up in an asymmetric 4-4-1-1 formation with Schick upfront, Werner and Sabitzer playing as wide forwards and Nkunku in the no.10 position. Behind Nkunku were Adams and Laimer who formed part of the double-pivot. The dominant centre-back Upamecano formed a four-man backline with Klostermann, also at centre-back, and Halstenberg and Mukiele who played at left and right-back respectively.

First Half – RB Leipzig’s Possession vs. Union Berlin’s Defending

Union Berlin’s 5-4-1 defensive shape saw Bulter and Ingvartsen pressing Leipzig’s full-backs, from a low medium block. This was the aim of their defensive phase, to press from deep in midfield. 

Andersson, the lone striker of Union, tried to cut one side of the pitch and force Leipzig’s possession towards the flank but Union were also very aggressive in pressing central plays (passes, players, etc.) and it was also from the central zone that they scored their goal when they recovered the ball and exploited Leipzig in transition.

Leipzig’s positional structure was asymmetric and resembled a 2-4-3-1 where they progressed easily past the first line of Union due to the 2vs1 superiority.

Leipzig’s structure: Schick as the target player in a 2-4-3-1 formation, where Werner stayed wide, cutting inside depending on the position of Halstenberg who rotated inside/outside. Adams and Laimer played in-front of the backline as the double pivot and Nkunku drifted in central areas near Werner. Sabitzer’s positioning was more flexible as he would drift between wide and half-space areas.

The issues arose when Leipzig progressed past the first pressing line and tried to progress into advanced zones.

Union played with a rather high defensive line and could easily shift across and press Leipzig’s wing-positioned players, made it difficult for the hosts to progress further because of their positioning.

Union’s shifting in defense: The 5-4-1 formation and the isolation of Leipzig’s options for a clean progression.

In some situations Union’s shifting wasn’t well executed as Bülter failed to shift far enough which left the ball-far half-space open for Leipzig to shift into and exploit.

This also gave the wingers in Unions 5-4-1 formation more space to exploit in possible transitions because of lack of half-space control by Leipzig in deeper positions.

Here, we can see the positions of Laimer and Adams and how Genter covers the the central space while having access to pressing Adams. As Leipzig progressed past the first line, Mukiele and Halstenberg pushed into higher lines which opened up big spaces outside the double sixes of Leipzig.
Adams loses the ball to Genter, who finds Andersson with the option to switch play to Bulter in the vacant ball-far, half-space area.
Here we can see the high backline of Union Berlin. They were very good at defending on the front-foot. One of the reasons was that one of their central defenders in the 5-man backline could easily leave the defending line, to press the Leipzig player in-between the lines. In this picture, one of their defenders has access to Nkunku. 

Second Half – Formation Switch and Half-Space Overloads

For the 2nd half, the tactically astute coach of Leipzig, Julian Nagelsmann changed from the 4-2-3-1 with Werner on the flank, to a more rigid 4-2-2-2 where Nkunku swapped positions with the German top scorer.

Leipzig’s change from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-2-2 formation in the 2nd half, seen here during their midfield pressing.

So, for the 2nd half, Leipzig had more options in deep areas because they now had two strikers, with Werner’s speed a vital part of trying to exploit Union’s high defensive line.

In possession Leipzig used a 2-4-2-2 formation and had some very well timed executions when combining on the flank and in half-space zones.

The 2-4-2-2 in possession allowed Leipzig to attack with 6 players versus Union’s 5-man backline as they progressed towards goal. 

The change of formation and the use of an extra striker, gave Leipzig an extra option in the half-space or flank in order to progress. This allowed them to almost always combine with 3 or 4 players to either progress down the flanks and inside channels or vice versa… to force the Union backline to shift too much, which would allow to Leipzig to use the underloaded area to exploit by switching play.

And if the switch of play wasn’t ‘clean'(e.g. as if a player controlled a pass poorly), Leipzig were in a better position to compete for 2nd balls as now had two no.10’s behind Union’s. It was from this type of situation that both of Werner’s wonderful goals where scored.

As the progression with possession, into the midfield zone was still easy for Leipzig due to the numerical overload, they could now try to create numerical superiority around flank area and half-spaces.

The structure enabled them to combine and progress via one-twos due to the non controlling half-space area in front of Unions midfield but also via frequent 3rd man combinations, and full-backs providing well executed and well-timed over/underlaps to progress.

Schick was able to drop into the half-space and provide a vertical option with Leipzig now having two options outwide. 

As mentioned above it also gave them better positional spacing and connections to connect with ball-far halfspace and switches to the underloaded area of Union Berlin, where Halstenberg, Nkunku and Werner could create overloads and attack.

Leipzig would go rom having possession and positioning 5 players on the flanks and  in half-space areas to
…finding a diagonal pass between the lines of Union Berlin into Nkunku, due to their fast ball circulation. Nkunku who is positioned in the half-space lays it off Schick (having dropped deep, opening up his body to receive a pass), in-front of Union’s back-line. Schick then plays it out to Halstenberg and Werner who are now in a 2vs1 situation versus Union’s full-back.

As we mentioned above, Union where rather fast in exploiting the positive transitional moments when Leipzig lost possession and even scored from this phase. So, Nagelsmann’s change to a more width and halfspace oriented structure gave Leipzig not only better spacing, but also better access to press and trap Union Berlins potential counter attacks after losing possession.

The danger of Union’s counter-attacks were still there and in some situations where Leipzig lost the ball, Union exploited the high full-backs of Leipzig directly. However, compared to the first half, Leipzig had a better structure and better access to counter-press and nullify the potential counter attacks of Union Berlin.

In this situation Leipzig has lost possession in the half-space area and have directly oriented the counter-pressing towards the flank. The 2nd half structural change gave them a better access to press Union and even trap them as seen in this situation above.

Conclusion

As mentioned in a recent interview, Nagelsmann talked about what he hinks of Leipzig being leaders of the Bundesliga. The talented coach expressed that he still did not see his side as ‘champion level’ yet and that they still have a lot of work left to become the very best in Germany.

Something that was shown in this game is that Leipzig is indeed step by step becoming better and better, and are flexible enough to change structure and formation to be able to adapt in relation to the opponent. Even though Leipzig had issues in the first half, the second half performance was very dominant and this shows just how flexible Leipzig are and can be but also how far Die Roten Bullen have come especially in terms of their tactical flexibility and positional play.

By Albin Sheqiri

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