Analysis: Advantage RB Leipzig in Champions League Round of 16

What promised to be a very exciting tactical game before the actual kick-off, turned out to be a rather one-sided one, where RB Leipzig took all the initiative and controlled possession for the majority of the game, creating several lethal attacks and chances. The only goal of the game came from a penalty even though Leipzig had more chances to score more. The final score was a 1-0 result in favour of the German side, with Timo Werner’s penalty giving Leipzig the advantage going into the 2nd leg. 


Spurs lined up in a more rigid and deep 4-4-2 formation without the ball, where Alli formed a forward pair together with Lucas Moura. In possession Alli acted as a #10. 

Tottenham Hotspur’s 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 formation.

RB Leipzig played in a 3-4-2-1 with Ampadu playing as the central centre-back together with Klostermann and Halstenberg forming a 3-man backline. Angeliño played at left wing-back and Mukiele right wing-back. 

Laimer and Sabitzer played as the central midfield pair with Werner and Nkunku ahead of them as #10’s and Schick as the lone forward.

RB Leipzig’s 3-4-2-1 formation.

Nagelsmann’s Positional Play Versus Mourinho’s Defence

From the start, Mourinho’s game plan was clear. He organized a very deep and rather passive approach from his side. 

The deep and passive approach gave Leipzig a lot of time in on the ball, allowing them to progress quite cleanly in possession and try to create different superiorities against Spurs’ defence. 

One of Nagelsmann’s main principles in possession is to always have a spare man in the first phase of possession, in order to create a numerical advantage and to progress cleanly. This principle was evident as Leipzig were successful in creating the numerical advantage (3v2) against Spurs’ two forwards.

Leipzig’s 3v2 numerical superiority against Spurs’ first line of defence. 

Alli and Lucas’ were tasked with closing central passing options and to prevent Laimer and Sabitzer role in contributing to the progression. However, this did not affect Leipzig’s progressions because they used switches to the wide centre-back’s to carry out the progressions. 

If Spurs’ had access to the wide centre-backs they tried to force Leipzig towards the flank. 

A sequence where the ball-near striker Alli is pressing Klostermann towards the flank.

Ampadu did a fantastic job in progressing the play and switching sides quickly but was also good in dribbling into space in front of him to attract pressure from the first line of defence. This not only led to many progressions via passes to the wide centre-backs but also from Ampadu himself as he could dribble forward with the ball and progress in that way too. 

From the half-space positions, Leipzig’s wide centre-backs created several successful attacks by finding the ball-near #10 through the second line of Tottenham’s defence and from there the #10 could combine with the ball-near wing-back.

Klostermann finds the #10 (Nkunku) in the half-space and in a superior position, who could combine further using 3rd man options or turn and face the backline of Spurs. 
Another successful attack by Leipzig when progressing through the half-spaces using the #10, in a different sequence where Tottenham tried to press Leipzig earlier and higher. Nkunku dribbles towards central areas away from the defender, while Werner roams inside to provide an option for Nkunku. This forces the backline of Spurs to shift across while Angeliño is running behind the defending line towards flank.
As seen here, Nkunku plays to Angeliño who is now in a very good position to continue dribbling or play a cross/pass behind Spurs’ defence who are in inferior positions to defend the attack of Leipzig. Leipzig who progressed cleanly had several successful switches to ball-far areas and it was also from this type of play that Werner was found in a 1v1 situation against Lloris.

An important role in providing an extra option and combining the progression for Leipzig was Schick’s false-9 position. He gave the centre-backs a further, option in high areas centrally. Schick’s positioning created a 3v2 centrally. 

Not only did the half-space oriented centre-backs progress but as mentioned above so did Ampadu too. As the central defender of Leipzig progressed on the dribble he also played some terrific passes between the lines of Spurs and in the sequence above to Shick who played a pass to the 3rd man, Nkunku, who could switch or progress via Mukiele on the flanks.

As mentioned before, the passive approach from Spurs gave Leipzig more time on the ball, but the deep defending organization stopped Leipzig from playing vertically and exploiting spaces in depth. This was something Mourinho tried to adjust in the second half by starting the pressing earlier and in higher zones. This only led to more spaces between the lines for Leipzig to find. 

Tottenham were rather good in slowing down Leipzig’s attacks and blocking the half-space option and shifting across to press the wide wing-backs of Leipzig.

Here, Spurs shift across in their 4-4-2 structure with ball-near striker Lucas pressing Halstenberg. Since Leipzig had Werner and Nkunku as the #10s providing pass options in the half-space, the ball-near winger of Spurs tried to cover the half-space options and enable the ball-near full-back of Spurs to continue his pressing towards the high and wide wing-back of Leipzig, as seen in the sequence above. This was an example of Spurs defending successfully, leading to Leipzig being slowed down in attack.

The closer towards the goal, the more the Spurs’ full-backs were oriented to the half-space options thus keeping their backline compact horizontally which led to Gedson and Bergwijn having to take on the responsibility of pressing Leipzig’s wing-backs. A defensive formation which looked like a 6-2-2. 

The 6-2-2 formation, with Bergwijn and Fernandes almost in line with the 4-man backline of Spurs. This made it harder for Leipzig to progress down the flanks due to the faster and closer access that Spurs’ wing-backs had. A strategy very typical of Mourinho to implement. 

As the game went on, the more Leipzig found space in front of the midfield which gave them the option to have faster switches when circulating the ball, overloading one side and attacking the other. 


Leipzig’s defensive approach was not typically energetic and aggressive. However, they were hard to beat and must be given credit for the organisation and execution of their counter-press and rest defence. 

Nagelsmann expressed after the game, that he thought that Leipzig were the better team and deservedly won the game. Although many attacks were unsuccessful which led to several turnovers, Leipzig displayed several ways of getting through Spurs’ low-block which in the end led to them scoring the only goal of the game thanks to Timo Werner’s penalty. It was a positive result in the end for Leipzig, leaving Mini-Mourinho’s side as favourites for the upcoming second leg. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. James says:

    Excellent analysis. Very precise.

    So much commentary and reporting was on RBL dominating, missing that THFC set up to cede territory and possession and hope to use the pace of Bergwijn and Lucas on the counter. The low block, as you say, was partially successful, but not enough. Mourinho and Saceamento were forced to play higher up and press more to try to gain possession and get an equalizer.

    Very impressed by Leipzig and Nagelsmann.


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