Analysis: RB Leipzig Ruthlessly Exploit Schalke 04’s Structural Issues

RB Leipzig travelled to Gelsenkirchen on Bundesliga Matchday 23 to take on Schalke 04. The result was a 5-0 win in favour of the visitors, who remain in 2nd place while Schalke themselves remain in 6th place despite their performance.

Let’s take a look at the tactical battle that played out.

Line-ups

Schalke 04 (3-4-1-2): Nübel – Kabak, Mascarell, Nastasić – Kenny, McKennie (Schöpf, 55′), Serdar (Gregoritsch, 70′), Oczipka – Harit – Matondo (Kutucu, 46′), Raman

*Schalke’s lineup was presented as a 4-3-1-2/4-1-2-1-2 but Mascarell was actually positioned in the 3-man defensive line.

RB Leipzig (3-1-4-2): Gulácsi – Klostermann, Upamecano, Halstenberg – Laimer (Haidara 65′) – Mukiele, Sabitzer, Nkunku, Angeliño – Schick (Poulsen, 54′), Werner (Forsberg, 75′)

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 10.19.26
Laimer played as a lone pivot in midfield, while Schalke used Harit as an advanced playmaker. A key positioning difference that allowed Leipzig to completely dominate the midfield.

Schalke’s Positional Structure Allows Leipzig to Control Midfield Spaces and Prevent Progressions

The first half was a dominant display by Leipzig in terms of how they controlled moments without the ball and moments in the possession. They were able to transition seamlessly between each moment. This allowed them to open the scoring less than a minute after kick-off and they went into the break with their lead intact. By half-time, they had notched up 11 shots to Schalke’s 0. 

The primary issue that Schalke had when trying to compete with Leipzig was the positional structure that they used. They began the game using a 3-4-1-2 formation with McKennie and Serdar at the base of their midfield. This was a problem because they only had two midfield outlets in central areas, who were mostly positioned away from each other, trying to play on different lines. The wing-backs had limited space to affect play and were completely nullified because they weren’t able to play quick passes down the line or diagonal passes in-field in order to break Leipzig’s defensive lines. This was because Leipzig’s high-line allowed Angeliño and Mukiele to constantly apply pressure on them in advanced areas, with the wide centre-backs Klostermann and Halstenberg providing cover. 

Screenshot 2020-02-28 at 18.19.40
Schalke were unable to properly occupy midfield zones and create the connections required for progressions.
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Leipzig’s high defensive line. Squeezing space for Schalke to use to play in between the lines.

Positioned in the central attacking midfield zone for Schalke was Harit who was the team’s focal point in attack. However, the zones he occupied were well covered by Leipzig’s players and their overall structure was very compact thus discouraging Schalke’s players from playing the ball into him so he rarely received the ball. He rarely played deeper zones, but when he did he would drop into the half-space, adding support and extra numbers to the build-up. There was one situation in which Schalke showed good potential to progress when he did so but this was an exception. Most of their build-up situations were sequences of horizontal passes between their centre-backs from flank to flank, with the aim of finding an opening. Leipzig however, managed to remain compact while maintaining coverage all across midfield zones (including all 5 vertical channels).

The images below display how Leipzig prevented their progressions through midfield and how they dealt with Schalke’s attempt to progress through midfield using their wide centre-backs.

Screenshot 2020-02-28 at 20.36.17
Here, Nastasić is on the ball but has no free options ahead of him. The 3 Schalke midfielders are all positioned in one flat horizontal line. This allows Leipzig to simply cover the passing lanes and shift horizontally, preventing progression, while waiting to regain access to the ball before applying pressure.
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Kabak gets on the outside of Timo Werner with the half-space open, a good situation to play a vertical pass into his teammate ahead of the ball.
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Raman goes deep to receive the pass under pressure from Halstenberg. The problem? No lay-off options under pressure and no space to turn. Also, with his back to goal, his body positioning isn’t ideal to turn and with his first touch forwards.

Schalke attempted longer passes from deep but the predictability of the situations that led to the long passes (as the last option) allowed Leipzig’s backline to adjust quickly, drop the press and clear their lines. The hosts were mostly unable to win second balls because of their lack of compactness expect in situations when the long pass was played vertically down a flank, where they had players close to the ball. This led to them regaining possession several times because the conditions were ideal for counter-pressing. However, Leipzig’s counter-pressing was even better and more balanced allowing them to prevent counter-attacks, regain possession and play it to the opposite side away from pressure. This is how Leipzig were able to exploit Schalke in possession.

Leipzig Exploit Schalke’s Defensive Imbalance Caused by Poor Positional Structure in Possession

A well-known principle used by Nagelsmann’s teams is to play the ball away from pressure as soon as it is regained. The reason for this is two-fold. The first is to escape pressure and the second is to exploit the space on the opposite side of the ball’s location. That could be the opposite flank or of course if the ball was won closer to the 18-yard box, the space ahead of the ball.  This principle allowed Leipzig to take advantage of Schalke’s vulnerability to switches of play when they counter-pressed and when they were organised in a low-block.

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 10.40.59
Schalke did well to regain possession in situations such as this one. However, the ball-far side is completely unoccupied by any of their players, leaving them completely vulnerable to switches of play. 

Schalke’s midfield and forward line (2-1-2) was very narrow and the only width their structure had, came from their wing-backs. During the build-up, the lack of occupation in the half-space meant that they struggled for progressions. As a result during the turnover, in counter-pressing situations, Schalke’s wing-backs were forced to re-position themselves closer to the central midfield to mark Leipzig’s free players in the half-space. Not only did this create space for Leipzig but it also allowed them to attack the space behind the wing-backs, where the wide-centre backs were isolated.

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 10.56.27
Another issue with Schalke’s positional structure was the narrowness of their midfield. Because they were unable to occupy the half-space channels, Leipzig used them
Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 11.55.46
Here, Kenny re-positions himself inside the ball-far half-space to mark Nkunku. Leipzig can combine to play away from pressure where either Nkunku and Angeliño can receive in a 2v1 situation against him. With this situation, Timo Werner also has space to receive against Kabak who is isolated against him.

The first-half was full of errors in possession for Leipzig during build-up and counter-attacking moments and they missed many opportunities to exploit space and finish off attacks. However, this was no real cause for concern as their vertical progressions couldn’t be prevented because of Schalke’s lack of occupations in the half-space. In the 2nd half as Schalke’s pressing intensity decreased, they were more clinical when they had the opportunity to play out of pressure and during moments of circulation.

Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 12.23.11
An example of how Schalke’s structure allowed Leipzig to easily play through the lines with vertical passes. The half-space is left vacant in midfield and Halstenberg has Nkunku and Werner as options ahead of him.
Screenshot 2020-02-29 at 12.27.47
Following Halstenberg’s pass, Serdar shifted towards the ball-near side to cover McKennie. Werner receives the pass before cutting inside and switching play to Sabitzer who can receive the ball without pressure in the ball-far half-space.

Timo Werner’s goal in the 60th minute, Leipzig’s second goal, was the start of a Schalke collapse in which they conceded 9 shots (13 overall in the 2nd half) and 4 goals. Leipzig took advantage of the increased amount of space in midfield, again because of the decreased pressing intensity by Schalke. It was actually stunning to watch how many Leipzig chances went by without being finished off, such was their dominance.

In the final half of the second period, Mascarell’s role switched from centre-back to defensive midfield, as the lone pivot. This changed their midfield and forward structure which became a 1-2-1-2 but because of the narrow shape, Leipzig were unaffected by the extra man in midfield. In fact, this change gave them an added benefit as Schalke had one less player in their backline, not including their (now) full-backs who were regularly pinned back by Angeliño and Mukiele. Also, Klostermann and Halstenberg were also afforded extra space to move into midfield because they faced far less collective pressure compared to the first half. By the final whistle, Christopher Nkunku, a player with high-quality in terms of spatial awareness, dribbling and technical quality was able to deliver 4 assists for Nagelsmann’s. Final result 5-0!

Conclusion

Leipzig were very organised in all phases of the game and their ability to exploit space through vertical plays was used to great effect in this game. On the contrary, Schalke’s positional structure had a negative effect on their ability to build-up using short passes and bypass Leipzig’s compact and high-pressure organisation in order to progress. As Leipzig’s errors on the ball turned into moments of quality and efficiency, Schalke’s intensity and collective action in counter-pressing moments drastically decreased and the visitors managed to score 4-goals in the second half. Leipzig dominated the game from start to finish and their opponents did little to find solutions to their quick, line-breaking passes and the attacking threat of individuals such as Nkunku and Werner.

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