Analysis: RB Leipzig’s Flexible Positional Set-up Unchallenged By José Mourinho’s Tottenham

10th of March 2020, Red Bull Arena. RB Leipzig’s defeated Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur, a game in which Julian Nagelsmann’s tactics provided the winning blueprint helping his side to a comfortable  3-0 win. As a result, Leipzig progressed to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in the club’s history. 

Line-ups and Formations: 5-2-3 vs 5-2-3

Leipzig’s starting formation was a 3-4-3 formation with Gulácsi in goal, Angeliño and Mukiele as wing-backs and Halstenberg, Klostermann and Upamecano as the centre-backs. The protagonist of the game Sabitzer formed together with his countryman Laimer as the double 6s and provided a very dominant performance to control the midfield of the game. Werner and Nkunku acted as wingers and 10s but roamed flexibly in different phases together with Schick as the striker.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 16.31.04

Tottenham mirrored Leipzig’s formation while using a younger starting eleven than usual, with Sessegnon at left wing-back, Tanganga at centre-back alongside Dier and Alderweireld. Aurier played at right wing-back, Winks and Lo Celso played as the two central midfielders while the trio of Lucas Moura, Lamela and Dele Alli started upfront.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 16.31.24

RB Leipzig’s Asymmetric 5-2-3 in Possession (central superiority)

As mentioned above Mourinho tried to mirror Leipzig’s formation, which was meant to enable Tottenham to create access (using the man for man match-ups the formation naturally created) and a better pressing structure and mechanisms in order to create possible traps on the flank. 

As Leipzig played with a 5-man backline, the first pressing line of Spurs could easily create access to them and have them passing towards each wide centre-back or the pass to the central midfielders of Leipzig using that as the trigger to try and recover/trap or just prevent Leipzig from progressing in possession.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 17.27.37
As we can see in this graphic of two 5-2-3 formations against each-other, it is rather easy to create access and create equal numerical situations on the flank and for example, have access to all specific players except the advantage of using the goalkeeper.

After 8-10 minutes, there was a very flexible change positionally regarding Leipzig’s positional structure in how they created new solutions and options to create advantages vs Spurs’ 5-2-3 pressing. 

A very interesting one was how Upamecano in early build-up phases positioned himself as an extra 6 together with Laimer. This enabled Sabitzer to roam higher while the full-backs dropped a bit deeper to create 2v1 situations with the wide centre-back with the aim of progressing on the flanks.

Upamecano’s positioning as a false 6 made it possible for Leipzig to have Sabitzer (the #6 of Leipzig) in a higher position which created a midfield box of 4 players positioned centrally, thus creating a numerical advantage in central positions.
As seen here, Upamecano is in a higher starting position during the early build-up phase. Gulácsi plays it out to Klostermann who continues the play towards Mukiele and the Tottenham press is easily bypassed. 

The numerical superiority created with the adjusted role of Upamecano in early build-up and Sabitzers more advanced positioning destabilised Spurs’ defensive structure. Both of their central midfielders were often out of position in the dangerous cutback zone after being bypassed in the press.

It was from these sequences that Sabitzer could threaten, attack spaces and eventually score two goals.

So in higher zones when in possession, Leipzig looked more like a 5-3-2 structure with Nkunku dropping down as an #8 together with Sabitzer (positioned in a more advanced role). This enabled Leipzig to easily manipulate and take advantage of the adjusted positional structure centrally allowing them to progress more cleanly when switching play diagonally to the ball-far 8s. This left Spurs’ central midfield (no.6) in inferior positions to defend the deeper zones due to being dragged out of position when moving forward to press in midfield.

Werner and Schick played an exceptional part in creating space for their teammates. Werner roamed wide to keep Sessegnon deep, thus opening space for Angeliño, Nkunku or Sabitzer to penetrate in. The two Leipzig forwards were also positioned with a wide distance between each other to decrease oppositional cover, which meant that Spurs had fewer players occupying their opponents, thus creating more space for Leipzig’s midfielders as they were uncomfortable defending going forward. 

As seen here, Leipzig progress via Nkunku who positions deeper to receive in the ball-far half-space/central zones due to the numerical advantage created structurally by Leipzig.

RB Leipzig’s Defensive Approach (The Importance of Forward Defending)

As mentioned, Leipzig’s starting formation was a 5-2-3 but in possession. Leipzig were more asymmetric and flexible, but in defence they maintained a 5-2-3 pressing structure. 

The 5-2-3 defending formation of Leipzig, here in midfield pressing.

Since Spurs were rather static in the first and second lines of positioning in their build-up, Leipzig where much more successful in their pressing attempts. Leipzig could, as mentioned with Spurs, press the backline rather easily with the front three and had good access with the two 6’s to pressing Spurs’ two central midfielders.

Leipzig forcing Tottenham wide, with Nkunku pressing Alderwiereld who continues play towards Sessegnon who is pressed by the wing-back of Leipzig, Mukiele, while the rest of their structure are shifting (ball-oriented) and closing down options for Spurs.

What Leipzig did differently, effectively, which was a vital aspect compared to the structure of Spurs, was the way the forwards defended. More specifically how they dealt with the roaming of Alli who would drop down as a 10, or how the wingers dropped into deeper positions to create positional superiority.

In these situations, Leipzig’s centre-backs were very strict in their approach, almost situationally man-marking the Spurs player dropping, which enabled them to prevent eventual progression due to keeping the Spurs players in worse positioning when receiving the potential pass.

As seen here, Leipzig force Spurs wide with their 5-2-3 pressing scheme, with Upamecano situationally man-marking Dele Alli to generate access and eventually prevent him from being in a superior position to progress Spurs’ attack.

The forward defending together with the brilliant display when in rest-defence situations and their intent to counter-press, lead to Leipzig completely dominating the game against last years Champions League finalists. 

Conclusion

This was a game in which Nagelsmann received even more praise due to his tactical knowledge. It was a contest which had Mourinho’s tactics looking rather out-dated compared to Nagelsmann. Due to the fact that Leipzig’s players are able to analyze and adapt in-game, changing their structure to create better options to attack as well as their intensity without the ball goes to show how highly competitive Leipzig can be.

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