Finally, it was time for the long-awaited Champions League restart. RB Leipzig, who beat José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur in the previous round, faced a very tough battle against Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. Leipzig came into this game as slight underdogs.
Against Atlético Madrid, Leipzig was missing their German superstar Timo Werner but was still able to find ways to dominate within their style with yet another tactical master class provided by the young coaching prodigy, Julian Nagelsmann.
As Nagelsmann says himself, a formation itself is not as important because the roles given within the team to the players which makes Leipzig play in a more asymmetric style.
When pressing, Leipzig lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation but in possession phases ended up in a 3-3-3-1 formation, where Laimer (who played together with Kampl as a double #6 in defensive phases) moved wide as a wing-back, while Angeliño (the left-back) left the four-man backline chain to advance into a higher position as a wing-back. Sabitzer acted as a winger on the right side while Nkunku played as a winger on the left, with Olmo as the #10 behind the target forward Poulsen.
The 4-2-3-1 without the ball was a good way for Leipzig to create more pressing-lines and thus create more access to press Atlético Madrid higher up/earlier while still having the possibility of dealing with the direct plays of Atlético and have a chance to win second ball plays/attacks.
RB Leipzig’s Positional Play
As mentioned above, the rotation was that of Laimer moving into wide positions as Angeliño advanced into more attacking positions on the flank, both players providing wide options in possession.
The system created was an asymmetric 3-5-1-1 (3-3-3-1) structure where the purpose was to create superiority against Atlético Madrid’s pressing/defending system.
In the first phase of progression, Leipzig had 3 centre-backs with Kampl ahead as a pivot, creating an extra man in the first progression phase. Kampl provided either a position to reduce opposition cover and thus open up space for the 3 centre-backs or his position lured one of the central midfielders of Atlético Madrid to ‘jump-out’ and press Kampl, which created passing options between the their midfield line.
If Leipzig were unable to progress cleanly in the first phase, they used Gulácsi as the ‘free-player’ and pushed up Upamecano into a central position behind Atlético’s first line of pressure.
It was from this situation that Leipzig scored their second goal of the game. As Trippier (the right full-back of Atlético) got dragged out of the backline to press in a higher zone, Leipzig took advantage of this.
Leipzig overloads play on one side via positional interchanges and flexibility with a proper structure for second ball wins in crossing situations. In this situation Leipzig end the play by switching to Sabitzer, who has changed positions situationally with Laimer crossing into the box which they attack with many players.
Another way Leipzig created progressions was via longer plays to Poulsen with 3 players behind. Many lay-offs opportunities arose which was a very efficient way for Leipzig to basically bypass the Atlético Madrid pressing lines and progress via lay-offs or winning second balls.
Leipzig’s approach was successful because of the structure they used in possession and the dynamic positional interchanges between the players. In the final 3rd, they created triangles and diamonds in relation to the ball to always create options, combination plays and in defensive transition to create pressing traps. Their rest-defence was really efficient and their counter-pressing was executed brilliantly.
After beating two of the most famous defensive-minded, Julian Nagelsmann’s team provided a very dominant performance and have now written history with Leipzig making the semi-finals of the Champions League only 11 years after their founding.
Some important takeaways could be the amount of presence Leipzig was able to create when attacking the opposition’s box and the efficient ways of controlling the seconds ball plays, something which Atlético Madrid usually thrive on. Nagelsmann removed much of Atlético’s strengths and turned them into advantages for his own team.
Although Atlético struggled to really create dangerous and clean attacks, Simeone introduced João Félix to play in wide areas in behind Laimer which forced Klostermann to either step up, which created large space in the backline or forced Laimer to back-press subsequently leaving a bigger gap for Kampl to cover in transitions which Atlético tried to attack through.