Analysis: Paris Saint-Germain’s Central Overloads Too Much to Handle for RB Leipzig

It was only 2013 when RB Leipzig began playing in Germany’s third division. Fast forward just seven years and the club found themselves playing in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. Their brilliant run earned them a place amongst Europe’s elite, after being drawn to face French powerhouses, Paris Saint-Germain.

The tactical battle between coaches Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann was certainly one to look forward to and a main feature of the game. Tuchel’s set-up prevailed as the better one as his side used asymmetric structures which facilitated a dynamic and flexible style of play combined with individual superiority. The task of taking on PSG proved to be too tough for Nagelsmann and Leipzig to cope with. Although they lost the game, the team’s performances put the spotlight on the fantastic job Nagelsmann did in his first season in charge.


Leipzig used a 4-3-3 starting formation which developed into a 4-1-4-1 in defensive phases as well as an asymmetric 3-3-3-1 (as against Atlético Madrid). In possession, instead of having Laimer leave the double #6 position and drifting wide, he played as a winger in the midfield chain and had license to roam into wide zones, while Sabitzer, Nkunku and Olmo played as the three #10s behind PSG’s midfield. However, the players often dropped in front to create a double #6 with the otherwise lone playing pivot Kevin Kampl.

RB Leipzig’s starting 4-1-4-1 formation against Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-3-3.

The 4-1-4-1 formation was used presumably to create more zonal control against PSG’s flexible possession. PSG’s adjustments and dynamic positioning in possession caused Leipzig several issues and, as a result, the German side lost efficiency when trying to create access to their defending.

Leipzig in their 4-2-3-1 in pressing structure, with Poulsen forcing play to one side of the pitch where Olmo tried to create access to the ball-near #6 and in cases of successful switches to Atlético’s ball-far CB, Olmo continued his pressing on the CB while using cover-shadow to cover the ball-near #6/central zones. Nkunku and Sabitzer were oriented to the half-spaces while keeping access to the full-backs in pressing. Here, we can see Kampl and Laimer in deeper positions allowing them to better defend Atlético Madrid’s central attacking options and their direct plays.

RB Leipzig’s Issues With and Without the Ball

Nagelsmann has often instructed his team to use a midfield pressing system against superior teams to create a more controlled game even without possession. From the start, they struggled to create proper pressing traps against PSG due to the fact that PSG were able to quickly move possession between the centre-backs and create 2v1 situations against Poulsen who played as the lone striker.

The progression of PSG’s centre-backs forced Leipzig’s midfielders to press and leave the midfield chain, and it was these spaces that PSG focused on exploiting with Herrera and Neymar positioning themselves in the half-space in order receive passes.

In order to create more distance from Leipzig #8s when pressing and to force their whole team to shift across further, Paredes would drop diagonally to the side PSG’s two centre-backs, creating an asymmetric 3-man backline in order to switch from half-space to half-space at speed while maintaining control of possession.

PSG created an asymmetrical box of 4 players/diamonds against Leipzig’s 3 midfielders (4v3), creating numerical superiority in central areas.

Paredes’ positioning not only created positional superiority but also 3v2 numerical superiority against Sabitzer and Laimer, making it tough for the pair to get early access when pressing. Sabitzer had several good pressing situations but could quite easily and quickly. This happened when passes were played back to Kimpembe who played it vertically or to Marquinhos, the ball-near #6, who could switch play or find a vertical pass too. Additionally, at times Leipzig was outplayed down the flanks.

Illustration of the rotations and spacing made by PSG players in possession. It shows the asymmetric diamond or box formation in the centre where Di María and Mbappé would often occupy Leipzig’s full-backs to create space for Neymar and Herrera to receive between the lines.
Further illustration of Paris Saint-Germain’s positional structure, with Di María and Mbappé switching positions.
Here we can see the superiority created against Leipzig’s 4-1-4-1 structure in defence. As mentioned before, due to the fact that Mbappé was positioned out wide and Neymar in the half-spaces, near Paredes, when he had the ball, it created 4v3 numerical superiority for PSG in the half-space zone. Paredes’ position either had him progressing with the ball, moving Sabitzer out of position, which opened up space behind for Neymar. In these cases, Laimer had to cover a lot more ground, allowing Bernat more space on the flanks. The positioning of Bernat, Neymar and Mbappé always created triangular situations. They had several pass options between them meaning PSG not only had superiority in numbers but also in terms of positioning and could easily combine through the lines. Mbappé’s wide position could be seen as a high level of individual superiority against Mukiele either by receiving from inside and then into moving towards open spaces or through more direct plays into space behind Mukiele.

While in possession, Leipzig struggled to create clean ways of progressing as PSG’s pressing and defending focused on congesting the central axis, with good use of cover shadows.  Although Leipzig had chances to play centrally, they were forced into playing poorly executed execution of passes. This was a result of Mbappé and Di María covering central passing options well while maintaining vertical compactness with small distances to Herrera and Paredes, who were tasked with intercepting potential passes past the first pressing line.

PSG’s 4-3-3 protected their own backline by being very disciplined in their defensive roles and positions. They did this by covering the space between the lines and the channels into Leipzig’s front three (something which Atlético had issues against).

Leipzig’s structure in possession and the issues PSG created with their central-oriented 4-1-2-2-1/4-3-3 pressing structure. They were efficient in how they kept a compact structure horizontally and how they used cover-shadows in order to prevent Leipzig from exploiting the potential free player. They were also efficient in terms of how well they executed their pressing in order to create access and prevent Leipzig from having time on the ball. Notice how the three midfielders cut off passing lanes into Leipzig’s three #10s using cover-shadows, protecting central zones much better, compared to a 4-4-2 formation.


Nagelsmann adjusted the formation as Leipzig used a 4-2-3-1 in the latter parts of first half, albeit without any change in efficiency. Tuchel had prepared for that too as PSG created an asymmetric 2-3-5 structure in possession in response.

The final change was that of the changes in 2nd half by Nagelsmann when he implemented a 5-3-2 structure but it did little to affect the game change as PSG maintained control and finished of the tie by scoring the 3rd goal in the 56th minute.

PSG’s fantastic overall performance highlighted Tuchel’s value who prepared for several different scenarios that could occur in the game. This ensured that PSG will not be underestimated ahead of the final after dominating this fixture. As for Leipzig, Nagelsmann perhaps prepared to play against a 4-4-2 structure which could explain his decision to use a 3-man backline in possession and a 4-1-4-1 structure without possession.

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