Analysis: RB Leipzig Stunned by Ruthless Manchester United

RB Leipzig, in top form in the Bundesliga, came into this game as slight favourites and were almost seen as favourites against a Manchester United side struggling to reach their full potential. The Germans won their opening group game 2-0, while United pulled off a shock result to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the other Group H tie.

CONTROL OF CENTRAL ZONES

United’s diamond structure created many issues for Leipzig while in possession as it not only controlled the central zones of the pitch, but also let United create access to pressing situations and not be too reactive when defending. This meant that United was able to set traps towards the flanks and blocked options for Leipzig to progress.

United did spend a lot of time defending deeper but had control of central areas and forced plays for Leipzig out-wide. 

Leipzig had some successful plays with rotations when they tried to overload the flank zones in order to progress, but United were also aggressive in their defending of flank zones with good use of cover-shadowing from the 8s, while pressing the flanks and could solve the wide-attacks by Leipzig who had a hard time to penetrate via central players. 

Here we can see how central-oriented United’s structure is and Greenwood starting his press towards the side centre-back as soon as Upamecano started to pass it – this being a pressing-trigger by United. Notice also the position of van de Beek and how he is able to control vertical, diagonal and horizontal options in his 10 position and the two 8s in Fred and Pogba controlling half-space zones which forced Leipzig into the wide areas (as mentioned).

There were three types of defending structures in order to defend Leipzig’s wide plays. Due to the fact that the diamond structure can be too compact in terms of distances between the players centrally and create worse access for horizontal compactness and access. But as United forced the play wide in midfield pressing areas, Fred was responsible to press the Leipzig’s wingback as seen in the picture above. Greenwood has access to the ball-near centre-back and van de Beek has access to ball-near midfield option. Wan-Bissaka meanwhile covers space with the distance to cover a potential pass to Nkunku, Leipzig’s 8.

Another example, similar to what happened on the opposite flank. Martial forces play to the flank, by pressing the side centre-back, Donny van de Beek shifts across to cover Leipzig’s…
…while Pogba is controlling the half-space and the fullback Shaw is pressing the wingback Henrichs of RBL. This was the 2nd way, United defended the flank-zones and this is only logical due to the fact that, Pogba was being covered by an oppositional player in terms of his deeper positioning, which forced the fullback Shaw to press the wing-back in order to not be out-numbered. The 8s of United could solve the pressing of the wingbacks by having cover-shadow inside and blocking RBL’s 8s too.

In deeper areas where Leipzig could maintain some longer possession spells using back passes and faster switches of play, Greenwood or Martial dropped deeper to defend horizontally in order to create a longer ”chain” in the 3-man midfield.

Not only did Leipzig have issues in their possession play but also in when defending in a 5-3-2. When United were in possession, they struggled to create a ‘numerical advantage’ , a 4v3 overload in the centre.

When defending Leipzig’s two strikers had to cover-shadow the option of passing to Matic while also keeping pressure on the United’s centre-backs, which created not well-timed and efficient pressing situations. 

As seen here, Leipzig’s strikers forced play wide. In this situation the Olmo, playing as an 8 was responsible for pressing Shaw, at full-back. 

Due to the diamond structure Pogba was able to penetrate the half-space areas behind Olmo, which left him positioned in a superior position, while the ball-near striker of United occupied Leipzig’s wing-back.

Leipzig were not able to defend this, as Kampl shifting across to cover van de Beek would make him a free player via a diagonal pass. 

Here is the same situation, which shows the potential diagonal pass into the ”10” position for United, which RBL had issues to defend. 

United did not create many dangerous attacks but it gave them enough options via ball-local areas in order to combine and potentially switch to ball-far areas. 

This forced Nagelsmann too change from a 5-3-2 to a 4-4-2 in defending only after 30 minutes in to the 1st half as seen in the picture below.

Leipzig in their 4-4-2 in the 2nd half, a change which creates better access to United’s diamond structure while shifting across but United adapted quickly. Solskjaer adapted quickly and used Matic & Fred by having Matic drop deeper between the two centre-backs in order to create a 3v2 against Leipzig’s first line of pressure, or by having Fred drop wide diagonally for the same purpose.

CONCLUSION

Another change to a 4-2-3-1 was done in later stages of the game, but was ineffective.  As mentioned United had assymetry in possession, due to their more fluid positioning creating superiority through methods such as ’tilting’ the diamond to a box, which maintained their numerical superiority in central zones.

It also allowed the strikers to reduce oppositional cover by drifting wide and overloading flanks. A big lesson for Nagelsmann is to respect the transitions and individual player quality, creating a better positional structure for better rest-defending . Additionally to find better ways to draw the opposition’s shape out of position and attack those spaces between or via the flanks. 

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