Tactical Analysis: RB Leipzig 1-0 Borussia Dortmund

On match day 1, against FC Mainz, Borussia Dortmund managed to earn all three points, but they also struggled against Mainz’s defensive system. For BVB, the departure of three big stars (Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Ilkay Gündogan) in single season arguably the biggest reason and Thomas Tuchel not starting Julian Weigl probably explain why BVB struggled against Mainz, as they  clearly struggled to pass out of the back.

On the 2nd match day of 2016-2017 campaign, Dortmund visited RB Leipzig, who were hosting their first-ever top flight match. While Weigl started, Tuchel made some other changes to his line-up: Łukasz Piszczek replaced Felix Passlack at right side, Sebastian Rode partnered with Weigl at the number 6, Gonzalo Castro shifted to the upper right as Tuchel benched Ousmane Dembélé, and Mario Gotze started as the number 10.

Leipzig Press vs. Dortmund Build-up

Ralph Hasenhüttl’s initial plan was clear, as RBL’s head coach anticipated the presence and passing/dribbling vision of Weigl. He instructed his forward-duo to block any access from BVB’s central defenders to the number 6.

Here, RBL’s forward-duo showed some intelligent pressing movement. For example, when Yussuf Poulsen took on a ball-carrying central defender, he put Weigl behind his cover-shadow, Timo Werner, who dropped slightly deeper and positioned himself at the back of Weigl. By doing this, Werner was able to anticipate any of Weigl’s movement from the blind side. With Werner dropping deeper to #10, RBL’s shape resembled something like a 4-2-3-1:

Blocking Julian Weigl opened space on the wide areas.

RB Leipzig relied heavily on pressing Weigl as the orientation for their press against BVB’s build-up play. Either Stefan Ilsanker or occasionally Diego Demme would also press Weigl if/when the RBL’s forward-duo pushed further forward to take on BVB’s centerbacks, Sokratis and Marc Bartra.  Combined with properly timing their collective pressure within the block, Leipzig made it even harder for Dortmund to progress through Weigl as its main node. To deal with RBL’s scheme, Tuchel once again played a backline with 3 central defenders, as Rode dropped deeper (and to the right) to complete a back 3 from his more customary second line position.

On one hand, with his explosiveness, Rode was able to move consistently between both boxes, a key trait for carrying on his assigned role. However, on the other hand, asking Weigl instead to hang back as part of a back 3, rather than Rode, might have been a better idea, as Weigl might have been able to impact BVB’s buildup more positively with room to think and act.

However, Tuchel’s back 3 had other purposes, particularly in supporting the next phases of Dortmund attacking-play. By playing a back 3 in the first line of buildup play, Tuchel enabled his wing backs to move high up into advanced areas. This opportunity allowed greater freedom for Piszczek and created chances for Castro to move to the near half-space to impact the central area.

With Castro in this “inverted” position in the half-space, Dortmund gained some crucial vertical access to bypass the early phases of RBL’s press. For example, BVB accessed Castro on the ball-side half-space by passing the ball to the likes of Rode, who made progress dribbling before passing forward to the upper ball-side half-space:

Castro as vertical access.
Castro as a vertical access point for BVB.

Opposite of Castro on the right was Mario Götze on the left, who had to cut inside from the left flank. Götze was a perfect choice for this role, since he’s technically gifted and capable of playing in tight spaces. Dortmund had some flamboyant attacking sequences as Götze received the ball and retain it, despite a heavy press from RBL.

Tuchel called upon his right and left flanks to use different tactics to break through RBL. On the right side, Piszczek went forward along the touchline combining with Castro, who occasionally tucked in. On the left, it was Mario Götze, who occupied on the ball side half-space when Dortmund needed access to progress from the first to the second phase of build-up play. Tuchel needed someone who could handle the pressure, bring the ball forward, and distribute it. Götze is the man for this job. No doubt.

The use of ball side half-space for vertical progression almost richly rewarded Dortmund at 29′ in the first half when Rode played the ball wide to Schmelzer. The energetic midfielder then moved further forward to play a short combination with Schmelzer, which enabled Rode to gain the access to the 18-yard box. This fast ball circulation unfortunately ended-up with only a close shot by Schürrle to the left side of the goal.

When The Yellow Blacks were unable to play through the press, they used their wing back(s) to access the areas higher up the pitch. For example, a pass from the back line to the wing would be “walled” to the more central and advanced areas. BVB’s other alternative was pushing the central defender forward into the final third. In the past, Mats Hummels tackled this role. Now it’s Marc Bartra’s job. Tuchel’s use of Bartra in this regard was spot on. In addition to his forward movement, Bartra’s laser-like passing skills created promising situations for Dortmund in the final third.

The starting formations.
The starting formations.

At times, RBL’s middle block press also achieved other tactical advantage for the newly promoted side.  In addition to eliminating Weigl’s involvement in build-up play, RB Leipzig’s hexagonal block also ruined ball circulation by isolating BVB’s first and upper lines. This effect might not have been purposely created, but such line isolation can only be generated if the pressing team maintains a compact shape.

The other factor that benefited Leipzig was the excessive spacing between Dortmund’s players, especially between their lines. For example, there was, distance between the first and the next lines of attack. Ideally, the attacking team needs close connections between lines to generate quick passing-combinations. When these connections are missing, the progression suddenly disappears.

During their press, Leipzig were a heavily “ball-oriented.” When they pressed horizontally in a compact formation, RBL’s players could also overload the ball-side half-space and the nearest wing. By overloading these three areas nearest to the ball, RBL destabilized the connection between BVB’s attacking lines. How? As aforementioned, this particular press isolated BVB’s first two lines and the upper one. This isolation made it difficult for Dortmund to earn clean access for their progression. The impact? BVB were forced to play it backward, laterally, or they were even trapped. Let’s look at an example of this problem:


As the diagram above illustrates, Bartra moved the ball to the right in buildup play. The Leipzig players reacted quickly and created the 4-vs-3 situation. In the very tight space and with very little time, Piszczek passed it back to Rode, who forwarded the ball to Weigl, but the young deep playmaker was forced to pass it back, since there was no adequate structure to support BVB’s progression forward.

Second-half: the changes

No major changes made by either side. Frequently, the ball circulation seemed to be well-predicted by both sides. Both sides began to penetrate deeper and deeper into the danger zone. A situation emerged in which both sides needed to alter their tactics.

Second-half line-ups.
Second-half line-ups.

To this end, Ousmane Dembélé came on to replace Castro. This substitution changed dynamic on the right flank, because Dembélé is a vertical player, who excels in quick attacks and likes to drive froward through the flank, making use of his blazing speed. Dortmund needed this speed as RB Leipzig seemed to have an even easier time dealing with the Yellow and Black attack.

For RB Leipzig, the substitutions of Oliver Burke and Naby Keita, in particular, offered the home side a different dimension of play.  Hasenhüttl played Burke in the place of  Poulsen, while Keita replaced the team captain, Dominik Kaiser.

As the match wound down, Leipzig’s narrow shape proved to be crucial not only in their defensive play, but also in their attack. The lone goal by Keita illustrated this perfectly. Marcel Halstenberg, the former BVB left back, intercepted the ball in a central area of the pitch’s middle-third. The ball was then played to Emil Forsberg, the left wide-midfielder, who roamed to the central area. Burke made a late run, and as Forsberg picked up his movement, the Swede fed Burke with a pass. The Scot kept going forward and the rest was a history. An assist from Burke to Keita gave RB Leipzig their first full three points.


Hasenhüttl’s troopers deserved this win. Tuchel admitted during the post-match conference that RB Leipzig had played superb football, and with class. It would be interesting to see how Leipzig maintain the growing pressure in the future, as well as how Tuchel improves his side during this transition season.

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.

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