Tactical Analysis: Overload Wings, Switch-Play, and Individual Brilliance Lead Bayern over RB Leipzig

During the Hinrunde’s climatic conclusion in a battle for first place, Bayern attempted to ruin RB Leipzig’s compactness with strong overload play, smart spacing, and quick offensive interplay as the club exploited Leipzig’s “under-loaded shape.” Overall, the hosts continuously tried to create space on the flanks trying to utilize the presence of Arjen Robben as well as providing many opportunities for Douglas Costa to penetrate through the wing using his superiority in one-on-one situations. As usual, Robert Lewandowski and Thiago Alcantara played huge roles in Bayern’s offensive scheme.

The formation before Forsberg dismissal

Basic Offensive Orientations

Against a such highly-compact side, Carlo Ancelotti’s boys displayed strong ball-orientation in their offensive movements. With this orientation, Bayern created many overloads in the ball-near area which, in turn, opened up space on the ball-far side. For example, after an overload and switch from the left side, Bayern tried to set Robben free through the combination of Robert Lewandowski and Philipp Lahm. Situationally, Lewandowski would drop even deeper than Robben because the Pole acted as the connector for Bayern’s progression from their deeper area. Combined with the deep run by the captain, Bayern looked to Robben as the final-passer or any direct execution/action, since the Dutchman is well-known to be good at cutting inside to create the shooting space.

But, against Ralph Hasenhüttl’s defensive system, Robben and Bayern in general sometimes appeared to have difficult times in creating valuable opportunities, at least before the first goal, since the chance creating actions were easily dealt with by RBL’s 18-yard box defense. For instance, Robben could display some cutting inside movements as he progressed with the ball at his feet, but the nearer he got to the box the more difficult it became for him to penetrate diagonally directly into the box. Hassenhüttl’s troops managed to block the direct access and in turn forced him to pass it out to the flank which resulted in many easily-handled crosses.

With David Alaba and Douglas Costa on the left flank, Ancelotti tried to directly exploit the individual abilities of his fullbacks. There were many “double-occupations” on the flank followed by  quick combinations and shifts between the nearest corridors as Thiago Alcântara, Alaba, and Costa interchanged on the left corridors (half-space and flank). Some strong connections supported by high-pressure-resistance (Thiago and Alaba are renowned for their ability to hold the ball and evade heavy pressure) were easily found here. Bayern’s orientation was simple: play the ball wide then create as many as possible opportunities for Costa to accelerate with his speedy dribble.

For RB Lepizig, as usual, the orientation of attack was simply playing the ball directly to the last line relying on the aerial skills of Yussuf Poulsen. The Danish striker started his movement from the left-wide position, from which he would move laterally to the center or near half-space to make some flicks to the front three RBL players who occupied the opponent’s intermediate-defense. Against this tactic, Bayern focused on staying compact centrally. This strategy was supported by a quick two-directional press: the backward press by the double-pivot and the onward press by the defenders. Despite Poulsen still managing to win most of his aerial duels, his efficiency was quite low, as Leipzig could only get a single shot on goal from its basic offensive plan. Bayern’s shape allowed the Bavarians to keep the central area compact, resulting in some interceptions and dispossessions of RBL.

The physicality of Vidal and Alaba proved to be crucial at how Bayern regained possession after Poulsen’s flick-ons. This double-pivot pairing of Bayern performed the needed backward press after Leipzig’s front line managed to win the second ball. For Alaba, his initial duty was to cover the lateral run of Poulsen. The Austrian fullback tried to delay the towering striker’s move to the center. The left back also had to quickly move back to the defensive-line as he had to cover the left-back area.

Bayern’s compactness around the center forced RBL to move wide and\or created many turnovers in the center, which was also the reason of the low expected-goal totals for the guests.

The Build-up Phase and Structural Adjustment

As the buildup phase began from the back, Xabi Alonso (and Arturo Vidal alternately) dropped deep into the first line, providing strong connection with the home side’s defensive line. One of these two players stayed higher and occupied the 6 (position) in front of the back-line. With Xabi and Vidal, along with the central defender duo, occupying the first two lines in Bayern’s build-up, it was clear Ancelotti needed his players to make sure they had stabilized the deep-circulation before making any progression.

Vidal was often found dropping deep and acting as a (left) half-back or center-half as he helped his team to progress the ball through the near half-space or flank corridor. By dropping deeper, the Chilean was providing the needed cover in case Mats Hummels made movement forward – something that happened slightly more often seen in the second-half, when Bayern were firmly ahead.

But the key of Bayern’s progression from their first phase was not the movement of Vidal/Xabi. Without structural adjustment and good spacing from all the other Bayern players, it would have been nearly impossible for Bayern to cleanly progress considering how good RBL are at executing their pressing system.

For Bayern, overloading the near half-space and flank was key. First, Bayern’s fullbacks stayed wide and kept the distance close to the first line. By staying wide, they occupied the same horizontal line with Leipzig’s six, and remained ideally-close to the first-line of Bayern’s deep circulation. Thus, the full backs maintained good attacking connections. Their positioning also kept RBL’s wide-10 to stay on the same line with the six-duo, as the wide-10s were assigned to keep an eye on the opponent’s full-backs. Since the wide-10 occupied the middle-line, the numbers of Leipzig’s pressing line were reduced from four to three lines. RBL used to press with a three banks of two + four, but the adjustment they made here had altered it to a two banks of four formation.

On the half-space, behind Leipzig’s second-line, Thiago and Costa crated a double-occupation and kept Bayern from being “underloaded” in near half-spaces, as well as providing strong overload for progression. The presence of these three (Alaba, Costa, and Thiago) kept Leipzig’s second-line from pressing forward with intensity as they usually do. The second benefit was that it kept RBL guessing about where the attack would next be directed, and whether it would be to the nearest corridors or switched to the far ball.

The off-the-ball movements of Costa and Xabi were also crucial (see info graphic below) for Bayern’s forward progression. From the half-space, Costa dragged RBL’s near CM wide and opened up space for Thiago, while Xabi’s vertical run occupied RBL’s players to stay in the center. The positioning of Hummels was important, too. By moving to the half-space as the ball-player , Hummels enabled himself to have two different strategic options of attack, the center (through Thiago) or the flank (through Alaba). As Costa managed to drag the opposite’s player wide and allowed space for Thiago, Hummels fed the ball toward the center. After receiving the ball, Thiago made a quick shift and switched to the far-side.

A strong overload and quick shift by Thiago to switch to the far-side.

When Leipzig’s near wide-10 tried to press Bayern’s halfback, Bayern could then progress through the fullbacks. Particularly Alaba’s explosiveness and pressure-resistance made the fullback a frequent target when Bayern followed this strategy. Had Leipzig’s near CM managed to cover his movement, Alaba would have had Thiago on the near half-space as the passing-option for one-two combination, for instance. Thus, things were rather complicated for Hassenhüttl’s boys.

On other occasions, when possible, Bayern used the remarkable passing ability of Hummels and Xabi to progress the ball forward. Bayern relied on the diagonal long ball pass from the two to exploit the ball-far flank or half-space within Leipzig’s ball-oriented press. Bayern earned many progression space from such play. They attacked through the wide and made some crosses. Or, at times, they started from the flank and quickly cut inside toward the center to create chances closer to the danger-zone. Here, some minor problems occurred for Bayern. First, with his wing-orientation, Lewandowski was often found in the occupying wide-right area to pick up the long diagonal ball. His physicality enabled him to create quick combinations and chances from wide, but, on the other side, with their #9 moved wide, Bayern only left Thiago as the finisher in the box. Because Thiago is not an aerial threat, Bayern floated crosses to Thiago didn’t create much danger for RBL.

The next issue was that Bayern’s crossing play was hardly effective as RBL’s 18-yard box defense easily handled the crossed balls. The far half-space and flank were the weak areas of Leipzig’s pressing system within their highly strong ball orientation. However, Bayern was able to exploit the weaker-side by overloading the ball side and played through the press utilizing the individual brilliance and high pressure-resistance level of their own players.

Although it was difficult for Leipzig to overcome Bayern’s overload-and-switch strategy, when the hosts got closer to the box, RBL’s defensive shifting blocked Bayern’s diagonal access to the center. The ball-far wide-10 and full back that were supported by the ball-far CM and CB responded well as they created a lot of situations with numerical superiority which stopped Bayern from progressing through the center area. Much of Bayern’s wing play  ended up with floated crosses because Leipzig’s defense managed to block the diagonal access toward the center…. until the first goal.

On the Leipzig side, their build up play was more simple as ever. The circulation in the first line was only intended to provide enough time for the front line to establish the desired formation. The purpose was clear, Leipzig would play it long to Yussuf Poulsen, who would rely on his aerial ability to earn some valuable flick-ons, or pick the ball up, and make a quick break-through multiple off the ball movements among the front four.

But, Bayern’s horizontal and vertical compactness managed to thwart most of Leipzig’s progression after Poulsen’s flick on. Thiago, Xabi, and Vidal were all playing to their maximum capacity as they made a lot of valuable actions in the transitional phases.

Individual Brilliance, Pressure Resistance, and Spacing

Bayern’s first goal shows us just how brilliant Bayern’s players were on Saturday – both in defensive transition and in keeping possession. In transition, Thiago tracked back and regained possession by dispossessing Diego Demme. With his ball skills, Thiago progressed forward, beating Naby Keita, and managing to find Alaba on the left touchline. In a few very quick moves, Leipzig created a 6 vs 4 numerical advantage situation and trapped Bayern on the touchline. However, with individual skill and pressure-resistance, Bayern’s 4 managed to keep the possession and made a pass to Xabi which was followed by a quick switch to the right hand-side of the pitch.

Bayern’s first goal.

Costa and Alaba on the left side then Robben and Lahm on the right one were assigned with different duties. On the left side, Costa was used for his explosiveness. The Brazilian often swapped with Alaba, as they interchanged diagonally between the half-space and flank. When carrying the ball at his feet, Alaba would try to widen the space for Costa by moving inside toward the center before releasing a flat pass to the flank provided better angle for Costa to penetrate through Bernardo’s defensive-area.

Thiago, on the other hand, whose movement often supported these wide-men, acted as the one to add more dynamism. He often made quick vertical and lateral actions (pass, dribble, drive) around the center area and left corridors. With his physicality, Thiago occasionally dropped-deep to help advance the ball. Such move was usually triggered by the bad-spacing of Bayern’s six and central defender. The bad spacing which gave the pressing-access for RBL’s front line and held Bayern from progressing the attack. Thiago would drop deeper to the available space to help progressing, although it was not always ideal since the movement only created more pressing-access for RBL into Bayern’s half.

In the first goal, Bayern’s spacing in attack created a very good positional structure for Bayern, as well as strong connection. But spacing was also the issue in Bayern’s strong performance. Sometimes, it occurred on Bayern’s build up play. Xabi Alonso, Vidal, Hummels, and Javi Martinez were found positioned too close to each other, which made it hard for Bayern to cleanly progress the ball.

Thiago dropped deep to help advancing the ball.

On the other occasion, it was the bad choice of passing direction from the first line to the six that killed the potential progression. For instance, in a moment Hummels should have passed the ball to Xabi’s right foot as it would have enabled Xabi to make an immediate onward movement. But instead of playing it to the right, Hummels released a pass into the left foot of Xabi which forced the six to make more adjustments and allowed Leipzig to put an intense press from Xabi’s blind-side (back).

The other (ultimate) example for bad spacing and the dreadful effect of it was none other than Bayern’s second goal. Notice the bad positioning of the double-pivot and the sub-optimal spacing of the central defender duo.

RBL’s bad spacing within their deep-circulation prior to the second-goal

After the Red Card

After Forsberg’s red card, Sabitzer moved to the left and Poulsen dropped to the right wing. Sabitzer was often seen moving up to the central area with Werner shifted wide to the right tried to create play through the wide area.

Line-up after red card.

The problem was the same and magnified even greater for Leipzig. With 10 men, the intensity of the first line of press was greatly reduced.  Sometimes, they won the ball and progressed through the center, but since they got only a single number 9 upfront, the guests were having difficulties in finding the direct access through the center which in turn forced them to play it through the wide area.

In the other situations, Leipzig found it hard to penetrate through the flank as Bayern created many numerical advantages on the touchline. For RBL, the root cause was the same, as the club’s smaller presence upfront had greatly weakened Leipzig’s ball-orientation strategy. Being down to 10 men also negatively impacted to their defensive transition game, as Bayern quickly regained possession by overloading their six and back-line.

During the second-half, Bayern made another change. Robben went out and was replaced by Ribery. Costa shifted to the right and Ribery played on the left. Bayern still played with the strategy they used in the first-half. They overloaded the left side to open or widen space on the right side. The big chance by Lewandowski of 50th minute was the ultimate instance. A quick switch, wing overload on the underloaded side with combination between the wide-men created space in the danger zone of Leipzig’s 18-yard box.

Lewandowski and Thiago alternately occupied the half-space and the center between the lines. They moved across the filed to establish strong shape in order to create a strong attacking connection. This suited Bayern’s attack as the club’s play in the central area increased in the second-half. The host constantly sought out chances to get into the box through the space between the lines. They were trying to play around the structural block with rotational movement between the 9 and 10.


 A strategically comfortable win for The Bavarians. Their heavy wing-orientation was well-executed in the first-half. In the second-half, Ancelotti made a slightly alteration as they were trying to hit Leipzig through more centrally. Some nice rotational movements between the 10 and 9 post players managed to create space for Bayern in the danger zone.

The Emil Forsberg red card followed by the Lewandowski’s penalty obviously killed the game. With 10 men, Leipzig lost their pressing capability. They were heavily-beaten in the first line and also found it hard to cope against the Bayern circulation in the space between the lines, particularly on the half-spaces.

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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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