Champions League Tactical Analysis – RB Leipzig vs Porto

RB Leipzig 3-2 FC Porto:
Home Side Capitalized on Visitors’ Strategic Mistake in the 1
st Half

All five goals were scored in the first half. Sergio Conceicao’s decision to press using a 4-4-2 throughout the first half cost him several times. Quite surprisingly, he didn’t adjust the setup and needed to wait until the break to make changes to it. In the second half, Porto changed the defensive shape into a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 basic shape and it resulted in a better performance.

starting formations

The basic setup

Leipzig fielded their usual basic shape of 4-2-2-2. Klostermann and Halstenberg had larger roles in terms of ground coverage as the result of Leipzig’s left side focus. Halstenberg was often found occupying the left flank corridor to balance Forsberg’s narrow positioning in the left half space. On the right hand side, Bruma was occupying wider ground (compared to Forsberg) which in turn made Klostermann cover toward the half space (compared to Halstenberg). In central midfield, Keita and Kampl were tasked with helping the center back duo advancing the ball into higher areas. At times, the nearest central midfielder to the ball dropped slightly deeper into the half space besides the center back with the other one stayed at the central #6. Later, as the match developed, Orban made some deep passes righ of the last line trying to exploit the area behind Porto’s block. In the forward line, Sabitzer and Augustin moved across the #9 space to help both wide #10s to establish short connections in a very narrow structure in order to penetrate into Porto’s final third and box.

Porto appeared to play a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation, both in possession and out of possession. Porto pressed Leipzig’s 1st phase of build up using a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 basic shape (as you can see in the picture above). Mostly, Sergio Conceicao’s team started from a middle-block and was position-oriented. The two players from the first line occupied the #6 space but seemed to be a little passive as they only secured the central space rather than constantly taking any Leipzig’s players #6. The midfield four’s pressing manner was even more passive as they orientated to keep the midfield line stable. By being horizontally compact they only reacted when the ball or Leipzig’s players that came into their respective regions. This will be discussed later as the key element in the first half.

In possession, the basic 4-4-2 altered slightly as the full backs would be surging forward to provide width and generate access to make floated crosses into the box. Such actions were  typical (and one-dimensional) of  Porto’s chance creation approach throughout the first half.

Key Location and Key Space

37th minute. Key location and key space

Leipzig obviously focused their attack through the left side. This was also something similar to what they were doing during the match against Borussia Dortmund last week. The space marked with a red circle is the intermediate space in front of Porto’s back line. That space was the key space for Leipzig to exploit using their typical highly narrow positional structure which was established by the front-4 chain.

So what happened here? Halstenberg progressed the ball by making a diagonal dribble and found Forsberg free in the half space. Forsberg made an up-back-through combination with Sabitzer and managed to create a horizontal space between Porto’s central defender. A through pass by Sabitzer enabled Forsberg to shoot from the dangerous area in the penalty box that resulted in the second RBL goal.

The progression method

Playing the ball through the left back and progressing the ball forward into the attacking half space or flank would obviously be  how the home side began the left sided attack. The other method was directly accessing the depth in the center #10 (Sabitzer) to attract Porto’s press towards the center. This would be followed by a back pass by the receiving #10 to Leipzig’s central midfielder (Kampl). The ball then would be laterally distributed to the left back (Halstenberg). See the picture below.

Using center depth (Sabitzer) to open the wide area. The keys were: open the passing lane by moving away from the lane (Bruma); depth option (Sabitzer); Kampl and Keita narrow toward the center circle; and full backs (Halstenberg and Klostermann) provided width.

The other way was for either Keita or Kampl to progress the ball into that key space. As the connectors of play, these two also created the most passing attempts with  83 and 75 passes, respectively. Keita (along with Sabitzer) even recorded the most key passes with 4 key passes (thanks for InStat for providing the post-match stats).

Forsberg and Sabitzer were often the ones to receive in the key spaces with Augustin taking a higher post to pin back Porto’s back line. Sabitzer/Forsberg at #10 there was intentionally to provide an up-back-through option (Jed Davies, 2016) for the ball carrier. For example, Forsberg improvised the positional play by dropping deeper into the channel between Porto’s right and central midfielder and in the same line with Porto’s midfielder’s line instead of staying behind it. As the ball was played into his feet, Forsberg would dribble forward toward the center. In this situation, Sabitzer dropped to the 10 space (diagonally to Forsberg’s starting position) to offer the up-back-through to ease Forsberg’s penetration into the box.

At times, Leipzig couldn’t generate clean access through this key area, but as they established a very narrow structure positionally (supported by good spacing within), the other advantage was that it invited Porto to shift in a heavy ball oriented manner, which in turn allowed Leipzig to use the weaker side to loosen the intense press.

The other option for Leipzig to progress from first line was directly playing it to the widest player on the left flank. This was possible when Porto’s middle and back line was dragged narrow toward the center and thus widened the space for the left back to run into through the flank corridor.

After 30 minutes into the 1st half, Leipzig made a tactical alteration. Bruma shifted to the left and Forsberg shifted to the right. This also altered the coverage area of both full backs. With Bruma wider to the flank, Halstenberg moved toward the half space more often than before. On the right side, Klostermann had to stay wide as Forsberg would always tuck into the center and even far half space. With Bruma on the left side acting as a classic winger, Leipzig’s left side offered more pacy and different dimensions of attacking threats.

Porto’s press = the root cause of their defensive problem

Both of Porto’s forwards started the pressing orientation by occupying Leipzig’s double pivot. The two forwards seemed to focus o n securing the central space instead of constantly pressing the nearest opponents. Sometimes they even moved higher to go for the central defender and left some space which enabled Leipzig’s #6 duo to receive and progress the attack.

In a middle block, Porto’s midfield four was trying to stay horizontally compact. Most of the time, the mid four would only react if any pass or Leipzig’s players came into their respective regions. If there was any situation to trigger one of Porto’s central midfield to step up to pick up the deepest Leipzig central midfielder, it was the situation when the visitors pressed in a very high block. In a very high block, both forwards would go higher and stay close to both central defenders. The task to contain the Leipzig’s #6 was taken by the nearest central midfielder (usually Sergio Oliveira).

The bad effect of Porto’s midfield four behaviour in the middle press was that it allowed spatio-temporal advantage for Leipzigs #6 players. But, on the other hand, this was an understandable decision. Why? Because, Porto’s mid four was trying to block the direct access to 3-4 Leipzig players who occupied the space behind the midfield. Had one of the central midfielders stepped up, the space behind the mid four would be opened and, at once, weaken the security to the back line. That’s why they needed to keep the shape and remain compact and stable. But, despite the fact that it was a understandable decision, in general, it failed to stop Leipzig from exploiting Porto’s #6 space. Why? because the positional structure of the hosts’ attack managed to ruin the spatial compactness of Porto’s block. Augustin’s goal was perhaps the ultimate example of how Leipzig managed to exploit the space.

The 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 of Porto’s shape completely failed to deal with Leipzig’s attacking approach. A change to be made in the 2nd half.

Porto’s one dimensional attack

The presence of Brahimi and Aboubakar was paramount for the visitors.They often relied on Brahimi’s dribbling ability (attempted 13 dribbles, succeeded 7 times) to create space for penetrating into Leipzig early third. On the other hand, Porto also relied on Aboubakar’s physical ability, particularly when they accessed the last line (to Aboubakar) by playing deep passes right from the back line.

The approach was simple. Particularly in the first half, Porto tried to rely on the flanks to generate chances to play immediate crosses. There were many deep crosses played by Porto players. In build up play from their back line, Porto had shown the tendency of using the flank for progression. The ball would be played to the full back or the higher wide man. The role of the central midfielder duo, in this respect, was to help Porto recirculate possession should the attack in a certain side have trouble generating safe access. For example, the ball from the wide area would be played to the center, to the central midfielder, then the receiving CM would play it back to attract the press, or simply switch it to the far flank trying to generate other crossing possibilities.

The other issue in Porto’s attack was (this is weird for me) when they attacked from the wide area, Porto would also overload the central sector. The weird thing was it was not intended to support the wide attack (should they inverted towards the center.)Despite putting many players in the center, Porto still insisted on creating chances by releasing many (harmless) floated crosses. Here is a great example by Miguel Layun (top right in blue) from the 39th minute:

The ball was overhit by a good 10 yards. That would be a theme for Porto, who failed to deliver 15 of 17 crosses accurately per Instat.

And the weirdest thing was that Porto would be very happy to put 5-6 players in the box when they crossed the ball from the flank. At least the hopelessly overhit ones by Alex Telles and Layun did not always hurt, but other poor cross would hurt their defensive transition play in case a second ball occurred.

Porto’s 4-5-1/4-1-4-1

Right after the break, we could see major some changes in Conceicao’s system. The first one, Porto fielded a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 out of possession. The intention was clear, it was needed for Porto to provide more security to their #6 space. On the other hand, this also enforced their presence in the central area for attacking purposes. With a 4-1-4-1, Porto often kept Leipzig from quickly accessing the #6 space. It also established a stronger formation for second ball battles. One of the good examples was the moment from the 47th minute in the second half. Keita couldn’t utilize the third passing lane because there was Danilo at the #6 position containing the passing lane to Forsberg and Sabitzer who occupied the space beside him. As Augustin made a deep run behind the back line, Upamecano then released a chipped pass to the onrushing Augustin. But, Marcano managed to head it clear. The ball fell right in front of the Porto defense. 

The 4-1-4-1 enabled Porto to generate a 2 v 2 situation between Danilo and Oliveira against Sabitzer and Forsberg. The loose ball was picked up and progressed by Danilo. This scene ended up with Orban stopping Porto’s counter attack by fouling Aboubakar in the half space for a yellow card.

The other improvement: Porto showed a more compact shape and better spacing in the area around the ball in order to regain possession after a long distance pass from the back line to the last line. This was something missing from the first half and made it hard for them to create any promising situations in Leipzig’s defensive third.

The last improvement was: more utilization of the center, particularly with the introduction of Oliver Torres. With his individual ability, Torres was able to keep possession and manipulate the press which meant that it created the opportunity for him to bring others intoplay.

Leipzig in the 2nd half

No major changes after the break, except for Kampl being now more often found on the left side and thus Keita shifting to the right. The structure of attack and press was similar. In possession in the final third, the far full back tucked into the half space and center to establish a stable structure in case of a gegenpressing situation occurring.

The other alteration was made when Poulsen came onto the field replacing Augustin. With his aerial ability, Leipzig altered the attacking approach and played more direct long floated passes to Poulsen to create attacking access. Astonishingly, the Danish striker was involved in 10 aerial duels in just 17 minutes on the pitch, winning three of them.

One of the key battles of the second half. Porto’s central attack through Torres and the effort of exploiting Leipzig’s #6 space vs how Leipzig managed to stop it by using the central defender as the secondary defensive midfielder.


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

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