November 19, 2017

RB Leipzig vs Bayern – DFB Pokal – Tactical Analysis

Leipzig 1-1 Bayern (in regulation):

Full Throttle, World Class Press, and Individual Brilliance

After Dortmund vs Leipzig, the clash of Leipzig and Bayern was expected to be one of the best matches of German football in the 2017/2018 season. The sides managed to fulfil expectations as the affair between Leipzig and Bayern provided an ultra intense and tactically interesting game. A full throttle clash; full of high-octane press, spiced up by some individual brilliance.

Leipzig’s risky-approach

In the first half, Bayern struggled to come out from Leipzig’s press. There were some scenes that the visitors could create space and promising situations, but there were also many situations that they were forced into unease situations resulting in long balls and turnovers, enabling Leipzig to regain possession and make some quick entries into Bayern’s box.

The purpose of Leipzig’s press was obvious, the home side tried to force as many long balls to the last line of Bayern’s block. This approach made them press high into the upper final third. You can see how this high press has led to RBL dominating the league in terms of challenges in these areas:

Every time Bayern tried to build up from the defensive third, Leipzig’s 1st line would press in a man-oriented manner while also blocking the passing lane into Bayern’s second line. Poulsen and Augustin in the first line were often supported by a situational wide forward as the near wide-10 stepped up to press Bayern’s side defender. In this regard, Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 transformed into an asymmetric 4-3-3. It was a pendulating press. Both wide-10s alternately stepped up on the ball-side as the opposite one dropped deep and narrow toward the center to build a secure spatial coverage should the opponent manage to find passing lane into the central area.

The third forward from the first line of press, as explained above, occupied an ideal location to establish good access to Bayern’s first line. Once it established, they pressed Bayern’s first  line aggressively at full speed.  Situationally, Arturo Vidal from Bayern’s 6 dropped off to the back line and formed a back three in the build up phase. When the ball switched to one flank, Leipzig’s near wide-10 moved up to press. When Vidal moved back into the 6 space, Leipzig’s central 9 followed him while the far side forward shifted toward the center leaving the far side defender unmarked. With this, Leipzig isolated Bayern into one side and also not only forced their opponents to play (premature) long balls forward, but they raised the chances of regaining possession from Bayern’s potential turnovers. 

Should Bayern play it long, Leipzig’s back line often managed a clearance into the midfield  followed by a highly compact press structured to isolate the location around the ball, in order to win it back quickly, and counter in a fast manner with their quick-short combination play. Keita and Kampl were super in these plays as the two were continuously able to secure the central midfielder by their physical-capabilities. It speaks volumes that Naby Keita won 13 of 24 challenges in his 55 minutes on the pitch, while Vidal and Tolisso combined for just 11 of 33!

Prior to the long ball, Leipzig’s first line of press pushed Bayern to the left side of Leipzig attacking area. When the ball came to Ulreich, Poulsen made a frontal press to the goalie, while Augustin picked up Vidal at Bayern’s 6, and Forsberg stayed near to Boateng. Ulreich made a long pass into the middle third and Halstenberg headed it forward. As Robben, then Kimmich picked up the loose ball, Leipzig’s players responded very fast by squeezing the location around the ball. Here, despite Leipzig failing to regain possession, as Keita fouled Kimmich, it perfectly showed the pressing pattern by RBL.

In middle-press, the shape transposed into a more flat 4-4-2 as the wide-10 dropped into the second line. One important note to talk about was, Leipzig’s risky-approach meant they would still try (insist) to maintain the intensity to press Bayern’s first line even though it was a hardly clean access. This, in turn opened up some temporary spaces, particularly on the wide area and the near half space. For example, Leipzig managed to block all easy progression-access around Bayern’s right side in middle third which would trigger Bayern to play a backward pass, to their left side, in order to invite Leipzig’s block to move higher. From the 4-4-2-ish shape, Leipzig’s right wide-man would move higher up the pitch to press Bayern’s left half back. As such a press was also implemented along with a horizontal shift from the right side to the ball side, Leipzig’s coverage on the ball side was sub-optimal. Thus the opponent’s ball carrying half back had a temporal advantage and enabled him to play it wide to the free left full back on the flank.

 

Bayern’s attack in the eighth minute exemplified it when Hummels accessed the free Alaba and Bayern were able to progress and found space in Robben territory on the right side in the final third. Robben then found Lewandowski with a through ball into the box and ended up with Bayern gained a corner kick.

Space opened up as Sabitzer pressed Hummels

Some other chances were also generated by such a pressing scheme. One of the good examples was the shot by Augustin after Leipzig managed a second ball from an Ulreich long ball.

In the 4-4-2-ish middle-press, the wide-10 stayed in the same line to central midfielders. This approach was for establishing a more compact shape in order to keep Bayern from making use of half spaces. It was also an adapted shape as Bayern lined up in possession by using two center backs in a 2-1-4-3 formation. With Bayern’s central midfield trio occupying the center and both full backs staying in the 8 line on the flank, there was no other safe option for Leipzig but maintaining a spatial compactness using a flatter 4-4-2.

Pressing gesture and box defending

One aspect that made Leipzig display the press very well was: the presser was able to perform the proper gesture in order to show weaker foot to the opponent’s ball carrier. Leipzig players didn’t always force the possession towards the touch-line. The presser, at times, made a run that would enable him to show weaker foot to the opponent’s ball carrier as well as block the progression access. This forced Bayern to be deeper and thus provided advantage for the high press to isolate the possession into an uneasy situation.

Another aspect was that RBL were able to constantly maintain their defensive shape when it came for them to defend the box. Leipzig could always create an ideal shape on the touch-line as they managed to create numerical superiority in that area. The good thing was they also kept it logical as in the danger zone of the box they never allowed a qualitative superiority to the opponent let alone being numerically inferior. Leipzig were able to maintain this even when they were down to 10 men in the second half, which says a lot about their tactical discipline and structure.

Leipzig defending the box

Bayern in attack

In a 4-4-2 pressing shape, one location which might be used to generate progression access is the space beside the first line (the ‘2’). Bayern often used it for the benefit of their progression. Thiago Alcantara and Tolisso were often found occupying the aforemention space. Bayern also attacked the flank, but with a different pattern of attack between each flank.

On the right side, Robben and Kimmich were slightly wider than on the left one. Bayern used the left side slightly more often than the opposite area, particularly when they progressed from the first line. On the left side, the combination was different because of the nature of the players they had. Coman and Alaba swapped positions between the half space and the flank with support from Thiago from the deeper half space. With proper timing and dynamic, they could display quick wall pass combinations which allowed them to get into the box through the flank.

Bayern often used the right side as the target of a pass for a switch from the left side. In the penetration through the right area, Robben along with Kimmich doubled up the flank as it seemed purposely to create more space for Robben to move into the half space and center. This was why Leandowski seemed to be static at the 9 spot in the center and not getting himself involved in the development of the wide attack. On the other hand, it consequently reduced the direct support from the half space for the wide players. Thus they relied on the individual quality of Robben to penetrate into the more center space.

Bayern and the space beside Leipzig’s forward line

Bayern were able to progress as Thiago, for instance, was allowed a spatio-temporal advantage in the space beside Leipzig’s first line of press. Usually, after receiving a pass, the space behind Leipzig’s midfielder is opened up because of the press from the near 6 failing to totally block the access to the space behind him. This was the nature of Leipzig’s aggressive press which often saw them allow temporary spaces (see Sabitzer earlier) and the blind side.

Thiago used the space beside Leipzig’s first line of press

Without a devoted 6 (as in 4-1-4-1, for example), less coverage in the defensive pocket could be an issue. Horizontal cover from the far side 6 might be a logical solution for such an issue. However, it was not always the case particularly against a very good possession team that was able to circulate the ball from side to side, thus that made it very hard for the far side players to make the desired consistent defensive cover. A more logical solution for this issue is the defensive cover from the near central defender (Willi Orban). And, should the near defender also fail to give the needed cover, Coman in the pocket space would comfortably determine the next route at his will. As shown in this situation, the Frenchman was allowed a huge space, Coman progressed it to the far flank to Arjen Robben in the 20th minute. 

This pattern was one way the Bayern attack created progression space within Leipzig’s intense press. Coman was the key player here. The winger didn’t always play around the wide area but he often moved into the half space and center inside of Leipzig’s pressing block. From such pattern, at times, Bayern were also able to access the ball side full back to make a breakthrough using the space of the flank.

The other method was the first line ball carrier playing directly to the space between Leipzig’s back line and the middle line. Hummels made this pass a couple of times as he noticed the gap between Leipzig’s central midfielder and found Coman with his laser-like pass. Coman in this regards often had a good sense of space. The French player managed to adjust his positioning and occupied the space. The problem was in the execution, as Coman often failed to make valuable progression after receiving. The root was his gesture that, at times, avoided him from facing the better side or at another occasions it was down to a very good recovery of space by Leipzig’s central duo.

Bayern’s middle-block

Just like Leipzig, Bayern also tried to force Leipzig to play it long. But the method was different to Leipzig’s approach. Heynckes didn’t want his boys to press aggressively in a high block just the way Leipzig did. Instead, he came up with a middle block, inviting Leipzig to move up while continuously blocking the access to the midfielder line. Bayern often allowed space for the central defenders and let them move forward to approach the middle third. As the access to the midfielder line was well-covered by Bayern’s block, Leipzig players from the first line often released deep passes to the last line.

Lots of long balls by Leipzig CBs

But this didn’t mean Bayern were completely passive. They pressed in a 4-1-4-1/4-5-1, but since both of Bayern’s 8s also picked up Leipzig’s central midfielders and/or  the central defender, at times, Bayern’s press switched into a 4-3-2-1-ish shape.  With three midfielders, Bayern didn’t always have to rely on the central defender to help the central  midfielder to cover the 6 space. This, in turn, enabled them to establish a more stable back line. But, practically, this was not always the case. Bayern’s man-oriented movements in the deeper area was the root cause of some minor issues.

At times, the man-orientation made them use too many players to press the opponent on the ball side. For example, when Bernardo had the ball on the right flank in the middle-third, Sabitzer and Poulsen would drop slightly deeper and get closer to Bernardo to provide passing options. As a response, Alaba and Vidal would pick up those two Leipzig players.

Bayern’s coverage of the 6 space

In fact, based on the situation above, such a press didn’t have to take two players (Alaba and Vidal) to be involved. Instead, it was Alaba alone who should have been enough to contain both Sabitzer and Poulsen while Vidal should have stayed in the center close to Forsberg. With Vidal dragged wider toward the half space, the cover to the center was reduced thus should any Leipzig far side player adjust his positioning and move into the vacated space (see Forsberg), Hummels or any nearest central defender had to move far out to cover it. However it was overall still good for Bayern as they lined up with 3 midfielders. The supportive positioning from the midfielder-line (see Tolisso) was strong enough to provide the needed support for the central defender to secure the 6.

On top of all, Vidal’s spatial awareness and the ability of covering the opponent’s passing-lane often caused problem for Bayern. The Chilean often pressed to aggressively without realizing he left the nearest opponent to him with some space. But, thankfully for Bayern Vidal’s speed also enabled him to recover quickly and shut down the said space. At the end, it was not a big problem for Bayern, but at other times with different opponents it might be costly.

After the red card

Keita’s red card changed everything. Keita was Leipzig’s best player until his red, his stats are worth mentioning: the Guinean completed 35 of his 39 pass attempts, won 13 of his 24 duels (absurd amount in such a short time), succeeded on 6 of his 9 dribbles (again 9 dribbles attempted in 55 minutes from the 6 role?), won 3 of 5 tackles, lost two and recovered seven balls and also added two key passes. His tactical importance was perhaps even greater and thus his loss was enormous.

First, it arguably killed the press intensity. In turn, it also allowed more space for Bayern to attack. The first line lost its pressing capacity which made it easier for Bayern to find space in front of Leipzig’s midfield. Bayern’s equalizer by Thiago was the example. A back pass from Thiago to Boateng arrived on the space in front of Leipzig’s midfield where they should have been able to cover had they still played with 11 players. No adequate cover to that space made it easy for Boateng to release a chipped pass to the onrushing Thiago who freely headed it into the goal.

Bayern’s shape in the second half

With Javi  Martinez coming in replacing Coman, Bayern played with two 6s who supported the build up across the area in front of the back line. Javi and Rudy alternately occupied the right and left side of the field. Kimmich hugged the line in most of the time while Alaba was slightly different to the German, as Alaba moved inward more often than Kimmich. Thiago as the 10 also moved wide to the flank and acted as a wide man. Robben on the right doubled up the flank along with Kimmich as well as moved toward the center and shifted far to the left half space to help establish an attacking overload.

Bayern played more diagonal long balls to the far side than they did in the first half. The important note in regards to this play: such ball shifting wasn’t often started by a strong overload that dragged Leipzig’s players to one side before Bayern shifted it the other side. Consequently, the switch wasn’t always clean and made it easy for Leipzig’s far side to deal with.

With 11 players, Bayern also put significantly more players into the box in the execution phase while the space outside of the box was covered by a central defender along with either Javi or Rudy. In the chance creation, Bayern tried to use a lateral or diagonal run from Lewandowski to provide a passing option for the ball carrier outside of the box. The other method, as they did in the equalizer, Bayern played a lot of aerial diagonal balls from the half space to the blind side on the far flank/far half space.

Final words

An intense and exciting match. Leipzig played very well and displayed an impressive pressing game, particularly in the first half. After the break, the game changed as Keita was ejected. Leipzig adjusted and were still impressive on defense. Bayern came up with a more aggressive attack and put much more presence in the final third and Leipzig’s box. After all is said and done, this was one of the best tactical matches of German football in 2017/2018.

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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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