March 25, 2017

Tactical Analysis: RB Leipzig 3 – 1 Mainz 05

RB Leipzig continued their impressive unbeaten campaign with a comfortable win over Martin Schmidt’s Mainz on MatchDay 10. Timo Werner’s brace and another goal by Emil Forsberg secured the three points. As usual, a highly-compact defense and direct attack have been the integral part of Leipzig’s success.

Mainz couldn’t break through Leipzig’s press

The line-ups:

The lineups: RB Leipzig vs. Mainz 05.
The lineups: RB Leipzig vs. Mainz 05.

Leipzig had large period of their press in a middle-block mode against Mainz’s build-up play. As ever, in their initial press, Leipzig displayed a 4-2-2-2, three banks of two. This allowed the opponent’s central defender (CD) to have the ball while blocking any possible vertical ball forward through the central-area, but still kept an eye on the opportunity of pressing directly to the ball-carrying CD.

Mainz shaped a 2-4-1-3 in their deep-area circulation. In the “4” section, there were two central midfielders and two wing backs established the line. In theory, with two sixes in the central area Mainz would have had better chance to access the middle line quicker. With six-duo Mainz would have been able to occupy both half-spaces and provided more options for vertical movements.

The issue within Mainz’ build-up play was they were too static since there was a lack of dynamic movements in order to find gaps within Leipzig’s early-wave of press. Additionally, the six-duo were well-blocked by the cover-shadows of Leipzig first-line, Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, which only reduced any possible penetration through the 6.

Say the Mainz’s CD managed to access the 6 with a vertical-ball. Such a possibility, though, didn’t mean that they would have found it easy to progress to the higher areas.

Why? Because Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2, particularly the pressing-behavior, enabled the host’s six-duo and wide-10 to provide adequate cover to the center. In short, it would be a highly difficult task to play Leipzig’s press through the center and half-spaces.

Not only was the home side impressive at blocking the central-area — Leipzig were also able to reduce the possibility of the opposite-team from playing through the touchline. When the near wide-10 recognized the intention of Mainz’s CD to play it to the wide, he would have moved out from his starting-position to put immediate press to Mainz’s wing-back. And, when they couldn’t access an immediate press, the near wide-10 would have just moved slightly higher and occupied the same horizontal line with the forward-duo to reduce or close the opened-space around the near-flank and half-space.

In respond to such press, Mainz still tried to play it wide to find the vertical access to the ball-side advanced-winger. But, due to the natural-limitation of the touchline, it was a difficult task to cleanly progress through the flank. The other scenario was to play a lofted diagonal ball from the wide center back to the #10. But, again, such a pass didn’t  create an easier situation for Mainz.

Why? Because the nature of lofted long balls often resulted a bouncing-effect when the receiver tried to control it. In turn, it added randomness and provided more time for the nearest-opponents to prepare for more secure defensive-actions. Everything was difficult for Mainz, since the horizontal and vertical support was remarkable.

Horizontally, Leipzig wide-man could be moving inside quickly to help establishing an intense press. Vertically, the central defender was often caught moving up effectively which managed to stop Mainz from progressing through the vertical-space of Leipzig’s defense. Such action was the work of Marvin Compper, Leipzig center-back.

The debate may remain as to whether Mainz were poor at playing the intermediate-area, but what Compper did was worth praising as he made a lot of useful actions (tackle, interception, or even half-press) which ensured that safety comes first in Leipzig’s pocket-defense.

In the second-half, Martin Schmidt made some changes. The notable substitutions that positively impacted  Mainz’ attacking-phase was the introduction of Stefan Bell and, particularly, Andre Ramalho. whose presence improved the circulation-quality somewhat as they spread the ball better. Brought in from Bayer Leverkusen late in the summer transfer window, Ramalho was able to recognize strategic-option passes better than starter Jean-Philippe Gbamin, signed in July, could do in the first-half. This resulted in some direct vertical passes that reached the wide area and by-passed Leipzig’s press as-well.

Leipzig’s defensive play

Let’s go a bit deeper into Leipzig’s pressing system. By watching the system, it’s  clear that Roger Schmidt’s influence remains. The first-line of press is oriented to secure the space around as well as the 6-area of the opponent. They also maintained the access to Mainz’s CD, as mentioned above. When one of the #9s moved up to intensely-press the ball-carrying CD, the other one would drop-deeper to man-mark the opponent’s #6.

In the second-line of press, there were two wide-10s. These wide-10s tried to orient the press to the opponent’s wing-backs and still provided adequate covers to the center. Along with the six-duo, Marcel Sabitzer and Forsberg established a chain-effect section, as the pressing-orientation related to each other. For instance, the moment of the 26th minute.

RB Leipzig's pressing chain against Mainz 05 on Sunday.
RB Leipzig’s pressing chain against Mainz 05 on Sunday.

Werner (11) moved up to go against the ball-holder, since the initial purpose was to limit Mainz’ access to their 6, while Poulsen (9) adjusted his press by dropping-deeper. This staggering ensured that Leipzig limited the occupation to Mainz’s 6-area. The other adjustment was also applied by the players in the second and the third line. As the ball was played to the left-hand side of the host’s defense, Forsberg (10) moved up to create better pressing-access to Mainz’s right wing back.

In the third-line, the six-duo area, Naby Keita (8) and Diego Demme (31), and the ball-far wide-man, Sabitzer, adjusted their movements too. Demme and Keita shifted horizontally using the ball and the near-opposite player as the orientation. Sabitzer on the far-side, dropped off from the second-line into the six section to create better-access to the pocket-defense and gave enough cover to the center of the midfielder-line.

The flexibility of such staggering arguably came from the three banks of two that not only provided a natural-flexibility of the pressing shape, but also ensured a highly vertical and horizontal-compactness.

The pressing chains were well-applied thus far. Leipzig was able to display highly tactical discipline within their pressing system, although some deficiency could still be observed. At times, during the intense press, the centre of the pitch was as hectic as would have been expected. In the process, it was not as pretty as the more passive-one possibly gains. There were numbers of “unclean” pressing-cover which surrendered the spatial compactness and opened up the vertical-space.

As aforementioned, this was when the role of the center-back duo became more crucial. Such vertical space was the space of Leipzig’s defensive pocket,  the intermediate area in front of the defensive-line. The ones who had the best view of it were none other than the center-back duo. Since they had the best view of the situation of the upper layers, they should have been able to generate proper onward-pressing or any needed defensive actions.

Marvin Compper in the intermediate-defense. The importance of the last-line players at defending the open up vertical-space
Marvin Compper in the intermediate-defense. The importance of the last-line players at defending the open up vertical-space

In short, as usual, Leipzig tactical-discipline has been one worth watching and learning from.

Leipzig’s direct attack

Leipzig are a direct-based one on their attack. One common view of their build-up and progression scheme is playing it directly to the forward line. Peter Gulacsi or any ball-holder were given more license play it directly to Poulsen when they had to. And, Poulsen, as described here was the one who completes the requirements. Poulsen would make a flick, or he could hold it up to bring others into play, or made a lay-off to the deeper line to generate deep-passing play to the on-rushing players.

The third-goal was initiated by such a scheme. Stefan Ilsanker lofted the ball to Poulsen, who dropped to the deep middle-third. With the first touch, the #9 made a lay-off to Marcel Sabitzer, who roamed far from the right wing to the left half-space. Sabitzer played a through ball to Forsberg who ended-up the attack with the assist as Werner scored.

Poulsen is especially physically-gifted.  He is agile, strong, and very good at linking the play between the forward line and the lower-layer. Partnered with Werner, Leipzig get a combination of strength and explosiveness. Werner offers the latter. He drifted wide or moved into the gap between players. He dropped deeper to link the play. With his mobility, Werner was also able to create space in Leipzig’s chance-creation, where Forsberg often got involved in the execution-phase.

Against Mainz, Leipzig opted to apply a direct-focused approach And, it was a categorically-chaotic one. They played it directly to the upper ground, either to the overload or the wide-area relying on the movements among the top four.

Conclusion

Again, Leipzig were able apply their own playing-scheme, both defensively and offensively. Leipzig pressing-game clearly nullified a clean progression attack that Mainz needed. Their direct attack, although not a sophisticated-one could still create many chances for them. This 3-1 win has brought RB Leipzig to 2nd place with the same point total as FC Bayern, the league’s leader over Leipzig on superior goal differential..

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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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