November 19, 2016, 8:22pm: Tobias Stieler referee blows his whistle three times, and terminates the clash between the two German giants, the Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich match. The home side gained all the three points, owing to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s early tap-in goal; Die Gelbe Wand -the yellow-blacks’ supporters- go mad, the feeling is chatartic. But there is a club in Germany, which celebrates even harder. This club is RasenBallsport Leipzig, and they have just became leaders of the Bundesliga for the first time in history. The foreign press calls this success a fairy tail, the fan bases of other clubs find it disgusting, because without the money of the giant company Red Bull all these things couldn’t have happened. The truth is probably between the two opinions, as the team isn’t that typical ‘youngest son’ from the tales, but their success on the pitch since their foundation in 2009 is still extraordinary.
But how did all this happen? The town Leipzig before 2016 had a team in first division last time in 1994 -they were called VfB Leipzig-, but since then the inhabitants couldn’t see top class football, right until this August. What’s more, since the relegation of Energie Cottbus in 2009, there were no teams in Bundesliga from the region of the former GDR. The town was hankering for football, which was a great opportunity for the Austrian billionaire Dieter Mateschitz. The businessman had already owned at that time a Formula 1 team and a league-winner side -Red Bull Salzburg- in Austria’s first divisison. But he wanted more. The rise begun, and reached its goal, at the end of the 2015/2016 season they got promoted to Bundesliga.
THE PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND IS THERE
For Bundesliga fans and for those ones, who watch German football regularly the good start wasn’t a great surprise, although they didn’t expect such a start form the club. The team’s DoF is Ralf Rangnick, who was among the ones, who helped the German football reinvent itself and conquer the World. He was the guy, who started thinking of this beautiful game, he used zonal defence with a back four instead of the old man-marking with a libero. His interesting career included the Hinrunde-winner TSG Hoffenheim, the Inter-beater Schalke 04 and also Salzburg.
He stopped working as a coach, because he doesn’t like the pressure in that job, but from the background, he is world-class.
This video is in German, but describes his way of thinking (and almost terminated his career in football):
Leipzig, and usually all the Red Bull-teams based their signing policy on signing unknown players from all over the world at the beginning of their careers, for a low price and then making them famous. It isn’t a surprise at all, that they apply the same methods when they are looking for a coach, just remember of Roger Schmidt, who started his managing career in Salzburg and became famous. Now it’s Ralph Hasenhüttl’s turn. The young Austrian coach was an employee of Ingolstadt last year, with great success. They produced one of the most interesting football of the league with their high defensive line and well-coordinated high intensity pressing. And what shows us the quality of his work? Since he left, the team has been suffering, and will probably be relegated.
THE GOALKEEPER IS PART OF THE TEAM
Have a quick look at the pictures above, what can be seen immediately? The team’s Hungarian goalkeeper, Péter Gulácsi passes a lot to the Danish striker, Yussuf Poulsen. This phenomenon isn’t unknown in football, because if we had a look at West Bromwich Albion’s, or Burnley’s passmaps, we could see similar passes from the goalies. But what makes this special in Leipzig? The strikers -as you can see- don’t spend the whole game in their half defending, but attack a lot, so the team doesn’t use this combination just for counter-attacking, it’s a conscious, planned attacking element. Just think: they have Europe’s most promising classic centre-forward (who is even more than just this), it would be a huge failure and missed opportunity, if they didn’t want to take advantage of this. And the team’s direct attacking style also supports this, they don’t really like to spend a lot of time in their own half, they try to reach the opposing side as soon as possible, and possessing such a striker is a significant advantage in this kind of attacking plan.
You have to imagine these passes in reality in this way: The ball is passed back to the keeper, but the front four doesn’t fall back to help building up with short ground passes, but progress higher in opponent’s half, trying to stretch them vertically. At the same time the two central midfielders stay quite deep, trying to prevent the opponent reducing the space between their lines. After all this, the strikers are able to receive the ball in open space, or to lay it off to one of the attacking midfielders, who are moving inside laterally.
With these things they try to exploit the German league’s tactical trends, as it is the most intensive among the top leagues, the teams usually try to press their opponents high up on the pitch, so this updated version of long ball-football offers a great solution against it and helps the team escape the pressure. And as a Hungarian, Gulácsi’s performance makes me proud: he is not just ok in the system, but pretty good.
THEY CAN BUILD UP ATTACKS ON THE GROUND AS WELL
‘The monolingual country is weak and fallible’ said Stephen I, Hungary’s first king, and his thoughts can be applied in football as well, teams with only plan are easier to play against. Hasenhüttl knows this perfectly, long balls aren’t enough against everybody, what happens, when the opponent concentrates itself in a mid-block? Well, then they have to look after a different solution.
So RB Leipzig isn’t afraid of showing their qualities and creativity in their own half. In this phase I feel important to highlight the two central midfielders -I will talk about them more later-, who have imprescriptible merits in keeping Leipzig’s system together during build-up as well, we can consider them as the most important cogs. During getting the ball up the pitch, they can get two different tasks:
- dropping back next to the centre-backs
- providing options in midfield
In both version’s case the other teammates’ movements transforms a bit, but I don’t think it surprised anyone. If Hasenhüttl’s men use the first option, the midfielder chooses an unusual movement and drops on the side of the backs, not between them. This gives the strong-sided fullback more freedom, and can advance next to the sideline. The other CM then tries to offer himself as a passing option, or at least drag a player away, while the fullback is quite high. This allows the attacking midfielder to move laterally towards the inside of the pitch, thus messing up the defence. These things happen just because they want to get the opponent out of their comfort zone and free up space in wing areas.
The other option is when both central midfielders remain in their normal positions in the middle of the pitch. This requires a totally different coordination of movements from the team, but it seems like Leipzig is able to deal with the situation. In case of this version there is bigger pressure on the back four, mostly on the two center halves, but they manage to solve even the hardest situations, mostly because the whole team tries to offer solutions. We have seen many times, that the two central midfielders’ aim is not receiving the ball, but creating space for passes in the direction of the attacking midfielders. The two actual midfielders move towards the middle and drag their men inside. The task of the fullbacks are only to stay close to the sideline, so the winger won’t be able to close down the passing lane opened by the midfielders. If the wingers close the passing corridor, then they are there to receive totally free and start the attack. And if the passing lane is open in the halfspace, then all the four attacking player start their movements. The quartet usually tries to overload one side of the pitch -almost always the strong side-, thus immobilizing the defensive lines of the opponent. To make it even more perfect, one of the strikers drop a bit deeper, so an attacking midfielder will be able to fall back and receive free, and then he can turn his face to the opponent’s goal.
Furthermore, it’s wort having a look at the following stat: they are the best in the leage, when it comes to passing two or more zones from Zone 6. This explains a lot in my opinion:
DYNAMITE DUO IN THE MIDFIELD
Or call them the Diego Demme-Naby Keita duo. The two players are producing world-class football week to week, and have the best partnership in the midfield among the Bundesliga teams. Demme is the calm, always reliable player, while Keita is the bit inordinate pure talent, who can decide a match anytime. I will talk about a latter one more in this article, so here I would like to talk about their chemistry.
To start with, let’s have the phase, that we have already explained, the build-ups. The two players as I’ve mentioned are keen on creating easier situations for the teammates in any phase of the play, for example producing space for clean passes. Their attributes clearly match their ambitions, Demme offers passing options with his calm, intelligent movements in the midfield, while Keita moves as a real box-to-box midfielder with his clear goal: getting into the best position for a pass. What do I mean by saying this? Let’s see:
As you can see it in the picture, Keita drops next to the center halves, while Demme moves to the youngster’s former position. Judah Davies has already written a brilliant post, which could be concluded shortly here, that moving out of the cover shadow is indispensable in such situations, and it makes the player able to receive free. The attacking unit works as well, they almost drive the defenders back, so Demme can get the ball cleanly. This action is a great example of the coordinated movement’s importance and of the synergy that these players possess. But don’t stop here, check how makes Keita his mate better and allows him to do what he wants.
Demme, as always positions himself behind the strikers, and a very easy circumstance makes him able to do that in peace: Naby Keita creates space for him with his movement. He positions himself quite close to his teammate, but then advances on the pitch and drags the player who would have been able to close down Demme. And we always have to praise the attacking unit, who concentrate the defence in a deeper position, so they can’t put a higher pressure on the ball-carriers.
But we have to mention a deficiency in Diego Demme’s playing style, and this problem is his ability when it comes to hitting the ball long. It’s quite surprising, that Leipzig has this issue, but statistics rarely lie. He has the most passes on average in the team -64/match-. but his long balls are infrequently efficient. What’s more, he is among the worse players in the league considering this stat.
ATTACKING THROUGH THE MIDDLE
Although this isn’t the team’s main profile, I feel important to mention it. Hasenhüttl’s men put the emphasis in this phase on the fact, that the opponent’s players can easily be confused with lateral movements, or dragged out of position. During their matches it’s quite common to see, that the central and attacking midfielders move towards the middle or the wing areas as a unit, thus opening up passing lanes towards the centre-forwards. This connects closely to the fact, that they try to get in front of the goal with only one or two passes -and not just when counter-attacking. It’s usual to see, that they start from a compact shape, to attract the opponent’s midfielders’ attention, and then with horizontal movements try to make them man-orientated. And they succeed in huge amount of situations.
Under Hasenhüttl these well-coordinated movements serve the purpose of opening up passing lanes in the halfspaces. Halfspace is becoming a simple buzzword, but when watching teams like Leipzig, you realize, that these areas really matter. As they love to rotate the play to the flanks, it makes sense to build their attacks here, because this channel provides the best access to wing areas, owing to the great passing angles.
As you can see it in the picture, the ball-carrier is freed up by the teammates’ movements, and also the space in front of him, so he can play the ball under infinitesimal pressure and pass it to the strikers. Naby Keita is important again, as he advances a bit, and with his higher positioning Demme is almost totally free. He makes these runs usually from right to the left and confuses the opponent: should they mark him, what can they do with one more player?
Or here is an other example from the match against Schalke 04. Leipzig managed to break through the ‘Miners’ defence with their dynamical movements. Keita here moves further from Demme and helps him escape the Blues’ pressure, while Halstenberg attracts one of the strikers’ attention. In the end Yussuf Poulsen had an easy job, he was in a familiar situation: he only had to lay it off to the winger moving in free space. And to mention another great movement, Emil Forsberg moves into the middle with a great sense, he attracts a midfielder, who could close down the passing lane. This is a good feature of the young Swede’s playing style, he tries to position himself even in situations, when he can’t get the ball, tries to drag players away, or if they don’t do that, he will be able to receive in space, in a dangerous area.
KEEPING THE LONG BALLS
As I have mentioned before, the team loves to hit the ball long towards Poulsen or Werner, but there is a problem with these passes: when receiving, the player faces his own goal, he can’t turn towards the opponent’s goal. So how can a team solve this problem, what the body position and the defender in the back of the striker cause?
The question made Hasenhüttl think a lot about the problem, what should he do to make the issues disappear? They started to solve it with the common usage of lay-offs, following the vertical passes. When the ball reaches the recipient, the teammates are already there to provide a passing option. With these lay-offs Leipzig can maintain the fluidity in their attacks and continue them in the attacking third. When we start talking about their positional structure in such situations, the biggest emphasis should be on the two attacking midfielders, as their movements influence the success the most. While watching their movements we can see, that at the moment when the ball is hit long, they start their movement and step closer to the striker.
Usually the far-sided attacking midfielder is the receiver one in these situations, mainly because the strong side is often overloaded by the defensive team, so the attacking midfielder there gets huge pressure, but all these attract the attention, so nobody cares about the other player, who moves in laterally from the other flank. And we should mention the two central midfielder, who try to stretch the opponent vertically, so the midfield won’t be able to help the defenders out.
And another version exists, when the whole team pushes up the pitch, and when one of the strikers gets the ball, drags a defender out, a huge gap appears behind them. The fullback tries to occupy the flank, so the fullback will be busy with him, so the attacking midfielder can make a third man run behind the defense, and receive the central midfielder’s pass there.
A FUTURE STAR: NABY KEÏTA
It’s almost impossible to write a detailed analysis about a team without talking about the best player of the team. In our case it’s the Guinean player, who might be a bit nervous sometimes, or disappears in some matches, but experience will make them disappear. And he is obviously among the best talents in the world.
He started his European career in FC Istres, in Ligue 2, but after a while the extraordinary scout network of Red Bull found him, so the young Naby moved to Salzburg. He spent two years in Mozart’s birthtown, and then he was transferred to the main team, to show his talent in one of the best leagues.
He is a real box-to-box midfielder, whose workrate has no borders, he can run with full intensity for 90 minutes. His playing style is very direct, almost never makes unnecessary dribbles. Oh, and dribbles:
He is second best in Bundesliga, considering the number of successful dribbles per 90 minutes, according to whoscored.com. He averages three of dribbles per games, but what makes this special is that he completes his dribbles with a completion of 70%, and leads the league’s table in this statistic.
But how can he do that? Just look at his ball-carrying abilities. Although he is just 1,72 m tall, it’s almost impossible to tumble him down, and with his movements he needs no classic dribbles, he humiliates defenders just by switching direction.
And to describe his ball-carrying: he is among the best players in Bundesliga, he carries the ball for almost 300 metres per game, which is a superb stat.
PLAYING ON THE FLANK
Although we have seen, that Leipzig likes to start their attacks in the middle, but they feel comfortable in wing areas. Playing on the flank can be divided into two types, which helps us get to know their style:
- creating isolation
- combinative play
It’s better to start with the first one, which is based on playing with full offense on one side of the pitch, and then switching sides quickly and hit them with the sucker punch on the weak side. In these situations the recipient stays alone with his marker, creating a one-on-one opportunity. They use it less, which has a very simple reason: none of the players is that good in dribbling without dynamism, so it wouldn’t be efficient enough to force them in such situations. They are impressive, when they have the momentum, but it’s hard to produce them this circumstance. Naturally, they don’t neglect it totally, Emil Forsberg finds himself in take-ons quite often, although he isn’t all alone on the flank, Halstenberg is also there.
The latter one is a more interesting topic, as it requires more planning and high level of coordination, and we see more of this one from the team. This type can be divided into two more groups, depending on the direction of the ‘helping player’s’ run:
- overlap run
- underlap run
The first expression means, that the teammate runs between the ball-carrier and the sideline, while the latter one means, that the player gets behind the defence from the inside. We start analyzing them with the first option, and we can conclude, that they do it really well, and Forsberg’s side shines bright again.
In these situations Forsberg usually positions himself closer to the overloaded side than Halstenberg, so the leftback will be the one who completes the overlapping run. Forsberg now can dribble to his stronger right foot, the teammate divides the defenders’ attention, furthermore drags one of them with himself. So the Swedish winger can finish the attack with a shot, or try to pass to one of the strikers, and he also can lay it off to the leftback, who can then cross or pass from the line. As it can be seen, the team’s fame isn’t accidental, their attacks are very direct, with high intensity. Their fast switches of side are unique in today’s football. They are often made by the far-sided winger (usually Sabitzer) or a central midfielder, after the first one’s dribbling inside.
In case of using underlap run, the roles are swapped, and the winger helps the leftback out. They combine with one of the central midfielder, and the emphasis is on stretching the defence. The far-sided fullback doesn’t let them shift properly, so the strong-sided fullback can easily be teared from his teammates. The underlap run just follows this situation, the attacking midfielder runs into the gap between the defenders, and with playing in a triangle he gets the ball from the other two players. All this happens with high velocity, so the winger gets into the box with no pressure on him and can cleanly pass the ball to the forwards.
FULLBACKS DURING ATTACKS
We have already checked what the fullbacks do, when the ball is on their side, but we still haven’t spoken about their weak-sided movements, so we should make up this. In most teams we got used to see the fullbacks shifting asymmetrically during the attacking phase. They do it perpendicularly, making a temporary three-chain at the back, or parallel, which means that the far-sided fullback advances more moderatedly than his pair on the other side.But Leipzig’s approach can be said special as both fullback is extremely high, when they reach the opponent’s half. This is in some ways very risky, since only the two central defenders will ensure, however, for the team’s attack model it is essential. The wingers will be able to move inward during the attacks, the widening of the pitch will be resolved by the fullbacks.
And what justifies this approach is the fact that they have the league’s best passer left defender, namely Marcel Halstenberg. The engine of the team had a very special career before the current location, as he played for Borussia Dortmund and went through the second team of St. Pauli, and then he was signed for this Red Bull project. However, his passing isn’t special because of the amount of these passes, but because of his completion percentage. He makes these 30 passes per match with great success, he is the best in the league in this stat, among players with 50 or more passes in the final 30 yards. And the gap between him and the second Robben isn’t small, almost 10%.
PLAYING IN FRONT OF THE GOAL
But still, what is it that makes Leipzig this ruthless? The question naturally made the football-loving people curious, as it is not an accomplished elite team, but rather a freshly promoted side which previously had never played at the highest level. So the two best words to describe the team’s offensive play in front of the goal: direct and calm. When it comes to talking about the fast-paced teams, the first thing that comes to our mind, that in front of the goal they concentrate only on shooting and are less accurate against low-blocks. It is time to dispel the clouds of doubt, as Leipzig is not like that. As I stated above they love to break in the box from its sides, and pass back to the strikers from there. This is certainly reflected in the average place of their shots as well:
As clearly shown, with the exception of Naby Keïta, the shots are usually addressed inside of the penalty area, moreover, it is generally not a bad way to try to score. The striker Timo Werner obviously enjoys the game style, is high on the scorers table, and his game has improved compared to his last season in Stuttgart. However, what may be even more interesting to note is that the team overall is ruthless in front of the goal, only Bayern, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have a better indicator of passing in the last 30 yards, theye are better than for example Dortmund.
And let’s have a quick look at their xG, which tells a lot about their chance creation, and as it is visible, only Bayern Munich is better than them, but the Bavarian club is far superior to the league in every aspect of the game, so this is a huge success for them.
Corners are part of a team’s attacking play, as the saying goes, one corner is equal to a half goal. Although in reality it isn’t more, than 0,022 goal, we can’t afford to neglect talking about them, they are opportunities to create good header chances. The team in these situations uses a basketballish tactic, which is based on screening. German teams usually use a mix of zonal and man-marking defensive models, when defending a counter attack, which means that usually there are three zonally defending player, who are responsible for attacking the ball directly. But Hasenhüttl’s men use an easy, but successful method to outplay them, they send a player to the far side of the goal, who starts to screen the zonal defender, thus creating space for his mates. After this, they only have to beat man-marking after the cross.
THEY COUNTERPRESS AFTER LOSING THE BALL
In the past decade of German football one of the most commonly used terms was gegenpressing. In English it’s called counterpress, as the players press the counter, and I’ve written already about this topic. What’s for Leipzig, they use the version, which was made world-famous by Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund, so their pressvis ball-oriented, and try to cover the zone of the ball.
To create the best circumstances for this counterpressing style, they try to build a proper positional structure while attacking, so after losing the ball, they can put tremendously big pressure on the carrier. What’s so special about this, is that they can transform a match into a transition-game, owing to their pressing. The higher intensity, the more mistakes the opponent makes, and they want to exploit it. Ralf Rangnick said, that a team is the mostvulnerable in ten seconds after losing the ball. And why do they do this? The answer is given by Hoffenheim’s young coach:
Rangnick’s Leipzig has undergone an interesting evolution in the previous season in the Second Division. Initially, they tried to establish a situation in which they lost control of the ball in the opponent’s half of the field, to recover as soon as possible, thus creating a very dangerous situation for the opponent’s players. Rangnick then realized that the opponents defend too deep, so this tactic was not feasible in the long term, because even if they regained the ball and forced errors, these could not immediately be scoring opportunities because they were too closed back. So they switched.
But in the Bundesliga they were able to go back to the roots and follow this approach, as they aren’t that superior to the others, they have more opportunities to press their opponents after almost intentionally lost balls.
The players try to keep their opponents in their so called cover shadows, so that the ball-carrier loses his passing options immediately and kick the ball long, or if he doesn’t do that, it may result a lost ball and a scoring opportunity for Leipzig, just as on the picture above.
In RB Leipzig it’s usually the two central midfielders’ task to press the ball-carrier player from depth, in extreme situations one of the center-halves can help him, the fullback attacks the player from the sideline, while the attacking midfielder and a striker pressurize him from his back. The other midfielder and striker ‘just’ try to position themselves in free space, so after the possession is regained, they can receive and turn their faces to goal.
How could one write about a German team without mentioning their pressing movements? Hasenhüttl’s side tries to fulfill every written and unwritten rules of this aspect, for example compactness. Their basic formation is 4-2-2-2 and it is suitable for it. Every player, except for the back four has offensive tasks as well, so they are capable for a high pressing.
As it can be seen in the picture, the team positions itself in a really narrow shape, with which they can minimize the space in front of their opponents and force them in wing areas. They look like if they abandoned this place, but as soon the opponent passes the ball here, they start their intensive pressing.
These are quite common pictures considering the two-striker-formations (an interesting fact: the other coach who loves this way of pressing is in Leverkusen, namely Roger Schmidt, and he learned the basics from Rangnick in Salzburg), but the team developed a clever and quick shift to 4-3-3, with which they try to prevent the opponent from switching sides during their build-up phase. Because in such a narrow formation the danger is real, that the opponent attacks on the less-occupied flank after a shift. So Hasenhüttl invented a way to close down those passing lanes, in which they send the ball-neart winger back to the midfield, and the ball-far one up next to the strikers, creating a three-man chain up front.
Of course they can do the same, if they want to pressurize the ball-carrier even harder, but in these scenes the ball-near winger steps higher, producing a better access towards the ball.
And to highlight their pressing intensity, here is a graph made by 11tegen11, which shows us that they never get passive, and press the opponent all over the pitch. In my opinion it’s simply extraordinary.
And now have a quick look at how well do they close down the centre in this phase of the game, they almost never let the opponent break their lines in the middle of the pitch, and force them back or to the flanks.
INTENSITY NEVER STOPS
The base of RB Leipzig’s playing style is their 4-2-2-2 formation, which they almost never change, and always try to maintain this shape. But they are especially unique in Europe in another aspect: their defensive approach in their own half. Almost every team becomes passive, when the ball is in their halves, and they follow a reactive game plan. But Leipzig revolutionized their football, and attack the ball actively even in front of their goal, just as you can see this in the picture above (the 11tegen11 one).
The players’ tasks require a high level of concentration, and even better stamina. The main goal is to keep the opponent as far from their box as possible, or if they are already there, then minimize their success, and they are really good at it.
Their defensive approach is the same here, as it is in the other half, they try to force the attackers to wing areas, with a similar formula. The two strikers press the defenders at the halfway line, thus forcing them backwards or making them pass to the fullback. If the latter one is successful, they immediately hunt them down.
As you can see, the cover shadows play a huge role here as well, they close the ball-carrier down and leave him no passing options. To succeed, the narrow formation and the high level of coordination is indispensable. Without that the fullback wouldn’t be able to step higher, he would leave a huge gap behind him. It’s not a big surprise, that opponents see their goal fewer, than any other teams’.
The team in this phase of the game doesn’t possess any unique ideas, they are quite similar to the other teams of the league. Their defending is a mix of zonal and marking approaches, with three men covering zones and enough players marking men (it depends on the other team). Obviously they are ready to defend against short corners as well, they are man-orientated in these situations out of their box.
FLAWS IN THEIR GAME
Naturally, Leipzig isn’t a perfect team, and what would be a better proof than their astonishing defeat to Bayern Munich, right at the end of the Hinrunde (remember of Rangnick’s Hoffenheim, there are some similarities). There are flaws in their game, to begin with, their mentality. I mean, their plan with only U23 players is really good, but these players might not be able to handle this situation, and this can make huge damages in the match plan as well. Hasenhüttl isn’t an experienced coach, so he didn’t know how to manage this, they almost forgot how to press, and the chaos reached its peak with Forsberg’s red card. They surely need to gain some experience to be able to cope with these things.
The other problem, which is almost a conclusion of the first one is that they get man-orientated sometimes. The closer to their own goals, the more man-orientated they get, and Bayern were able to exploit it – tweeted Rene Maric, and after re-watching the game I had to agree. With this the players can be dragged away from their teammates, thus leaving gaps between each other.
How could I conclude everything about this team? One of Europe’s most likable projects considering the football part, and one of the most antipathetic project in Germany morally. But without doubt we can say, they have worked hard for the fame and love they are receiving now, they could build a playing model that’s all their own, and with this they could lead the table for a few weeks. They will be worth watching in the second half of the season, the biggest question is whether they will have enough stamina for their playing style or not. I wish the answer is yes.
And a few great reads for the ones, who are interested in the team: