Football Features

“No Werner? No problem for Nagelsmann” – Five things learned as RB Leipzig shock Atletico Madrid to reach Champions League semi-final

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:30, 13 August 2020

In a shocking night of football, RB Leipzig beat Atlético Madrid 2-1 to qualify for their first-ever Champions League semi-finals.

The German side showed tremendous tactical nous and mental strength to overcome Diego Simeone’s defensive powerhouse. What did we learn?

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1. Sabizter the wizard

Every team needs a top quality attacking talent to guide them in big games like this, and for RB Leipzig that was Marcel Sabitzer. The Austrian forward is far from the most glittering name out there but he fits what Julian Nagelsmann wants almost perfectly and today it was he that made the difference between a thrilling Leipzig win and a bore draw settled on penalties.

First he capped a stunning 18-pass move early in the second-half with a devastating run and cross for Dani Olmo to head-home and completely shock Atleti. The goal was a thing of beauty and Sabitzer’s cross, finding Olmo unmarked amidst a sea of Atleti defenders was so crucial. Threading the needle is an understatement, this was threading the atom.

Then with full-time approaching, he showed that he can do more than just run and cross when he created Leipzig’s winner. Oh, sure, Tyler Adams will claim the strike (which may well have been an own goal) and it was Angelino whose cross found the American for him to hit it in the first place, but the goal belongs to Sabitzer the wizard for his act of devastating magic, conjuring a chance out of nothing.

Unlike Leipzig’s first goal, the winner was a quick counter. They won the ball back and fed it into the middle of the park where Sabitzer was, but instead of taking a touch and surveying the scene, Sabitzer waved his right foot like a wand and viciously caressed the ball through the lines of Atleti’s defence right into Angelino’s path. It was a truly miraculous pass, the kind of thing you’d expect from Leo Messi or Juan Roman Riquelme. Pure artistry from Leipzig’s awesome Austrian and worthy of winning any match.

2. Joao Felix’s happy(ish) homecoming

Joao Felix is from Lisbon. In fact he left it just a year ago when he joined Atlético Madrid and whilst he has shown flashes of brilliance in Spain, it’s not been an altogether happy first season for Felix. Tonight was his return to his hometown, albeit playing in the stadium of his former club Benfica’s great rivals Sporting, and despite not starting the match he ended up having a massively decisive say.

Felix entered the fray just short of the hour mark, and then 10 minutes later the Portuguese striker burst into the box after a great one-two and took a delightful touch to draw a foul from Lukas Klostermann. Penalty Atleti. The 20-year-old then stepped up to take it and nervelessly rattled it home for his fourth goal in two European games in Lisbon.

3. Dayot Upamecano is a beautiful tank

Some centre-backs are artists on the ball. They can emerge from defence with incredible poise and balance, controlling the ball like more attacking players would; then they can find passes to really keep play flowing. Some centre-backs are defensive monsters, able to dominate opponents in the air, on the deck and chase them down on the cover too.

Dayot Upamecano is both these kinds of centre-backs rolled into one supreme stud of a defender. Watching him absolutely dominate and devour Diego Costa was a treat in itself but then way he was able to marry this with initiating Leipzig’s attacking players by driving by the initial line of the Atleti press was bewilderingly good.

He already looks the complete package but at 21-years-old he has so much more room to grow and improve that thinking about how good he could end up being is kind of scary. Even Javier Mascherano was compelled to tweet about him, so impressive was this young French centre-back. This beautiful tank is already brilliant and yet he can only get better. If your club needs a centre-back this summer and Dayot Upamecano isn’t the first name on your list, you need new scouts.

4. Simeone’s gameplan shenanigans

Diego Simeone has never won the Champions League with Atlético Madrid despite playing in two finals (and, in 2016, beating the two best teams in Europe to qualify for said final). Part of the reason for that is Diego Simeone’s gameplans.

Sure, Cholo is an expert at nullifying opponents. The problem is he’s so good at nullifying opponents that he goes for it every time, often far too early. Even great defences can’t soak up pressure indefinitely, and that’s what Simeone asks his side to do and it ends up costing him.

That’s what he did in the 2014 final, the 2016 final, it’s what he did in the 2017 quarters and even last year against Juventus. And he did it again tonight against Leipzig, starting the match parking the bus and letting the German side play their way into their first-ever Champions League quarter-final rather than up the pressure and try to make this young, unproven side nervous.

The funny thing is, Simeone seemed to recover and made some positive changes (such as introducing Joao Felix) and it turned the tide of the game back in Atleti’s favour and they equalised. But yet again, after equalising through attacking with verve, Atleti sat back and began absorbing pressure yet again. Then just as in the first-half, they got caught out, and now they’re just out-out.

Oh Cholo, when will you learn?

5. No Werner? No problem for Nagelsmann

Leipzig have a habit of building great players up and then having then poached away by bigger clubs. Julian Nagelsmann is a brilliant coach, but he must know that he is at risk of sides plucking his best talents. Such as when Chelsea took 34-goal Timo Werner from them earlier in the summer, and then the German declined to finish this season with Leipzig (for fear of getting injured before joining Chelsea, probably).

Most sides would have struggled without their best goalscoring forward, but most sides don’t have Julian Nagelsmann. The young coach organised Leipzig so perfectly that they didn’t miss Werner with everyone stepping up to help them create danger in the final third. They still carved out opportunities and had enough players with enough belief in Nagelsmann and his system that they made the difference.

Everyone will be writing them off before facing PSG in the semi-finals now, but with Julian Nagelsmann figuring out the French side’s weaknesses and exactly how his squad can counter it, don’t rule them out just yet. Just hearing him speak post-match completely off-the-cuff about the risk-vs-reward of man-marking the PSG forwards as Atalanta did should fill anyone who wants Leipzig to win with confidence. The young manager is an absolute genius. He can do it.

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