Football Features

RB Leipzig’s tactical flexibility & methodical pressing make them a unique threat to Liverpool

By Ben Green

Published: 9:06, 15 February 2021

RB Leipzig and Liverpool converge on the Puskas Arena in Budapest for a tantalising last-16 clash in the Champions League.

Leipzig reached the semi-finals in the reformatted Lisbon tournament last season but just slipped up at the penultimate hurdle, crashing out 3-0 to eventual runners-up PSG.

For the second season running, Julian Nagelsmann has guided his side to the knockout rounds, but despite their recent regularity in these latter stages, coupled with their semi-final finish last term, Leipzig remain unlikely to go all the way in the eyes of bookmakers.

Nagelsmann’s men are priced at 40/1 by Sky Bet to win the tournament outright, while their opponents, Liverpool (13/2), are third-favourites to seal European glory. Only Man City (3/1) and reigning champions Bayern Munich (11/4) are at lower odds.

But, whichever way you look at it, this matchup has all the ingredients of a mouth-watering contest as it pits two minds deeply entrenched in the German school of pressing together: Jurgen Klopp’s pragmatic ‘gegenpressing’ versus Nagelsmann’s methodical high-press. But, what can Liverpool expect of Leipzig?

Tactical flexibility

Although Nagelsmann’s predecessors at the Red Bull Arena, Ralph Hasenhuttl and Ralf Rangnick, were staunch advocates of a progressive 4-2-2-2 system (with the parallels now evident at Southampton, regarding the former), the 33-year-old has followed a different blueprint.

Nagelsmann’s formations are not fixed. The innovative coach changes the goalposts on an almost weekly basis depending on the opposition. In the Bundesliga this season, his most-frequented formation has been the 3-4-2-1 (as shown below) but even in recent weeks there have been variations of that set-up, chiefly a switch to a 3-1-4-2.

Timo Werner was regularly deployed in a two-man strike partnership during his time in Saxony, either with Patrik Schick, Yussuf Poulsen and sometimes even Christopher Nkunku, which culminated in the now-Chelsea marksman netting an eye-watering 34 goals in 2019/20.

Despite losing Werner, Nagelsmann has not deviated from this attacking principle, recently playing 6ft 4in Alexander Sorloth in the 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen, despite the towering forward having a game almost diametrically at odds with Werner’s rapid press, showing just how multifaceted Nagelsmann is.

Although Leipzig have cultivated a reputation as a counterpressing team over the years, Nagelsmann, like Klopp at Liverpool, has moved away from an over-reliance on the high press and made his side a far more balanced unit.

The visual below shows how much deeper Nagelsmann’s frontline play compared to Hasenhuttl’s 2017/18 Leipzig; there is a greater emphasis on a vertical, yet crucially, calculated press — not what some may refer to as a ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ press.

Pay careful attention to the forward’s position in Nagelsmann’s system (in this case Poulsen), playing behind ‘LAM’ (left-attacking mid) Emil Forsberg.

This would go a long way to explaining Werner’s struggles adapting to Chelsea’s system, as Michael Ballack explained: “Werner had a lot more space in front of him at Leipzig. Chelsea is the kind of team that has a lot of ball possession, wanting to dominate the opponent.”

While Werner’s formative years at the Red Bull Arena were very much spent on the shoulder of the last man, Nagelsmann often deployed the German speedster further back, sometimes even as a No.10, which gave him carte blanche to get the ball down and link play.

I’m playing in a slightly different position as a kind of No.10. That helps me a lot. I’ve got a lot of freedom.

Werner on his role in Nagelsmann’s team in 2020

So, while Nagelsmann plays with overlapping full-backs (their ‘passing network’ below suggesting an emphasis on playing down the channels), a high defensive line, and Kevin Kampl as his metronimoc ‘regista’, Leipzig are far from an exclusively counter-pressing side, but rather, a more methodical machine.

A very high defensive line

Liverpool’s centre-back issues have been well-chronicled this season, and Leipzig have recently been dealt a blow in that department, with Dayot Upamecano, the keystone of Nagelsmann’s defensive set-up, confirming his departure to Bayern Munich at the end of the season.

To understand fully just how important Upamecano is to Nagelsmann’s system, one only has to look at his ball-winning metrics. The defender ranks third this season in the Champions League (28) — alongside teammate Marcel Sabitzer — for possessions won in the middle third.

These skills possessed by Upamecano, also known as a ball-carrying, progressive-passing defender, are crucial in allowing Leipzig to push forward and not find themselves exposed.

It’s an area Liverpool will certainly look to exploit, but Nagelsmann will not allow the Premier League champions much room to breathe, so Klopp’s side will need to be decisive in possession and precise with their passing.