Julian Nagelsmann never made it as a player, thanks in large part to knee injuries that forced him to retire before his career even got started. However, that change of path allowed the German manager to take up coaching at a young age and after briefly working under Thomas Tuchel at Augsburg, Nagelsmann worked his way through the ranks at 1899 Hoffenheim, leading them into the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history. After three incredibly successful years with Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann departed the club in 2019 for RasenBallsport Leipzig. Due to his fantastic success with a club that is now firmly one of Germany’s elite clubs, Nagelsmann is now one of the most sought after and respected coaches in the world, at 32 years of age. This is a Tactical Analysis of Julian Nagelsmann’s revelations with RB Leipzig, as he looks destined to become the next big thing in football management.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2
This season Leipzig have experimented with more formations than Pogba has experimented with hair colours. However, they have two reasonably consistent approaches to their system of play, a variation of the 4-4-2 or a variation of the 3-5-2. Both of Leipzig’s previous managers – Ralph Ragnick and Ralph Hassenhuttl preferred the innovative 4-2-2-2 system. Under Nagelsmann, Leipzig have adopted that approach on occasion, but have stuck more closely to a truer variation of the 4-4-2.
But whatever formation the team plays, one of the keys seems to be in giving Timo Werner a partner. The German striker is a natural number 9 and completely capable of playing up top all on his own. But he likes to get involved in the link-up play and every facet of Leipzig’s attack, constantly dropping deep and playing one-two’s with the midfield. Thus, having another forward alongside Werner allows Leipzig to maintain their depth up front.Embed from Getty Images
Leipzig don’t just lack consistency when it comes to their formation, but also personnel. 27 different players have featured in the Bundesliga this season for Nagelsmann’s team, 17 of which have made 10+ appearances. Just two players have featured in every single match, vice-captain Marcel Sabitzer, and top scorer Timo Werner. Werner is one of the brightest strikers and greatest goal scorers in the world, while Sabitzer is criminally underrated and fulfills a number of key roles in Leipzig’s midfield. Between the two of them alone, they’ve contributed in some capacity to 48 of Leipzig’s 75 goals. Werner’s been the second highest scorer in the league with 25 goals and 8 assists, while Sabitzer’s contributed 9 goals and 6 assists from his various midfield roles. The excellent young Frenchman Christopher Nkunku has also been a key cog in Leipzig’s lineup, scoring 5 goals with 13 assists in his 28 appearances, proving PSG all the more wrong along the way. He’s also created the most chances per game in the Bundesliga (2.6), despite playing fewer minutes than the next eight highest players on that list (WhoScored?, 2020). Such is the talent of players like Nkunku and Sabitzer, that someone like Emil Forsberg has struggled to consistently make the lineup this season.
But Sabitzer and Nkunku are far from the only two capable of fulfilling a number of different roles in Leipzig’s lineup. Versatility has practically become a pre-requisite to play for Nagelsmann and his ever-shifting formations. Konrad Laimer for example has shifted away from his usual position as a right-back into a role as a central midfielder and defensive midfielder this season. In that position he’s arguably been one of Nagelsmann’s key performers and with 2 goals and 6 assists, he’s also improved his importance to the team in attack. But Laimer’s defensive stability has remained, even if in a different role. The Austrian has completed more tackles than any other player in the Bundesliga this season (89), highlighting his importance to Leipzig’s defensive setup.
Lukas Klostermann has also shifted away from his role as a right-back now to centre-back, while Werner has operated as both a winger and attacking midfielder in addition to his usual position up top. The versatility of Nagelsmann’s players allows for the flexibility in their formation, which may change from game to game or minute to minute in a match. This requires the players to be as tactically knowledgeable as possible. As a result, it’s understandable why a manager like Pep Guardiola felt comfortable loaning a talented player like Angelino to Leipzig.
In addition to the players already mentioned, Peter Gulacsi has continued as the first choice goalkeeper for the fourth season in a row, while new addition Nordi Mukiele has been the man to fulfill that right-back position that others have needed to depart away from as a result. Marcel Halstenberg has unsurprisingly held down his position on the left of Leipzig’s back-four, even despite the arrival of Angelino in January, while Dayot Upamecano continues to be one of the most sought after defenders in the world. Mukiele, Klostermann, Upamecano and Halstenberg don’t just make for one of the most resilient back-fours in the Bundesliga, but probably the defensive unit with the longest names too.
In midfield, Diego Demme has continued his role as the regista in the team, but has had to battle several others for the position including new-signing Dani Olmo. Up top Yussuf Poulsen has been the most frequent partner for Timo Werner, but hasn’t hit quite the same mark as he achieved last season and is slowly starting to be fazed out by Patrik Schick.
FLAMBOYANCY IN ATTACKEmbed from Getty Images
In 30 games so far, RB Leipzig have scored 75 goals, conceding just 32. Only Bayern have conceded fewer and only Dortmund and Bayern have scored more. This has allowed Leipzig to be right up there with the very best in the Bundesliga, where (at the time of writing this) they currently sit 2 points behind Borussia Dortmund.
Leipzig love to attack down the wings. They have a highly talented cast and crew of players, who are very capable of taking players on 1v1 and creating chances through individual skill. With wingers who love to cut inside, their fullbacks are able to progress forward frequently on the overlap. In moments where they can get the ball to the fullbacks, they may look to deliver a low cross into the box, or play a diagonal into the nearby striker before switching play to the other side.
In addition to the fantastic individual skill of their players, they combine in a collective effort to keep possession. Die Roten Bullen play a possession-based style of football, involving short and quick passing combinations. Their approach involves a mix of both verticality and getting the ball forward quickly, and horizontality, shifting play left and right to take advantage of the wings, particularly when playing in a back-three formation. They like to play in the opposition’s half far more than their own, and defensively hold a high line to catch opposition players offside.
VARIETY OF GOAL-SCORING METHODSEmbed from Getty Images
Leipzig have a great variety for how they score their goals. 20% of those 75 goals have been scored via set-pieces, while 9% have been scored through counter attacks directly after winning possession in their own half. They’ve also scored the most number of penalty kicks this season with 5. But the majority of their goals as should be the case for any top-level team, come from intricate combinations and open-play.
Leipzig don’t favour one side more than the other and actually attack down the middle far more than most teams in the Bundesliga (28% has them the third highest in the league in that regard). The narrowness of such a formation like the 4-2-2-2 or even the 4-4-2 allows naturally for that central penetration. So too does the lack of natural out and out wingers who get up and down the line. Sabitzer and Nkunku are both far more likely to adopt central positions and cut inside rather than take players on, and that in a way has helped Leipzig achieve quick attacking transitions and that verticality they look for in getting the ball forward at every opportunity. It’s not as though they lump it long; in fact they’ve attempted the fewest long-ball passes in the league this season. But they do like to take the riskier pass on occasion and very few of their attacking players actually have particularly impressive pass success rates as a result.
POSSESSION & PLAYING OUT FROM THE BACKEmbed from Getty Images
Nagelsmann’s talented team are quite adept at keeping possession and playing through the thirds. Similarly to Dortmund, they like to play a one-two-touch passing kind of game, advancing the ball quickly and vertically. But they also tend to favour direct balls along the ground into their forwards or wingers, who will drop to show for the ball. Their central midfielders are not frequent outlets during moments where the team are attempting to play out from the back. They instead hold their positions, allowing Leipzig to have a clogged midfield should they lose the ball. Upamecano and Klostermann will often shift the ball left to right, looking to play in a striker or a winger at the right moment. The young Frenchman has completed the ninth most passes per game in the Bundesliga this season (70.3), highlighting his importance to the team when playing out from the back.Embed from Getty Images
Once playing the ball more directly to a forward or winger, if there is no adequate route forward they may look to spread the ball backwards to the fullbacks, or inside to the central midfielders before looking again to go forwards. These one-two-touch combinations allow Leipzig to retain possession and look to play the ball forwards at the right moment.
If Leipzig are under immense pressure and finding it difficult to locate the perfect pass, they may look to go long to their target player in Yussuf Poulsen or Patrik Schik. However, it is again worth noting that Die Roten Bullen have attempted the fewest long-balls per game and that even though this target man often helps in their possession and attacking combinations, they only use the target man from back to front as an outlet when under intense pressure. Both Poulsen and Schik are however very capable of holding the ball up and when combined with Werner’s pace and clever movement, it’s easy to see why Leipzig might adopt this approach from time to time.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONTEmbed from Getty Images
Leipzig play a high pressing style of football off-the-ball. As custom, they press in a diamond shape, with their strikers crucial to the process. Rather than forcing their opponents back towards their own goal, they like to pressure their opponents into wide areas. This is done by the intentional movement of the strikers to both press the player in possession and cut off their central passing options, such as the other team’s central midfielders. The goal for Leipzig in their press is to trap the opposition in a wide area, where the mobile Nkunku or Sabitzer are ready to pounce. With one pass into the wide area, Leipzig will overload that side of the pitch and ensure their opposition have no way out. The diamond shape is then completed by the central midfielder and near-sided fullback offering cover and support nearby.
Against teams that have a talented ‘number 6’, Nagelsmann may opt for a 3-5-2 system, in which he has an attacking midfielder (such as Emil Forsberg) match the other team’s defensive midfielder. This again allows Leipzig to achieve numerical superiority in central areas, forcing their opposition into the wide areas where they are prepared to create defensive overloads. With one striker involved in the press and the other remaining high and central, Leipzig also have a natural outlet to go on quick counter attacks should they win the ball back.
This has proven to be an effective method for Die Roten Bullen to both win the ball back, and keep the ball out of the back of their net. Often times their opposition can’t even break into Leipzig’s defensive third because of how well organized they are defensively and how intensely they press.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Although RB Leipzig might have fallen out of the title race in the past couple of weeks, they remain one of the Bundesliga’s most intriguing sides, led by one of the world’s most intriguing and innovative coaches. The fluidity and versatility of each of their players allows Leipzig to change shape and formation each game, without any consequences. If Nagelsmann does not get swept off his feet by another club, it will be very interesting to see where RasenBallsport Leipzig can progress from here.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Julian Nagelsmann’s fluid RB Leipzig. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and share in the comment section below or on Twitter @mastermindsite which manager and team you’d like to see next. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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