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Julian Nagelsmann never made it as a player, thanks in large part to knee injuries that forced him to retire before his career ever got started. However, that change of path allowed the German manager to take up coaching at a young age. 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 just thirty-three years of age. This is an updated tactical analysis of Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig alongside his fantastic 2020-21 season.
Be sure to check out Julian Nagelsmann – RB Leipzig – Tactical Analysis (2019-20 Edition)
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-1-4-2
As could be expected of a Julian Nagelsmann team, RasenBallsport Leipzig don’t have one consistent formation. However, they have seemingly moved away from the 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 system that served them so well in 2019-20. This season, they have favoured a 3-4-2-1 or 3-1-4-2 formation instead. The 3-1-4-2 has been the first choice system of play in recent weeks and so we will focus on this formation in our analysis. But it is important to note that the system of play is less important for a manger like Nagelsmann. Players fulfilling specific roles, even ones that might contradict what a typical player in that formation might do, becomes more customary instead for a team like Leipzig. So with that, let’s get into the players.
Thirty-year old Hungarian goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi has retained his place for the fifth season running in the Bundesliga, but hasn’t had the best of seasons. His saves per goal conceded ratio sits at just 1.83, although he has only conceded 0.86 goals per game as Leipzig don’t tend to face too many shots. Players who previously made a name for themselves as fullbacks under Ralph Hasenhuttl or other teams have continued to play in the outside centre-back position, most notably Marcel Halstenberg, Lukas Klostermann and Nordi Mukiele. Mukiele is also the most frequent right-wing-back, even despite Tyler Adams’ interesting occasional positional change to the role and Benjamin Henrichs’ arrival from AS Monaco. Willi Orban and Dayot Upamecano are however the two perennial figureheads at the back, edging out Ibrahima Konate who had a stellar season in 2019-20. Left-wing-back Angelino is another of the team’s frequent starters, and has now sealed a permanent move to the club from Manchester City. The Spanish wing-back has been a solid defensive presence, but also one of their biggest attacking threats – scoring four goals with four assists in the league so far. Slovenian international Kevin Kampl dictates play in front of the back-four and has an excellent young understudy in Tyler Adams. Adams often plays alongside Kampl if and when the side play a 3-4-2-1, but can also play as a right-wing-back as Mukiele shifts to centre-back or out of the side for a rest. Kampl is the best passer of the ball in the team and like many players that Dortmund have let go of over the past few years, he is making the Black & Yellows look very silly for letting him go.
Captain of the club Marcel Sabitzer is another guaranteed starter when fit, and he’s been frequently partnered by Amadou Haidara, who is slowly growing into a Naby Keita-esque presence in the side. The versatile Christopher Nkunku and Dani Olmo have also spent time playing in central attacking midfield this season, in addition to as inverted wingers or up front. Swedish international Emil Forsberg starts games more often when the side play 3-4-2-1 to use his threat in wide areas, while Yussuf Poulsen has adapted well without Timo Werner alongside him. Perhaps Werner’s departure is one of the main reasons for the shift away from the 4-2-2-2, as neither Alexander Sorloth or Hee-Chan Hwang has managed to really nail down a place alongside the big man up top. The Danish international is instead more likely to be partnered by Nkunku or Olmo, giving Amadou Haidara or Tyler Adams a chance to play in midfield instead. Despite the many names that we have listed, Nagelsmann has been more consistent with sticking to the same thirteen or fourteen players for the bulk of the matches and minutes this season. The least consistent position belongs up top, where Nagelsmann has changed his front-men on a near game by game basis. That inconsistency may be natural without Timo Werner as they no longer have a natural goal-scorer. But that hasn’t stopped Leipzig from sitting comfortably in second place up to this point in the Bundesliga season. So those are the players, now let’s get into the tactics.
Last season, RB Leipzig’s attack was one of the most impressive in Europe. However, this season without Timo Werner, they’ve gone the other way to have one of the best defenses in Europe instead. Nagelsmann’s side have conceded just eighteen goals in twenty one games – the best defensive record in the Bundesliga. In fact, very few sides in Europe’s top five leagues have conceded fewer than Leipzig (PSG, Lille, Atletico, and Man City). Even Bayern Munich have conceded twenty-nine goals, eleven more than Nagelsmann’s Leipzig! Led by a back-three structure in most of their matches this season, Die Roten Bullen have made very few individual mistakes in the league and look like a very sound, compact unit. Dayot Upamecano, Willi Orban and Marcel Halstenberg are usually three of the key men in the back-line, and all are excellent both in and out of possession. But in the 3-1-4-2 or 3-4-2-1 formations, they have a few key midfield men who can also help to break up play and stop attacking transitions from developing. This allows the wing-backs, most dominantly Angelino on the left, to maintain a high position, knowing that the likes of Kampl and Adams have the mobility to cover in behind. In fact, Angelino’s average position is often the highest in his team, and so the midfielders become crucial to covering that space in behind and helping the Spaniard recover his position or press when the ball is turned over. Only Bayern Munich have managed to keep the ball out of their own third more than Leipzig this season, which is both a feature of their defensive stability and high pressing methodology.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONT
Leipzig’s lack of goals conceded is also helped by their intense high pressing system. Nagelsmann’s side press in a diamond shape, with the two front-men particularly crucial to kick-starting that process. Rather than forcing their opponents back towards their own goal, they like to pressure their opponents into wide areas. This is where the wing-backs and central midfielders are often ready to outnumber the opposition, looking to cut off passing lanes and restart the attack. In the 3-1-4-2 it becomes very simple to achieve this, as several players are able to pop up central areas and stop penetration through the middle of the pitch. The 4-2-2-2 system offered Nagelsmann similar advantages last season, and the starting positions of their players during goal kicks and other phases of pressing from the front when playing in a 3-1-4-2 don’t change all that much. The fullbacks have relatively more freedom to start higher up, but they might naturally start high anyway in the 4-2-2-2, especially if the ball is played to their side. So between the two formations, there is actually a surprisingly low amount of changes needed to the team’s pressing structure. This has helped Nagelsmann ease back into using the 3-1-4-2 that he favoured at 1899 Hoffenheim.
In terms of specifics into how the team press, Leipzig will shift and slide with the play as a unit and attempt to create a defensive overload on the side of the pitch with the ball. If for example the ball was on the right side, you would expect the near-sided striker, wing-back, and both central midfielders to create a diamond, cutting off all potential passing options. They attempt to swarm around the opposition like a pack of bees, ready to sting and punch with any loose touch or bad pass. Last season, Nagelsmann would often switch to a 3-4-1-2 when he wanted to stop a talented number six from playing out from the back. In either Leipzig’s 3-4-2-1 or 3-1-4-2 formations, the exact player tasked with stopping that number six may be less clearly defined and become a shared responsibility, rather than a lone attacking midfielder like Emil Forsberg being tasked with the demand. It is also important to note that with usually only one striker actively involved in the pressing diamond and the other remaining high and central, the Red Bulls can have a quick attacking outlet should they win possession of the ball. When they inevitably win the ball, Leipzig look for the quickest route to goal through one-touch passing and attempting to link up with Yussuf Poulsen in particular due to his aerial threat, capable hold-up play, and high position on the field. As a result, their intense pressing structure is an effective method for Leipzig to keep hold of the ball, stop the opposition from getting anywhere near their goal, and also score goals.
EVOLUTION WITHOUT WERNER
Out of all the rising stars Leipzig has helped produce over the years (Naby Keita, Diego Demme, Dayot Upamecano, etc.), Timo Werner is the best of the bunch. In his first season at the club (2016-17), the German notched twenty-one goals with five assists in thirty-one league matches, helping Leipzig finish in third place. In his final season at the club (2019-20) he fared even better, netting twenty-eight goals with eight assists in thirty-four games. His stellar form last year earned him an unsurprising move to Chelsea, leaving Leipzig wondering how to cope in his absence. Although their goal return has been nowhere near the same, Nagelsmann’s side have done very well to cope without Werner in their system. A variety of different players have fulfilled the striker role alongside Youssuf Poulsen, and Nagelsmann has also favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation to include more natural runners for Poulsen to knock the ball down to and run in behind. Christopher Nkunku and Dani Olmo have been the two top choice wingers or striking partners for the big Dane, and fifteen different players have found the back of the net for the club this season in the league. Unfortunately, none have found it regularly enough to make up for what’s been missing without the energetic German forward. Five different players sit at the top of Leipzig’s scoring charts on four goals each, with Dani Olmo and centre-back Willi Orban behind with three a piece.
With Leipzig’s play this season, it’s almost as though they’ve needed to increase their reliance on the entire team to score and create goals, rather than the individual brilliance of their ex main-man. They’ve had to work harder to score their goals, relying heavily on quick and intricate combinations in the final third rather than speed and running power in behind an opposition’s defense. They’ve become more vertical in their approach, while also simultaneously making the fewest long passes per game in the league (fifty-two). Perhaps the hallmark of the team without Werner is their improvements in possession of the ball, which will be discussed next.
RasenballSport Leipzig have significantly improved as a possession-based team since Julian Nagelsmann’s arrival. In Ralph Hasenhuttl’s last season in charge (2018-19), the club completed only 393 short passes per game, keeping under 50% of the possession. In Nagelsmann’s first season, that statistic improved to 54% and 496 short passes per game. This season, his team have improved again, keeping 56% of the ball and completing 523 short passes per game. The usual suspects of Bayern, Dortmund and Leverkusen still remain ahead of Leipzig in that regard, but the improvement is evident.
In possession, Leipzig are now more patient. They like to get all ten out-field players in the opposition half before they attack, and will often work the ball around from left to right until they are able to achieve that level of offensive pressure. Upon finding the right angles to play forward, they will then do so at speed with quick, one-touch combinations into the final third and advancing runs into space from their central attacking midfielders. Leipzig take one of the most vertical approaches to their attack in the league, partially down to their pressing and quick attacking transitions, but also due to the natural shape of their formations like 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1. Although they favour the middle, Nagelsmann’s side will also attempt to create overloads on one specific side of the field, with a trio or quartet of players combining in tight areas to take opposition players out of the game and then find space higher up the field. Angelino comes from the Manchester City school of smart timing of runs into the box, and so he has an excellent attacking threat when Leipzig are in full flow. The Spaniard has contributed four goals and four assists to their season so far, the most goal contributions of anyone at the club. RB Leipzig’s patient build-up and improvements in possession could be one cause of both their improvement in defense and slightly less attacking punch in the box, but it is certainly an important part of their improvement under Julian Nagelsmann this season.
RB Leipzig have been one of the Bundesliga’s best sides since their emergence in the league back in 2016. Julian Nagelsmann has continued the club’s success through his intense pressing approach, but also an increase in possession and playing through the thirds. They may not have a consistent formation, but they do have a consistent style of play that remains very fluid throughout each and every match. With Borussia Dortmund’s struggles this season and Leipzig’s overall play, Julian Nagelsmann is now set for his best ever season in the Bundesliga as he continues to get better and better with each passing year.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Julian Nagelsmann’s fluid RB Leipzig in 2020-21. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and share your thoughts in the comment section below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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