Bundesliga 2021/22: Why Steffen Baumgart is one of the most exciting coaches in German football – tactical analysis
Steffen Baumgart will be a familiar name to any followers of the German Bundesliga due to his stellar work with SC Paderborn. Baumgart brought Paderborn up into the top flight of German football playing a high-tempo, attractive brand of football, with an emphasis on intriguing pressing structures, following back-to-back promotions from 3. Liga and 2. Bundesliga over 2017/18 and 2018/19.
He continued to have his side perform admirably in the Bundesliga, but even more impressively so considering the shoestring budget, where some of Paderborn’s most notable transfers that summer came from 3. Liga – not even the 2. Bundesliga. Since his ultimately doomed season in the Bundesliga with Paderborn, he has taken over the reins at FC Koln. After seven games Koln sit in seventh place, with 12 points – only four points off of leaders Bayern Munich.
There has been a noticeable uptick in Koln’s performances since Baumgart’s time at the club began, and yet without any drastic change in personnel. Dejan Ljubicic has proved to be an astute acquisition in midfield, Mark Uth has rejoined permanently and has looked sharp already, whilst the most obvious case of Baumgart having a direct impression on a player comes in the form of Anthony Modeste. He has been truly goal-shy in recent seasons, scoring only four league goals in his last two seasons for Koln. And yet in his seven league games under Baumgart, he already has four goals.
Baumgart has instilled a midfield diamond formation, similar in style to Marco Rose’s at Borussia Dortmund, with this being used predominantly throughout the season so far, using this structure to allow his vertical passing, aggressive pressing and efficient counter-pressing football to flourish with his new side.
Baumgart places an emphasis on purposeful forward play in attacking transition, but not at the risk of giving away possession cheaply.
When possession is won, the ball-carrier will look forward for a passing option. There may be a nearby option immediately in front of the ball, or even between the lines, but equally Sebastian Andersson or Modeste also perform an important role leading the line.
They both have strong builds and are comfortable receiving with their back to goal. If a ball is played forward into their feet, they are difficult for the opponent to push off the ball. They can hold up possession effectively. Even if the ball is less than accurately, perhaps played aerially, they will still perform well in the air too and can win headers or provide knock-downs for nearby teammates.
Both have enough pace where they can outrun defenders or at the very least provide a threat in behind too.
If he doesn’t show for possession, Modeste will use simple but effective positioning off of the far-side centre-back. He will look to run off of the shoulder of this player, or make a late shift inside and move directly between the two centre-backs. Regardless of which route he takes, he looks to hit the space directly behind the near-side centre-back. The image below shows an example where a turnover by Koln is quickly turned into a chance to thread the ball behind the opposition defence for Modeste.
We will detail Koln’s defensive shape more specifically later on, but one element of their approach allows them to counter-attack swiftly, whilst still ensuring ball retention.
In the defensive phase, it isn’t uncommon to see Koln operate with a compact central group. As soon as possession is turned over they are able to quickly combine to evade any kind of counter-press. They are able to draw the opposition forward and make them compact, opening up line-breaking options in between the lines, often in the half-spaces.
Another common theme is using the wings to orchestrate counters. Whilst Baumgart would prefer a central forward pass in transition, if this isn’t on his players are quick to work the ball wide. As such his wingers or full-backs have to have quick reactions in this moment to ensure there is this option available.
Koln use a fluid shape in possession but are well structured in having their centre-back pair frequently flanked by Jonas Hector at left-back in close proximity, whilst also having a single pivot positioned closely in front of them. The right-back may drop deep and wide too but is given less responsibility in this phase than Hector is.
The pivot operates very close to the centre-backs, even dropping in between them at times to get on the ball and face the opposition goal instantly. If facing a high press, Koln’s backline spreads very wide and stretches the press, with the pivot playing as close to the pressing forwards as possible. He is able to often lose his man-marker by doing this, and will then make a late movement off of the shoulder into space to receive a pass through the lines.
This pattern can be seen from the image above, and the next image too, where the pivot knows the attacker whose shoulder he is on will step forward as the ball is circulated. By moving with this player he evades the pressure from the looming defender behind him and can receive in space past the first line of the press.
The pivot is a focal point that is used to draw the opposition press forward and whilst he stays pretty central, there is plenty of rotational movement occurring beyond him. Baumgart is fond of quick, vertical passes, and these are structured through swift, rotational movement between the rest of the midfield diamond. The two wide midfielders in the diamond will look to drop either side of the pivot during build-up play, but also rotate with one another, or allow space for the 10 to drop into. They can receive the ball as simply as in the image below, starting high and moving into the space to the side of the pivot.
Mark Uth is particularly useful in build-up phases, consistently showing outstanding movement to drop into positions to get on the ball. He will do this whether utilised as a 10 or as one of the two forwards.
An example of rotational movement and the positions Uth finds himself in can be seen in the following two images. Initially, the near-side wide midfielder moves away to create the diagonal passing line to his teammate on the far-side.
Following this, they then push forward and position themselves between the lines as Uth drops deep to receive from his high initial starting position. Uth’s movement draws the opposition towards him, leaving space to play through the lines again.
Uth consistently drops into deep areas and shows quality playing off of few touches and receiving when under pressure. He is an excellent option as a 10 as a result, but Ondrej Duda is effective as well. Regardless of the player selection, Baumgart wants his 10 to always offer that option beyond the first line.
The movement of Koln’s midfield stretches the opposition and frequently breaks up any compact defensive shape. This opens up enough space for the 10 to make a late movement into this deeper area to receive the ball. The midfielders who created the space for the pass are then already turned and facing the opposition goal where they can receive to feet from the 10.
Jan Thielmann initially engages with centre-back Rafael Czichos in the image below, drawing the press forward and leaving space behind.
The one-two combination creates the passing line into Duda in the 10 position, where Thielmann then spins off to receive from his teammate.
Koln value hitting the deepest possible pass option. This approach can vary between a high percentage pass being played into the feet of the likes of Modeste or Uth, but it can also come in the form of a longer ball, which will be examined more in the defensive transition section. However, they are highly effective at finding space to play longer forward passes that are still played on the floor, and this is all possible due to the movement of the midfield.
The centre-backs will take wider positions during advanced phases of possession, where they have excellent passing lines available to them into the front line. Koln will always have two midfielders just below this option, so any kind of direct pass is quickly supported by players facing the opposition goal. If these midfielders weren’t there, this would be a far riskier pass that would likely isolate the forward and lead to a turnover.
Koln are patient in searching for these opportunities. There are times where they will continuously stretch the opposition, switching the ball from flank-to-flank over a short period of time. The ball may be worked down one flank before a quick combination draws the opposition press over. They will then open up and make the switch before potentially repeating this pattern. The more they can stretch the opposition like this, the more likely spaces will open up in central positions to thread through passes.
Whilst they operate with a midfield diamond, their positioning isn’t strict and Florian Kainz for example may initially take a wide starting position if playing as a right wide midfielder in the diamond. As the ball moves into a position where he could potentially receive he will then make a late movement inside where he can present an option between the lines. This movement is followed up with the full-back then overlapping down the right-wing into space.
The full-backs are constantly providing height and width and are vital in allowing Koln to have a varied approach in attack. Quick combinations in wide areas, along with a congested central attacking presence in the middle of the pitch, often leave big gaps between the opposition defence in the half-space.
This relationship was exploited perfectly for a goal against Furth where after initially receiving the ball out wide and then passing forward, the full-back Benno Schmitz used the combination out wide between his two attacking teammates to underlap into the open half-space. He was played in behind as a result and notched an assist, playing across goal for the tap-in.
Further forward, Koln continue to show impressive movement to structure attacks. They may initially be content to allow the opponent to mark them tightly in the central channel. However, there are often movements made away from the ball and towards the ball to create up, back and through combinations once more, or to simply create space in the 10 position for a player to receive in. This can be observed in the following example, where the forward leading away and midfielder leading towards the ball, from an initially compact starting position, drags the opposition away from this area to create space.
Not all of Koln’s build-up play is focused around this vertical passing and intelligent off-ball movement patterns though. Baumgart uses his midfield diamond to ensure that his team counter-presses incredibly effectively. Long balls will be played forward from deep areas and the diamond is used to ensure the ball is quickly swept up, from which the attacking transition can begin. As the opposition win the header, for example, the midfield diamond gathers quickly around the ball.
Koln may even put a delay in this counter-pressing structure, giving the defender the impression they are heading the ball into open space, with the contact the trigger for the diamond to spring into action.
Aside from a highly efficient counter-pressing structure, Baumgart’s sideshow an excellent reaction to lost possession, quickly pushing forward and immediately looking to impose their defensive style of play on the opponent. The attacking unit all possess energy and enough pace and physicality where any counter-press or step forward from them on a loss of the ball is at the very least an uncomfortable prospect for an opposition backline to deal with. They will step forward with any back pass the opposition play to get the ball away from a central counter-press. The forwards will subsequently immediately show possession to one side, with the rest of the team quickly reciprocating this movement by committing to one side themselves. One player will be left in a position slightly away from the action, ready to press and delay if the opposition are bold and make a diagonal switch of play, but generally this is a smart tactic to allow Koln to immediately put the opposition down one side of the pitch and begin the defensive phase on their terms.
Out of possession
Starting from the front, Baumgart uses an aggressive pressing structure, with a focus on preventing the opposition from being able to play out from the back. He knows his compact midfield structure have an excellent chance of winning any knock-downs from an aerial duel as a result of a long ball played forward, and as a result, he uses his mobile front line to press with energy across the width of the pitch as the opposition look to build-up.
Both centre-backs will often be occupied, whilst the 10 will mark the pivot space zonally if no player is in this area, preventing any central passes breaking the lines, but man-mark if a pivot is used.
One of the wide midfielders may push forward if necessary to help show the ball in the opposite direction too. They have used a wide double-pivot where one is ready to press a diagonal ball to the far side and the other either shields the back four or man-marks.
If they are drawn forward when man-marking than the far-side pivot will drop inside more.
We can see this occurring in the next image.
However, one of the clear consistencies in this pressing shape is initially showing the ball out wide. Whilst there is a temptation with a diamond to immediately show into the centre of the pitch, in doing so the team in possession can still potentially play either side of them, and longer balls over the top are angled away from goal, therefore unlikely to be sweeped up by the keeper. By initially showing wide it cuts out one direction that the opponent can play. Koln mark tightly during the press and prevent any kind of easy passing option for the opposition. Below the player highlighted in black has possession. They have a Koln player on their back and any inside pass options are marked just as tightly. Modeste is in a position where any backward pass to the centre-back isn’t an option either.
Once they have dictated where the opposition can play as they build up, and allowed their defensive structure to become more compact, Koln are then more likely to show inside. Modeste does a terrific job of providing a constant presence up front, in ensuring the opposition can’t have easy possession with their centre-backs, whilst any press in situations like the one below will show the opponent inside into the congested central area.
Modeste will often provide pressure from a second angle if the opposition look to play away from the central channel. He can step back and still keep any centre-back options in his cover shadow as he does this. We can see how close the rest of the pressing unit is in the image below, providing close support but also structuring any attacking transition.
Baumgart’s forwards will drop back and provide this kind of pressure in more advanced defensive phases. The midfielders work tirelessly to provide pressure in front of the ball, and this can be supported by the likes of Andersson, Modeste or Uth dropping back aggressively too. The ball-carrier then has to be aware of oncoming pressure from two angles, forcing them to rush their decisions on the ball.
Baumgart is keen to always have pressure on the ball, and is willing to allow his defenders to step forward, even if this leaves a 3v3 as it does in the image below. One of the precursors for this is a compact defensive shape, where the midfield are sat closely in front of the defence and therefore they aren’t isolated.
In terms of their shape in deeper areas, they are strict in keeping a back four, but otherwise there is more variation. Baumgart wants his defence to be shielded by at least one if not two central-midfielders, so it can look like a 4-4-2 at times or a 4-2-3-1. Regardless, they keep a compact shape, preventing any easy central passage into the front line.
Baumgart is gaining a reputation on the world stage in a short space of time – and it’s not a surprise. He has continued to produce a highly exciting brand of football that places emphasis on physical, quick, vertical football, and yet has huge demands on the running and intelligence of pressing of his players. As a result, it’s no surprise he has been compared to Jurgen Klopp, and the Red Bull organisation must be salivating over some of the football Baumgart has Koln playing. It is typically modern German football, and it is done so well, without a star-studded line-up. It will be interesting to see how he progresses with Koln, and there will no doubt be big clubs across the globe monitoring his performance too.