Bundesliga 2019/20: RB Leipzig vs Schalke 04 – tactical analysis
After travelling to London to defeat Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League, RB Leipzig travelled to the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen to take on Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga. Julian Nagelsmann’s squad looked to earn their third win in a row with a win over Schalke 04, who had drawn their last three games. While Schalke has been historically strong at home this season, this match was all RB Leipzig, with Nagelsmann’s team putting five goals past the team from Gelsenkirchen while maintaining a clean sheet.
This tactical analysis looks to better understand the tactics used by both Nagelsmann and David Wagner in their Bundesliga match. The analysis will look to understand how RB Leipzig and Schalke utilized their tactics that led to RB Leipzig’s dominant result.
David Wagner started Schalke in a 3-4-1-2 with Alexander Nübel in goal. In front of him was the trio of Omar Mascarell, who played as the central defender with Matija Nastasic to his left and Ozan Kabak on his right. In the midfield for Schalke were Suat Serdar and Weston McKennie, who primarily toiled in the centre of the pitch while Jonjoe Kenny was out on the right side and Bastian Oczipka worked on the left side. Amine Harit played in front of them as the “10” with Benito Raman and Rabbi Matondo pairing as Schalke’s strikers for the day.
Julian Nagelsmann technically lined up in a 3-5-2, but RB Leipzig’s tactical flexibility allowed to change throughout the match, with a definite switch to a 5-3-2 at the half.Péter Gulácsi was the man in goal for RB Leipzig. In front of Gulácsi were Marcel Halstenberg, Dayot Upamecano, and Lukas Klostermann; Upamecano played centrally while Halstenberg played on the left and Klostermann on the right. Konrad Laimer played as the holding midfielder, providing cover for Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer, who played in front of him in the centre of the pitch. Angeliño was tasked with controlling the left flank while Nordi Mukiele worked down the right side. Timo Werner and Patrik Schick were the striking partnership for today’s match, a growing trend that has seen the Leipzig side continue to score goals at an impressive rate.
Leipzig’s press and defensive set up
RB Leipzig looked to neutralize Schalke’s attack in two ways: by setting up a press that forced Schalke wide by using a defensive diamond structure with an alternating tip of the diamond that was dependent on the location of the ball. Leipzig’s press caused Schalke a lot of problems, forcing them to often send the ball long, which would result in a loss of possession.
Leipzig were willing to commit seven players forward in order to press Schalke and force them to send the ball long. Essentially, Leipzig created a pentagon with two players in the middle of it in order to prevent Schalke from playing through the middle of the pitch. In the image above, Matija Nastasic is in possession on the left side of the pitch. Leipzig find their pentagonal shape, which encourages passes to the wide areas, which is essentially them setting a trap to win the ball back. Nastasic does have teammates (marked with yellow) who are in the centre of the pitch, but Leipzig have done a good job marking them out of the game with cover shadows (occupying proper passing lanes). Nastasic’s only option is to send the ball long, which results in Leipzig regain possession.
One final note about the pentagonal shape with two defenders in the centre: if Leipzig are able to win the ball in their opponents half, they have a system of triangles and diamonds already created by their pressing structure that they can use to transition quickly and attack Schalke’s goal.
Leipzig used this pressing structure primarily when Schalke were building out of the back from goal kicks, but they also dropped into a 5-4-1 formation when Schalke won an aerial battle or were able to gain possession in their own half. While the back five positioning was pretty standard, Leipzig’s use of their attacking five is what stood out. Nagelsmann’s team used a defensive diamond with the tip of the diamond alternating between the two strikers depending on the location of the ball.
In possession, Schalke pushed four to five players forward towards Leipzig’s back line. This left two midfielders and three defenders to try and play through. Leipzig’s diamond consisted of Konrad Laimer at the base as the holding midfielder, with Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer as the outsides of the diamond, with either Patrik Schick or Timo Werner at the tip of the diamond, depending on where the ball was located. As shown above, if Schalke switched the position of the field, Schick was able to slide over to provide pressure while Werner filled into that central spot in the diamond. At times, Sabitzer and Nkunku were also able to provide pressure on the centre backs, and the diamond would adjust appropriately.
Here we see this practice in action, with Leipzig finding their diamond shape as Omar Mascarell is on the ball. Patrik Schick is at the tip of the diamond with Timo Werner providing pressure on the ball. All the Schalke players marked with yellow are not currently available as options for the pass as a result of this structure. By denying Schalke the middle of the field, Leipzig were able to force them to turn the ball over throughout the match.
Exploiting available space
RB Leipzig put five goals past Schalke, and while one came off of a set-piece and another came from a very patient, intelligent Christopher Nkunku, the majority of their goals came from them exploiting Schalke’s inability to close down space, both in terms of width and verticality. Leipzig’s first goal, which was scored in the first minute of the game by Marcel Sabitzer.
Werner received the ball in a wide position and cut in towards the centre of the pitch. As he does, he attracts the attention of two Schalke defenders. Sabitzer, located in the right half-space, has a lot of room to receive the ball. Even upon receiving the ball, he isn’t appropriately pressured because the only option is for a man from the defensive line to step forward, which would leave a large gap that could be exploited. Sabitzer is able to take his time and get the ball on his right foot, ripping a shot on target that Alexander Nübel should have done better with.
Leipzig’s second goal was a result of them exploiting space that was left available, although this time it was because Schalke failed to appropriately cover their backline.
Here, Timo Werner, who has a total of 27 goals this season, was left wide open. Leipzig did have players who are pinning back Schalke’s defence, but Schalke had enough bodies to shift over and properly cover the second-highest goalscorer in the Bundesliga. Instead, Werner receives the ball, has time to cut in towards the goal and get the ball on his right foot, where he rifles his shot into the back of the net.
Leipzig added a third goal off of a corner kick before exploiting Schalke’s inability to stay compact vertically. While the lack of appropriate width cost them earlier, this time it was the amount of space between the lines that allowed the fourth goal to happen.
Here, Schalke are able to have their defensive line be more compact, but their midfielders are way too high up the pitch. RB Leipzig are able to exploit this by putting four attackers between those lines. This will inevitably lead to them creating chances because any one of those attackers who receives the ball will have time and space to make a decision. In this instance, Angeliño receives the ball at his feet. As he does, Jonjoe Kenny steps up and overcommits, allowing Angeliño to easily dribble by him and lace a shot into the side netting, putting the game away in the process.
Schalke struggling to break down Leipzig
While Schalke saw more of the possession when compared to RB Leipzig, what they did with that possession was not all that impressive. They really struggled to break down the aforementioned press and diamond with the alternating tip. So much of their play resulted in sending long balls from their outside backs to their wingers, which is not all that difficult to defend. While they were able to get forward, players didn’t seem to pick up on the successful pattern enough, and they struggled as a result.
Here we see a rare moment of success for Schalke. As the ball goes out wide to Nastasic, Sabitzer abandons Leipzig’s diamond shape to press. Nastasic makes a quick pass to Bastian Oczipka, who is able to find Suat Serdar with his second touch, as he drifts into the space that Sabitzer just left.
Serdar is now facing forward with the ball at his feet and is able to play a quick one-two pass with Rabbi Matondo. As Matondo is receiving the ball and about to lay it off, Oczipka, who helped begin this passage of play, overlaps Matondo. This perfect execution of the third man concept allows Schalke to have a free man outside of Leipzig’s box with the ball at his feet, but unfortunately, Oczipka is not able to cross the ball successfully in this scenario.
This situation was more consistently seen from Schalke. The arrows in black are essentially part of the same pattern just described: play the ball out wide, then into the middle to attract defenders, then play it out wide again. Instead, Nastasic opts for a ball in the air (the yellow) to the same man. The lofted ball is a problem because it takes too much time to arrive at his teammate’s feet, which allows Leipzig to apply pressure and ultimately win the ball back. These types of balls happened consistently throughout the match, particularly in the first half. Despite having so much of the possession, Schalke failed to adjust to Leipzig’s pressure, and they couldn’t get forward enough time to create chances.
Schalke’s counter-attacks not properly executed
Because RB Leipzig are so organized defensively, and Schalke failed to break them down, Schalke’s best options to score would have been off of set pieces or counterattacks. While the did register a shot on goal off of one free-kick, Schalke’s concentration should have been on counter-attacking Leipzig, to try and see if they could put them under pressure and make a mistake at high speed. Early in the match, Schalke looked to do just that.
Leipzig had men committed forward, and after a misplayed pass, Suat Serdar is able to play a ball into Amine Harit’s feet. As he receives it, the two forwards, Benito Raman and Rabbi Matondo, make runs forward as they attempt to drag Leipzig defenders out of the way. Harit carries the ball forward and lays it off to Matondo, who was ultimately ruled to be a bit offside. This quick, counter-attacking movement was one of Schalke’s more threatening movements in the match, despite the offside ruling. In the 27th minute, Schalke had an opportunity to counter, but they were unable to play a proper pass forward and wasted a 2v1 opportunity. This happened again in the 35th minute, where Schalke had a clear opportunity to counter.
Serdar does a great job to get into the right position in order to intercept a pass. As he does, Matondo begins his run towards the left flank. Serdar never picked his head up to see his options, but he actually has two teammates available if he can lay the ball off to Weston McKennie or get the Leipzig defender to overcommit. Instead, he never sees them and plays a poor pass that never really started the counterattack. While RB Leipzig was incredibly organized, there were opportunities available for Schalke to look to exploit space if they could work quickly. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to pick out the right passes on the counter, and they failed to score any goals as a result.
In the end, RB Leipzig were too much for Schalke to handle in this Bundesliga match. Even though they switched to a more defensive formation in the second half, Leipzig were still able to apply the pressure and break down Schalke. With the victory, Leipzig were able to keep the pressure on Bayern Munich, who remain in first place in the Bundesliga, one point ahead of Julian Nagelsmann’s team. Leipzig look to continue their winning ways next weekend with a scintillating matchup against fifth-place Bayer Leverkusen.
Schalke won’t be happy with their performance, but this match was only David Wagner’s men’s second time losing at home this season. They have been winless in their last five Bundesliga matches, with three draws and two losses, putting them seven points behind Bayer Leverkusen. They will continue their push for automatic European football next weekend when they take on FC Köln on Saturday.