Bundesliga 2018/19: RB Leipzig vs Borussia Dortmund
RB Leipzig welcomed Borussia Dortmund to the Red Bull Arena in their first meeting of the 2019. Lucien Favre and his side have been ever-present all season and came up against another master tactician in Ralf Rangnick. It was another stern test to navigate in Dortmund’s march towards the Bundesliga title.
Rangnick’s men, on the other hand, are looking to finish in the top three and have been in fine form with the exception of their narrow loss to Bayern Munich. Both teams have been playing scintillating football this season and the game was expected to produce goals. Both were quietly confident of taking a positive result in a pivotal match of the Bundesliga season.
RB Leipzig lined up in a 4-1-4-1, but quickly transitioned to a 4-4-2 as the game wore on. Timo Werner looked to be playing at left midfield with Yussuf Poulsen as the lone striker. The midfield was made up of Konrad Laimer, Marcel Sabitzer and Diego Demme playing as the deepest midfielder screening the back four. Ibrahima Konate partnered Dayot Upamecano at centre-back. Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann were the two full-backs.
Borussia Dortmund have been dealing with numerous injuries, meaning Julian Weigl started at centre-back partnering Abdou Diallo. The experienced duo of Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel provided steel and solidarity to Dortmund’s midfield away from home. Max Phillip, Raphael Guerreiro, and Jadon Sancho supported Mario Götze.
Lucien Favre’s side lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation looking to play on the counter-attack and frustrate RB Leipzig. An hour before the game, Dortmund were dealt a massive blow as Marco Reus was not included in the matchday squad. Reus had rolled his ankle in training on Friday and it wasn’t worth risking further injury.
There were questions marks over Weigl’s place at centre-back. It was a position Leipzig wanted to exploit through the pace of Timo Werner and physicality of Yussuf Poulsen. Were they successful? My analysis answers that question and more.
Tale of two halves – Borussia Dortmund’s persistence
RB Leipzig began the opening five minutes in energetic fashion, winning successive corners and putting Dortmund under pressure immediately. Leipzig would see the majority of the possession for the first half. However, after the initial wave of pressure, Dortmund started to exert their influence over Leipzig and settle into the game.
Out of possession, Dortmund held a stable defensive line trying to push as a team rather than individuals. They allowed Leipzig to have possession and tried to frustrate them by forcing them to play out wide. When crosses were put into the box Poulsen was diligently marked by Abdou Diallo, although the Dane did win the odd cross.
Favre deployed two defensive midfielders in Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel to offer protection for Weigl and Diallo. Their secondary function was to prevent Kevin Kampl, Marcel Sabitzer and Timo Werner from making deep midfield runs and dictating play off Yussuf Poulsen’s second balls.
As Marcel Halstenberg takes the throw in, he looks for a passing option. He is immediately faced by a sea of black and yellow shirts blocking off all forward passing lanes, which forces him to play the ball back. When the ball is picked up, Dortmund go and push up together forcing Leipzig to switch the play wider and closing off any central passing lanes.
Eventually, Lukas Klostermann crosses to Poulsen with a lofted ball which is eventually played down for the onrushing Kevin Kampl. Under normal circumstances, Kampl would drive into the box playing in either striker or taking a shot closer to goal. However, he is now forced to take an attempt from distance with two Dortmund defenders blocking his path.
Closing the gap
After analysing the teams’ passing maps you can see how much deeper Dortmund were compared to Leipzig. Axel Witsel (#28) and Thomas Delaney (#6) stayed close to each other to try and nullify Leipzig’s midfield threat by closing out passing lanes and overloading the opposition ball carrier.
Leipzig have consistently tormented opponents this season with deep-lying runs from the likes of Kevin Kampl and Marcel Sabitzer. The experienced Favre looked to negate their threat though by playing two athletic midfield destroyers that gave his side a bit of vigour and steel in the middle.
On multiple occasions, we saw the pair working in tandem looking to disrupt the momentum Leipzig were trying to build. The first example showcases Delaney’s excellent pressuring of Yussuf Poulsen with Witsel in support to block off the opposite side.
The second half saw RB Leipzig make a resurgent come back but Witsel and Delaney stuck to their task and tracked every run. As Marcel Sabitzer searches for options in the images above, he pauses and waits for the incoming Timo Werner. At this point, Witsel and Delaney have both surrounded Werner.
Whilst the German escapes the initial challenge he is immediately dispossessed by Thomas Delaney. Once again, notice the positioning between the two Dortmund midfielders. They haven’t strayed far away from each other, making it much more difficult for any Leipzig player to play with any sort of freedom.
Problems with crossing
What was evident from the get-go was Leipzig’s susceptibility to crosses floated into the box. Leipzig adopted a zonal marking strategy for defending set-pieces but it didn’t convince. Dortmund managed to win four corners in the first half and each time they inched closer and closer towards scoring. The Leipzig players were clearly finding it tough to deal with the size and strength of the Dortmund players in and around the box.
This was from an early corner delivered by Jadon Sancho. Thomas Delaney can be seen running in unmarked and manages to get his head on the ball as it fizzles past the post. The warning signs were there for Leipzig and they eventually paid for their poor marking.
Raphael Guerreiro floats another dangerous delivery towards an onrushing Lukasz Piszczek, whose header lands at the feet of an unmarked Axel Witsel. The Belgian manages to score his second goal of the season.
RB Leipzig’s resurgence
The second half saw RB Leipzig stage a worthy comeback with a late resurgence. After conceding the first goal, Rangnick made a slight tactical tweak with Werner pushed up alongside Poulsen rather than on the wing.
Rangnick instructed his players to increase the tempo of the game by asking his full-backs to push up higher and get more involved. This looked to have worked as the number of shots increased dramatically. A total of eight shots, four on target, and three off target with one blocked attempt, compared far more favourably to the first half where they only managed one shot on target.
Kevin Kampl and Sabitzer had switched roles. The diminutive Austrian midfielder was now asked to play a more expansive role going forward to probe the fatigued Dortmund team. His silky play meant he could slip in and out of the small gaps almost unnoticed. The execution of this plan was near flawless as Rangnick’s men knocked on Dortmund’s door multiple times and could have been two or three goals up if weren’t for Roman Burki’s heroics.
Roman Bürki plays a ball out towards Mario Götze but Halstenberg overpowered the striker. The Leipzig man wins the initial aerial duel and passes towards Poulsen. The Dane plays a neat through-ball into the path of Werner, who in turn uses his blistering pace to play in Sabitzer. The Austrian misses a gilt-edged opportunity to equalise as Bürki makes a fantastic save to deny him.
Two minutes later, Ibrahima Konaté plays in Timo Werner with a killer ball through the Dortmund defence. Once again Werner utilises his pace to get beyond the opposition defenders, but is denied by the Swiss goalkeeper.
Julian Weigl & Timo Werner
Keeping the two opposition strikers quiet would be crucial to Dortmund’s victory. The pair have been Leipzig’s spearheads, and when on song usually give Leipzig the victory. Throughout the first half both Poulsen and Werner were kept at bay by the centre-backs, with Weigl particularly excelling in keeping Timo Werner from scoring by contributing in nine interceptions. Weigl stepped in to play as an emergency centre-back with a scarcity of fit defenders and impressed everyone.
A month ago the young German midfielder was linked with a move away to Paris Saint-Germain. He was destined to move on to the French capital, but has now impressed in his new-found position and has created a conundrum for Lucien Favre.
As the throw-in is played towards Poulsen, he looks to play in Werner and exploit the space in behind the two centre-backs. Watch as Julian Weigl only has eyes for Timo Werner and his movement. In the second phase, he chases the German striker down the flank and manages to intercept a cross that could very well have been the equaliser for Leipzig.
To show his versatility, he moves on to mark Poulsen. As Diallo goes out to try and cut out Werner’s cross into the box he tracks the run of Yussuf Poulsen, knowing that any mistake could cost them due to the Danish striker’s proficiency within the box. His outstanding positioning allows him to put the ball out of play for a corner.
Marching towards the title
The match didn’t fail to live up to its expectations. The lack of expected goals was made up for by the high energy and pace that gave the fans an entertaining spectacle. The first half may have been controlled by Borussia Dortmund, but the second half was certainly under Leipzig’s grasp. If it hadn’t been for Roman Bürki’s heroics then Dortmund may well have left the Red Bull Arena empty-handed.
This win now puts them in the ascendency and propels them further towards the title. For Leipzig, it is yet another loss to a top-four rival. Ralf Rangnick and his men need to find another solution if they are to compete with the best of the Bundesliga.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the January issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.