UEFA Champions League 2019/20: RB Leipzig vs Tottenham Hotspur – tactical preview
The UEFA Champions League picks up again this week, as Europe’s best compete and fight to get to the quarter-finals of the competition. While some ties seem to be already decided, some are far from over, and its all to play for in the second leg. With only one goal in the first leg, the clash at the Red Bull Arena is one of these matches. RB Leipzig will be hoping to book a spot in the quarter-finals, the first time in their history, while Tottenham Hotspur will be hoping to replicate last season’s success in making it to the final, but of course, taking it one step further, and actually winning the competition. This tactical analysis will look at the possible lineups both managers may approach, and why both teams are going into this match with poor form.
Possible lineups: RB Leipzig
RB Leipzig, who go into this match with the one-goal advantage, will most likely not change their tactics too much in the second leg. Head coach Julian Nagelsmann will likely set his side up in a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 formation. This formation or some variation of it has been used by Leipzig in 40% of their matches this season.
However, there is a chance that Nagelsmann slightly switches up his tactics for two reasons. The first being the worry that RB Leipzig have a lead to now defend. It happens every year in both the Champions League and the Europa League, where a team with a lead from the first leg change their style of play, and rather than look to win the match, they look to defend the lead. This sometimes works, and it sometimes does not. Leipzig will be extra cautious because of the away goal rule, knowing that Spurs can outscore them on away goals. If Nagelsmann were to go down that route, he would likely deploy a 4-4-2, which he has used in 27% of Leipzig’s matches this season.
The second reason as to why Nagelsmann may decide to stray away from the 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 is because, as of late, RB Leipzig’s form whilst in this formation has not been great. After the first leg against Spurs, RB Leipzig smashed Schalke 04 with five goals to none away from home. However, after that, they failed to beat both Bayer Leverkusen, and Wolfsburg, with both matches ending in draws.
RB Leipzig’s frustrations in front of goal (as of late)
In their last two matches, RB Leipzig have only scored one goal. Drawing both these matches has allowed Bayern Munich to get a stronger hold on the title, with RB Leipzig now third in the table behind Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, and five points off the top spot.
It is no secret that Timo Werner is the talisman for the German side. The 24-year-old German, who has been linked with joining current European Champions, Liverpool, this summer, has 38 goal involvements in 35 matches this season (27 goals and 11 assists). He has been consistently playing at a very high level this season, which is both good news and bad news for RB Leipzig fans. The good news, of course, is that he consistently helps them win matches. The bad news is that when he plays poor, RB Leipzig have difficulty getting through matches.
Against Bayer Leverkusen, Werner really struggled to get into the match, and as a whole, Leipzig’s attack suffered. Despite playing the way they normally play in attack, meaning they were not necessarily struggling to play through Leverkusen’s defensive shape, small things such as mistimed passes, and shots just not coming off right for Werner meant that Leipzig were unable to pick up three crucial points at home. On the night, Werner had zero shots, 44% pass accuracy, zero key passes, and zero accurate crosses into the box. Poor numbers especially when his form so far this season has been at a really high standard.
An analysis of the match against Wolfsburg shows that it was more of the same. Werner did not start, and Leipzig were struggling without his presence. It was not until he came on, in the 60th minute, did Leipzig look more threatening.
However, despite being threatening, Werner had another frustrating match in the final third, similar to the match against Bayer Leverkusen. Everything he tried just could not come off for him.
The worry is that Werner is in a bit of bad form since a thigh injury, which was why he was on the bench in the first place. If Tottenham are able to successfully limit Werner, and/or he just has one of those nights, then Leipzig will struggle, as these last couple of matches have shown.
Possible lineups: Tottenham Hotspur
It is difficult to predict how José Mourinho will set up his side, because as of late, Tottenham have been playing a quite compact, midblock. This is because of a combination of factors: key long-term injuries to players such as Harry Kane, and Son Heung-min, the club not signing a replacement for Christian Eriksen, and Mourinho’s general style of play. The reason it remains a question as to how Mourinho will set up is because Tottenham cannot afford to be as passive as they have been. They are a goal behind in this tie, and RB Leipzig definitely have the capability of scoring more past them.
If Mourinho were to go with his usual compact formation, he would likely play a 4-4-2, the same formation played against RB Leipzig in the first leg.
As of late, Mourinho has attempted many other formations, but each come with their own set of issues. Against Chelsea, Spurs played with a 5-4-1, again a very compact, and defensive shape. However, they struggled against Chelsea’s midfield. It was a game of four (Mason Mount, Ross Barkley, Jorginho, and Mateo Kovačić) versus two (Harry Winks and Tanguy Ndombele), and Chelsea were able to use the advantage they had in numbers to bypass Tottenham’s midfield. As mentioned earlier, Tottenham have rarely played an active, pressing match under Mourinho, so the passivity, combined with the numerical disadvantage made it quite easy for Chelsea to bypass Spurs’ midfield.
The 3-4-2-1 against Wolverhampton Wanderers, as well as the 4-2-3-1 against Norwich City saw similar midfield problems as well as the inability to create clear cut chances (which is somewhat understandable due to Kane and Son’s absence).
Despite losing in the first leg, the 4-4-2 has major advantages that can allow Spurs to hurt RB Leipzig, if played correctly. The first is that the 4-4-2 allows Spurs to effectively cover both the flanks, and the centre of the pitch, making it difficult for the opposition to play their attacking game.
The second is that the two strikers, plus the support they can get from the midfield line makes an almost perfect situation to attempt counterattacks in. RB Leipzig rarely dominate possession in matches, regardless of the opposition, but against Spurs they had 57% possession of the ball. If the second leg is similar, Spurs can use the lack of possession to force mistakes from RB Leipzig’s backline and then counter using at least four players, if not more, while Leipzig are not in their defensive formation.
Tottenham’s defensive fragility
No matter the formation Mourinho decides on, the defensive stability needs to be stronger in order for Tottenham to have a chance of progressing to the next round. The first step to this is adjusting the positioning of the wingers.
As mentioned earlier, Tottenham have recently been dominated in midfield, and part of the reason is that the wingers fail to track back, leaving the midfield and defensive line a bit vulnerable. What will usually occur is the fullback stepping out to help the midfield, thus then leaving ample space on the flank in the final third for the opposition to exploit.
When this occurs, the benefit of the 4-4-2 in defence, blocking out the wide areas, goes to waste.
Leipzig will use these free flanks to their advantage if Spurs let them. It is a must that they tighten up in the back at the Red Bull Arena, as RB Leipzig had these chances when they played the first leg but failed to capitalize.
This is a difficult match to call, in terms of who will win, and book a place in the next round, and it can honestly swing either way. Both teams’ managers have choices to make in terms of the style of play and the tactics they want to use, and how they approach the game: either going for the tried and trusted, or trying something slightly unexpected. Both teams are also out of form and have not performed consistently well in their respective leagues the past couple match weeks. An interesting match awaits and while neither RB Leipzig nor Tottenham Hotspur are amongst the favourites to win the Champions League this season, whoever goes through will be a tough matchup for anyone in the quarter-finals.