UEFA Champions League 2019/20: RB Leipzig vs Zenit – Tactical Analysis
In a group that’s waiting for someone to assert their dominance on it, Leipzig were the 2-1 victors at home to Zenit in this latest Champions League clash. This victory places them at the top of their group with six points from their opening three games. Leipzig will be ecstatic after their victory which places them above their big-name group rivals, namely in Lyon and Benfica.
Whilst not being a model of consistency so far this season, Leipzig have still shown off their impressive credentials under their new management, only slipping to two losses across all competitions to this present stage. The current form has dipped, however, and after three winless weeks in their domestic league, a win here was vital for the developing side based in Saxony.
Coming into this game, Zenit were enjoying a surprisingly good run of results in the Champions League, earning a respectable 1-1 draw away in Lyon and a comfortable win 3-1 at home to Benfica. Currently only second via goal difference in the Russian Super League, Sergei Semak and his men have been enjoying a successful campaign so far this year and were not to be underestimated by their opponents on this evening. Even though they took the lead in this game, they didn’t have enough to outlast their German counterparts and faltered to their first loss in European competition this season.
This tactical analysis piece will illustrate the ebbs and flows of another competitive European fixture and detail how Julian Nagelsmann’s side continues to evolve under the tutelage of the exciting young coach. Our analysis will highlight where the game was won for the German side and project their chances of qualifying from their group after these early rounds of fixtures.
Leipzig made four changes in reaction to a disappointing draw in the Bundesliga to Wolfsburg and the injuries to Ibrahima Konate and Marcel Halstenburg. Talented youngsters Nordi Mukiele and Ademola Lookman were inserted into the starting eleven as well as Kevin Kampl and Emil Forsberg after they proved their fitness for the game.
To accommodate Mukiele, Lukas Klostermann demonstrated his versatility lining up in the left-back position. Timo Werner lined up alongside Lookman in the forward positions as the speedster was seeking to add to his eight goals so far in eleven appearances across all competitions. Marcel Sabitzer also started this game as Leipzig’s second-highest goalscorer, having managed to net four goals so far this season.
Zenit were captained by ex-Chelsea veteran, Branislav Ivanovic, who lined up in the centre-back position. Despite being without big-money signing and former Barca prospect, Malcom, Zenit produced a strong lineup featuring the likes of Wilmar Barrios, Sardar Azmoun and Russian target-man, Artem Dyzuba.
On paper, both teams lined out in 4-4-2 variants however Leipzig’s formation often switched between the one laid out and a 4-3-3 with Werner and Sabitzer adopting positions on the wing and Forsberg stepping into the centre.
The pros and cons of Leipzig’s high line
Maintaining a compact shape
Leipzig’s talent factory has acquired them the services of mobile young centre-backs like Dayot Upamecano who are essential in maintaining the effectiveness of a high defensive line. Leaving vast amounts of space in behind their defensive shape does open up potentially dangerous situations for the German side, however, this space is best marshalled utilising the pace of centre-backs in the mould of Upamecano.
Whilst there’s always the risk that other teams could exploit this high-line with players like Azmoun, pushing the defensive line up in this manner, affords Leipzig greater control over the space in their opponents half. This is because it keeps the distance between the defensive and the forward line minimised, helping to maintain a compact shape off the ball, which is vital for creating an efficient and effective pressing scheme.
In the above scenario, because of Leipzig’s high-line, their centre-backs can apply immediate pressure to any out-balls played towards their strikers, thus suffocating and snuffing out any potential counter-attacks. This also prevents the rest of Leipzig’s team from having to retreat back into their own half meaning they can still occupy the Zenit half and present further danger to their opposition.
Allows Nagelsmann to operate with several creatives
This also affords Nagelsmann the freedom to fill out his midfield with numerous creatives and forward men like Forsberg, Kampl and Sabitzer. None of these men specialises in the defensive areas of the game or regarded as physically imposing so it’s vital for Nagelsmann’s system to limit the space they are responsible for when out of possession. Condensing the space available to the opposition in midfield reduces the risk that any of the opposition midfielders are allowed the space to drive at any one of these players in a 1v1 setting where they’d likely be exploited.
Limits the impact of target-men like Dyzuba
Forcing the opposition to attack a high-line has become a popular strategy for dealing with opposition target-men, whose height and power would otherwise create chaos in the penalty area.
By placing the defence on the halfway line, any damage as a result of Dyzuba’s aerial prowess was restricted to areas further away from the Leipzig goal. This severely limits Dyzuba’s impact on the game as he lacked the pace to exploit the spaces behind the defence and any header he won was rarely translated into a key pass or shot on target.
Opening up vast amounts of space behind their defence
Zenit were able to profit from Leipzig’s high-line as they used Azmoun as the primary weapon to stretch the home side’s shape through long balls played into the channels. Employing the Iranian’s pace in this way gave the Russian’s an out-ball and offensive weapon they could use to force Leipzig to defend whilst facing their own goal-line.
Amidst the rest of the shape recovering deep into their half, space for Zenit’s deeper players opened up before their opponent’s penalty area. This afforded Rakitsky the time and space to punish Nagelsmann’s side with a world-class volley that arrowed into the bottom corner of Gulasci’s goal.
The strike partnerships
Both teams operated in variants of the 4-4-2 formation throughout large portions of this game. It was interesting to note however the differing ways in which the opposing managers utilised their forward men.
Azmoun & Dyzuba
Zenit’s employment was much more rigid than their counterparts and the manner in which Azmoun and Dyzuba linked up hearkened back to the classic “big-man, little-man” combinations of old. Dyzuba, standing at nearly five inches taller than Upamecano, stood on the young Frenchmen, providing his team with an aerial outlet who could successfully compete to knock down second-balls to any onrushing teammates. Azmoun, Dyzuba’s pacier striking partner, drifted along the Leipzig defence, hanging off the shoulder of the last defender and in particular, sought to attack the space behind Willi Orban, who simply couldn’t match the Iranian for pace.
This played to the respective strengths of both strikers and often meant Leipzig were forced to defend in a number of ways due to the different threats they had to deal with.
Werner & Lookman
The roles for Leipzig’s forward line were much more dynamic in comparison. As Nagelsmann’s team manoeuvred in and out of various formations, switching between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 variants, Werner and Lookman interchanged between the roles of out-and-out forward men and direct-style wingers.
The pair also used their movement to drop off the Zenit backline and into midfield, in order to open up spaces forward for their teammates to occupy.
This wide range of movements made the pair difficult to account for and the opposition defence found it hard to prevent them from having a major impact on the match. In the buildup to Leipzig’s equaliser, Lookman dropped into midfield in order to receive and turn on the ball. His movement allowed the space for Konrad Leimer to advance forward, the result of which allowed the Austrian to break into the box to score.
Leipzig’s aggressive occupation of channels
Occupying the five vertical channels
Leipzig’s triumph over Zenit came with the home side dominating possession, laying claim to 65% of it on the night. This stat alone would offer some suggestion as to why players like Dyzuba struggled versus the Germans, however, Leipzig maximised their possession and the effect this had on their opponents.
A notable feature of Leipzig’s possession was the sheer number of men they pushed forward onto the opponent’s defensive line. With Lookman and Werner already supported by the forward runs of Sabitzer, Klostermann and Mukiele were also prominent features of the attack, advancing forward up the flanks.
These moves conditioned Zenit’s players into deeper positions than they’d have liked. The holding midfield was chained to their defensive line due to the overloads in the spaces between the defence and midfield. And along with this, the wide men, Shatov and Driussi were dragged back closer to their own goal by the invasive movements of Leipzig’s full-backs.
Creating space for the full-backs
Crowding and overloading the space before the opposition’s back four compelled Zenit’s backline to remain as narrow and compact as possible in order to prevent Leipzig’s frontmen from exploiting any potential gaps. This forced Zenit to thus forsake the wider areas of their final third and, in their bid to maintain a horizontally compact shape, they opened up easy access into their penalty area for Leipzig’s wide men.
With the Zenit backline as narrow as it was, which was barely wider than their own six-yard area, Klostermann and Mukiele had free entry into the penalty area almost every time they received the ball high up the pitch. Upon receiving the ball in these areas, this would send the Zenit defence into panic as they’d scramble to deal with the wide threat, thus allowing the men in the middle the chance to free themselves and attack the blind side of their markers.
This space that was created just wide of the Zenit backline was ruthlessly exploited by Sabitzer’s wonder-strike in the second half which turned out to be the winner of the game.
This was a fully deserved win for Leipzig whose tactics conditioned Zenit into unfavourable matchups and situations thus nullifying the majority of potential threats posed by the Russian champions. Zenit had little answer in response to this and ultimately couldn’t command enough of the possession from the game to stamp their authority on proceedings.
This game had many interesting tactical aspects to this game and it will be intriguing to see if Leipzig can replicate a similar level of control in the less-welcoming surroundings of the Gazprom Arena. Their performance in this game suggests Nagelsmann’s side will have every chance of doing so although you’d expect Semak to radically alter his lineup in a bid to give Leipzig more to deal with in the return fixture.
Leipzig will still be delighted they could win the three points on the night however and currently look the team to beat in this competitive Champions League group.
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 October issue for just ₤4.99 here