UEFA Champions League 2020/21: RB Leipzig vs Manchester United – tactical analysis
The final round of fixtures in the UEFA Champions League group stage was by no means a dead rubber, especially for the teams in Group H. Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, and RB Leipzig were all tied on nine points heading into this week with the latter needing a win to qualify while the other two needed just a point. PSG hosted İstanbul Başakşehir who had already been knocked out and with their firepower, and were the favourites to advance leaving United and Leipzig to battle it out to ensure their qualification without needing results to go their way.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men had trumped Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig at Old Trafford, beating them by five goals to nil but last season’s semi-finalists were sure to put up a fight. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of both Manchester United and RB Leipzig in their fixture and through our analysis, we will see how their tactics evolved over the game.
Nagelsmann opted for the 3-5-2 formation with Angeliño and Amadou Haidara as the wing-backs. Dayot Upamecano missed the fixture through suspension and Willi Orbán, Ibrahima Konaté, and Nordi Mukiele made up the back three. Kevin Kampl, Marcel Sabitzer, and Christopher Nkunku started in midfield while Dani Olmo, starting ahead of Yussuf Poulsen, lined up alongside Emil Forsberg up front. The home side’s formation offered them ample protection at the back but Nagelsmann’s impressive use of wing-backs has seen the likes of Angeliño flourish in attack, and by no means were Leipzig out to defend for huge chunks of the game.
United also opted for three defenders at the back and went for the 3-4-1-2 formation, a slight variation of that of the hosts. Luke Shaw made his return from injury to form the back three with Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf while Aaron Wan-Bisakka and Alex Telles filled the wing-back spots. Fred missed this fixture owing to his red card the previous week, hence why Scott McTominay played alongside Nemanja Matić in midfield with Bruno Fernandes starting just above them. Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood completed the forward positions with both Edison Cavani and Anthony Martial suffering injuries. With just three out and out attackers, it did seem like Solskjær had opted for a more conservative approach to this game.
Leipzig’s use of wing-backs
As we mentioned earlier, Leipzig’s formation may seem defensive on paper but in reality, it adds to their attacking threat. Angeliño and Haidara are often given the freedom to play with the attacking line, meaning that the German side shifts to a 3-3-4 formation in attack. Kampl, Sabitzer, and Nkunku stay back and provide ample cover for the back three in case there is a quick overturn of possession and from their deeper areas, they progress the balls further up the pitch. Leipzig’s structure also means that the opponent is forced to play a narrow structure to defend as well. Should the opposition backline spread to try and cover the advancing wing-backs, the midfield three of Leipzig can easily advance and work the ball into the open spaces available.
As a result, Leipzig are able to control the areas of the pitch that they want to play into. A perfect example of this situation is shown above. By working the ball out to the right flank, Leipzig have ensured that the United backline has narrowed and left huge amounts of space down the left. The usage of two forwards means that the centre-backs are always under pressure and would need help from the nearby defender, be it Wan-Bisakka or Shaw. When this is the case, the backline would have to shift towards the side of the ball and with a simple switch over the top, Leipzig find themselves playing into the open space in behind the defence.
Another possibility is to lure out one of the back three before repeating the ball to the wing-back. With United outnumbered in midfield, one of the centre-backs needs to advance in order to enable an efficient press where they can tackle the opponent and regain possession. In such a case, there exists a gap in the backline that the full-back needs to cover and in doing so, leaves the space down the flank. This space can once again be exploited by Leipzig’s wing-backs in that they now find themselves isolated against the opposition wing-back and have enough options in terms of passes as they would match the defenders in number with one of them having moved out of position.
Once again, the distribution of Sabitzer is critical here as well and the midfield three of Leipzig have to work well to avoid the pressure before playing the quick pass to switch the play. Kampl and Nkunku have shown that they are capable of dropping into the spaces to receive and pass the ball quickly so that they can retain the ball in spite of any pressure, and once they find Sabitzer, he can showcase his passing ability.
This threat loomed large later in the game as well when United were looking to find a way back into the game. Having switched to four at the back, Leipzig’s wing-backs found even more space to move into and had better passing options in the centre as well. The United defenders were matched evenly in number and the centre-backs had to leave massive gaps between them in order to find their man in the hope of stopping a pass or a cross.
Should they look to cover the space, a simple run behind them could leave them in no man’s land but the massive gaps did them no favours either, with the forwards running through them and making themselves excellent targets for crosses from the wing-backs. The advanced positioning of the wing-backs also meant that they received the ball well beyond the midfield line and had ample time to either beat their full-back or pass before the United midfielder is able to recover.
It is no surprise that all three of Leipzig’s goals came from such plays where the ball could be quickly switched over the top before a shot or a cross was completed, resulting in simple tap-ins to put them well ahead.
Compact structure sees Leipzig frustrate United
In defence, Leipzig went back to the 5-3-2 formation, with the wing-backs dropping all the way back to support the back three. The midfield three would stay compact centrally, covering the passes to either of United’s front three while the two upfront would look to cover the central midfielders. This compact structure meant that United found it difficult to play through the centre as their midfielders were pressed immediately owing to the proximity of their opponents. United like to cut through the centre before moving into the half-spaces, but with this disciplined structure, they were forced to play through the wings. This was not ideal considering that United lacked aerial prowess to be on the receiving end of crosses, and most of their chances had to be created by means of passing combinations.
With the midfielders all covered centrally, there was not much they could so as well and were simply left outnumbered in that area of the pitch.
The introduction of Donny van de Beek for Telles at half-time looked to be a solution but once again, Nagelsmann had this covered. The front two had one lesser centre-back to press and they could look to cover off a pass to the holding midfielders while one of the midfield three, usually Nkunku, would move up to press the midfielders. The remaining two, Kampl and Sabitzer, would stay with Fernandes and van de Beek and man-mark them to prevent them from receiving the ball. This way, United were again forced down the wings and the only way to play through the centre was for one of Fernandes or van de Beek to drop deep but this would result in one less attacker up front.
However, United were much better in attack than they had been previously and the fact that they were now equally matched in number in midfield was certainly a major reason why. They did not look as vulnerable as they had in the first half, leaving open spaces and unable to build through the centre, but had found a way to slowly find their rhythm and build up the play rather than playing down the wings and being cornered.
United’s final charge
With time running out, Solskjær threw on Paul Pogba as well and understandably pushed his whole team forward. Pogba and van de Beek looked to run into the half-spaces while Fernandes would often move out wide to link-up play. Leipzig were still holding their own in midfield and Fernandes was forced out wide to find a way of creating chances. Maguire, Brandon Williams, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah also joined the attacks to provide more width so that they could look to stretch the opposition and while it nearly worked, Leipzig had far too many bodies behind the ball and were able to block anything that came their way.
United then tried to make use of the passing range of Pogba and Fernandes and aimed to create attacks from deep. They looked to lure the Leipzig players to their half before a quick ball over the top to either one of Rashford or Greenwood down the channels. Not only did this have the Leipzig centre-backs on the back foot, but there were gaps created between the defence and midfield lines. The compact structure suddenly looked very open and with a penalty decision going their way, United found themselves playing with just that bit more of hope.
The United midfield sniffed for the gaps and was much better at moving into them to find positions in between the lines. Pogba’s presence meant that Fernandes did not have to drop as deep as he had done to start attacks and the likes of van de Beek, Rashford, and Greenwood were always looking to move into the half-spaces. Leipzig found themselves completely disorganised and the midfield that had held strong up till then suddenly looked outnumbered and unable to cover the spaces. United did manage to find a second goal in two minutes to set up a blockbuster ending despite their awful start, but with Leipzig just about keeping their head and getting men behind to defend, they sealed their well-deserved win.
The last 10 minutes were perhaps Leipzig’s only foot wrong this game and apart from that, they had dominated on all fronts. Nagelsmann had clearly learned from the humiliating defeat at Old Trafford and in the big game he pulled out his best, stomping his authority from the first minute. His side had picked apart the United defence with ease and held their own in midfield and defence, suffocating the opposition and preventing them from creating many clear-cut opportunities. They had to win to qualify and the hunger and passion showed in their performance as they sealed their well-deserved qualification.
Solskjær’s side has had a knack of coming back from behind away from home this season but it was always going to be difficult against a resilient Leipzig side. The two goals at the end showed that with the right tactics, they stood an excellent chance in the game but the way that United started off this crucial fixture set the tone for the rest of the night. Consistently outnumbered in midfield and struggling to keep up with the wing-backs despite a back five in defence, United looked the lesser side until the last 10 to 15 minutes where they finally found their rhythm with reshuffled tactics.
After an impressive start to their campaign, United have been left to rue what could have been after they failed to find a single point in their last two games to take them to the knockout stages. Solskjær had got it wrong against İstanbul Başakşehir, PSG, and Leipzig once too many and in Europe, you just are not afforded that many chances. They do, however, still have a shot at winning the Europa League but until next season at least, they lose out on the prestige of the Champions League.