How Nordi Mukiele and Tyler Adams operate differently at wing-back for RB Leipzig – tactical analysis
Much has been written about Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig side this season, and rightly so. The 32-year-old’s principles of play and tactical flexibility has been analyzed in plenty of detail, whilst the individual performances of the likes of Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano, Christopher Nkunku, and Marcel Sabitzer, alike, have been widely heralded.
In an age where tactical flexibility is becoming more important, and particularly with a Head Coach such as Nagelsmann who is so highly regarded in this discipline, having two right wing-backs who are able to give different options within the same formation is a welcome advantage, particularly from a position that is perhaps overlooked in terms of seeking different options, as opposed to a midfielder or forward.
In this tactical analysis of Leipzig’s 3-5-2 formation, I will provide information through a scout report on two players who have been used in the right wing-back position this season – Nordi Mukiele and Tyler Adams – and discuss the different aspects they bring to the right wing-back position by analyzing their individual traits and how they fit in with Leipzig’s tactics.
It should be noted that Adams has only made a handful of appearances for Nagelsmann thus far this season and despite promising signs at wing-back, this report is, therefore, giving an analysis based on a small sample of games.
A brief overview of their 3-5-2/3-4-3
There are basics of a 3-5-2/3-4-3 which you will see in the majority of back three formations, and Leipzig are no different. Both Adams and Mukiele carry out very similar roles defensively which I will highlight below.
When defending in deeper areas both the right and left wing-backs will drop deep themselves when out of possession, and will create a back five.
When defending in higher areas, specifically in regards to their press, Nagelsmann uses a few different ideas. Just a couple of these that we have seen when using the 3-5-2/3-4-3 involve the wing-backs once more.
Below we can see them pressing with little intensity against Bayer Leverkusen, allowing them to have possession, and focusing more on blocking passing lanes. They dropped into a 5-3-2 with the ball central, but as soon as the ball was worked to one side, the wing-back on that side would push up to create a midfield four, leaving a defensive four behind them – creating a 4-4-2. Below Mukiele pushes up to join the midfield three whilst Angeliño (out of picture) drops back.
At other times we have seen Leipzig become a 4-3-3 in the press. With this press Nagelsmann looks to put the opposition defence under more pressure, pressing with a front three, whilst the midfield fills the gaps, again blocking central passing lanes, and forcing the opposition to either play wide or long.
Against Bayern Munich, we saw them initially employ a pressing shape which was not intense, similar to the Leverkusen game, however, Nagelsmann wanted to ensure his wing-backs stayed deep defensively, with Bayern particularly strong from wide areas, being the most prolific crossing side in Europe’s top five leagues. Adams had a job on his hands with the threat of Alphonso Davies and when Bayern had the ball in the Leipzig half, his athleticism was key in ensuring a quiet afternoon for Davies with little space behind the wing-back to attack.
To allow the wing-backs to stay in deep, one of Leipzig’s back three was given the freedom to push into midfield to support and ensure they weren’t overloaded centrally, leaving a back four behind him.
Nagelsmann is very fluid in his formations, and when they line-up in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, defensively, as we can see from the examples above, they rarely take this formation in any phase without possession.
The wing-backs are able to ensure there are always bodies protecting central areas. The image below shows them pushing Nkunku forward to press with a front three and Tottenham decide to go long from the goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. I have highlighted a triangle of players. Nagelsmann still presses with a 4-3-3 here with Sabitzer sitting furthest forward in the triangle, occupying the Tottenham pivot, whilst Angeliño pushes a little higher. From his position he is able to mark the Tottenham wing-back, Serge Aurier, whilst be close enough to push inside and create a midfield three, should it be required. At this point, as the earlier example showed with the wing-backs in the 4-4-2, the right wing-back, in this case, Mukiele, would drop into the back three to create a back four.
The wing-back position is the most demanding position within most back three formations, and this is certainly the case with Nagelsmann’s formations using the back three. In defence, we will see similar ideas to the ones highlighted above, regardless of personnel. However, going forward there are some differences.
With most wing-backs manager’s will expect them to provide width in possession, helping create angles to play out from the back and help the team move forward, whilst in attack, allow the midfielders or forwards to tuck inside and play in the half-spaces, increasing the likelihood of bypassing the opposition defence either through these gaps or on the wing using the aforementioned wing-backs. And we do see this with both of Leipzig’s options at right wing-back, however, there are differences worth noting too.
On the right-side Leipzig have two incredibly dynamic and athletic players vying for minutes at wing-back. Mukiele has naturally kept the role for the majority of the season with consistently excellent displays from this flank, showing steel and grit in defence, whilst he is rapid and purposeful in attack.
Adams has seen first-team opportunities difficult to come by but as the season progressed began to find more chances. However, with Adams’ ability to play as a defensive midfielder, as well as his own individual talents, he brings a different option to the same position, and below I will go into detail as to what the two offer.
Mukiele is an outstanding defender. He reads the game well but has plenty of pace to get himself out of any trouble. He is combative and just an all-round excellent defender. Mukiele has a 77.53% win percentage on defensive duels in the league which is the fourth highest in the division, behind Upamecano, Karim Rekik and Matija Nastasić. He can play in central defence as part of a back three, at right-back, or at right wing-back, which is of course where we are focusing.
Naturally in central defence, and even at right-back, you’re likely to see him be more conservative in his attacking intent, however, at wing-back he has the licence to push forward at will, and he does so with great effect.
His heat map shows how he truly covers the entirety of the right-flank, highlighting what I said earlier regarding the expectations Nagelsmann has of his wing-backs to truly be instrumental in defence and attack.
He is an attack-minded individual who loves to get forward in attack, and he will frequently be seen making surging runs from the back five as Leipzig counter and turn defence into attack quickly. His pace is vital in ensuring any of Leipzig’s quick breaks have more than just one or two options from the forward line.
Despite playing as a wing-back it is a common sight to see Mukiele form a front three, especially if Leipzig are playing a 3-5-2.
With Werner, the league’s second top scorer this season behind Robert Lewandowski, Leipzig have a forward who is prolific operating from the left flank. With Werner doing this, leaving either Nkunku or Patrik Schick central based on who is his strike partner that day, Mukiele will push high and create the front three, allowing Werner to push left.
With his high-positioning Mukiele is very effective at ghosting in behind Leipzig’s front line from wide areas as an outlet for the long ball. For wing-backs to be seen as the furthest forward player isn’t a common occurrence, however, it’s not surprising to see Mukiele take these positions, and moving into these areas from a somewhat more unorthodox starting position, it makes it easier for him to evade marking.
Mukiele thrives when given this attacking responsibility. We can see that he is even dangerous in front of goal when we observe his shot map from this season in the image below, with a good deal of shots, and goals, from well inside the 18-yard-box, giving further evidence of his ability to contribute in the final third.
Adams has a slightly more conservative approach to the wing-back role. However, should Leipzig field the likes of Nkunku, Werner, and even Schick or Dani Olmo in the same line-up, his more reserved approach and ability to drop inside and operate in central-midfield comfortably mean Leipzig’s attacking players can afford to play more freely going forward. As talented as Mukiele in attack, his output can’t measure up to the previously mentioned players.
It’s no surprise to see one of Leipzig’s wing-backs drop into midfield as they press in a 4-3-3, however, less so when in possession. Nevertheless, Adams ability as a midfielder gives Nagelsmann the opportunity to have his right wing-back invert into central-midfield in possession too. With Klostermann dropping into right-back and Angeliño sitting deeper than his wing-back partner, Adams is able to drift inside and operate in between the lines as a forward passing option. By doing so it allows one of Leipzig’s midfielders to push higher, or in the Bayern game as they played a 3-4-3 with Olmo as a false nine, it meant Olmo didn’t have to drop in deep every time, and give them three options further forward should they look to play directly. Whilst he can also provide a passing option beyond the first line of press and evade close marking due to his original wide positioning.
We saw Adams do this frequently in Leipzig’s 0-0 draw with Bayern.
More so than Mukiele, Adams will drift inside to receive the pass, and when playing a 3-4-3 is an excellent option at wing-back for he can easily help create a midfield three and provide a passing option inside other than the two central-midfielders.
From this more central positioning, Adams will still look to push forward and with the ball in possession with one of the forwards, he will overlap and look to fulfil the wing-back attacking role which Mukiele does so well.
With Olmo playing as a false nine there were times in this game where Leipzig were in a 3-5-2 with Olmo dropping into midfield. It was interesting to see how Nkunku and Werner would still operate in wider areas, whilst Adams would fill the space voided by Olmo dropping deep.
Again Adams’ ease slotting into central-midfield was seen in Leipzig’s build-up with both himself and Angeliño sitting in the midfield half-spaces whilst Konrad Laimer dropped deeper working as a single pivot. Therefore in front of him, Angeliño and Adams formed a midfield three with Sabitzer. This narrow central three kept Tottenham’s defence narrow too, allowing space for Werner on the left-side.
Sabitzer pushed beyond the midfield press and was in between the lines, where he was tracked by Tottenham’s lone defensive midfielder. Both Angeliño and Adams were in areas where should they receive the ball they had space to drive at Tottenham’s defence, whilst having angles to play forward behind the opposition defence due to their positioning in the half-spaces.
From the wing-back position, Adams is more comfortable driving inside than Mukiele, again most likely due to his ability to play through the middle. Because of this he can give an alternate approach to attacking from wide areas for Leipzig than Mukiele does, and provide different angles for passes into the forward line in the final third.
Adams has played wing-back this season whilst Nkunku was dropped out to the same role on the left side. With Werner favouring the left side too it meant Leipzig were able to use these two to link up and push forward together in what was a very attacking left flank. Adams was, therefore, more defensive-minded in this game, giving balance to Leipzig’s back three should Nkunku push forward regularly. If Mukiele had been available for this game it’s less likely Nagelsmann would have used Nkunku in this position for it may have left Leipzig’s back three exposed due to both players’ desire to push forward.
Comparing the two
There are certainly plenty of parallels between the two wing-backs. They can both operate as orthodox wing-backs, pushing forward in attack, whilst creating a back five in defence. Both are lightning quick and despite their forward exploits, it is rare to see them caught out in defensive transition, as some wing-backs can do when part of a back three. Angeliño is perhaps slightly less expansive than these two individuals and although he will still push forward on the left side, he is comfortable sitting a little deeper and should Mukiele or Adams be far upfield, and Leipzig lose possession, he is nearly always close enough to his back three to quickly form a back four with them.
The right side is an important one for Leipzig, with them having more positional attacks from the left side in just six of their 25 league games this season.
Adams has made just four crosses from right wing-back this season, albeit he has completed three of these which suggests he should perhaps be doing this more frequently whereas Mukiele has made 33 and has a 36% completion. But he is nevertheless not prolific ranking 30th in the league for crosses per game from the right side.
The easiest way to compare the two is from when they both featured in the same position in Leipzig’s 3-0 win over Tottenham due to Mukiele’s removal early in the second half following being hit in the head by the ball and subsequently swallowing his tongue.
By looking at their two heatmaps (Mukiele top, Adams bottom), we can see that Mukiele stuck to the wing more often than Adams and we can see he got into high areas to the right side of the 18-yard-box., whereas we can see Adams was clearly predominantly positioned deeper than his teammate, as well as being seen more frequently inside despite less playing time than Mukiele.
This isn’t to say you won’t see Adams forming part of a front three, nor Mukiele inverting inside to operate in central-midfield.
There are examples of both of these players doing both of these things, however, with their strengths lying in different areas, it is fair to say they are more likely to fulfil the roles as mentioned above.
I appreciate this topic is somewhat specific, and with Adams operating as a defensive midfielder for Leipzig last season, the sample size for his performances at wing-back is still small. He appears to be slightly more reserved in pushing forward than Mukiele, and although he has won 65% of his defensive duels this season, is still a less formidable defender than Mukiele.
Mukiele is clearly a more well-rounded wing-back at this stage, and with both fit, I don’t believe he needs to worry about losing his starting berth just yet. However, Adams has shown he has plenty of potential, and is able to offer Leipzig something different in build-up play from this role, as well as in the opposition half.