After a long break, UEFA Champions League football has finally returned. The round of 16 has arrived and there are some very interesting ties already.
One tie that could present some very intriguing tactical points is RB Leipzig against Tottenham Hotspur. Julian Nagelsmann is one of the brightest up and coming coaches, whose focus is on intricate attacking play. His tactics will come up against one of the biggest tests it can against José Mourinho’s Spurs side, who will look to set up to defend and look to counter, as they did recently in their 2-0 victory over Manchester City.
In this tactical analysis preview, we will analyse both sides and their approaches. After taking a look at the main principles of each club, we will look at the key tactics that could prove the difference in this very interesting Champions League tie.
RB Leipzig’s vertical approach
In many ways, Leipzig and Nagelsmann have proved to be an extremely good match. The Red Bull sporting philosophy they have spread across sides such as Salzburg in Austria and Leipzig themselves is based on verticality and constant forward movement. Nagelsmann is the perfect fit to orchestrate this philosophy, and they have reaped the rewards, sitting in second place in the Bundesliga only a point behind leaders Bayern Munich.
One of the major points of Leipzig’s season so far is their tactical flexibility. They have used different three-back and four-back formations throughout the campaign. With this first leg coming against a Spurs side in London who have a lot of speed in attack, it is likely we will see a three-back in this match. With this set-up, it offers a lot of different options depending on the situation during the match. The wing-backs have the ability to get forward, but also can drop in to for a 5-2-3 if they need to defend for periods of the match, keeping in mind the second leg at home in a few weeks time. Additionally, the double pivot in midfield, which we will get into later in this analysis, offers a solid defensive cover in front of the centre-halves.
When Leipzig are in possession, their players’ first thoughts are to look for vertical passing lanes. Everyone in the side is adept at making these passes. If a forward pass is not on, then they will quickly shuffle play to a player horizontally to shift the point of the attack, moving the opposition’s defensive block in order to open up these vertical lanes. The forwards and attack-minded midfielders will often look to drop in the space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opposition in order to receive these passes. A player that has commonly served in this role in his time at the club is Patrik Schick. The former Roma man has excelled in this tactic and provides a consistent option to his teammates in the build-up.
When these vertical passes are made into the advance players, the next phase of the attack moves into shape. Once the attacking player receives the pass, he will look for a nearby backwards or horizontal passing option. This is used for a couple of reasons. First, the body shape of the player receiving possession is facing towards his own goal, so it is difficult for this player to look to continue to move possession up the field unless they have time to control the pass before turning to dribble forward. Second, as we mentioned previously, making a quick pass like this has the ability to create a different passing lane that takes advantage of a gap left in the defensive side’s block that would have been unavailable from the position of the initial receiver. Below you can see an example of this type of move.
The last part of the move you see is the most crucial. Once the initial forward has received the pass and laid off possession, the other attacking players will look for spaces to run into, often in behind the opposition’s defence. These are normally the wide forwards, such as Timo Werner, who is at his best when he maintains a position closer to the left side and makes runs in behind taking advantage of his incredible speed.
Leipzig’s double-pivot at the base of midfield is the most crucial part of their side. The two players in these roles are tasked with keeping the team flowing from front to back. They are largely given the ability to roam forward, with one holding closer to the defensive line as the other ventures forward. This way they have at least one always providing cover to the defensive line. These two players will be key, as they are essential to Leipzig’s rotations and allowing them to work possession through the middle of the pitch. They are always affecting the game, even without the ball. Their movement can open up passing lanes from the defensive line into the forwards, which opens up the entire defensive structure of the opposition like you can see in the example above.
Tottenham’s defensive set-up
For the home side, Mourinho will be looking to pull off another one of his masterclasses. The Portuguese boss will be well aware of Leipzig’s attacking talent, which will bring about a defensive set-up that we are likely to see show similarities to that we saw a couple of weeks back against Pep Guardiola’s City side.
When setting up in their deep block, Mourinho prefers to deploy a 4-4-2 shape. Below you are able to see the 4-2-3-1 formation Spurs line up in and the player movements to move into their 4-4-2. In this shape, the defensive and midfield lines look to stay compact, and the two strikers look to push the opposition out wide by blocking off passing lanes into the central midfielders.
The benefit we have seen from Mourinho’s 4-4-2 set up is its tactical flexibility as well. With Japhet Tanganga playing as the full-back, the side has the ability to shift into a three or five-back system depending on how the opposition is set up to attack. We saw this in Spurs’ match against Liverpool. Serge Aurier was initially deployed as a right midfielder, but when Andy Robertson moved into very advanced positions, the Ivory Coast international dropped into a wing-back slot and Tanganga moved into a centre-half role. This is something we could see especially if Leipzig uses a 3-4-3 formation. With the two wing-backs having the ability to move forward, the Spurs full-backs will need plenty of help in dealing with them and the wingers moving into the halfspaces when the German side is looking to attack.
In attack, Spurs have been looking to find their rhythm since losing Harry Kane to injury. Steven Bergwijn has been brought into the side from PSV over the January transfer window to add a spark to the offence. Since joining, he has played in an attacking role alongside Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min.
The biggest standout point from this set-up is the variability these players provide. Each is capable of playing in any position along the front line and attacking down either channel or through the middle of the pitch. When out of possession, their roles are very regimented and they must be diligent in carrying out their attacking responsibilities. However, once possession is regained, the three are given the freedom to try and create opportunities to hurt sides in quick transitions.
Leipzig’s numerical superiorities
Looking at where Leipzig can be successful throughout this match, they will need to focus on creating overloads throughout different areas of the pitch. In terms of formations that could be utilised tomorrow, there is plenty of opportunity for the German side to find these in both their initial build-up phase and in the final third.
Mourinho could have a difficult time shutting down this Leipzig attack. In the initial build-up phase, the German’s 3-4-3 formation causes issues against Spurs’ 4-4-2 defensive set-up. With the three centre-halves being closely supported by the double pivot in midfield, they can easily outnumber the initial Spurs press and create a numerous amount of passing triangles to do this. You can see this area of the pitch in specific and the advantage Leipzig could have here.
This creates an interesting decision for Mourinho to make. With his two forwards outnumbered here, will he push his defensive and midfield lines higher to create a mid to high-block rather than the usual low to mid-block they have used since his arrival? While this shift could aid Spurs in the initial press, this creates other problems against this Leipzig side. With players at Nagelsmann’s disposal such as Werner, Dani Olmo, or Christopher Nkunku, he has the speed to be able to expose a high press. This mixed with the side’s ability when playing vertical football makes it extremely dangerous and almost impossible for Mourinho to commit too many players forward in the initial phase of their defensive press.
Looking at the attack, we saw that a tactic Guardiola used against Spurs in their match a couple of weeks ago was dropping Sergio Agüero into deep positions to create overloads to allow City to move forward in possession. We could see a similar tactic used by Nagelsmann with Schick up top. Using their vertical passing tactics, the former Roma forward could be a key man in facilitating the initial vertical pass into the attacking end of the pitch as we touched on above. Schick can look for areas of the pitch where he can drop into to create a numerical advantage with his teammates over the defenders around them. This close positioning also allows them to transition their attack from this initial pass into the next phase. A quick lay-off into a wide or central midfielder would allow them to continue to look to move forward into a player like Werner who excels at making runs in behind. City were very successful using this tactic in their match against Spurs but were let down by their own poor finishing after creating their opportunities.
In the image above, we can see the beginning of a quick attacking move by Leipzig using this tactic. In the middle of this scramble around the centre of the pitch, Stefan Ilsanker is quick to identify the opportunity to win possession and make an immediate vertical pass into Werner. The German striker quickly finds Marcel Halstenberg with a diagonal backwards pass, who has the time to receive the pass and dribble forwards. As he moves forward, Yussuf Poulsen backs off his centre-half marker and presents a passing option to his teammate in possession.
Halstenberg makes the pass into Poulsen, before quickly shifting to a more central position and offering a one-two for the striker. As you can see above, Poulsen finds him in space, and the defender has the attacking awareness to continue moving the ball to the right side where Emil Forsberg makes a run around the side of the Wolfsburg defence to get a shot on target.
Spurs’ danger in wide areas
Spurs will undoubtedly set up to play on the counter in this match. The variable will be setting up and finding where they will look to expose the space. Mourinho cannot fully assume what Nagelsmann will go with in terms of formation. As well, the German side can change formation in the middle of the match with ease depending on how proceedings are going. Therefore, Spurs must be able to attack in multiple different ways when they get the opportunity.
Assuming Leipzig use their three-back formation, the area Spurs will be able to find will be down the channels. With the wing-backs pressing forward, the likes of Son and Lucas will have the ability fo find space in these wide areas to pick up possession and look to attack the centre-halves of Leipzig on the dribble. When Spurs regain the ball, we can expect them to be rather direct. The speed of the attacking players the London side possesses means they can play long balls forward into these areas and expect a teammate to be able to get on the end of it.
Above you can see this space and the Spurs players who could look to exploit it. The Leipzig wing-backs will need to be conscious of these areas. Specifically on the left side with Bergwijn operating as a wide midfielder, he will be looking for opportunities to move forward more into his natural winger role and combine with the two forwards.
In the event that Leipzig use a four-back formation, we could see a similar approach to the one used in the match against City as well. In this game, when Spurs received possession, they looked to play passes behind the centre-halves, looking to exploit the difference in speed between these defenders and their own attacking players. Below you can see an example of this. Aurier has cut inside in possession and picked out a pass in between the City Fernandinho and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Bergwijn has taken advantage of his quick burst of pace to get into the space behind the City centre-half.
For the home side, it is not likely we will see any major changes made to the side. Injuries have been a major issue for Mourinho’s men and his line-ups have been rather set as a result of this. The side will likely begin in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but move into a 4-4-2 when they defend. Dele Alli will move forward in line with the striker, likely to be Lucas, and the two wide players will drop deep to aid the full-backs.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Aurier, Alderweireld, Sánchez, Tanganga; Winks, Lo Celso; Bergwijn, Alli, Son; Lucas
For the visitors, we have seen Nagelsmann consistently switching up his side in recent weeks. This has included alterations to the system itself and the players being used. Halstenberg and Lukas Klosterman should accompany Nordi Mukiele in the centre of defence. Look for Marcel Sabitzer to take up a holding role in the crucial double-pivot used in Leipzig’s system next to Amadou Haidara, with Angeliño and Konrad Laimer on either side. Up top, Schick should lead the line, with Werner and Olmo on either side of him.
RB Leipzig (3-4-3): Gulácsi; Klosterman, Halstenberg, Mukiele; Laimer, Sabitzer, Haidara, Angeliño; Olmo, Schick, Werner
While some major names headline other ties in this year’s Round of 16 of the Champions League, this tie between Tottenham Hotspur and RB Leipzig promises to be a truly interesting one. The difference in tactical approaches between the two sides is significant, and both coaches will be looking for every possible small advantage they can get in this match, as both sides will be believing they can progress into the quarterfinals. It is likely we will see both managers put an emphasis on keeping the tie tight in this first leg. Mourinho will know that his team are capable of going to Germany in the next match and grabbing an away goal or two, so he will want to keep Leipzig’s tally down as they go into the second leg. Meanwhile, Nagelsmann will be equally confident taking a tight tie back to the Red Bull Arena, where we have seen them rack up some truly impressive goal tallies this campaign. Whatever the outcome of this tie, it will be a spectacle to watch.