It has been a kind of pleasure for football fans, for almost three years, to watch RasenBallsport Leipzig’s games every week. RB Leipzig players and staff had a clear intention while hosting Wolfsburg, to claim their fifth consecutive win. The hosts are going through what is maybe their best part of the season. Unbeaten for three months, the Champions League race seems to be within reach. On the other hand, Wolfsburg is also looking for a qualifying place into European competition. Even if they remain generally inconsistent during this season, the German Wolves were sixth before the match. An outside win over one of the most exciting Bundesliga’s teams would be of great help.
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Bruno Labbadia aligned a quite classic 4-3-3 for this game. Marcel Tisserand was the unique novelty on Wolfsburg’s line-up. The Congolian had not taken part in a match since November 9. In what concerns the hosts’ line-up there is a little surprise. The classic 4-2-2-2 gave the way to something more like 3-1-4-2. Laimer and Halstenberg were positioned respectively on the right and left flank of the pitch. Ralf Rangnick put on place a triangle in the midfield. Kampl was at at the head of this triangle just in front of the central defenders to cut attacks off at source. I will try to show later how this structure had a huge impact on Leipzig’s offensives during the game.
Leipzig’s offensive structures and solutions
Even if it’s not statistically blatant, I can say that during the first half, RB Leipzig dominated the game. They had not an outrageous ball possession (52% to 48%), had only one big chance (even if they scored twice) and almost as many passes as their opponents (216 passes for Leipzig and 202 on the other side). So, although having a just reasonable number of ball possession, they remained dangerous in every situation.
There was a recurrent situation at the build-up for the Bulls. This is essentially based on the triangular form of their midfield. Kevin Kampl often dropped back to get the ball just in front of the defensive trio, to provide at least two pass options in different directions. Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg occupied the spaces between Wolfsburg’s central midfielder and side midfielders. Timo Werner and Matheus Cunha had also dropped out of position to give extra pass solutions. We can also note that the stretching of Wolfsburg’s midfield due to the side-backs high positioning (3-5-2 structure) helped to create holes in midfield as the visitors had to defend all the pitch’s width.
Last but not least, Kampl had always enough space and time, before any opponent come to press him, to carry the ball and identify pass options. Potential receivers had also the correct body orientation that allowed them to face and attack defenders immediately after getting the ball.
Here are three examples of the situation cited above. This type of ball transition occurred at multiple times in the first half especially when Wolfsburg chose to have a relatively high defensive block.
The home side had also attacked from both sides during the game as shown by the figure below. It seems controversial that multiple ball possessions started from the central lane as mentioned above, but this zone hosted only 23% of the attacks. In fact, the Whoscored.com sheet did cut the pitch into three zones where the halfspaces, for example, are considered as left or right not as the centre. Some of the actions above did progress into these zones and were then considered as left/right attacks. So, concerning these attacks, Leipzig also had some interesting ideas.
The hosts did take advantage of multiple situations on flanks. Let’s take the example of the right flank of Leipzig. There, Laimer and Sabitzer occupied the respective flank and the half-space. They faced, on paper, Roussillon and Mehmedi as Arnold was often in charge of closing the path to the centre. Mehmedi sometimes struggled to adjust his positioning, get dribbled by Laimer on other times, and so led to 2 vs 1 situation.
As you can see above, it’s one of those situations that led to Timo Werner’s header at the 28th minute.
And where does Wolfsburg stand regarding all of this?
Well, we did not feel, all along with the game that they represent a real threat for the host team. There are two main things to remember about the general tendencies of the wolves during this game.
Wolfsburg players used long balls in multiple situations. They attempted 89 long balls in total which is almost twice as their opponent who sent on 47 passes of this type. The number of long balls attempted by the central defenders of both teams can support this. Brooks and Knoche attempted 137 passes, 33 of them were long ones. It’s almost a 25% ratio which can seem not huge unless we compare it with the 10% ratio of Leipzig’s defensive trio. Thus, the visiting team played the card of long balls. This can be understandable if you look at RB Leipzig’s defensive structure.
The Bulls’ midfield did move as a block in the direction of the ball to block the opponents’ progression from defence to midfield. As seen below, all of the potential receivers remain cover shadowed or heavily man-marked. The pressing on ball holder and the closing of all primary forward passing channels obliged Wolfsburg’s central defenders to play long, chipped balls.
The second main point is about Wolfsburg’s tendencies concerns their focus on the left side of the pitch. The visitors had around 50% of their attacks coming from that side which is quite unusual.
Generally speaking, Wolfsburg had a total number of attempted passes of 366 which way beyond their average number of the season up to 440 passes. They did also have less forward and progressive passes than usual. An average game this season sees the German Wolves attempt 10 shots and initiate 26 positional attacks. At the RedBull Arena, they had only five shots and 14 positional attacks.
This can confirm that the visitors did not succeed either to control the game nor to be pragmatic during their circulation sequences.
What changed in the second half?
Leading 2-0 by the 29th minute, there was not much option to take for Wolfsburg at half-time. The idea seemed clear; they must try to control the game and create as many opportunities as possible. Although having 52% of the ball possession during the first 20 minutes of the second half, Wolfsburg players did not have clear goal scoring opportunities. Multiple problems occurred while trying to put the game under their control. The first one was related to the progression into midfield. Defenders alongside with their captain Guilavogui struggled to find their midfielders’ partners who were often too far to receive a pass.
Here are some examples that are taken from the second half where you can see the inappropriate spacing between defenders and midfielders.
The loss of offensive duals, including the inefficiency of dribbles, constituted another big problem for Wolfsburg.
On the other hand, the hosts did take advantage of the spaces left by their opponents. As the latter became less organised and more aggressive after the break, Leipzig’s players used third man tool to get in the back of their opponents. Here is an example that explains the situation.
They did also rely on Werner’s ball calls and fast movements to get him the ball. The German forward had twice the opportunity to score his second goal of the game.
RB Leipzig secured the three points with purpose. The hosts did have some convincing attacking phases but did also perform well in terms of defensive organisation. The Bulls showed their superiority both technically and tactically especially in what concerns the use of space in midfield. I note that this would not be possible without the movements of their two forwards. Wolfsburg does still have a chance for the European campaign even after dropping points on Saturday. Maybe, a double pivot system can help the team to exit the ball more properly and so progress into creating goal chances.