The current German Bundesliga table makes for interesting reading. Out of the current top five, you’ll see the usual two sides that will look to slug it out for the title, with Bayern Munich sitting at the top and Borussia Dortmund sitting in the Champions League zone. We also have the capital city side, Hertha BSC, one of the former giants of German football, Eintracht Frankfurt and the newly-revived Hoffenheim, led by the young prodigy of football management, Julian Nagelsmann, making waves in the Bundesliga currently.
In 2nd place, however, sits the arguably most hated team in the whole of Germany, the newly promoted RB Leipzig. But love them or loathe them, the chances are that the average football fan won’t be able to ignore them. The Red Bull-owned side was founded in 2009 and are currently spearheaded by their new manager Ralph Hasenhüttl & sporting director Ralf Rangnick (who got Leipzig promoted last season from the 2.Bundesliga as manager before changing roles), a Godfather of the trademark German style of football we see today. The East Germany-based side have blitzkrieged much of the opposition they’ve come up against this season, with their intense pressing and direct style. But how exactly has Hasenhüttl manufactured this rapid rise?
Defensive phase: The Hexagon & Press
Hasenhüttl has his side organised in a 4-4-2 with narrow wingers (4-2-2-2), slightly different from his Ingolstadt side from last season, in which he played more of a typical 4-3-3.
With the wingers (Forsberg and Sabitzer) sitting in the half-spaces, Leipzig typically defend in a mid-block with a symmetric hexagon shape formed by the midfielders, wingers & strikers. With the team staggered in this way, Leipzig are happy to wait in a hexagonal shape blocking off the center the pitch & allowing the ball to run between the internal defenders. Their next step is to apply certain triggers to actively press the ball. These triggers tend to differ slightly, but are often cross-pass between the internal defenders and passes to the full backs, as well as unforced errors and opponents playing with their backs to the field of play. Winning the ball from here, RBL will look to counter aggressively with speed and penetration. This is wise as after all: they are closer to the goal and teams tend to be disorganised momentarily after just losing the ball.
Hasenhüttl’s men will always look to keep their shape, and very rarely their players are seen making hasty movements away from their block, which could risk the horizontal compactness of their block being lost, allowing teams easier access to the middle. If the ball does manage to reach the middle to one of the opposition midfielders, then the man-oriented zonal-marking style of Leipzig means that ball-near Leipzig midfielder will press aggressively to make sure the opposition midfielder is unable to turn and play forwards. However, if the ball is played horizontally, Leipzig will make ball-oriented shifts to make the playing field smaller, allowing them to immediately pressure the player receiving the ball on the touchline.
“The touchline is the best defender in the world” – Pep Guardiola
One of the strikers will also try to make the opposition force play to one side, using clever curved runs which cover the passing lane behind them while still pressing the ball carrier. This run will force a horizontal pass to the opposition fullback, where the winger nearest to the ball will press alongside the striker who just made a curved run prior to the pass (momentum in the curved run will make pressing the fullback a much easier task).
As Leipzig are so compact in their block, their players will tend to suffocate the ball carrier’s narrow space in a fashion that focuses more on the ball, but not sacrificing the control of spaces around them at the same time. This compactness also helps in defensive transitions as the players are in a closer proximity to themselves, meaning that gegenpressing/counterpressing is much easier to achieve. Their focus when attacking the second ball in this phase is aggressive but well-cohesive as they look more at closing down open space around them, rather than everyone pressing the ball in a gung-ho fashion.
Attacking phase: Controlled Directness
One of the most interesting aspects of RB Leipzig’s game is their build-up. Depending on the match scenario, it will vary between long passes and short build up play. Long balls however, are normally the go-to method to build up play; Gulácsi will normally look for Yussuf Poulsen with his kicks. The Tanzanian-Dane striker possesses great hold-up play along with the ability to connect with his teammates in attacking plays, and proves a valuable asset to this phase of play.
As teams in the Bundesliga look to press high and force long balls, Leipzig use this to their advantage. Players (normally one of the central defenders) will look to play the ball back to Gulácsi in goal, who will delay a few seconds before playing a long ball to Poulsen. The pass made to Gulácsi is made to stretch the opposition vertically, and with the attacking four of Leipzig having a habit for sitting higher up the pitch – added with the tactical behaviour of Bundesliga teams in the defensive phase – this can create good attacking opportunities for the Saxony side. The wingers will sit narrow and advanced in hope of linking up with (normally) Poulsen or Werner.
Should Leipzig take a more elaborate approach to build-up play, they tend to do it against teams that are more passive when defending in the attacking third and have good success in circulating the ball on the ground from the goalkeeper.
While both full-backs will push up higher – as Leipzig do not play with a three-man midfield featuring a pivot, but rather a flat midfielder two – they use a unorthodox method where the midfielder nearest to the ball will drop deep outside of the central defence pairing, where he becomes a right or left sided central defender depending on where the ball is. The other midfielder will push higher to make himself an option to progress play upwards. Ideally. Naby Keita will be this midfielder while Diego Demme is the one that drops deeper. The attacking players stay high up the pitch in order to stretch the opposition vertically while making dynamic movements in the center and halfspaces to cause chaos to their defensive shape. The central defenders will look to take advantage of these movements by stepping into the halfspace and playing hard low passes into these areas.
One of – or even sometimes both – of the the strikers will look to drop off in order to create space for the wingers to exploit with their fast runs, and the fullbacks will always stay high and wide, looking to exploit any space ahead of them.
Leipzig’s compactness means that there is a greater focus on playing the ball centrally where there tends to be five or even six players within the middle of the pitch.
RBL tend to have a passive mindset when central defenders pass among themselves and are willing to allow them to have time on the ball. As Bayern showed, top quality defenders have the ability to to break Leipzig’s lines with accurate vertical passing.
Press-resistant midfielders who are able to play on the half-turn, exploit space & evade pressure from behind them (*coughs* Thiago Alcântara *coughs*) also prove to the the key in unlocking through Leipzig’s pressing scheme.
As Hasenhüttl’s men play quite compact & move in one unit, switches of play from one flank to another can also prove to be a way of evading the Red Bull press if certain players have the right skillset and the opposition manager sets his time up his team during the possession phase in a manner that switches of play become easier to achieve.
Ultimately judging by this season so far, Red Bu… I mean ‘Rasenballsport Leipzig’, look like they’ll be playing in Europe next season. This is a club that oozes a youthful vibe from tactics, to the year the club was founded, to the players that play in the team (the average age of RBL is 23): this is a club that we’ll be talking about for a very long time. What is even scary about their rise is that you can argue that they are ahead of schedule in terms of where they aim to be in the development, and that the team is quite a while away from peaking.
Bundesliga and the rest of Europe: beware. RB Leipzig are here to stay.