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Champions League preview: RB Leipzig, the tale of the dark horses

A look at Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig. How far can they go in the Champions League?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Imago

Who doesn’t love an underdog story? Every season we see a few unexpected sides go on a fantastic European run. And this term, the dark horse brand in the Champions League has gone to two promising teams, RB Leipzig and Atalanta B.C. In this piece, we take a look at the former, who impressed in the German league with a vibrant style of attacking football.


When it was announced that Julian Nagelsmann was going to take over the helm as RB Leipzig’s coach at the start of the 2019/20 season, everybody was excited. For some reason, it felt like a perfect match even before we saw any signs on the pitch. With Leipzig being an upcoming force, and Julian, a promising up and coming coach, the fit seemed ideal. The 33-year-old’s excellent work at TSG Hoffenheim cannot go unnoticed, as he managed to take them to the Champions League in 2018/19.

Since gaining promotion to the Bundesliga, Leipzig has always flirted with the top half of the table. The squad continues to flourish in terms of quality and excitement. Nagelsmann was given a team that finished third in the previous season, and so, was already a team in the Champions League. The expectations were high, and to be fair, the club did not disappoint.

Overview

Julian Nagelsmann hasn’t done anything new in regards to their position in the league. However, what he actually managed to achieve is to establish the team’s reputation for producing quality football. It wasn’t long into his tenure before the whole world had its eyes on the club. Indeed, while they’re still continually criticised for the manner how they reached the Bundesliga, those who stick to events on the pitch will have no complaints with what they’re seeing.

Leipzig was only out of the top four for two matchdays out of thirty-four. Towards mid-season, they even sat on top of the table for four consecutive matchdays. Notwithstanding, much to their exciting brand of play, there comes a degree of inconsistency. And when you are competing with Bayern Munich for the crown, any form of slipping up can be fatal. Thus, German football enthusiasts’ quest for looking for a new king of the country is pushed by another year. However, there’s no denying that the eyes are on Nagelsmann’s men to be the frontrunners to end the Bavarians’ dominance.

Julian Nagelsmann RB Leipzig Champions League

Julian Nagelsmann has been young blood for RB Leipzig | Photo by Patricia de Melo Moreira / AFP via Getty Images

Their season was noteworthy due to the fantastic quality that they oozed across all departments. As they were still an unestablished club, fans of the top sides began to rhapsodise over their best players. Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté, Konrad Laimer, Marcel Sabitzer and Nordi Mukiele are some of the numerous talents who were being looked at. With Werner already moving to Chelsea, Die Roten Bullen will have to do their best to fight off the interest from the rest of Europe.

There is no doubt over the fact that Nagelsmann will be potentially losing more players before the transfer window closes. But what must be appreciated is the fact that their board is intuitive enough to find replacements immediately. Their infamous Red Bull clubs relationship allows them to gain the upper hand in transferring players from co-owned clubs. They signed Hwang Hee-chan from their Austrian comrades RB Salzburg. Furthermore, the fact that they already replaced Werner with Dani Olmo even before the German left highlights how well prepared they are.

Tactics

RB Leipzig having a plethora of talent spread across all positions allows Nagelsmann to continuously alter the shape. He has a variety of formations that work spotlessly. Julian’s systems vary from 3–4–3, 3–5–2, 3–4–2–1 and 3–4–1–2. Despite making numerous variations to a three at the back system, he also fields his teams in a 4–4–2 double pivot that actually shifts into a 4–2–2–2 when they attack. All these options are only possible when the manager is tactically capable. The element of surprise is something that the German tactician has displayed in large amounts this season.

Irrespective of what the shape is, what must be observed is the midfield pair of Marcel Sabitzer and Konrad Laimer. The Austrian duo is underappreciated massively. Indeed, the entire focus usually goes onto Werner due to his goalscoring prowess, or even Upamecanon as he seems generational. But anyone who watched Leipzig closely across the season will understand that Sabitzer and Laimer make the fulcrum of the team. The base of their tactics is to press restlessly throughout the pitch while launching high voltage counter-attacks once the ball is retrieved.

Without the ball, they rarely allow the opposition to have time to build their attacks. While the front three is itself pacy enough to press the opposing defence and prevent them from constructing the play with the keeper, the midfield makes things even more challenging. Sabitzer and Laimer are always all over the pitch. One second you see them at the back supporting the defence, and within a snap of an eye, they are onto the transition phase to launch the counter.

Julian Nagelsmann Timo Werner RB Leipzig Champions League

Nagelsmann will have to tweak his tactics without his star man Timo Werner | Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts via Getty Images

It’s because of this tireless pressing and ball retrieval actions from Laimer and Sabitzer that Leipzig is comfortable in pouncing onto teams that are slow with the ball. The opposition chooses to opt the aerial side of the game to bypass the Austrians. And unfortunately, it’s close to impossible to win a battle of pace with Leipzig’s backline. Upamecano is sometimes easy to dribble past and can be caught off guard, but on the flip side, he doesn’t give the attackers time to pace towards the goal. He manages to chase the forwards and retrieve the ball through a combination of pace and power.

With the ball, Nagelsmann doesn’t like seeing his side playing passive, side-to-side football. He prefers to see them making deadly one-touch passes through the lines to free the forwards upfield. If there is space behind the opposition backline to exploit, then Dayot’s excellent ability to feed pinpoint long balls is utilised. A runner like Werner makes it virtually impossible to chase after. With 28 goals in the Bundesliga this season, his move to Stamford Bridge is one that would sting for sure.

Thus, the fact that Leipzig has so many options and patterns of play entirely go inline with the reality that they have a fantastic coach. Julian has already become a dream coach for many sides that are looking to play vibrant football. And there was always a link for him with the Bayern job, but judging how Hans-Dieter Flick is doing, he will have to wait for the chance. Nonetheless, Nagelsmann can always opt for a step-up to any club in any league if he wants to. But for now, he will only be focused on the challenge he has ahead.

The chances of RB Leipzig in the Champions League

After reading this far, there’s no question that you must be thinking about the prospect of Leipzig going all the way to the final. They are in the bracket that comprises of teams that haven’t won the competition even once. And this means that we will at least see one side in the final that is yet to win the Champions League. While all the heavyweights and usual favourites are on the other side of the tournament tree, hopes will be high for the neutrals who want to see an underdog shine.

The German outfit had a less challenging group comprising of Olympique Lyonnais, S.L. Benfica, and Zenit Saint Petersburg, where they finished as winners. After that, their luck was further visible with the fact that they got an injury-ridden Tottenham Hotspur in the round of sixteen. The faced a Spurs side that had all their key players out injured for the second-leg, and therefore, blew them away on a 4–0 aggregate.

RB Leipzig Champions League

Leipzig already made it past José Mourinho’s Spurs in the Champions League last 16 | Photo by Imago

The real test begins now, as they face Diego Pablo Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid, who will be extremely confident after comprehensively knocking out the holders Liverpool. A tactical battle between two contrasting philosophies awaits the neutrals who will be thrilled to see this matchup. Nagelsmann’s hot-blooded attacking football will lock horns with Simeone’s experienced defensive pragmatism. It will be interesting to see how Leipzig’s Werner-less offensive force fares against one of the best defences in the world.

“I admire Diego Simeone for his clear line, which he has been following for years and with which he is always successful”

Julian Nagelsmann
on Diego Pablo Simeone

Should they beat Atleti, they would have to face one of Paris Saint-Germain and Atalanta, which would be another end-to-end contest. Aside from the colchoneros, there isn’t enough experience in the teams of this bracket when it comes to reaching the advanced stages of the competition. And so, Nagelsmann will surely rate his chances of taking his side all the way to the final. Without a doubt, if he manages to mastermind his team to put a strong fight at the Champions League, he will go down in the books as a great tactician.

Nicknamed the Baby Mourinho, the name would further be more fitting to Julian if he achieves Champions League glory with an underrated side like Leipzig. His comparisons to José, who won the competition with FC Porto, will only get solidified if Leipzig wins the tournament, which isn’t impossible.


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I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

Ronald Koeman: Learning to live in imbalance

Abhishek Khurana

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Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

Throughout the history of FC Barcelona, one-touch, beautiful, attacking football has been part of its culture. The team has been adored and earned plaudits from across the world for their style over the years. 

The likes of Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo to name a few, have certainly cemented the attacking philosophy that is almost second nature to the Catalans.

However, in the midst of all this, one part of Barcelona has trailed behind in terms of effectiveness and reliability, i.e. their defence. 

The Blaugranas have started their current 2020/2021 season, with the most imbalanced squad over the years. It was bound to happen with the route of balancing the books, taken by the management under ex-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

The 2020/21 season is undergoing with a new rule of five substitution rule taking it into the hectic schedule in which players will be playing whole season for their respective countries and clubs. Barcelona has a good depth in every position, excluding the centre-backs. It looks like every week, former-Everton man is given a new puzzle to solve.

Blindfolded to the season-long intensity

Without a doubt, Barca has a lot of depth in their squad, definitely more than most seasons, but not for every position. Barça is in dire need of a dependable centre-back given the latest injury of Ronald Araujo against Juventus in the first half.

“Test on Friday has revealed that Ronald Araujo has a femoral biceps (hamstring) injury in his right leg and his availability will now depend on how the injury develops.”

Official club statement

The Uruguayan was substituted at half-time after sensing pain in his right leg. So for the senior team, he has played for 238 minutes with 94.7% passing completion and 92.6% long tasing completion. Even though the sample size is quite small, such traits are essential for being a Barcelona defender.

On the other hand, following are the stats of the only fit CBs for the Blaugranas, i.e. Gerard Pique & Clement Lenglet. The Frenchman began his 2019/20 silencing all his critics as the season went by. Arguably, the pundits started regarding him as an indisputable partner to Gerard Pique in starting line-up. We can see the duo played for more than 3000+ minutes each in last season.

But, since the restart of the campaign post coronavirus break, the duo is looking lost. They have constantly been showing a lack of composure at the back, and have made reckless challenges in the process. The recent example of this can be not tracking Federico Valverde’s run in the El Clasico, letting him have an ample of space in the first place, after which the goal was inevitable.

Winning the aerial duals has not been one of the strongest traits for Clement Lenglet’s campaign, as the stats suggest as well. Several instances have been there where he crumbles under pressure in the attempt of winning an aerial duel. We can look at the incident vs Real Madrid no more than one week ago, involving a shirt pull in the box and giving away a soft penalty. 

With Pique – Lenglet already looking weak and no other direct replacements if something goes wrong, the road looks tougher for the coaching staff. 

La Masia to the rescue?

Is going back to the club roots an only option left for Koeman? Certainly, looks like it. But, currently Barcelona B centre back Oscar Mingueza is sidelined as well due to discomfort in the muscular regions of his leg. 

Another option is centre-back Argentine centre-back Santiago Ramos Mingo. He is fit, but cannot be played in Champions League at least due to lack of his tenure with the club as an academy player. 

This leaves the Koeman’s staff with Samuel Umtiti as their last option, who has returned to group training sessions. Though, it would take a while for him to be declared match-fit, depending on him after being plagued with multiple injuries gives no assurance as well.  

If none of this works, we could also see one of Frenkie de Jong or Sergio Busquets playing alongside another CB if required. But, that would mean compulsorily fielding Busquets, which is a danger to the team in the first place, given his sharp dip in form.

What does it mean for the remainder of the season?

It is clear that Barca is vulnerable and unbalanced as a team, and a ruthless attack will be pivotal for this season to see games through. Blaugranas usually keep the higher percentage of possession with themselves, scoring more goals than they concede. Additionally, Ronald Koeman’s pressing tactics have also been working to the point for now with many young prospects making a mark in the senior team.

There is a lot of reliability on the attacking unit this season. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

As long as they are clinical upfront until the end of the season, conceding (especially from dead-ball situations) might not be as bad. This is because Barcelona’s defensive problems cannot be resolved right now, maybe not even in the winter transfer window, due to financial constraints. 

Well, there are many unanswered questions to be answered in the next 3 months. How will the team so defensively unbalanced, cope up, until the transfer market opens up? What happens if due to the financial restrictions, a backup could not be signed? What do you think Barca can do to remedy this vulnerability in defence?

Pie charts from Football Slices.

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