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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?