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Tactical Analysis: RB Leipzig vs. Borussia Dortmund

After a cagey first half stalemate, both Leipzig and Dortmund changed tactics and BVB got the better of the Red Bulls

RB Leipzig v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images


This past Saturday, Borussia Dortmund traveled to Red Bull Arena to clash with second place RB Leipzig. BVB entered the match with some much needed momentum after their big win over VFL Wolfsburg and the subsequent return of star striker Erling Haaland. Die Roten Bullen had also been in a good run of form, having won 3 of their last 4 Bundesliga matches, and after FC Bayern Munich lost 3-2 away to Borussia Monchengladbach on Friday night, Leipzig now had a golden opportunity to take the top spot in the league table.

After a dismal first half where both teams had few chances, Borussia Dortmund changed tactics and crushed Leipzig’s chances of taking control of the league. Edin Terzic’s tactical change to a high press not only caught Leipzig by surprise, but also got the best out of their slick passing game and star attackers.

Here we will take a look at how the game played out:

First Half

Leipzig push Angelino far forward looking to exploit Meunier

Early in the match Leipzig’s plan was very obvious; left wingback Angeliño (circled in red) was going to attack Dortmund’s right side, specifically Thomas Meunier. Angeliño pushed extremely far forward to try to put pressure on Meunier in all phases of play. This has been the tactic of many teams throughout this season, and while the Belgian International has not been at his best since joining Die Schwarzgelben, he has shown to be a sturdy defender.

Leipzig’s build up formation vs. Dortmund’s defensive posture

Analyzing Leipzig is extremely fun because they work in multiple formations throughout a game. Here, we see that they are set up with a three center back formation consisting of Marcel Halstenberg (Left, pictured with ball), Dayot Upamecano (Center, not pictured), and Willi Orban (Right side CB, top of screen). Marcel Sabitzer (Circled) is playing as a single pivot or holding midifielder, and then there are 5 players on the next attacking line. From the bottom to top: Angelino, Amadou Haidara, Emil Forsberg, Dani Olmo, and Tyler Adams. Yussuf Poulsen was playing as a lone center forward and was being marked by Mats Hummels. Regardless of what formation a team is listed as playing, you will see attacks being built up just like this one. Having three defenders provides balance if the ball is lost, wingbacks provide width, while the holding midfielder provides a short central passing option.

This particular setup complicates defending for the back four because if both fullbacks are occupied by the opposing wingbacks, then there are only 2 central defenders to cover the striker, and the attacking midfielders will usually outnumber the defensive midfielders. Wingers or wide midfielders will have to track back to help with the defense so that they are not overloaded when not in a pressing situation. Dortmund setup defending as a 4-2-3-1 and they were not pressing the ball high, but both Jadon Sancho and Giovanni Reyna attempted to cut passing lanes to the attackers, and continued to defend deep in the first half each time Leipzig had possession.

Many teams operate this build up across Europe but they can do it several ways. A third center back is not always needed as many clubs will either tuck in a full back during the attack to operate as a third center back, or a defensive midfielder will slide on either side of a center back to make the look of a three or possible even split the center backs as the slide wide and the full backs move forward up the pitch. This is only done when the opposing team chooses not to press the ball, because time is needed on the ball for each player to move into position.

Hummels followed Poulsen everywhere

Another key component to the Red Bull style of play is quick direct passing from deep positions through multiple lines of the pitch. This simply means that Leipzig want to play from a center back to an attacker or striker immediately, bypassing the holding midfielder whenever possible. Dortmund combatted this by sticking tight to striker Yussuf Poulsen with center back Mats Hummels. Poulsen slides to the sideline to receive a pass and link with the midfielders but Dortmund’s defender bullied him off the ball immediately. BVB clearly made it a point to be very combative with the Danish striker and he struggled mightily to cope with Hummels’ physicality on the day.

Leipzig press

Out of possession, Leipzig are one of the most aggressive teams in Europe, hunting the ball down in packs but with good discipline. As shown above, we can see Leipzig following the same pattern that Wolfsburg did in trying to force Dortmund to pass the ball to Akanji and Meunier on the right side. Haidara covered the Dortmund midfield of Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney while Dani Olmo closed the gap on Raphael Guerreiro at left back. Leipzig did not want Hummels or Guerreiro to be able to pick out a pass and play quickly through the lines, so they continually tried to force the ball to the BVB right side, or back to Goalkeeper Roman Burki. Early in this match Leipzig would continually win the ball and BVB struggled to get their passing game going, a copycat of the match last week with Wolfsburg.

Out of possession Leipzig switched to a back four

Earlier we looked at how Leipzig would build up with 3 center backs and 2 wingbacks which typically tells us that they are playing a back three or back five depending on how you classify wingbacks. However, teams that attack with a back three will often play a back four when defending. As we mentioned earlier, the 3 center back build up provides stability and different passing angles to provide a strong attacking intent. Here, we can see that Tyler Adams has come all the way back to play the right full back role, and Marcel Halstenberg served as a left full back, which means Angelino was able to stay further forward as a left sided midfielder when Leipzig played without the ball.

Second Half

Leipzig switch to back four in possession while Dortmund show high press

In this photo, we can see the tactical changes both coaches made after the first half. Leipzig from a goal kick are now showing a flat back four with Adams staying back and Halstenberg sliding all the way to the left. I feel Julian Nagelsmann made this change to get Angelino more involved in the second half and reduce his defensive burden. Edin Terzic had his team press high up the pitch, which I believe won BVB the game. Dortmund pressed exceptionally well and were able to create many high quality scoring chances, which did two things for the attackers. Not only did this help win the ball earlier, but now the attackers were closer to the goal when the ball was won.

In the picture above, Haaland is playing on the right, while Marco Reus occupies the center, and Sancho is further up the pitch playing as a left winger as Leipzig are squeezed back and cannot connect their passes to the midfield for ball progression. The key takeaway here was that Sancho was playing higher up the pitch. Both Gregory Horn (writer at FTW) and Paul Johnson (Writer and Deputy Editor, FTW) agreed that a major factor in Sancho’s decline is his work in the build up play. Paul recently explained this and more during his guest appearance on the Yellow Wall Podcast (episode 354, seriously if you like analytics Paul is the best). Getting Sancho higher up the pitch is the key to unlocking his attacking genius.

Dortmund’s pressing causes Leipzig problems

Dortmund’s pressing work here was superb, forcing Leipzig into a corner with no visible outlet for a pass anywhere. Forsberg comes very deep, and while Delaney isn’t marking him too tight, Halstenberg still has no chance of hitting him with a pass.

Dortmund build up to the first goal

Dortmund again won the ball off Leipzig with the high press early in the second half and following a throw in, Haaland holds the ball up really well here and Upamecano gambles on the pass to Reus.

Haaland gets into the box and creates the chance for Sancho’s opener

Upamecano failed to intercept Haaland’s pass and Reus played it right back to the Norwegian, who broke into the box and created a 3 v 2 in Dortmund’s favor. Willi Orban slides over to cover Haaland, and Tyler Adams slides to cover the run of Reus leaving Sancho in acres of space on the far side.

Sancho lines up the opening goal

Sancho is left one-on-one with goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi who did well to slide and cover the center of the goal but the Hungarian had still left way too much space for an attacker like Sancho. The Englishman stroked the ball home and gave Dortmund the initiative.

Adams loses the ball and Dortmund counter with a stellar second goal

Perhaps surprising to some, BVB continued to press high even with the lead which continued to pay dividends for the visiting club. Hwang Hee-Chan had just come on and received the ball here, but immediately played it back to Adams who was under enormous pressure in the middle of the pitch. Leipzig had thrown several bodies forward and the Dortmund press swallowed the American midfielder; you can see four Dortmund players surrounding Adams whose poor touch gifted the ball to Raphael Guerreiro.

Haaland does his Lionel Messi impression

Here, Erling Haaland gets the ball and is encircled by Leipzig players, but it just didn’t matter. He dances through 3 Leipzig defenders and was then met by Upamecano and Lukas Klostermann. This was a seriously skilled move by Haaland, and wasn’t something I knew he could do.

Air Haaland

Once Klostermann and Upamecano closed him down, Haaland played the ball wide to a wide open Sancho, to Emre Can, to Guerreiro, and then back to Sancho who crossed it to Haaland for the headed finish. That move was the product of a lot of raw talent and honed skill, but the key was the high press which allowed our great attackers to play freely closer to the opposition goal.

Olmo makes a poor decision to start another counter

Dortmund continued the high press. Here we can see 3 players surrounding Dani Olmo (center circle) who tried to force his pass to Tyler Adams (bottom circle) and Guerreiro easily cut it out and broke the other way.

(Bonus: I circled Alexander Sorloth in the Magenta circle, he appears to be holding “himself” with both hands, weird)

BVB cut through Leipzig for the third goal

Reus has the ball centrally, with Haaland to the right and Guerreiro on the left. Leipzig look like they have this covered but Orban is too far away to mark Reus and Haaland has a ton of space to run in behind Upamecano. Olmo could have gotten back to put pressure on Reus but he lazily jogged back after losing the ball.

Reus through ball for Haaland

A brilliantly-played through ball by the BVB captain took out the two highlighted defenders with just one pass. Gulasci could not read this in time and Haaland rounded the keeper to score his second of the day to make it 3-0.

Final Thoughts

Borussia Dortmund went away from home and won convincingly 3-1 over a strong RB Leipzig team sitting second place in the Bundesliga. BVB put together a very strong pressing game to wrestle away control of the match as Terzic’s decision to come out the aggressor in the second half saw him get the better of highly-regarded tactician Julian Nageslmann. The Leipzig manager will not be pleased, as his decision to change tactics at the half aided the visitors’ ability to win the ball higher and create quality scoring chances. It was a bit of a shock to see Dortmund play this aggressive style after sitting deep in the Wolfsburg match just last week, but Terzic must have felt, as I do, that sitting too deep was asking for trouble. As Paul and Greg have said as well, getting Sancho higher up the pitch with the ball at his feet is key to seeing him play at his best. While it feels this game served as a statement, it will be imperative that Dortmund take this mentality into this weekend’s match against relegation contenders Mainz.

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