Written by Liam Lam
The Champions League is back and we could see on the first tie, RB Leipzig were taking on Liverpool. This game was played at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, a neutral venue after the German government banned all arrivals from countries affected by the new coronavirus variants. Before the game, RB Leipzig seemed to be the only contender that were able to challenge Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, while Liverpool were in a bad run with three consecutive defeats in the Premier League and they were sitting at the 6th place with 13 points behind Manchester City. Despite their current form, the clashes of the German coaches, Jürgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann, would always be an interesting game to watch.
If we only relied on the scoreline, a 0:2 win for the visitor, we would have believed that Liverpool dominated the game and Leipzig played badly. However, I believed Leipzig had actually shown their capability in the game and created problems for Liverpool. This analysis will find out Leipzig’s pressing and Liverpool beat the press and how RB Leipzig overloaded the centre area to create advantage to attack.
The “Host” opted for a 3-1-4-2 formation with a slight change in the back three with L. Klostermann on the left, D. Upamecano at the centre and N. Mukiele on the right, replacing Willi Orban. Kevin Kampl was shielding in front of the back line with Marcel Sabitzer and A. Haidara playing alongside him. Angeliño and T. Adams were playing on the left and right side respectively, while Dani Olmo and C. Nkunku were playing up-front.
The visitors chose the same formation,4-3-3 with the same starting eleven after the defeat against Leicester City. With the injuries of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson continued to pair with the new joiner, Ozan Kabak in the centre-backs, while Andrew Robertson and Trent-Alexander Arnold were on the left and right full-backs position respectively. In the Midfield, Gini Wijnaldum was sitting in front of the back line, while Curtis Jones and Thiago Alcantara were in the centre. The frontline continued to be Mohamed Salah, Saido Mane and Roberto Firmino.
RB Leipzig pressing
Leipzig was using the 3-1-4-2 formation to press with a mix of zonal-oriented and man-oriented approaches. The two strikers, Nkunku and Olmo, on Liverpool’s two centre-backs, and the two wing-backs, Angeliño and Adams, would push forward and press on Liverpool’s two full-backs when they receive the ball. Meanwhile, in the midfield area, it was more flexible with a zonal-oriented approach with Kampl shielding the back line and Sabitzer and Haidara in front. This approach could let Sabitzer and Haidara to roam between the half-spaces and centre area which could avoid being overloaded.
During build-up phase, Liverpool tended to drop one of the midfielders into the back line to form a back three, which allowed them to create a numerical superiority, 3v2 against Leipzig’s first line of defence. To continue applying pressure on Liverpool’s build-up phase, Haidara would push forward and follow to match with the three men back line of Liverpool.
By pushing Haidara forward, Kampl might have to push forward as well to make sure Leipzig could still match Liverpool’s players in the midfield. However, this could lose a shield for their back three, which foreshadowed a potential threat for Leipzig.
How Liverpool beat the press
The problem for Leipzig occurred when the shield of the defensive line from Kampl was gone, which opened up spaces in the centre. Firmino could then drop into the midfield area to create an overload. Due to the absence of the shielding from Kampl, Upamecano was forced to follow Firmino and left the centre-back area open.
Such movement created a huge gap in the centre of Leipzig’s back line for Mane and Salah to cut in from wide area to exploit. With lack of coverage in the centre area, while facing two best attackers in the world, it was unsurprising to see Mukiele making mistakes. Although the second goal was led by a mistake, we could see Liverpool were intended to create such situation to force Leipzig to make mistakes, and it showed how clinical Liverpool were.
Leizpig overloading midfield
Leipzig were well prepared to bring up a fight against Liverpool, the below shows how Leipzig used Olmo to manipulate the spaces between the lines of Liverpool to help the team to create overload in the midfield area.
We could see Olmo successfully pulled both centre-backs of Liverpool out of their positions. Nkunku was sitting in between Trent-Alexander Arnold and Kabak while Angeliño was attacking the wide area on the left. Arnold was put into a 2v1 and he was forced to tug into the centre covering Nkunku. This attack shows how Leizpig overloaded the midfield area to create advantage on the wide area and to target the spaces behind the full-backs, the weakness of Liverpool.
The second example shows one of the typical attacking method that Leipzig use, positional play to pin down the opponent and a using third man run to attack the spaces behind. We could see from the below example, Kampl pushed forward and Olmo dropped even deeper to the midfield line. Mukiele rotated with Olmo by getting in between the lines to pin down Wijnaldum; Adams was on the wide area to hold off Robertson; Nkunku stayed at the last line to pin down the centre-backs while Sabitzer and Angeliño pinned down Jones and Arnold on the far side. Liverpool could not send more players to help which allowed Leipzig to create a 2v1 advantage in the midfield against Thiago.
Olmo passed the ball to Nkunku who was at the last line, while Mukiele, a third man runner, started to run from deep into the spaces behind. This was not a successful attack but we could see the how Leipzig manipulated the spaces and positions of the players to create an advantage.
The individual quality separated the two teams in the first leg, however, this game was definitely not as “one-sided” as described from the pundits. Both teams performed quite well in different moments of the game. Liverpool dealt very well with Leipzig’s build-up and forced them to make mistakes; Leipzig caused a lot of troubles in the attacking transition phase. Despite losing the first leg, Nagelsmann was pleased with the team performance. The second leg is interesting to see how Nagelsmann’s Leipzig would respond and what new troubles could they create for Liverpool.