To wrap up Matchday 29 in the Bundesliga, Champions League hopefuls RB Leipzig visited Cologne at an empty RheinEnergieStadion. The hosts were looking to pick up their first win in the league since the restart, whilst Leipzig were aiming to stretch their unbeaten run in the league to 10 games. The pressure was firmly on the visitors coming into Monday’s match, as close rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen both picked up respective wins, meaning Leipzig had to pick up a result in order to move back into the top four of the Bundesliga.
Despite a chaotic encounter that was played at an extremely high tempo, Leipzig ran out 4-2 winners, overcoming a stern opposition to reenter the top four and close the gap on second place Borussia Dortmund to just two points.
The hosts made four changes to the side that lost 3-1 at Hoffenheim in midweek; Rafael Czichos, Noah Katterbach, Jonas Hector and Florian Kainz came in to make up a 4-4-1-1 formation as Elvis Rexhbecaj supported in form Jhon Córdoba up front.
As for Leipzig, manager Julian Naglesmann made just two changes to the side that dropped two valuable points at home to Hertha Berlin on Wednesday night. Nordi Mukiele and Manchester City loanee Angeliño replaced Tyler Adams and the suspended Marcel Halstenberg, as Leipzig lined up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation.
Leipzig Struggle to Progress the Ball
Throughout the match, Leipzig struggled to progress the ball from their own half into the Cologne half. This recurring theme was a great contrast to their usual excellence when progressing the ball through the thirds. Naglesmann places heavy emphasis on central, vertical ball progression through the thirds in order to break down opposition low blocks and eventually create goal scoring opportunities.
The opportunities for ball progression often appear when Leipzig circulate the ball to their double pivot, which usually includes two players who are extremely comfortable and reliable in possession, Marcel Sabitzer and Konrad Laimer. The pair of midfielders can punch passes into pockets of space in between the opposition’s lines, where an overload has been created by the positioning of attacking trio Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku and the flamboyant Timo Werner. However, Cologne had a clear plan to combat Leipzig’s central progression.
This strategy included lining up in a 4-4-2 mid block when Leipzig had deep possession. Within this mid-block, Cologne formed a box around Leipzig’s double pivot in an attempt to reduce their influence when Leipzig had possession and therefore prevent the visitors from progressing the ball centrally. The box was formed via Cologne’s four central players; the double pivot, attacking midfielder and centre forward. This approach meant the hosts were able to create an overload centrally and therefore prevent central progression from the visitors.
Cologne’s double pivot were tasked with marking Lepzig’s double pivot in a man to man scheme; Hector marked Sabitzer whilst Ellyes Skhiri marked Laimer. Then, the front two Córdoba and Rexhbecaj blocked passing lanes from center backs into central midfield. As a result, Cologne were able to force Leipzig wide and revoke their ability to progress the ball through the double pivot.
When Leipzig did move the ball into wide areas in an attempt to progress the ball into their opponents’ half, they struggled to do so due to clever pressing traps set by Cologne. As the ball was moved into the full-back’s feet, Cologne’s wide midfielder pressed aggressively so that immediate pressure was received. In turn, Cologne’s full back pushed onto the attacking midfielder on the ball side, meaning if the ball was progressed, the player receiving the pass would sustain immediate pressure from behind and therefore the chances of retaining possession would decrease.
In addition, if one of the players from the double pivot drifted over towards the ball in order to offer a horizontal passing option, they were followed closely by their respective marker from Cologne’s double pivot. As a result, Cologne were able to win possession back in wide areas close to the half-way line, or force the ball out of play due to intense pressing on numerous occasions throughout the match.
Having recognised the opposition’s plan to nullify the influence of the double pivot in possession, Leipzig altered their build up structure in order to progress the ball into the opponent’s half and create chances. This adaptation involved Laimer dropping into the backline in order to create a back three during the build up phase. Not only did this create an overload against Cologne’s first wave of pressure, but it also allowed left back Angeliño to advance into a higher position on the pitch.
This overload meant that Leipzig could find the spare man in build up, which was often Laimer, and progress the ball via combinations between Laimer, Angeliño and Nkunku, or Laimer carrying the ball into the opposition’s half himself, which was a viable option because of the space he was afforded.
This often created overloads out wide in Leipzig’s favour, as Angeliño operated close to the touchline, whilst Nkunku drifted inside into the half space. This was supplemented by Laimer’s ability in possession; when the Austrian drove forward from the back three, he was able to pick them out and create dangerous crossing opportunities.
Overall, Cologne’s plan to block passing lanes into central midfield was a major success, as Leipzig endured problems when attempting to progress the ball from the build up phase into the second phase.
However, Leipzig showed great improvement after this adaptation and therefore they were able to progress the ball into the opponent’s half in wide areas. This positively impacted their performance, as they were able to move the ball into the final third at a quicker tempo, and therefore create goal scoring opportunities.
Cologne’s Effective Pressing
From the first whistle, Markus Gisdol’s side pressed high in an attempt to force Leipzig into conceding possession. They lined up in a 4-1-4-1 shape, which translated into a 4-4-2 formation when out of possession. This meant that Cologne had two players in their first line of pressure, meaning they were able to apply aggressive pressure onto Lepizig’s centre backs in build up throughout the match.
Cologne opted for a man-to-man approach whilst pressing, which is common in the Bundesliga. This approach is high risk, high reward. The potential advantage of this method is that every opposition player will be under pressure whilst in build up, therefore meaning they will be challenged if they receive the ball, thus increasing the chances of a turnover occurring.
However, the main disadvantage is the risk involved with losing a one v one duel against an opposition player. If a player is being marked tightly and the marker over commits, it can be easy for the player with possession to move the ball past them and travel away from their marker. This would result in a player being free, with the ability to expose the space which was abandoned by the player who pressed originally.
Cologne pressed in numbers, as the midfield often joined the front two in pressing high. The aim of the press was either to create turnovers high up the field, in which Cologne could expose an unsettled defensive shape due to the volume of players they had in advanced positions, or to force Leipzig to play long and therefore concede possession on numerous occasions. This plan worked as Leipzig goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi was often made to clear the ball and concede possession for his side. Throughout the course of the match, Leipzig attempted 143 long passes, an increase of 24 from Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Hertha Berlin.
Although Cologne’s pressing was largely effective, problems did arise when Leipzig managed to play through their press and progress the ball beyond their midfield line. The hosts pressed in numbers, as the midfield line often committed to the press, joining the front two in order to apply severe pressure onto Leipzig’s build up. However, this created a substantial amount of space between their midfield and defence, which was heavily exposed by Leipzig when they managed to progress the ball from the first phase into the second phase, beyond the aggressive press.
This space was often occupied by Werner, who played a familiar ‘free roam’ role in Leipzig’s attack. This role that Nagelsmann provides the German attacker gives him the license to drop deep in between the lines to pick up possession and drive at the heart of opposition defences. So, on Monday night, Werner was found free in between the lines once Leipzig had evaded the pressure of the hosts.
Overall, the pressure Cologne applied onto Leipzig in their build up was effective, fracking them into mistakes and long balls. Cologne applied 216 pressures in the match, as opposed to their opponent’s 159. A pressure refers to the number of times applying pressure to the opposing player who is receiving, carrying or releasing the ball.
However, problems surfaced when Leipzig were able to play out from the back, through the press, and find their dangerous attackers in between the lines, where they had the space to damage the Cologne defence.
Full-Backs Used as Leipzig Outlets
Throughout the match, Leipzig used their full backs as outlets. When the ball was on the opposite side, the full backs maintained width and occupied a more advanced position. This meant that when ball possession became too congested on one side of the pitch, the ball could be switched rapidly to the other side of the pitch, where the full back was maintaining width.
The full back on the opposite side usually had an abundance of space because Cologne were overloading the ball side when out of possession in an attempt to create numerical superiority and therefore increase their chances of winning possession from their opponents. However, this meant that the overall shape of Cologne was exceedingly narrow when attempting to overload the ball side.
Thus, this usually left a sizable amount of space for the full back on the far side to exploit, if the ball could be circulated from one side to the other at an extremely quick rate. This allowed Leipzig to keep possession in an overloaded area, before quickly switching to the underloaded side, where crossing opportunities in the final third were present.
Leipzig’s equaliser was a prime example of this in action; Angeliño remained in an advanced position as the ball was located on the far side. As the ball was cleared, Cologne’s ball sided shape was exposed as they could not shift across quick enough to reduce the copious amounts of space that Angeliño had on the left hand side. As a result, Dayot Upamecano was able to pick out the free Angeliño on the left. Consequently, the Spaniard’s excellent cross was met by a superb Patrik Schick header to level the score.
This plan was aided by Leipzig’s ability to successfully switch play. The visitors have players who possess the ability to play accurate long passes on a frequent basis, and therefore this means they were often able to pick out the full back in the wide area with relative ease. The likes of Nkunku and Sabitzer, both of whom are superb technicians, often found themselves performing high, driven passes across the pitch in order to find the outlet on the opposite side.
This occurred on both sides of the pitch, as Mukiele often acted as an outlet for Leipzig when the ball was being circulated on the left hand side of Leipzig’s attack. In doing so, he was able to venture forward into the space that was being afforded by Cologne’s heavy ball sided shape out of possession.
To supplement this recurring pattern, Leipzig were able to pour numbers into the box in order to meet the crosses that were being delivered into the box from the outlet when they eventually received possession.
The players who were drifting across from the side of the pitch that was originally overloaded were able to recognise a switch occurring, show desire to flood the box and then attack the cross when it came in. This increased Leipzig’s chances of scoring a goal from this theme.
Overall, this was an extremely successful strategy for Leipzig, as many chances they created throughout the match originated from this phase, and ultimately it was their route back into the game when Schick equalised in the 20th minute.
Leipzig’s Counter-Attacking Threat
In the second half, Cologne were made to chase the game in an attempt to pick up a result. This meant they pushed more numbers forward when attacking, which consequently opened up the match and offered Leipzig a multitude of opportunities to counter attack.
Leipzig intelligently left Werner, who boasts phenomenal pace, on the opposition’s last line of defence when they were defending, meaning that when they regained possession, they could play direct balls into the path of Werner to run onto. Werner was able to expose the large amount of space behind Cologne’s defence on numerous occasions during the second half, as Leipzig carried a serious threat on the counter attack.
This came into fruition early in the second half, as Werner exploited the copious amount of space that he was left in, running in behind the Cologne defence. Werner was then able to compose himself, and finish superbly, stretching Leipzig’s lead to two goals.
Composure is an imperative skill to have when playing on the counter attack, as counter attacks usually present opportunities with lots of space, meaning that a player has lots of time to make a decision, which can sometimes lead to overthinking or becoming caught in two minds and eventually making the wrong decision.
However, Werner’s composure allowed him to make the correct decisions when counter attacking, and therefore he was able to finish past Timo Horn for his 25th Bundesliga goal of the season. This was vital in securing the three points, as Cologne were unable to catch the visitors from then on.
Despite their struggles to progress the ball from the first phase, Leipzig were able to find a way through Cologne’s shaky defence and eventually run out 4-2 winners to pick up a hard-fought win in a topsy-turvy battle. The visitors vastly improved as the match went on as they adjusted to Cologne’s high press, and they were able to expose the hosts on the counter attack in the second half.
For Cologne, they remain winless since the season restarted, and are still searching for a return to form. As for Leipzig, they stretched their unbeaten run in the Bundesliga to 10 matches and in turn, leaped back into the top four ahead of the visit of Paderborn on Saturday. Leipzig certainly look in good shape to qualify for the Champions League next season, in a battle between four top teams that will no doubt go down to the wire.
By: Ollie Himsworth