Bayer Leverkusen – RasenBallsport Leipzig: Tedesco Tweaks Tip The Tie (0-1)
A match that began slowly sparked into life once Bayer Leverkusen regained their mojo, but RB Leipzig tightened up their execution in the second half to come away with the result. Tedesco’s introduction of the talismanic Christopher Nkunku swung the course of the game, though the manager was careful enough to keep the dangerous forward fresh for the forthcoming semifinal against Union Berlin in the DFB-Pokal.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
Having secured qualification in the Europa League, Domenico Tedesco prepared for this game with one eye on the semifinals of the DFB-Pokal. The cup represents a golden opportunity for Tedesco to become the first man to win a trophy in Leipzig history, something not even predecessor Julian Nagelsmann could manage. It was with this tie in mind that Tedesco named his team against Bayer Leverkusen, with no fewer than seven changes being made to the side that beat Atalanta.
Lukas Klostermann replaced Mohamed Simakan on the right of the defense, whereas Angeliño and Benjamin Henrichs were replaced by Marcel Halstenberg and Nordi Mukiele. Yussuf Poulsen partnered André Silva up top, with the midfield comprising of Tyler Adams at the base and Emil Forsberg and Dominik Szoboszlai on either side.
Bayer Leverkusen remain fourth with four games to go, which puts them in the driving seat for qualification to the Champions League. With Florian Wirtz ruled out for the season, Gerardo Seoane has frequently opted for a five-man defense. This game was Jonathan Tah partnered by Edmond Tapsoba and Piero Hincapié, with Mitchel Bakker and Odilon Kossonou acting as wingbacks. The midfield comprised of Robert Andrich, Charles Aránguiz and Exequiel Palacios, who supported the front two of Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby.
Leipzig’s stable structure helps control the proceedings
For the first twenty minutes, Leipzig was the dominant side owing to their conservative plan in possession. With three center-backs behind the ball and the wingbacks offering further support, the visitors passed the ball in their own half to take the sting out of the Leverkusen press. They were helped in their efforts by the hosts, who themselves mostly sat in a medium block.
Occasionally, to combat their underload on the frontline, Aránguiz joined Schick and Diaby to match up with the number of Leipzig center-backs, while Andrich and Palacios manned the midfield behind. They had to toggle between screening the defense and marking Tyler Adams, with the latter being necessitated by Aránguiz joining the forwards up top. The Leverkusen wingbacks marked their Leipzig counterparts, with Kossonou in particular pushing up quite high on Halstenberg during the visitors’ buildup sequences.
During this time, Leipzig’s plan in possession became clear. They employed rotations mainly down their right flank, where Forsberg would drop into wider areas which prompted Mukiele to advance up the wing.
Leipzig’s 3-5-2 structure. The rotation between Forsberg and Mukiele was common, as was Szoboszlai joining the forwards with his runs from deep.
Simultaneously, it was common to see Silva drop off from the frontline to make himself available in midfield, with Szoboszlai then sneaking forward to make the run into the channel between Tah and Tapsoba. The idea was to exploit the activity of the Leverkusen center-backs – the dropping movements of the forwards could have baited them into vacating their position in the backline, thereby exposing a channel for others to exploit.
On the left, Gvardiol’s ability to toggle between left center-back and wingback continued to be useful, as Halstenberg took up advanced positions similar to Angeliño’s usual role in the offense. However, without a connective player like Christopher Nkunku, Halstenberg was often left isolated on the left, as Leipzig tried to access Szoboszlai or Silva directly.
As a result, it was common to see Leipzig’s midfielders drop against Leverkusen’s flexible 5-3-2/5-2-3 shape, while the wingbacks tried to flatten Leverkusen and create gaps for the forwards to exploit with their runs. However, the success of this plan hinged on the personnel, and Leverkusen’s solid resistance showed that there was no need to panic and alter the established gameplan.
Leverkusen flip the switch
Seoane’s side were uncharacteristically passive in the beginning, but Leverkusen reverted to type over the course of the half as the press returned and the quick, one-touch passing was reactivated.
The change occurred in the 25th minute, as the ball bounced around in midfield and seemed to reignite Leverkusen’s press.
Leverkusen in possession. This sequence is from the 52nd minute, which shows how Leverkusen’s plan remained unchanged till the final ten minutes.
Without Florian Wirtz to act as a conduit, Leverkusen upped the pace through rapid ball circulation, which started from the buildup. Against the Leipzig block, Leverkusen circulated the ball till they found the free man, who then played vertical passes into teammates whose primary role was to flick the ball inside or to the wings. From that point, the result would be a cutback, a pass into the box or a shot, all of which were executed at pace and kept Leipzig on their heels. It was also common to see them regain possession in midfield and simply go direct, which helped them generate more shooting opportunities than Leipzig in a relatively unspectacular first half.
Tedesco makes his customary tweaks
Tedesco played his trump card to open the second half, bringing on Nkunku for the largely ineffective Silva. The shape remained mostly unchanged, though the pace of Leipzig’s game certainly increased. Later, Tedesco made two more changes as he introduced Konrad Laimer for Poulsen and Dani Olmo for Emil Forsberg. This saw Leipzig shift into a 5-2-1-2 shape, with Laimer partnering Adams in the double pivot and Olmo playing behind the duo of Nkunku and Szoboszlai. From his position, Olmo could split the two or move to either flank, with his main role being to operate between the lines and put the Leverkusen double pivot in a bind.
Ironically, for all of this planning, it was an errant pass from Kossonou that gave Leipzig their break, as Nkunku pounced on the ball and drove before passing to Szoboszlai. The Hungarian took one touch to take the ball away from Tah and a second to blast it into the roof of the net, giving Leipzig the lead in a second half that they had mostly controlled till that point.
With little to lose, Seoane rolled the dice following the opener, shifting away from the five-man defense by bringing on Kerem Demirbay for Tah and Paulinho for Palacios. However, the Leipzig defense – ensconced in the safety of a lead – held firm, denying Leverkusen a result in a game where they had a higher quantity of (low quality) opportunities.
This game was mostly about the fight for the Champions League places, but Tedesco has the chance to break Leipzig’s trophy drought by continuing their progress in the cup and the Europa League. Having stabilized the team since his arrival, the German has a chance to end the season with a flourish, something that neither Bayern Munich nor Borussia Dortmund – Leipzig’s direct competitors – can lay claim to.
The loss is a difficult one to swallow for Leverkusen, whose margin for error for qualifying for Europe’s premier competition has become thinner. Although this was a crunch tie, the final game of the season against upstarts Freiburg could be decisive in this home stretch, Christian Streich’s side are just one point off Leverkusen in fifth place.
Match plots will be added soon.