Borussia Mönchengladbach – RasenballSport Leipzig: Defense Holds Firm As Leipzig Take Firm Step Towards Champions League (1-2)
Thanks to compact, well-organized defending and progress in the halfspaces, RasenballSport Leipzig frustrated and broke through Borussia Mönchengladbach. The home team’s wasted opportunities and delayed tactical changes might come back to haunt them.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
With just five matchdays remaining the importance of picking up as many points as possible only increases at the top half of the Bundesliga table. RasenballSport Leipzig came into this match in third place, with a strong hand on a Champions League spot, thanks to a fabulous run of form that has seen them lose just one game since the turn of the year.
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s inconsistency has seen them slip from being title challengers – they were level with Bayern Munich in February still – to an uninspiring fifth place, the lowest position they have been in since matchday four. If Gladbach picked up three points in this match, they could have blown the race for European football wide open, and their intent was clear from the beginning, as they came into the match with a very offensive system.
Dieter Hecking continued to use his 3-4-1-2 formation with an interesting twist; using defined wingers Patrick Herrmann and Thorgan Hazard on the flanks, instead of wing-backs. Gladbach made two changes to their team, Tony Jantschke and Raffael coming in for Nico Elvedi and Lars Stindl. Ralf Rangnick also stuck to his guns, having no reason to rotate Leipzig’s 3-5-2 system after winning their last six away league games on the trot.
Leipzig’s organization off the ball keeps Gladbach quiet
Having conceded just five goals in 2019, Rangnick’s defensive structure has proven to be incredibly difficult for teams to play through. This also applied to Mönchengladbach, who had just one shot throughout the entire first half.
How do Leipzig go about their business? They set up in a compact and narrow 5-3-2 formation, with both wing-backs dropping into the defensive line. They constantly adapt their formation too, depending on the position of the ball. If possession would be against them in their half, all players are behind the ball and Leipzig quickly change into a low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. If the ball is in the opposition half, they change to a high line and constantly close the man on the ball down as well as covering as many passing lanes as possible.
With the front two constantly pressing the space and the player on the ball, the rest of the Leipzig team would man-mark Gladbach’s forward options. Marcel Sabitzer was a big influence out of possession, constantly stepping out from the midfield line to press one of the center-backs, but back in his position when the hosts tried to gain access in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.
Leipzig’s defensive formation was almost impossible to get trough for Gladbach
Their superiority in this match was aided by Hecking’s unbalanced setup. Gladbach’s 3-4-1-2 shape would often see Denis Zakaria push forward to help in attacking transitions but would leave Christopher Kramer in the middle to deal with all three of Leipzig’s midfielders – as well as Timo Werner and Matheus Cunha who dropped back and added pressure, when Gladbach attempted to build up play.
Due to Rangnick’s tactics, the hosts failed to establish any sort of consistent passing moves. The three center-backs were relying to catch Leipzig out whenever they were in a high line. They constantly hit long, aerial balls towards the flanks, but when this happened, there would instantly be an overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. against them. Mönchengladbach’s passing numbers in the first half were alarming, goalkeeper Yann Sommer having completed more passes than all of their attackers and just one pass behind the tally of both Kramer and Zakaria in midfield.
Leipzig exploiting the half space gives them goals
In possession, Leipzig played almost entirely on both flanks, rarely making passes from the center of the pitch. They targeted the space behind both Patrick Herrmann and Thorgan Hazard, pulling the center-backs out of position before exploiting the space created. Timo Werner often covered both wings but would often make runs between the center-backs Matthias Ginter and Tobias Strobl, whilst Matheus Cunha remained central to link with the players around him.
Emil Forsberg was a key asset in the halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. often being left unmarked and with room to pick a forward pass, thanks to making his runs from deep. With so many players on the left channel, Leipzig easily made progress forward and would create the space needed to threaten the hosts.
Player runs from Leipzig into the halfspace means they make progress easy.
Making these runs was vitally important for both of the goals scored by Leipzig. Werner running from deep and making a one-two with Cunha gives him access into the penalty area. After he was tackled, the loose ball was touched by Marcel Halstenberg, who was brought down inside the box. Halstenberg sent Sommer the wrong way, giving Rangnick’s team the lead in the seventeenth minute.
Leipzig’s second goal would come from a similar buildup, this time from a throw-in, just after the break. Halstenberg makes a brilliant run from the left, making a one-two with Emil Forsberg. The left back’s run saw him get in front of the center-backs, before rolling the ball into the far corner of the net.
Tactical changes from both managers open the game
Hecking recognized the need for changes in order to get his team back in the game. Zakaria started to drop deeper in the second half, which helped Kramer when he was in possession. Just eight minutes after Halstenberg’s second goal, Alassane Pléa responded for Gladbach in a neat attacking move. Gladbach had struggled to break into vertical passing play, but when Kramer was finally allowed to make progress forward, he found Florian Neuhaus, whose pass went straight in Pléa’s path to make it 2-1. The first occurrence of a second half goal scored against Leipzig in 2019.
Neuhaus was taken off after his assist, replaced by Jonas Hofmann, who made a lot more forward runs and tried to get in behind Leipzig’s backline. Gladbach were starting to create better chances, playing more vertical passes and making much more progression forward. Pléa had another chance soon after, his header was saved by Péter Gulásci.
Werner had a sensational chance to end the game, breaking through from a Gladbach goal kick, but the German international put his shot wide. Both managers made changes to their formations with not much of the game left to play. Emil Forsberg went off for Amadou Haidara whilst Timo Werner was replaced by Willi Orbán soon after, changing Leipzig’s formation to a 5-4-1 low-block structure.
Tactical changes from both managers, getting Gladbach back in the game
Hecking’s change was much more important and a decision he should have made twenty minutes earlier. Raffael was taken off for left back Oscar Wendt, shifting Thorgan Hazard up front, next to Pléa and rotating Mönchengladbach into a much better structured 4-3-1-2 formation with wing-backs. Doing this allowed Hofmann to move in between the lines, as well as have Hazard in a much more dangerous position. Hazard’s shot was brilliantly saved by Gulásci, before Kramer created the best opportunity of the game. His dink over to the far post was met by Patrick Herrmann, who could only put the ball wide from just yards out.
All the tactical changes made a very interesting last ten minutes, even more so for Leipzig who still created chances of their own. Yussuf Poulsen, who came on at half time, raced through on goal, one versus one with Sommer, only to put his shot wide from a great angle. However, Leipzig’s defense held strong, despite some great opportunities for Mönchengladbach to pick up a result.
The Bundesliga is arguably one of the most unpredictable football leagues on the planet, but most fans wouldn’t have imagined Mönchengladbach slipping so far away from the Champions League spots are a very strong start to the season. An Eintracht Frankfurt win away to VfL Wolfsburg on Monday almost guarantees they won’t be breaking through back into the top four, a huge opportunity wasted with a limited amount of games left.
On the other hand, Leipzig’s great form continues, and they have certainly built momentum at the right time. A win at home to SC Freiburg will mean they’re 100% in Europe’s most craved competition, a remarkable achievement and a solid platform for Julian Nagelsmann to develop this hotbed of young talent.
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