Bayern Munich – RasenBallsport Leipzig: Persistent Bayern Edge Out A Win Against An Effective Leipzig Press (1-0)
With a switch to a 4-4-2 formation, Ralf Rangnick’s Leipzig effectively pressed Bayern and prevented them from advancing to the final third and creating chances. Bayern turned the tables by bringing on Renato Sanches and watching as Leipzig’s press lost steam.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Bayern Munich find themselves in a strange situation. After this victory, they now sit in third place in the Bundesliga table, a full six points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund. However, they have the best underlying expected goal numbers in Germany by far. Dortmund manager Lucien Favre might be a warlock of expected goal over-performance, but even with his team’s current points advantage, it would still be surprising to see Bayern lose the league.
Bayern coach Niko Kovač has tried different schemes to improve his team’s results, and against Leipzig, he used exactly the same lineup and 4-2-3-1 shape that demolished Hannover 96 over the weekend. Mats Hummels and Niklas Süle played in central defense, while Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba were the fullbacks. The midfield once again featured a double pivot of Thiago Alcántara and Leon Goretzka.
Up front, Thomas Müller had full freedom to roam behind striker Robert Lewandowski. Both attackers were flanked by Kingsley Coman on the left and Serge Gnabry on the right.
Thanks to the solid coaching of RB Leipzig manager Ralf Rangnick and his assistant Jesse Marsch, Leipzig have turned a possible transition season into a great Bundesliga campaign. Leipzig have added some tweaks to their usual pressing style—making it less aggressive than before—and now are a top three offensive and defensive side per expected goal data. If they continue performing like this, remaining in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League looks like a very plausible scenario.
Against Bayern, Rangnick finally returned to the old 4-4-2 shape after several months of using other formations. His team was conditioned by the absences of key chance creators Marcel Sabitzer (suspended) and Emil Forsberg (injured).
The 4-4-2 shape featured a central defensive pair of Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté, and a fullback pairing of Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann. In midfield, the double pivot was Diego Demme and Kevin Kampl, with Bruma on the left wing and Konrad Laimer on the right wing. Up front, the strike duo consisted of Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner.
Leipzig’s pressing scheme stifles Bayern’s progression
The key reason for Leipzig’s return to a 4-4-2 formation, was so that they could mirror and more easily press Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 shape. Strikers Poulsen and Werner pressed Bayern’s center-backs, while the pressing behavior of Leipzig’s midfield depended on which side Bayern played out from.
Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 formation in possession versus Leipzig’s 4-4-2 pressing scheme
In order to neutralize the threat of Thomas Müller in-between the lines, Leipzig held back one of their central midfielders when pressing. If Goretzka had the ball, Demme would push up to press him, while left winger Bruma would press Thiago. Meanwhile, midfielder Kampl would stay back to mark Müller. If Thiago had the ball, Kampl would push up to press and right midfielder Laimer would press Goretzka. Meanwhile, Demme would mark Müller.
Leipzig’s defensive organization prevented Bayern from consistently finding players in-between Leipzig’s lines and cut off Bayern’s ability to progress through the center.
Even though Thiago was very sharp throughout the game – he constantly produced accurate long balls and through balls – Bayern only managed to progress into the final third through the wings. To compensate for this, Gnabry often drifted inside from the right. That’s how he generated Bayern’s biggest chance of the first half, leaving Lewandowski in a one-versus-one against keeper Péter Gulácsi. Gnabry’s exited in the 28th minute due to an injury, thus severely hampering Bayern’s ability to create chances.
Franck Ribéry came on as a substitute and swapped positions with Coman. This had two negative effects. Firstly, it forced Coman to play on the right, where he is less effective. Secondly, it meant that Bayern could only generate chances from crosses because of Ribéry’s insistence on sticking to the touchline.
Sometimes, Manuel Neuer, Süle and Hummels would attempt to bypass Leipzig’s press through long balls, but Leipzig center-backs Konaté and Upamecano stood strong. They were outstanding throughout the entire game at winning duels, anticipating and intercepting (four interceptions each), and clearing out any incoming crosses.
Leipzig fail to threaten Bayern thanks to an overly direct approach
Even though Leipzig succeeded in neutralizing Bayern’s tremendous attacking potential, they struggled to create good chances. This is because they depended excessively on long passes to their strikers. Such a direct approach allowed them to bypass Bayern’s pressing, but required strikers Werner and Poulsen to constantly win their individual duels against Bayern defenders – they rarely succeeded. Werner was almost never able to outrun an attentive Süle while Poulsen did not win as many aerial duels as he usually does.
This simplistic attack can be best explained by the absences of Forsberg and Sabitzer. Right midfielder Konrad Laimer is an outstanding asset for pressing tasks, but he is nowhere near as creative as the latter two midfielders. Just like Bayern, Leipzig struggled to progress through the center of the pitch. Ultimately, 4 out of their 5 shots in the first half came from outside the box, with their only big chance coming from a corner that Upamecano headed to the post.
Renato Sanches changes the game
The first fifteen minutes of the second half followed exactly the same script of the first. Bayern failed to create a single chance throughout this period as they were stifled by the opposition’s press. On the other hand, Leipzig tried to create chances through direct play or though the occasional counterattack.
In the 61st minute, Kovač substituted a lackluster Coman off for Renato Sanches. The young midfielder stayed in a central attacking position while Müller moved to the right wing. This substitution allowed Bayern to have numerical superiority in midfield, since now both Müller and Sanches could drop deep to help Thiago and Goretzka. This allowed Thiago greater freedom to move into the right fullback position (just like he did against Hannover). His movements drew out Leipzig’s midfielders and generated spaces behind them that Müller and Sanches could exploit.
Sanches was very active and showed up wherever his team needed him to be. He dropped deep to help his teammates play their way out of a press, but he also rushed forward to pin Leipzig’s center-backs whenever Müller dropped into deeper zones.
Leipzig loses steam
After the 70th minute, an exhausted Leipzig started dialing down their press and shifted to a lower defensive block. Consequently, Bayern’s center-backs and midfielders had more time and space to pass the ball around. This is when Bayern finally started dominating the game and started bombarding Leipzig’s box. They did so not just through crosses, but also through good passing combinations often led by Kimmich and Sanches on the right side.
Consequently, Bayern’s center-backs and midfielders had more time and space to pass the ball around. This is when Bayern finally started dominating the game and started bombarding Leipzig’s box. They did so not just through crosses, but also through good passing combinations often led by Kimmich and Sanches on the right side. Consequently, Bayern’s center-backs and midfielders had more time and space to pass the ball around. This is when Bayern finally started dominating the game and started bombarding Leipzig’s box. They did so not just through crosses, but also through good passing combinations often led by Kimmich and Sanches on the right side.
This led to a big chance in the 78th minute, in which Gulácsi saved a point-blank header form Kimmich. In the 83rd minute, Bayern’s persistence finally paid off, as another brilliant Kimmich pass found Sanches in the box. The midfielder’s shot forced another Gulácsi save, but defender Upamecano cleared the ball right into the feet of Ribéry. The Frenchman took advantage and brilliantly dribbled and finished for the winning goal.
Rangnick didn’t make any substitutions until the 81st minute. He replaced Bruma for Stefan Ilsanker to perhaps provide fresher legs in midfield for pressing tasks. This also allowed Kampl to move to left midfield and press Thiago, who was damaging Leipzig from his “right back” position. After Ribéry’s goal, Rangnick also substituted a tired Laimer for attacker Matheus Cunha.
Perhaps all these substitutions came a bit too late. Even with the changes, Leipzig failed to attack through other means than direct play and Bayern already had the goal they needed. After Ribéry’s decisive goal, the final minutes of the game saw more red cards – two; one for Renato Sanches and one for Ilsanker – than shots from both teams.
With four wins a row in the month of December, Bayern are accumulating more positive results that are more in line with their underlying numbers. If they can maintain this level of performance, it won’t be surprising if they finally catch up to the over-performing leaders of the Bundesliga in the next few months.
However, Bayern does have squad and tactical deficiencies that hurt them, especially against top opponents like Leipzig. For example, without James, they can struggle in helping Thiago get the team to the final third. Additionally, without Gnabry, their attack can become too one-dimensional and focused on the wings. These are deficits Bayern will need to fix before February, considering the strength of their next Champions League rival Liverpool.
Leipzig may have lost the game, but they competed well almost to the very end without some of their key players (and without having a bench that could replace them properly). Rangnick’s switch back to a 4-4-2 was an excellent move that allowed his team to neutralize one of the Bundesliga’s most dangerous offenses, and the players executed the pressing game plan very well. Hopefully, once Sabitzer and Forsberg return to the lineup, Leipzig can go back to having a richer, more varied attacking game.
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