How Tedesco Time Saved RB Leipzig
When Domenico Tedesco was called upon to take over from Jesse Marsch, a misfiring RasenBallsport Leipzig were struggling to remain in the top four hunt. Now, Tedesco has them on the cusp of a first ever trophy, with European football secured for next season. How has the Italian-born coach achieved this turnaround? And what do his changes this season mean for Leipzig going forward?
Written by Manasvin Andra.
In 2019, Domenico Tedesco was fired by Schalke after losing 7-0 to Manchester City in the Champions League. At the time, the team were closer to the relegation zone than to the top of the table, and the need to move on from Tedesco was clear.
However, there was the caveat that this was Schalke 04, which meant that Tedesco was up against the intense speculation that comes with leading one of Germany’s biggest clubs. Given that he had led the side from Gelsenkirchen to a second-place finish in his debut season, a swift return to the coaching ranks seemed almost inevitable.
However, it would be three years before Tedesco reappeared in the Bundesliga, which in turn was the result of RasenBallsport Leipzig’s preferred candidate imploding in half a season. While liked by the dressing room, Jesse Marsch’s side had wildly inconsistent results, with the coach’s tactical acumen coming under scrutiny from the players. It was only following this divorce that Leipzig brought Tedesco back to the Bundesliga; a decision that evoked a muted response on the part of the league.
The circumstances of Tedesco’s takeover
While Leipzig did bring back the now 36-year-old manager, they only handed him a two-year contract. It was not difficult to see why: with Schalke, Tedesco came to the fore by employing a reactive style of football that did not mesh with Leipzig’s preferred front foot approach. The blueprint for Leipzig’s high tempo pressing scheme was laid by Ralf Rangnick, which was followed by coaches like Ralph Hasenhüttl and Marsch. Such a style sat on the opposite end of the spectrum from Tedesco’s football – however, this did not provide the full picture.
Across his two seasons in charge of the club, Nagelsmann had changed the identity of the club from the inside. Having realized that Leipzig were no longer able to enjoy marginal gains that came with a clear pressing scheme, the former Hoffenheim coach began to instill a possession-based philosophy at the club. The changes took root slowly but surely, to the point where Leipzig would often carry out less pressures than their opponent simply because they had so much more of the ball.
It led to a clear and evident shift in players’ mindset – the club had decisively moved away from the football espoused by Rangnick to a more well-rounded, holistic approach. Marsch’s attempts to return Leipzig to their pressing roots led to an incongruity between player profiles and scheme, which ultimately led to the American’s dismissal.
This was the context that Tedesco walked into – a Leipzig side that was transitioning to a different era of football, where for once their famed recruitment system would not help them fast track the process.
Tedesco brings the calm – examining Leipzig’s buildup scheme
The questions surrounding Tedesco were clear: would he simply resurrect his Schalke blueprint? Would he be able to evolve his scheme? What concessions would he make to the ‘Leipzig way’? Would Leipzig be able to regain their possession-based style, or was that the result of employing one of the best managerial prospects of the last decade?
As it turned out, the answers did not take long to reveal themselves. Tedesco put his imprint on the team in the very first game, against Adi Hütter’s Borussia Mönchengladbach. He used a 3-4-1-2 formation for the game, which was similar to Marsch’s oft-used 3-4-3 structures. However, Tedesco’s buildup scheme revealed something fundamentally different from that of the American.
Leipzig’s tweaks in buildup. Kampl and Angeliño ‘s positions are of particular importance in this setup.
Very often, midfielder Kevin Kampl would move out to the left touchline, leaving Konrad Laimer played as the sole holding midfielder in front of the defense. As part of this pattern, wing-back Angeliño advanced forward on the touchline, while the creative Emil Forsberg also oriented himself towards the left. From the number ten space Christopher Nkunku was given license to roam, and would either stretch the field or drop deep on the wing from his nominal central position. In these instances, André Silva alternated between the two center-backs and focused on keeping them occupied.
The positions taken up by the players led to an asymmetric shape, with two players (occasionally three as Joško Gvardiol ventured forward from his wide center-back spot) on the touchline while the forwards also operated from the left halfspace. It often resulted in a box being formed along the touchline, with players interchanging positions very often.
4th minute: Leipzig’s structure created ‘double width’ on the left. Additionally, the benefits of such a structure for counterpressing scenarios are evident.
In an interview granted to tactics blog Spielverlagerung, Tedesco emphasized the importance of ‘tactical training’: the process of analyzing film with his players and takes their preferences into account. This is an important note, because Leipzig’s buildup twist is attributable more to player preferences than to Tedesco’s idiosyncrasies.
At Manchester City, Angeliño’s profile as a player was clear – he was a so-so defender, but an extraordinarily creative player when given the license to go forward. As a result, Tedesco has the versatile Kampl take on the role of the left wing-back in buildup, while Angeliño can operate in his preferred areas. Nkunku is not a player with elite athleticism, preferring instead to weave his way through or around a block by associating with his teammates. The structure above allows him to pick his spots, and reduced distances between offensive players means that he can initiate give-and-go sequences easily.
Forsberg has a similar profile but brings the threat of a through ball, which he can deliver more easily if his teammates take defensive focus off him and get him on the ball in good areas. That is another benefit of the structure, where the emphasis is on providing the ball carrier with multiple options at any given point. As the field gets tilted to one side, teams begin to shift accordingly, exposing underloads on the right flank. Against Gladbach, this was exploited by the duo of Mohamed Simakan and Nordi Mukiele, which led to an opportunity before the first goal.
Variations to the scheme
The left-sided buildup is a core part of Leipzig’s scheme and has remained in place throughout the season, but there exist variations that have been devised by Tedesco. Given the players on the left – Gvardiol, Angeliño, Nkunku – it is clear why Leipzig tilts so heavily to this flank. However, players like Mukiele, Simakan and Lukas Klostermann, who predominantly play on the right, also bring value to the team, with the games against Bayer Leverkusen and Augsburg being an example of the type of contributions that typifies the trio.
Against Bayer Leverkusen, Leipzig employed rotations down their right flank, where Forsberg would drop into wider areas and Mukiele advanced up the wing.
Leipzig’s rotation down the right.
Silva would drop off from his advanced position to make himself available in the central midfielder zone, while Szoboszlai would make a counter movement into the channel between Tah and Tapsoba. The idea was to lure Leverkusen’s defenders out by having the forwards drop off, which would expose space in behind for the midfielders to run into. It would then be Mukiele’s role to find these runners from his advanced position on the wing.
With Angeliño once again getting benched for the encounter against Augsburg, Tedesco tilted the field to the right in a more extreme manner.
Mukiele was instructed to get in behind as often as possible, which opened up the possibilities of cutbacks into the box.
Rather than giving Mukiele creative responsibilities in the conventional sense, Tedesco deployed him as an off-the-shoulder runner in the final third. Konrad Laimer moved out to the right while Forsberg and Silva kept the Augsburg defenders busy, and Leipzig were often able to find Mukiele against wing-back Lasse Günther. So frequent was this pattern that noted that 47% of Leipzig’s attacks came down their right wing, a stark departure from Tedesco’s usual left sided bias.
Another option is the long ball, which Leipzig tried to deploy in their game against Stuttgart. With Matarazzo’s side standing off Leipzig in their 3-4-3 block, Tedesco’s center-backs had time to play the ball, while Stuttgart focused on closing off their options. Against this setup, Leipzig tried a few times to go long to the striker, from which the second forward would aim to secure possession and shift the ball to Nkunku or play a return pass to the initial striker. This showed that Leipzig was unafraid of going long, particularly when it led to the forwards breaking into space behind the opposition.
Ultimately, it is Leipzig’s stable structure behind that forms the foundation for their offensive prowess. By and large, the team is content to knock the ball about across their defensive line, but will assuredly move the ball to the wings to find a way to progress. On the left, connectivity between the players is encouraged, whereas Tedesco uses different patterns to activate sequences on the right. Crucially, this does not cover their entire offensive repertoire – for that, it is necessary to examine their play on the defensive side of the ball.
Defense – it’s all about the shape
In the aforementioned Spielverlagerung interview, Tedesco went into some detail regarding his defensive preparations. These insights are valuable, particularly because Leipzig defends in a manner that is remarkably similar to his Schalke side.
Leipzig use a base 5-2-3 shape in defense, which is consistent regardless of opposition. Given that they possess the ball for longer spells against most Bundesliga teams, it is the game against Bayern Munich that offers the most insights regarding their defensive principles.
Leipzig’s block against Bayern, applying the principle of ‘forward defending’.
Often, the Leipzig forwards will stay narrow to cover the center and halfspaces. The three at the front is not fixed, as Tedesco’s side will shift into a 5-3-2 shape or 5-2-1-2 shape depending on the number of defenders in the opponents’ first line and where the opponent midfielders are positioned. Usually, the Leipzig double pivot will remain compact, pushing up behind the forwards in pressing sequences. Additionally, their presence allows the chain of defenders to fan out more widely in order to cover more space, which can be useful against top teams that look to push five or six attackers forward.
Leipzig’s ability to keep their shape harkens back to Tedesco’s comments in the interview, where he emphasizes the work that goes into perfecting the block on the training ground. He talks about the need for communicators on each line, i.e., the players who decide the team’s response and manage the block. For Leipzig, it is likely that Willi Orban and Kampl are the leaders in the defensive and midfield lines, based on the game time they have received and their actions on the pitch.
Additionally, Tedesco mentions the need to delineate specific triggers for pressing, which came to the fore against Bayern as well as in the Europa League against Real Socieded. With Bayern using the 3-4-3 shape, Leipzig pressed when they had a numbers advantage against the defense or when the spaces between the Bayern players became too large.
Against Sociedad, Tedesco changed the scheme in the second half, ordering his team to press the Spanish side’s buildup and using the pass to the wing-back as the trigger.
The pressing scheme used in the second half against Real Sociedad.
This goes back to Tedesco’s comments about having specific pressing triggers, which nevertheless “vary heavily from match to match.”
While Leipzig do settle into a block, it is not a passive block whereby they are content to let the opposition have the ball. Aside from pressing on the basis of certain triggers (when they scored versus Bayern) or Tedesco ordering the team to press high (like against Sociedad), Leipzig defend actively when the opponent threatens to progress into their half. This is an example of what Tedesco calls ‘forward defending’, which implies that a team must defend with an intent to hurry the opponent or win the ball back rather than merely blocking forward passes.
Like Leipzig’s offensive profile, the defensive organization has remained consistent over Tedesco’s spell in charge. Upon loss of possession, they drop into the block, and the chain of five in defense is sufficient to combat the proclivity of top offenses to put multiple attackers on the last line. However, the picture is incomplete without one final aspect – transitions, and how Leipzig profit from these in-between situations.
How Leipzig use transitions
While Leipzig do push players forward in the possession phase, they retain three at the back at all times, often in the form of a 1-2-1 rest defense. Usually, Orban is the deepest player of the trio, with the wide center-backs (particularly Gvardiol) fanning out to the halfspaces. When possession is lost, the center-backs immediately drop the height of the defensive line, with the wing-backs also instructed to drop into the defensive line. In these situations, the midfield and forward lines counterpress if possible, or retreat into the safety of the block.
The structure in possession therefore allows Leipzig to keep counterattacks to a minimum, which is a similar formula to the one employed by Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea. Like Chelsea, Leipzig are able to snuff out counterattacks, while they take their time in prising open the opposition block. Ultimately, it is the shape that is the key, and players are clearly instructed to prioritize keeping the compactness and solidity of the shape when pushed back.
While the defensive transitions are organized, Leipzig’s switch from defense to attack appears a lot more chaotic and instinctive. While it is certainly planned as part of the rest offense, it seems as though Leipzig like to keep the forwards across the center and halfspaces. The midfielders are given license to push forward and link the forwards if necessary, though more often their role is to make runs from deep to either create or finish chances.
One example of a flowing counterattack comes from the second leg of the Europa League tie against Atlanta, when Gian Piero Gasperini switched up his approach from the first leg and went with a more aggressive setup. While this gave them the initiative on offense, their man marking scheme meant that they were effectively waiting to be ripped apart on the break.
That is precisely what happened in this game, as Nkunku and Dani Olmo tested the defense throughout and set the table for the opener. Laimer provided the assist after making a run from deep in the Leipzig half, which preceded some resolute box defending as Gasperini’s substitutions piled on the pressure. Implicit in Atalanta’s scheme was acceptance that Leipzig could hit back at any time, which is what happened after another Nkunku run resulted in a penalty for the German visitors. The Frenchman scored his second to put the Italians to bed, in a game that illustrated the quality of Leipzig’s counterattacking game.
The picture that emerges then, is this: Tedesco’s Leipzig is a team that makes exemplary use of possession as a defensive tool while retaining an emphasis on solidity and counterattacks. The three-man chain at the back ensures that Leipzig do not get exposed, while the forwards are put in a position to succeed through clever plotting of the offense.
The profile of the squad will undoubtedly change as it did when Timo Werner left Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, but the principles on which the tactical framework has been built will remain. Next season’s Leipzig will be a fascinating plotline when viewed from the prism of their change in footballing philosophy – perhaps, we can finally answer the question as to whether Nagelsmann or Tedesco is the superior manager.
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