RB Leipzig – Schalke 04: Schalke capitalize on Leipzig’s missed chances to shock the Bundesliga leaders (1-3)
Schalke’s marginal gains were the key to their success, as David Wagner’s diamond formation troubled Julian Nagelsmann’s men, albeit not without weaknesses of their own. Leipzig’s performance was creditable once again, both in their starting plan and in their adaptations, but they ultimately let the game slip away from their grasp.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Having fielded, on paper, a slightly weaker side that still managed to push aside SV Werder Bremen 3-0 last week, Nagelsmann returned this weekend with a strong eleven, looking to maintain their stance as Bundesliga leaders. With that in mind, Marcel Halstenberg, Diego Demme, Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen all returned to the starting lineup, while midfielder Amadou Haidara was handed his first start of the season.
Although Wagner made fewer changes to his last eleven, which just scraped past 1. FSV Mainz 05 last week, there was a change in system – moving from a 4-3-3 setup to a 4-4-2 diamond. The only change came in the form of Daniel Caligiuri making way for nineteen-year-old Rabbi Matondo, who would partner Guido Burgstaller up front. Inconceivable as it seemed beforehand, a win here could help Schalke sustain a place in the top four, if not higher.
Leipzig resist Schalke’s suffocation
The visitors made an impressive start through the intensity of their press and in how many errors it forced. The typical setup, against Leipzig’s 3-4-3 in possession, involved the two center-forwards curving their way onto the wide ball-holder – if not they would sit slightly deeper for cover against the two midfield receivers.
Slightly deep of them was Amine Harit in the number ten position, who mostly marked out the far-sided The far side is the side of the pitch where the ball is not. deep midfielder, and pressed onto the near-sided one when they received the ball. That way Harit was instantly creating the right cover shadow, When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. and almost creating a sort of trap, when he sprinted across. The wide central midfielders were tasked with pressing wide down their respective sides, acting as a third forward at times, with the rest of the defensive shape following up man-for-man.
Schalke’s intense pressing diamond.
While this did cause Leipzig many problems – albeit few that resulted in anything clear cut early on – it did have its own problems, specifically because of the far-sided central midfielder’s positioning. The ball-far midfielder was always asked to position himself slightly wider, mostly with the intention of getting out quicker to switches of play, A pass from one side to the other. so that their opponent’s width was not as much of an issue. What that did do, though, was leave an exploitable gap between them and the holding midfielder, which the home side looked to capitalize on all match long.
The concerning gap in Schalke’s midfield.
The best example of this came just after fifteen minutes when a quite typical attacking rotation from Nagelsmann’s front three saw Timo Werner provide a wide option just ahead of Halstenberg, who was in a tight spot. Inside and creating a different angle both behind Harit and just beyond the number six, Omar Mascarell, was Forsberg (although roles were switched at times), while Poulsen pinned back the defense.
So, when Werner dribbled inside and managed to beat the initial challenge from Benjamin Stambouli, who had stepped out of the back-line, there was now a gaping hole as Poulsen had continued to drag Salif Sané across. Then, left open in the middle, was Forsberg through that exposed 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 the 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. He was quickly played in where his touch-and-shot was well denied, before goalkeeper Alexander Nübel pulled off a stunning reaction save against wing-back Marcel Sabitzer’s open rebound attempt.
The longer the game went on, the more time Leipzig were being afforded on the ball, and thus the spaces in midfield continued to open up.
Playing against Schalke’s 4-4-2 diamond shape put a lot of emphasis on Leipzig’s wide players in terms of passing and ball progression.
Issues for Leipzig in their defensive shape
Leipzig moved to their trusted 4-2-2-2 system out of possession, but it had its drawbacks against a Schalke shape that tended to shift from a diamond to a 3-5-2 formation, at least in buildup. What Wagner’s side managed to do on multiple occasions was draw open the right-sided halfspace to gain access to the byline.
There were a couple of ways that they managed to do this: 1) Jonjoe Kenny simply holding the ball out wide would draw out Halstenberg, which allowed Weston McKennie to make a run on the inside, or 2) McKennie would move wide to intentionally draw open that corridor, enabling other attackers to make bursts through there.
In the twentieth minute, this almost handed Schalke the lead as McKennie’s run behind Halstenberg’s press onto Kenny allowed the American to cut it back. Controlled by Burgstaller and followed up by a Kenny underlap, which somehow scrambled its way through, the fullback managed to get into a great shooting position but his effort was denied. Something similar happened six minutes later, but with McKennie drawing open the space for Harit to burst into, as the Moroccan cut it back to the edge for a tame Matondo shot.
However, a couple of minutes later, Schalke managed to take a surprise lead, and it was from a set piece – a well worked one at that. A simple yet ever-so-effective near-post straight flick-on to the back found the towering figure of Sané, who netted comfortably into the bottom left corner.
Out of relatively nothing, again, Schalke had their second goal fewer than ten minutes later. This, after some controlled Leipzig possession spells, saw some simple miscommunication, resulting in a turnover and counterattack. A simple channel ball found McKennie’s menacing run from box-to-box, who then won the tussle and fed it inside to Harit. His nimble footwork then draw a foul in the box, resulting in a penalty that was eventually given upon review. The fouled attacker then converted emphatically: 0-2.
It was by no means a thoroughly deserved lead, but there was a looming feeling that Leipzig could not keep this game settled.
Nagelsmann forced into second half adjustments
The Leipzig manager seemed content to play an all-out 4-2-2-2 shape, which he has reverted to doing in the past. What might have seemed like a safe move was actually a smart one that looked to maximize how often they were exploiting the center.
Nagelsmann had clocked onto the gaps to the side of Mascarell, and thus used this shape to create a temporary 4-2-3-1 setup in order to overcrowd the isolated number six. The aim then would be to shift it to the underloaded side and be prepared to attack in numbers in the box.
The reality was not quite as straightforward as it seemed, since Leipzig were poor at making use of these situations. Mostly receiving with their back-to-goal, it made it easy for Stambouli to press up aggressively enough to force them back or force an error. However, given the time that the wide ball-holders were getting to find these passes inside, it meant the forwards could come even deeper to receive further away from the Schalke defenders.
On one occasion, Forsberg received centrally, and before Stambouli could make it to him, he had already released a through ball aimed at Werner, who was now completely free past Sané in the channel. Were it not for something that happened far too often – which was also a key culprit in their lacking successes – in the way of misplaced passes, it could well have been game on.
Instead, Schalke made things a whole lot worse for their opponents. As the fullbacks pushed further on in this attacking system, it left Leipzig more than a little vulnerable when those frequently poor final passes went Schalke’s way, especially with the two strikers being pinned right up against the home side’s.
Just short of the hour mark, Matondo bagged his first goal for his new side after a pass inside from Mukiele drifted just behind Haidara. With no rest defense strong enough to resist the instant attacking options, Schalke broke away with ease. Leading the charge was Harit, who drove centrally before finding the right time to slide it into Matondo, as he poked it past Péter Gulásci for a killer third goal.
Schalke’s 4-4-2 diamond shape with a lot of direct passing from the fullbacks.
One last throw of the dice
With the continued frustration of minor passes just not falling his side’s way, Nagelsmann made one last change, which saw Christopher Nkunku come on at left wing-back, as Halstenberg made up a permanent back-three, so to limit potential further damage still with some time to go.
What came of it was a more solid connection across to the far-left side, which was now the elected underloaded side. Halstenberg was now stepping up in support to provide a closer, surer option for the forwards to bounce passes back out to. And, in the eighty-fourth minute, this actually paid off, as the shift across was successful, and the inside movement congested Schalke’s defensive formation, which left Forsberg’s uncovered-for movement free on the edge of the box. The Swede had a pop and got a goal after a catastrophic error from Nübel.
Leipzig even had another golden opportunity a couple of minutes later when the same shift across saw Werner get on the ball wide and ahead of Nkunku. He cut it back and dug out a short cross that found the head of Marcel Sabitzer’s run across the box. A real missed opportunity since Nübel’s poor positioning left the near post wide open.
That, though, was all the hosts could muster in the end, as it finished 1-3.
Up into third, Schalke continue to ride their luck on the results front, as things narrowly pushed their way in this huge test. And, whilst Leipzig were not faultless, there will be a mixture of disappointment and continued positivity within the camp after another relatively impressive display. Nagelsmann’s side, now second in the league but first in their Champions League group, host Olympique Lyonnais in midweek, whilst Wagner’s side await a visit from 1. FC Köln next weekend.
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