Diagonal Leipzig overcome Hoffenheim’s compact 5-3-2
Title chasing RB Leipzig hosted Champions League hopefuls Hoffenheim in the clash of the Bundesliga high flyers on Saturday afternoon. Whilst the hosts knew victory was necessary to keep the pressure on Bayern, they came up against Nagelsmann’s side who were Europe’s last remaining unbeaten outfit.
Hoffenheim’s defensive control through 5-3-2
For much of the first half Hoffenheim displayed strong defensive control in their 5-3-2 shape against the ball. Against Leipzig’s build-up the away side were able to control the 6 space and thus reduce Leipzig’s ability to progress through the centre of the pitch. The defensive work from the forwards was particularly important in this.
The two forwards were largely not active in pressing Leipzig’s first line of defence. Instead they focused on holding central positions allowing them to prevent passes into the midfield space behind them. Whilst Wagner and Kramaric were not always in the passing line between the ball and the Leipzig midfielder behind them, they maintained a small distance between each other. This meant they could quickly move to intercept any attempted passes into the 6 space, and generally acted as a deterrent to Leipzig attempting to progress through the centre.
Leipzig often created a back three in their first line of build-up either through dropping one of the central midfielders between the centre backs or using Bernardo (right back) deep whilst Halstenburg (left back) pushed higher. When the central player in the back 3 had the ball, Hoffenheim’s forwards were positioned very narrow mostly with no pressure on the ball carrier. When the play moved to one of the wider centre backs Hoffenheim’s ball-near forward would move diagonally out to press the ball using their cover shadow to prevent the pass into midfield. The ball-far forward would follow across in a deeper position allowing them to keep the home side’s build-up on the same side if Leipzig were able to access Demme or Ilsanker through the full-backs.
With the two forwards focused heavily on blocking central midfield, the wide midfielders in the 3-chain were responsible for pressing when Leipzig played the ball out to a full-back. By approaching the Leipzig full-back diagonally from the centre they could use their cover shadow to block passes from the full-back into the 10 space which are key to Leipzig’s game.
If the home side managed to recycle the ball from one flank through to the other the dynamics of Hoffenheim’s press changed slightly due to the differing distances. Since the two forwards would have shifted over to the ball, the ball-far wide midfielder would be responsible for pressing the receiving centre back, whilst the wing-back would now move forward to press the opposing full-back.
This defensive control meant the away side could prevent dangerous situations and the 5 defenders gave Nagelsmann’s side a general last line security against Leipzig’s attempts to break through.
The most distinctive characteristic of Leipzig’s game with the ball is their approach based on quick vertical progressions and moving into dynamic combinations between the forward players to advance towards goal with 3rd man runs. This was again a big feature in this encounter.
Since their opponents were so strong at blocking the centre, Hasenhüttl’s men had to find alternative ways to access the 10 space and set up their combination game. This was often done by playing wide to the full-backs and then passing diagonally into the space behind the Hoffenheim midfield.
On a couple of occasions this pass was open on the left side due to Amiri starting from a higher position, from where he approached Halstenburg backwards meaning he was unable to cut the diagonal pass infield. On other occasions it was due to the effect switches had on Hoffenheim’s pressing mechanisms, with the diagonal pass infield being open since Zuber or Kaderabek approached from a vertical position on the wing.
Of course these passes were met with high resistance from the Hoffenheim defence and this is where Leipzig’s structure was particularly useful and well tailored to their game. Since the receiver of such passes will be subjected to heavy pressure lay off passes are valuable for retaining the ball in advanced areas and escaping the pressure. With Leipzig’s high presence in central areas between the lines, their receivers often had options to lay the ball off.
Furthermore, these lay off passes meant the receiver would have a forwards facing field of vision, thus allowing them to spot and execute through ball options to break past Hoffenheim’s back line. These processes allow them to not only maintain the ball in high pressure areas but also to create goal scoring opportunities. In Leipzig’s attack, the Werner and Poulsen often move diagonally out to the flanks to receive through balls whilst the wingers come infield. This at times creates extra space behind the full-backs for the forwards to run into.
Leipzig’s compact offensive structure translates nicely into good positioning for counterpressing which is essential given the risk of turnovers in their highly vertical approach. Against Hoffenheim, a side with a strong counter attacking game, this created interesting battles in transition.
The intense ball-oriented counterpressing of the hosts was pitched against Hoffenheim’s quick combination focused counters. On a couple of occasions Nagelmann’s men were able to break through the counterpress with Rudy being comfortable enough to carry the ball forward, attracting pressure, until he found suitable options ahead of him. By changing the direction of their counters quickly they made it difficult for Leipzig to create access and the momentum that strengthens counterpressing attempts. Hoffenheim’s goal was the prime example of this.
Hoffenheim find ways to construct
The compact and intense 4-2-2-2 pressing scheme is a trademark of the Red Bull franchise, with strong control of central areas and intense shifting they are able to prevent most teams building up effectively.
In this game however, Hoffenheim found a couple of ways to advance beyond Leipzig’s press and attack from higher positions. One form of doing so was using a pass into Rudy in the 6 space who would draw intense pressure from the 6 players around him before laying the ball back to the defenders and using diagonal passes to find Amiri or Demirbay beyond the Leipzig midfield.
They also had some success by using the wing-backs in early build-up before coming back infield to Rudy to progress the play in the nearby half space. When they had a player positioned behind the forward-wide man channel they could influence the ball-near Leipzig winger to remain narrow giving the full-back more space to receive. On other occasions the full-backs had to receive under pressure and cut inside against the momentum of Leipzig’s press.
The second half began in a similar manner to the first with the hosts attempting to find ways to break into the 10 space to initiate combinations. They continued to bait Amiri higher by passing to the left side in build-up, they would then use the centre before returning the ball to Halstenburg deep on the left to open the diagonal passing angle into the likes of Poulsen.
Hoffenheim move to 5-3-1 after red
Although Leipzig were gradually gaining control, the game hinged on the crucial 59th minute with Wagner being sent off for the away side. Hoffenheim were now defending in a 5-3-1 shape as they sought to hold on to the draw. The pressing dynamics changed slightly in line with this and the wing-backs were now involved in pressing higher on the wings more consistently.
Leipzig focus on deep half spaces
In Hoffenheim’s 5-3-1 defensive shape their ability to control Leipzig’s build-up was predictably worsened. The hosts began increasingly focusing on using the deep half spaces to construct attacks which had become a weak point in Hoffenheim’s press due to the distance the one forward and wide midfielders had to cover on either side. By switching from half space to half space Leipzig could create viable opportunities to access central areas with Hoffenheim’s access worsened by fatigue and lower numbers.
On the left side this was often exploited by Halstenburg staying deep and using his strong diagonal passing game. On the right however, Bernardo pushed higher whilst Keita or Demme would drop into the right half space to carry the ball forwards. Hasenhüttl’s men were able to put together dangerous attacks starting from these areas and it was no surprise when Sabitzer put them ahead from one of these plays.
Nagelsmann moves to 4-3-2
In a last gasp attempt to salvage something from the game Nagelsmann moved to 4-3-2. Higher presence for pressing and attacks was presumably the reason behind it. However it was largely fruitless with the hosts experiencing little difficulty retaining the ball against Hoffenheim’s press and even forcing turnovers against the away side’s build-up.
Victory for the hosts means they remain only 3 points off Ancelotti’s Bayern who were narrow winners at Werder Bremen. The strong performance against one of the Bundesliga’s strongest sides bodes well for the rest of the season and Bayern’s recent fortuitous victories enhance the feeling that there is a genuine title race on.
As for Nagelsmann’s Champions League hopefuls the result leaves their top 4 position in danger as victories for Dortmund and Hertha would see them drop to 6th place. However, the job Nagelsmann has done has been simply outstanding and they can take heart from pushing the title hopefuls all the way despite going down to 10 men.