Julian Nagelsmann never made it as a player, thanks in large part to knee injuries that forced him to retire before his career ever got started. However, that change of path allowed the German manager to take up coaching at a young age. After briefly working under Thomas Tuchel at Augsburg, Nagelsmann worked his way through the ranks at Hoffenheim, leading them into the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history. After three incredibly successful years with Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann departed the club in 2019 for RasenBallsport Leipzig. Due to his fantastic success with a club that is now firmly one of Germany’s elite clubs, Nagelsmann is now one of the most sought after and respected coaches in the world. This is an updated tactical analysis of Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig alongside his fantastic 2020-21 season.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-1-4-2
As could be expected of a Julian Nagelsmann team, RasenBallsport Leipzig don’t have one consistent formation. However, they have seemingly moved away from the 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 system that served them so well in 2019-20. This season, they have favoured a 3-4-2-1 or 3-1-4-2 formation instead. The 3-1-4-2 has been the first choice system of play in recent weeks and so we will focus on this formation in our analysis. But it is important to note that the system of play is less important for a manager like Nagelsmann. Players fulfilling specific roles, even ones that might contradict what a typical player in that formation might do, become more customary instead for a team like Leipzig. The Hungarian goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi has retained his place for the fifth season running. Mukiele is the most frequent right-wing-back, even despite Tyler Adams’ interesting occasional positional change. Left-wing-back Angelino is another of the team’s frequent starters and has now sealed a permanent move to the club from Manchester City. The Spanish wing-back has been a solid defensive presence, but also one of their biggest attacking threats – scoring four goals with four assists in the league so far. Slovenian international Kevin Kampl dictates play in front of the back-four and has an excellent young understudy in Tyler Adams. Adams often plays alongside Kampl if and when the side plays a 3-4-2-1, but can also play as a right-wing-back as Mukiele shifts to center-back or out of the side for a rest. Kampl is the best passer of the ball in the team and like many players that Dortmund have let go of over the past few years, he is making the Black & Yellows look very silly for letting him go.
Captain of the club Marcel Sabitzer is another guaranteed starter when fit, and he’s been frequently partnered by Amadou Haidara, who is slowly growing into a Naby Keita-Esque presence in the side. The versatile Christopher Nkunku and Dani Olmo have also spent time playing in central attacking midfield this season. Swedish international Emil Forsberg starts games more often when the side plays 3-4-2-1 to use his threat in wider areas, while Yussuf Poulsen has adapted well without Timo Werner alongside him. Despite the many names that we have listed, Nagelsmann has been more consistent with sticking to the same thirteen or fourteen players for the bulk of the matches and minutes this season. The least consistent position belongs up top, where Nagelsmann has changed his front-men on a near game-by-game basis. That inconsistency may be natural without Timo Werner as they no longer have a natural goal-scorer. But that hasn’t stopped Leipzig from sitting comfortably in second place up to this point in the Bundesliga season. So those are the players, now let’s get into the tactics.
Last season, RB Leipzig’s attack was one of the most impressive in Europe. However, this season without Timo Werner, they’ve gone the other way to have one of the best defenses in Europe instead. Nagelsmann’s side have conceded just eighteen goals in twenty-one games – the best defensive record in the Bundesliga. In fact, very few sides in Europe’s top five leagues have conceded fewer than Leipzig (PSG, Lille, Atletico, and Man City). Led by a back-three structure in most of their matches this season, Die Roten Bullen have made very few individual mistakes in the league and looks like a very sound, compact unit. Dayot Upamecano, Willi Orban, and Marcel Halstenberg are usually three of the key men in the back-line, and all are excellent both in and out of possession. But in the 3-1-4-2 or 3-4-2-1 formations, they have a few key midfield men who can also help to break up play and stop attacking transitions from developing. This allows the wing-backs, most dominantly Angelino on the left, to maintain a high position, knowing that the likes of Kampl and Adams have the mobility to cover in behind. In fact, Angelino’s average position is often the highest in his team, and so the midfielders become crucial to covering that space in behind and helping the Spaniard recover his position or press when the ball is turned over. Only Bayern Munich have managed to keep the ball out of their own third more than Leipzig this season, which is both a feature of their defensive stability and high pressing methodology.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONT
Leipzig’s lack of goals conceded is also helped by their intense high pressing system. Nagelsmann’s side press in a diamond shape, with the front-men particularly crucial to kick-starting that process. Rather than forcing their opponents back towards their own goal, they like to pressure their opponents into wide areas. This is where the wing-backs and central midfielders are often ready to outnumber the opposition, looking to cut off passing lanes and restart the attack. In the 3-1-4-2 it becomes very simple to achieve this, as several players are able to pop up central areas and stop penetration through the middle of the pitch. The 4-2-2-2 system offered Nagelsmann similar advantages last season, and the starting positions of their players during goal kicks and when playing in a 3-1-4-2, it doesn’t change all that much. The fullbacks have relatively more freedom to start higher up. Between the two formations (3 at-the-back and 4-2-2-2), there is actually a surprisingly low amount of changes needed to the team’s pressing structure.
In terms of specifics into how the team press, Leipzig will shift and slide with the play as a unit and attempt to create a defensive overload on the side of the pitch with the ball. If for example, the ball was on the right side, you would expect the near-sided striker, wing-back, and both central midfielders to create a diamond, cutting off all potential passing options. They attempt to swarm around the opposition like a pack of bees, ready to sting and punch with any loose touches or bad passes. Last season, Nagelsmann would often switch to a 3-4-1-2 when he wanted to stop a talented number six from playing out from the back. In either Leipzig’s 3-4-2-1 or 3-1-4-2 formations, the exact player tasked with stopping that number six may be less clearly defined and become a shared responsibility, rather than a lone attacking midfielder being tasked with the demand. It is also important to note that with usually only one striker actively involved in the pressing diamond and the other remaining high and central, the Red Bulls can have a quick attacking outlet should they win possession of the ball. When they inevitably win the ball, Leipzig look for the quickest route to goal through one-touch passing and attempting to link up with Yussuf Poulsen in particular due to his aerial threat, capable hold-up play, and high position on the field. As a result, their intense pressing structure is an effective method for Leipzig to keep hold of the ball, stop the opposition from getting anywhere near their goal, and also score goals.
RasenballSport Leipzig have significantly improved as a possession-based team since Julian Nagelsmann’s arrival.
In possession, Leipzig are now more patient. They like to get all ten outfield players in the opposition half before they attack, and will often work the ball until they are able to achieve that level of offensive pressure. Upon finding the right angles to play forward, they will then do so at speed with quick, one-touch combinations into the final third and advancing runs into space from their central attacking midfielders. Leipzig take one of the most vertical approaches to their attack in the league, partially down to their pressing and quick attacking transitions, but also due to the natural shape of their formations like 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1. Although they favour the middle, Nagelsmann’s side will also attempt to create overloads on one specific side of the field, with a trio or quartet of players combining in tight areas to take opposition players out of the game and then find space higher up the field. Angelino comes from the Manchester City school of smart timing of runs into the box, and so he has been an excellent attacking threat when Leipzig are in full flow. The Spaniard has contributed four goals and four assists to their season so far, the most goal contributions of anyone at the club. RB Leipzig’s patient build-up and improvements in possession could be one cause of both their improvement in defense and slightly less attacking punch in the box, but it is certainly an important part of their improvement under Julian Nagelsmann this season.
RB Leipzig have been one of the Bundesliga’s best sides since their emergence in the league back in 2016. Julian Nagelsmann has continued the club’s success through his intense pressing approach, but also an increase in possession and playing through the thirds. They may not have a consistent formation, but they do have a consistent style of play that remains very fluid throughout each and every match. With Borussia Dortmund’s struggles this season and Leipzig’s overall play, Julian Nagelsmann is now set for his best-ever season in the Bundesliga as he continues to get better and better with each passing year.