RB Leipzig haven’t had their most successful campaigns this season, winning just one of their first five games and losing to Shakhtar Donetsk in their first group stage match in the Champions League. As a result, coach Domenico Tedesco has been relieved of his duties, forcing the club to start over just one month into the 2022-23 season.
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While their defense has already scored nine goals in the league, their attack hit a new low in their most recent Bundesliga game, a 4-0 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, in which they failed to score a single goal. Last year, Tedesco came in to revive a front three, benefiting Christopher Nkunku, Andre Silva and Dominik Szoboszlai, but this season they have also brought Timo Werner back from matchday two after a disappointing spell at Chelsea.
Since then, a starting lineup of Nkunku and Werner has only managed to look sharp against Wolfsburg and is now rapidly declining. Why doesn’t it work?
Tedesco’s attack in a historic season
To understand why it is failing now, we need to recognize what was so effective last year.
Leipzig switched from Jesse Marsch’s intense counter-attack to a philosophy of slow possession and Tedesco, including very balanced moves from their front three, ensured they played as they were used to under Nagelsmann. The main aspects of the attack that were difficult to defend were the varieties in the attacking players’ patterns and their characteristics. For example, Nkunku was the roving, technically gifted and fast forward, Andre Silva was a capable, connecting striker who was present up front and Leipzig had a dynamic number 10 (Dominik Szoboszlai, Emil Forsberg, Dani Olmo) who provided the attackers with the midfield.
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Their individual strengths were so well put together that a player could fall on the wing at any time last season or attack the space behind the last defensive opponent (aka the “last line of defense”), while still being structurally balanced. was by their teammates. This allowed Tedesco’s men to attack through all five lanes of the field, whether it was a passing ball progression or a long ball winning the second ball.
Last year’s tactics under Tedesco ended with RB Leipzig winning the DFB Pokal, qualifying for a Champions League spot and Nkunku winning Bundesliga Player of the Year. Although they drew their first game 1-1 this season against VfB Stuttgart, they were unlucky not to win as their front three worked as expected. But in their second game, with new signing Werner staring at Cologne, we saw trouble bubbling.
As a centre-forward, Werner is a very capable option for attacking the space behind the last line of defense, where he can outrun opponents with his speed and agility and get into dangerous scoring positions. However, he is not as good a switch player as Silva and offers less physical presence. The problem that sometimes came up in the first match that Werner and Nkunku started together is that they are both similar in terms of movement, roam and don’t offer that much in linking play.
In many cases, Leipzig slide the ball from their back three to the wing, giving way to quick passes behind their rivals’ defences, with Werner and Nkunku drifting wide or starting a deep run. As their number 10 is also a very dynamic and forward-thinking player, they have no options to progress to an attacker who then holds the ball up, leaving Leipzig either losing the ball or unable to fight for the second ball.
This should not be framed as simply a “Werner problem”, but as a problem with the structure around him and the staff needed to make this effective. As we saw in the DFB-Pokal, when Werner started with Silva, the attack went smoothly and there were strong solutions in the last third. (They played against a fourth-tier German team, yet 19 shots on target and an 8-0 win still prove that this was an efficient approach.) This indicates that having two attackers with similar play patterns according to the philosophies of Tedesco because they can’t collect second balls or get into a stable counter pressure structure (the act of defending after losing the ball), which in turn also hurts their defensive balance when they lose the ball.
How could Tedesco have solved this?
As the above suggests, rotating between Nkunku and Werner was one way to solve this problem and given that it promises to be a long season with congestion and the 2022 World Cup, this is not the worst option. However, you always provoke criticism if you leave your best players on the bench and the results are therefore not easy.
A more pragmatic approach would have been to use Nkunku as number 10 in the same formation instead of Olmo, who is injured for six weeks anyway, and therefore have all three of the aforementioned attackers start together without changing the structure. Last year’s Bundesliga player from last year’s season certainly has the skills to play like a 10 and would create space to play a more physically present striker like Silva or even Youssef Poulsen, who can balance Werner and Nkunku and also can fight for second balls and provide the structure through which they can do this.
There was also a third option, which was to change the formation to a 3-1-4-2 with Nkunku and Werner up front, but with two number 8 (central midfielders) behind them. This would have meant that Tedesco would not have had to drop any of the starting players, and that someone would have been behind the two strikers to collect second balls, balancing the structure in both offense and defence. The downside to this is that as you push more of your team higher up the field, you’re more exposed to counterattacks.
Unfortunately, as we saw against Leipzig against Shakhtar, Tedesco tried none of these workable solutions and opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Silva up front, Nkunku as a 10 and Werner on the left wing. This formation did not fit the individual profiles of these players; moreover, it affected their build-up play in such a way that it prompted players to make individual mistakes, it seemed as if they no longer had the confidence to play.
There were solutions for Tedesco, but unfortunately he couldn’t take advantage of them before his tenure at Leipzig came to an end with the results. Time will tell if Marco Rose can get them back on track and will be the first to face his former club Borussia Dortmund this weekend.