Bundesliga MD 04 Preview: Leipzig vs. Bayern

Justin Separator September 11, 2021

If you want to explain the current state of play in the German Bundesliga, you do not have to look any further than what went down between Bayern and Leipzig during the transfer window: coaching team gone, key center-back gone, captain gone – all now under contract at FC Bayern. Leipzig, last year’s runners-up, have to regroup. But it is not all about super villains FC Bayern maliciously weakening the competition. Ibrahima Konaté, for example, another one of the team’s key defenders, moved to Liverpool. If the club’s stars do not move to Munich, they are drawn to England or other regions of top European football, as was the case with Timo Werner last year.

Leipzig and Dortmund, who have been going through this experience for several years now, are caught in a perpetual cycle of transitional years, rarely managing to keep their squads together long enough to form individual talent into a top team. Between these second-tier teams in Europe’s elite and those in the top tier, a growing chasm has emerged in recent years and decades.

Leipzig, with the financially strong Red Bull Group behind them, are a good example of the fact that money is not necessarily the solution to all problems. It is more complicated than that. But it always boils down to the fact that save for FC Bayern, even the German top clubs at best act as development clubs for the really big players – and the German championship has not really been a contest for years, even when Bayern have shown unaccustomed weaknesses.

Leipzig in transition

Nevertheless, Leipzig were able to make good use of the transfer fees and the money they already had: Josko Gvardiol and Mohamed Simakan are two highly talented central defenders who are expected to grow to be able to replace Dayot Upamecano and Konaté in the medium term. In addition, Angeliño and Benjamin Henrichs were signed permanently and the loss of Sabitzer in midfield was offset by the addition of a promising talent: Ilaix Moriba arrived from Barcelona for a whopping €16m. He is considered to have great potential.

Most importantly, however, was arguably the signing of André Silva, who came from Eintracht Frankfurt. With 28 goals last season, the Portuguese was the top scorer behind Robert Lewandowski. Leipzig has been sorely lacking a clinical finisher of his calibre of late.

In terms of quality, all these transfers seem to be clever and proper reinforcements, but because of the loss of Julian Nagelsmann, it will simply take time for the new and old players to gel into a team. One big question clearly is to which extent the substantial loss of experience will make itself felt. Upamecano and Konaté may still only be 22 years young, but they have already seen quite a bit of action in their careers and provided a lot of stability to the defensive center. Also, Sabitzer was not the team’s captain for no reason. He was an important foundation for the team with his consistently good performances. Young players, on the other hand, tend to fluctuate in their performance.

More verticality and a lot of gegenpressing

24.8 (2 times) and 26.0 – that’s how young the eleven players were on average that Jesse Marsch used in the first three Bundesliga games. Goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi, defensive mainstay Willi Orban, and midfield directors Kevin Kampl and Emil Forsberg are the older players in the squad who will get regular appearances. That may be a bit thin, but there is no alternative.

In terms of playing philosophy, however, not too much will change in Leipzig as the first games have already revealed. If there is one major change, it is probably the extremely vertical and direct play that Marsch prefers. The U.S. coach demands a high tempo from his players both on the pitch and in the head. While Nagelsmann places a lot of emphasis on precision and recommends that his players make two touches rather than one for processing the ball, Marsch wants to surprise his opponents in an ambush-like manner.

After a pass rate of 84 percent twice against Mainz and Stuttgart, Leipzig did not exceed a rate of 77 percent in Wolfsburg. Marsch wants to counter the resulting ball losses with a compact and aggressive gegenpressing. Even in possession, the players are positioned rather closely together. So misplaced passes are part of the plan. The game has become wilder under Marsch.

A step backward compared to Nagelsmann?

This in turn also means that there are spaces away from the ball that opponents can exploit when they break free from Leipzig’s gegenpressing. In all three games, there were many situations when Leipzig were late in their defensive challenges in the game without the ball, affording the opponent the opportunity for lucrative counterattacks. In addition, the efforts working back by the offensive players is still a problem. Behind the first pressing line, there are many spaces that high tempo, high effort players like Thomas Müller, Leon Goretzka or Serge Gnabry can exploit.

Leipzig leave the space between the lines too open for too long, especially after losing the ball. The decisive goal conceded at Wolfsburg, for example, resulted from Wolfsburg capitalizing on a momentary lack of organisation in Leipzig’s defensive transition. Leipzig had just defended an attack, and immediately wanted to launch a counterattack. Instead of calming the game and regrouping, they sent Forsberg into an awkward situation with a long ball. Wolfsburg won the ball back immediately and were able to play through the unsorted Leipzig lines with few contacts, and score.

In the only win of the season so far against Stuttgart, however, Marsch’s team showed what they are capable of when given space. In an exchange of blows that often seemed quite open, it was above all the technical quality of Leipzig that won the day. The big challenge for the coach will be to find the right balance of aggressive, heavy metal gegenpressing and phases of control. After all, if he proves unable to teach the team how to inject calm phases into their game, Marsch is threatened with a regression to the old days pre Nagelsmann.

Strengths

  • Tempo
  • Technical quality
  • Direct play forward
  • Fast, straight combinational play
  • Gegenpressing
  • Balanced team without star players, but with reasonably high quality throughout

Weaknesses

  • Team still needs time to gel after loss of important players
  • Vertical distances when first pressing line is overplayed
  • Working back of the attackers
  • Too many ball losses – midfield still too easily taken out of play
  • Defense of spaces away from the ball

Typical style of play

  • Back four
  • Very vertical passing game
  • High midfield pressing with phases of attacking pressing
  • Many players near the ball – targeted overloading of spaces close to the ball
  • Special focus on gegenpressing
  • A lot of passes and deflections in forward play – but build-up mostly through the full-backs

FC Bayern: how does Nagelsmann put the pieces together?

For Bayern, it will be about continuing to build momentum. The start of the season was good, and a good part of the team was able to continue to work together during the international break. Hansi Flick relied on a strong Bayern contingent in his debut as national coach.

However, this has also given rise to further questions for Nagelsmann. Even before the break, for example, he had deployed Leroy Sané on the left wing. What he can do there, he showed both at Bayern and especially now with the national team. With Flick, he was able to shine in his strongest role as a wide player.

Nagelsmann, on the other hand, must face the challenge of pairing Alphonso Davies and Sané effectively. Both have their strengths more as wide offensive wingers. In the national team, with Thilo Kehrer Sané had a full-back behind him who acted as a protective backstop, while Davies is someone who wants to use the offensive spaces he gets himself. That is why Serge Gnabry, who feels more comfortable in half-spaces and central positions, often played in front of him.

A surprising exclamation point from Leipzig or a statement win from Bayern?

Sané has proven often enough that playing in the half-spaces is not his strongest suit. So either Nagelsmann finds a more central role for Davies in which the Canadian can still bring his unique qualities to bear, or he tries to use Sané out on the right wing again when the 25-year-old’s confidence has returned. A solution in which Sané and Davies alternate sides could also be possible. Likewise, Lucas Hernández could act in the Kehrer role.

But then there is also the question of who will provide offensive width on the right side. Müller has taken over this role from time to time, but then his input is missing in the center. Gnabry is currently also in top form because he can seamlessly tuck in from out wide to the inside. At the same time, there is no offensively-minded right-back. It seems unlikely that Nagelsmann will do without Davies more often.

And so he will have to do quite a bit of fitting pegs into holes in the coming weeks. Once he has put the pieces together, however, Bayern could once again pull away at the top of the table. On Saturday, they want to distance a direct rival to seven points in Leipzig. Leipzig, in turn, want to set their first real marker under Marsch – and prove that the current transition is not such a big problem for them after all.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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