Bundesliga MD 10 preview: FC Bayern vs. RB Leipzig
It is still a three-way battle at the top of the table in the Bundesliga at the moment. Leverkusen and Wolfsburg are also within striking distance, but in view of their records over the past few years, it is unlikely that they will be able to mount a serious title challenge.
Bayern’s main rivals are therefore Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig. Dortmund have been having a fairly stable season thus far, but recently stumbled at home against Köln and in mid-week against Bruges, where they lost two important players, Mats Hummels and Erling Haaland. It is unsure how long Dortmund’s central defender will be missing, whereas Haaland, of all players, will be unavailable until the beginning of January, according to Lucien Favre. This may well prove a significant setback for their title hopes in the Bundesliga yet.
And so RB Leipzig could perhaps become the last hope for those who prefer different champions than FC Bayern this season. Under Julian Nagelsmann, the club seem to finally have established themselves where they belong in terms of their mix of quality, transfers and infrastructure investments: At the top.
Going by the performances of both teams during recent weeks, Leipzig may have caught a window of opportunity with the match in Munich this weekend. Bayern are knackered. They have not been at their imperious best for weeks now. Add to that that Nagelsmann knows how to put the serial champions under duress. Out of his eight previous duels, he only lost three. But then, he has also only won two and RB have dropped points in recent weeks: A 0-1 defeat at Gladbach, a 1-1 draw in Frankfurt and last weekend almost another draw against Bielefeld at home, which ended in a narrow 2-1.
Even the last-minute win against Besaksehir during the week proved a rather shakey affair, although Julian Nagelsmann’s team offered decent football in some phases.
But the “in some phases” is the operative term here. The same as many other top teams in Europe, Leipzig are currently lacking consistency – especially in attack. The reasons are obvious. RB progressed to the semi-finals in August’s Champions League tournament, which cut down their preparation time for this season by a lot. This is often overshadowed in public by the discussions about Bayern’s similar fate.
This should give all the more reason to put the current performance of the team into perspective. Nagelsmann certainly benefits from the broad squad he has at his disposal, but even more than that the basis of his success mainly lies in the tactical advantage with which he is able endow his team, advantage they urgently need considering the dense schedule in this exceptional season.
Leipzig, together with Gladbach, are perhaps the most versatile team of the Bundesliga, which makes it difficult for the opponent to adapt to them. Many swift, clever moves, especially in the midfield center, characterise their game. Before last February’s clash with Bayern we analysed some of their principles in detail. The gist of it is that Leipzig constantly try to stress the opposing defensive line and nudge them into making the decisions Leipzig want them to make. To achieve this, the players are always looking for gaps on the pitch and thus force the opponent to constantly make decisions within fractions of a second. Nagelsmann’s calculation: The more decisions someone has to make in a short amount of time, the higher the probability for mistakes.
A simple example are the frequent opposing runs and positional switches the players make. Against Besaksehir, for example, Leipzig immediately after kick-off moved the ball to the right wing, where the receiving winger dropped off a bit towards the full-back position with the ball. By this movement he drew his marker out with him. At the same time, a central midfielder shifted out into the now vacated space out wide. The winger in turn crossed his path by running into the center to make himself available again.
Probably it would have made sense for the Besaksehir defender in this situation not to leave his position but let a teammate pick up the opponent. However, thanks to their good positional play, Leipzig were able to tie up many players close to the ball at once. When they start drifting away from their opponents and begin their opposing runs, the opponents are faced with a sudden wave of decisions as described above and Leipzig even often manage to gain in space through this.
Whether it is a 4-2-2, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3, or even a back three/five – there is hardly any other coach where such numbers mean as little as with Nagelsmann. Leipzig constantly shuffle through formations as the players constantly change their positions and, depending on the situation, different arrangements on the pitch emerge.
Now in the second year under Nagelsmann, the players’ runs seem even more coordinated. No other team in the Bundesliga has more shots per game than Leipzig (16.6). But quantity does not always equate quality and here Timo Werner’s presence up front is dearly missed.
According to StatsBomb’s Expected Goals model, Leipzig only sit fourth in the league (16.8). Dortmund (21.4), Bayern (20.8) and Union (17.2) each come before them. With 18 goals scored, for them it is therefore not so much about using chances as it is about creating more high-quality ones.
Yussuf Poulsen, as a center-forward, is someone who can run and play in spaces, but his runs in behind are of a different, lesser quality than Werner’s. Poulsen is a hard worker and with his skills he complemented Werner perfectly, but he cannot replace the recent Chelsea signing. In Leipzig’s internal goal scorer ranking, Angeliño, a left-back, currently sits in first place with 6 goals in 15 games in all competitions.
This could become a problem in the medium term, if the team cannot readjust. Although Leipzig are still one of the most dangerous teams going forward, if they are to win the championship, they will inevitably need to add more depth to their game, and be it only for the time when the number of goals scored will for once not match the expected goals.
On the other hand, there seems to be a proper balance to the team at the moment. At the back, Leipzig rarely seem overtaxed. With only six goals conceded, they currently feature the best defense of the league. And this can also be underlined by other statistics: 7.6 Expected Goals against is a top figure, even if Leverkusen (7.4), Union (7.5) and Dortmund (7.6) are on par or even a tad better. RB Leipzig also only concede an average of 8.2 shots per game.
Here too, the team shows great flexibility, not only by changing the basic formation very fluidly between different variations of a 4-4-2, but also by adjusting their intensity without losing control of what is happening.
Leipzig sometimes press high, but they can also sit back and defend from a slightly lower midfield block and make it difficult for the opponent to find open spaces. Against Bayern both of this will be of great importance.
Nevertheless, Nagelsmann should have noticed, especially during the first half of the last encounter, that his team did not look comfortable when they sat back and defended deeper because that often prevented them from getting tight to the opponent in midfield. When, however, they decided to push up by about ten yards in the second half, they managed to create several excellent opportunities to take the lead.
Bayern are currently the worst-balanced team among the top teams of the Bundesliga. Their 31 goals scored overshadow the fact that they have conceded far too much at the back. With an expected goal difference of +7.2 (20.3 xG to 13.6 xGA) they are behind Leipzig (+9.2), Union (+9.7) and Dortmund (+13.8). Nagelsmann knows this very well, and so he has announced a courageous performance by his team accordingly.
It can hardly be expected that Bayern will suddenly get their defensive problems under control just in time for the game against Leipzig. It will be all the important for Bayern, therefore, to bring their strengths to bear and cover up their deficits. During the week, Flick was able to rest the majority of his regular players with his side having already secured first place in their Champions League group, while Leipzig in Turkey had a lot at stake and will have the all important deciding match against Manchester United next week. Nagelsmann will want to make smart decisions with a view to that match. Captain Marcel Sabitzer, defensive stalwart Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and striker Alexander Sörloth are all not at full health and could be forced to sit the game out.
FC Bayern will have to capitalize on this by bringing their qualities in pressing to bear and pushing Leipzig to the limits of their physical abilities. That is why it will be crucial for Bayern to remain calm in possession, especially in midfield, and let Leipzig do the running.
Flick is once again faced with a dilemma: Marc Roca can bring the desired dominance and organisation to the defensive midfield when he has possession of the ball, but seems to embody exactly the opposite in his play against the ball.
Since Tolisso will be missing again, Flick will probably choose between Roca and Javi Martínez. Martínez and Goretzka appearing together would pose two problems for Bayern in possession of the ball: They are less able to beat the press and Goretzka’s necessarily lower positioning would deprive him of his penetrating power in the final third as well as in transition. Bayern’s game would probably be less fluid.
Roca, on the other hand, would be a defensive risk, but in return the Spaniard proved against Salzburg that he can play good and important diagonal forward balls into the half spaces even under pressure. He would be important to nip Leipzig’s periods of higher pressing in the bud and thus help push them further back. The longer Leipzig have to chase him, the better for the side from Munich.
The coming weeks may well prove decisive in the title race. Bayern will face Leipzig, Union Berlin, Wolfsburg, and Leverkusen – behind Dortmund these are the best opponents of the season so far statistically.
An organising hand in defensive midfield like Joshua Kimmich would now be almost indispensable. Flick has not yet found an optimal alternative in midfield since the injury to his midfield engine. But perhaps the match against Leipzig will bring a breakthrough in this respect just in time for the difficult weeks until Christmas.
By that time it might be possible to make a first reasonable prediction as to whether the Bundesliga will see a three-way contest, a duel, or another solo run in the battle for the top spot. An early indication will be given by the game this weekend.