Bundesliga MD 27 Preview: Leipzig vs. Bayern
Leipzig, too, are not without their squad problems. Péter Gulácsi and Willi Orban had to withdraw early from their national teams in mid-week, Angeliño is also unlikely to be ready for the game with a hamstring injury, while Kevin Kampl has to sit out a fifth yellow card suspension and Marcel Halstenberg is in self-isolation after catching coronavirus. On the plus side are Konrad Laimer’s return to training and Dayot Upamecano’s likely return in time from his muscle injury.
But Bayern boast their fair share of problems, too. Robert Lewandowski has injured his knee. The diagnosis is a sprained ligament. Which ligament it is, however, has not been disclosed. In addition, Jérôme Boateng (yellow suspension) and Alphonso Davies (red suspension, 2 games) are unavailable. This means that three regular players join a list that already contains Douglas Costa (in running training after hairline fracture in his metatarsus) and Corentin Tolisso (torn tendon).
Eye level, then? On paper, it might seem so. Both teams are missing important players, both are not entirely satisfied with how the international break went. But in terms of workload, it is like so often before this season: the Bayern players had to play longer and more often for their national teams. Among the starting players and the most likely substitutes from the bench for the upcoming match, both teams have to do without ten players. However, Leipzig’s combined total is only 1503 minutes of action during the international break (150.3 per player), while Bayern’s total is 1966 (196.6 per player).
Joachim Löw in particular had a major hand in this statistic. Joshua Kimmich (270 minutes), Leon Goretzka (251 minutes), Serge Gnabry (266 minutes) and Leroy Sané (258 minutes) did not get a real break. For Leipzig, only Alexander Sörloth had to go the full distance three times (270 minutes) – but has not nearly been used as much in his club team so far this season. Even among the Austrians there was a small advantage for Leipzig: Marcel Sabitzer played only two games (180 minutes), while David Alaba had to play in all three (244 minutes). Leipzig should therefore be considerably fresher at the weekend.
But that is not because Leipzig would be favored by anyone on purpose. RB simply have a different squad composition which relies more on young players who are rarely seasoned players in their national teams. The fact that there is any discussion at all before the match about the Leipzig team possibly being fresher is also due to the club’s strategy with which they build their squad. While RB have worked continuously for years to have a balanced and deep squad in all positions, Bayern have had strong fluctuations in their planning. They deliberately went from a deeper squad to a lighter one, and from there back to a deeper one, not least due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This inevitably leads to some squad positions not being ideally filled. Bayern, there is no question about it, are clearly better equipped at the top than Leipzig. But whereas Leipzig can make up sudden absences almost like-for-like in quality due to their more sustainable planning over the last 4-5 years, a drop in performance is immediately noticeable when Bayern have to compensate for sudden unavailabilities.
At the weekend, this can turn out to be decisive in the contest. No dip in performance is to be expected in the Leipzig team. Even if three important players – Kampl, Angeliño and Halstenberg – are absent and Upamecano may yet become a fourth, they are strong enough to be able to compensate for this as a team. Bayern, on the other hand, always became notably more vulnerable in defense this season as soon as they had to make changes in the back four. This is not even because the individual quality is not enough, but mainly because many second choice players are still not properly integrated due to the tight schedule and the lack of summer preparation. This is true even for players who have been around for a while – Lucas Hernández, for example.
Bayern have been able to gloss over their defensive frailties in recent weeks and months primarily through concentrated attacking power. Not only Lewandowski, who still has a chance of breaking Gerd Müller’s record, but also Thomas Müller, Gnabry, Coman and Sané have played a big part in this. The striker’s absence nevertheless means that Flick is forced to make some changes. Lewandowski is so much more than just his goals. His presence, his work in midfield participating in the team’s build-up play, his hold-up play with his back to goal – Bayern could miss all that much more than the sheer number of his goals.
And this is probably where something comes into focus hat is rarely discussed in a comparison of the two squads: Leipzig lack such an exceptional player in attack. It is certainly a great advantage if every loss can be compensated for fairly easily because there are sufficient alternatives in the squad. But a striker who reliably performs at a very high level and scores a lot of goals is something Leipzig do not have (any more). This has already cost them one or two points during the season. Leipzig scored 48 goals from 48.6 expected goals, while Bayern scored 78 goals from 57.9 xG.
Perhaps it is this advantage that will have been the difference in the end when the championship trophy goes to Munich again. But that is still a long way off. Leipzig still have their chances, especially in the two team’s direct duels. In the reverse fixture, they already showed that they can keep up with FC Bayern. Under Julian Nagelsmann, RB have not yet lost a game against the record champions – but they have not yet won one either.
We can expect a Leipzig team that will put a lot of pressure on Bayern. It is not yet clear whether Nagelsmann will opt for a back four, as he did in the reverse fixture, or a back three or five, as he has done eight times already in previous encounters with Bayern. It is quite conceivable that he prefers to start the game with the strong defensive protection at the back delivered by a back three. A three-man backline could also be an advantage against Bayern’s excellent pressing players. Three players tend to draw more opposing players out of position, thus opening up spaces in midfield.
Especially in defense and in defensive midfield Leipzig like to operate with more or at least equal numbers. A recurring principle in Nagelsmann’s philosophy could fit in well with two weaknesses that Bayern have revealed time and again lately. In midfield, Nagelsmann is not only intent on creating numerical superiority or at least parity, but above all with ensuring that the passing routes between his players are as short as possible and as long as necessary. To put it simply: He tries to hit the sweet spot where the players are close enough to each other to enable a cultivated short passing game, but far enough apart from each other for them not to disturb each other’s spaces and thus enable the opponent to close them down easily.
In the 3-1-4-2 (with the ball) often preferred by Nagelsmann, there is therefore a number six, two eights and two offensive players arranged in a kind of pentagon. The two attackers provide depth and, together with the two very high wing-backs, are supposed to pin back the opposing defenders. Often enough, however, one of the two attackers drops off to reinforce the midfield, in which case the shape in the center changes to a 3-2-2-1 plus two wing-backs. Together with the three-man back line, the attackers are supposed to stretch the opponent vertically. At the same time, the three midfielders ensure through clever positioning that the opponent expects the build-up to go through on one of them and sets itself up accordingly. This ideally results in a slight contraction – i.e. a tighter horizontal compactness – that leaves the wings somewhat exposed. Either Leipzig then play a short pass to one of the midfielders, who with their high technical abilities are often able to resolve these tight situations in a productive manner, or they straight away switch play to the wingers, who thus have a little more space.
Against Bayern, Nagelsmann’s ideas can be particularly effective because the Bayern team tends to defend very compactly. In the past encounters with RB, there were always situations in which Leipzig at first played through the center of the pitch and then played out to a wide player. This is likely to be Nagelsmann preferred approach again on Saturday evening. But it will not be the only string to his bow. Leipzig are also strong at approaching the opponent’s penalty area with combinational play based on short passes without long switches. Bayern, for example, must be prepared for many positional changes, deep runs by the attackers, and overloads created in the half spaces. The Nagelsmann eleven not only operates with high precision, but also with a lot of speed. When it comes to pressing, however, Nagelsmann has often made mistakes in big games. In the semi-final against PSG last season, his team looked far too passive, and there were also phases against Bayern in the reverse fixture this season when the angles in closing down the opponent were not good.
But the 33-year-old is an extremely quick study and will meanwhile have improved his team’s playing style to better counter the typical Flick football, whose strength lies in the execution of procedures and less in flexibly adapting to the respective opponent. It is conceivable that Nagelsmann will set up his team in a higher midfield press in trying to pursue two basic goals: First, he will try to force Bayern to shift the play out wide early during build up and then push out aggressively. In doing so, Nagelsmann will have to make sure that his players are quick to close down the Bayern player in possession and that the open spaces in the backs of the attacking players are protected, especially in the center. Second, Leipzig will try to take Kimmich (and Goretzka) out of the game. They will most likely do so less with man marking, but much more with blocking the passing options into Bayern’s defensive midfield.
Weaknesses? Leipzig have only a few. The forced change in the center-forward position after Werner’s departure is certainly one. With a striker like Erling Haaland, Leipzig might already be in first place in the Bundesliga. Otherwise, it was evident in the reverse fixture against Bayern as well as in the Champions League round of 16 games against Liverpool FC that Leipzig still lack a shade of quality to be able to consistently compete at the highest level. In big games, they have often lacked stamina, experience and toughness. That may sound like a bunch of platitudes, but it is one reason why Leipzig have not yet managed to win in the Champions League against Paris and Liverpool and in the encounters with Bayern. The second one is the difference in quality of the top players in the two squads.
This is the big advantage of FC Bayern. Even when they are not at their best, they win their games with almost impressive consistency. They are not always as consistent and impressive this season as in many previous years, but it has been enough so far for them to assert their leading position in the league. Perhaps that is why this weekend’s match is not as decisive for the title fight as it might seem at first sight.
And yet for Bayern the title will be more than in touching distance if they win. It may sound paradoxical at first, but perhaps Lewandowski’s absence is actually a blessing in disguise. Hansi Flick is not known for making a lot of changes or tweaking tactics before big games. Tactical adjustments often come as a reaction to something – like the rotation in the Champions League group stage against Atlético Madrid or most recently against Stuttgart.
As a reaction to Lewandowski’s absence, Flick now has a few options to consider, which, depending on how they are implemented, would mean minor to major changes to the system. The least amount of change would take place if Flick were to call up Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting as a like-for-like substitute for Lewandowski. The German-Cameroonian is a different type of player than Lewandowski, but almost everything would remain the same with him in the nine position.
The more likely choice, however, is Serge Gnabry at center-forward, where he has played in the national team recently, too. With him, the dynamics of the game would change a bit. If Flick remains true to his high pressing and possession football, Bayern would have to adjust a bit, especially in terms of creating chances. Gnabry needs spaces behind the opponent’s back line into which he can run. He is also good at making himself available between the lines and in participating in quick combinational play there, but he is physically not a player who can open up spaces with his back to goal – especially against physically strong and agile defenders like Upamecano or Konaté.
Bayern would need even more positional changes and, above all, conjure up frequent counter-attacking situations. The center-forward area would then have to be occupied very flexibly – presumably by deep runs from Goretzka and Müller or by sprints behind the back line from Gnabry. In order to open up spaces there, Flick could draw on the lessons learned from the sub-par performance against Stuttgart. Bayern should not let Leipzig advance as high up the pitch as they did Stuttgart before they intervene, but sitting 10-15 metres deeper could allow them to better counter Leipzig’s aforementioned strengths.
In particular, this could be implemented by Flick (slightly) changing two things that are actually fundamental to his system: Firstly, the role of the full-backs, and secondly, the unrelenting pressure on the opponent’s build-up play. With the full-backs, it has recently been the case that the player near the ball has pushed up high to put pressure on the opponent, while the defender on the far side of the ball has stayed back to provide defensive protection. Without Davies, Flick will (have to) rely on Hernández at left-back, who going forward is no match for the Canadian. So this could be a good opportunity to try out how much penetrating power his team actually loses when both full-backs play more defensively. However, if Leipzig build up over the wing, Bayern could continue to press hard and aggressively with their wingers.
This is also possible without the winger always closing down the opponent’s defender in possession. In this case, he would block the opponent’s passing lanes instead of charging straight at him. In any case, however, it is important that Bayern control their pick up game. Leipzig’s movements are very dynamic and if Bayern lose sight of their opponents just for a split second, it can already be too late. But if Bayern sit a little deeper and only push out when the situation allows them to, it could become much more difficult for Leipzig to break them down and score goals. In the reverse fixture, they did not do this conscientiously enough and all three goals Bayern conceded were conceded too easy as a result.
Even though Flick tends to be conservative and is rarely swayed from his basic approach to football, it is not completely inconceivable that he will make at least some small adjustments. His Bayern team has sat a little deeper on more than one occasion this season already. The fact that many did not notice this is also due to the fact that 10-15 metres deeper for Bayern is still damn high.
In any case, the situation is clear: if Bayern win, they should be champions. If the game ends in a draw, they are still the clear favourites. For Leipzig, on the other hand, a win is imperative if they are to still have a realistic chance of winning the title. With only a one-point lead, the pressure on Bayern would be enormous. Given the pressure, Leipzig might even have a slight advantage. Not only do they go into the top game fresher, but they also have fewer ‘English weeks’ in the coming weeks than Bayern. They, in turn, have to solve complicated tasks like Union Berlin and Wolfsburg around the Champions League games against PSG. A slip-up in one of these games is not completely inconceivable. Especially since Flick will have to rotate at some point. His former boss Joachim Löw did him no favours. The Bayern coach would have to take the blame.
But Leipzig are also under pressure. At Leipzig they like to play down their own quality – stories about the promotion fairy tale and how much they have already achieved are put forward to keep the bar as low as possible. It is the classic diversionary tactic. Whether these stories are taken seriously within the club itself is highly doubtful. But even there they know that this season presents them with an opportunity that may not return too soon. In the summer, there is the threat of an a considerable upheaval in the squad. Upamecano’s move to Bayern is certain, Konaté is also on the verge of a transfer, and some other players may be in for a similar fate. Julian Nagelsmann is also very much in demand and could possibly seek a new challenge in the coming years.
Leipzig are prepared, that much is certain. The transfer of Dominik Szoboszlai from Salzburg is an indicator of how well they are positioned strategically – even if they themselves are not too intent on stressing the benefits they enjoy from belonging to the club network that has been assembled under the Red Bull umbrella. Nevertheless, if worst comes to the worst, events in the summer could set them back quite dramatically for the time being. And so a missed victory on Saturday would not be just an expected defeat by a supposedly much smaller club on the way to the top against the reigning champions, but one that one would be very angry about, because even with RB’s resources it is not so easy to develop from a development club for promising European talents to a destination club where stars move and remain. The possibility of making a meaningful dent in the reign of FC Bayern for the first time this season is too great. Too small is the probability that such an opportunity will become the rule in the next two to three years.