This Champions League is back as the the first knockout round starts.
One of the most intriguing fixtures sees Tottenham welcome RB Leipzig to London in a match that pits Jose Mourinho against one of the most progressive and forward-thinking coaches in elite football, Julian Nagelsmann.
This match gives us an interesting contrast in styles with Mourinho now favouring a safety-first approach while Nagelsmann is very much an attack-minded coach.
But what can Spurs expect to see tactically from the German side. This in itself is a challenge given the capacity of the Bundesliga team to change tactical structure several times over the course of a single game.
First of all, we should look at the statistical profile of RB Leipzig so far this season.
Looking at the output of a team over the course of the season so far can be helpful in informing our expectations when we take a deeper look at the tactical profile of the team.
At the time of writing, albeit with Bayern Munich still to play, RB Leipzig sit on top of the Bundesliga having won their most recent match 3-0 at home to Werder Bremen.
In terms of their attacking output they have scored 56 goals this season so far, the third-highest behind only Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Their xG over the season, however, is sitting at 48.95 which is the highest in the Bundesliga.
Defensively RB Leipzig have conceded 25 goals which is again the third-best in the Bundesliga behind only Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach. Their xGA is 25.45 which is again third-best in the league behind just Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
They are averaging 14.45 shots per game while conceding just 8.87 per 90 minutes. In other words, the German side are a dangerous attacking side who are also strong at the back.
In part, RB Leipzig are exceptionally dangerous opponents because they are so difficult to predict from a tactical point of view.
As we have already discussed above Nagelsmann has shown a willingness to change tactical systems in the middle of a match, sometimes several times a match, this is not all, however, we also cannot be certain whether they will line up with a back four or a back three, a point which can be crucial when creating game plans and creating pressing strategies.
So far this season, across all competitions, we have seen the German side start the match with a back four 52% of the time and with a back three 34% of the time out of all of the formations listed by wyscout.
While the actual formation or structure for RB Leipzig may change from game to game or even from phase to phase the concepts behind their attacking play remain consistent.
The keyword to describe their style under Nagelsmann would be vertical. They attack through a series of quick vertical passes that look to play through the lines of the opposition defensive block.
The idea is relatively simple, they are looking to prevent the opposition from forming a compact defensive block by paying quickly. This allows the German side to force the opposition to constantly readjust their defensive positioning and this, in turn, creates spaces that can be exploited as they progress the ball forward.
Whether the defensive line is made up of three or four players the aim is the same, for the central defenders to start the attacking play by playing sharp progressive forwards into the feet of teammates.
The key difference between the back four and the back three is the positional slots that the defenders will be playing these passes from.
We see an example of this here with RB Leipzig lining up in a 4-4-2 that becomes a 4-2-4 with the high positioning of the two wide attackers.
The first pass is direct into the feet of the striker, the ball is then set back quickly to the feet of the other striker who moves close to support.
The final pass is then made vertically beyond the defensive line to allow the player on the far side to move beyond the defensive line to attack the penalty area.
The key to the effectiveness of these attacking movements is relatively simple, speed. The opposition may know what is going to happen but they are still exceptionally difficult to stop because of the speed of pass and excellent positional awareness that they display.
Here, we see another example of the vertical style of play that we see from RB Leipzig in possession of the ball.
This time the lines are more compact but the accuracy and the speed of the passing and movement means that they are able to bypass the defensive structure completely.
The first pass is into the feet of the attacking player who is moving back towards the ball. As soon as that first pass is played the midfielder for the German side makes a movement forward to get out of the cover shadow of his marker. This movement creates the space for the ball to be set back and the midfielder can then play the final vertical pass, beyond the defensive line, for the striker to run on to behind the defensive line.
Spurs have struggled to find the right combination of players or roles in the midfield. This will be a key area that Mourinho will have to get right coming into this match given the ability that RB Leipzig have to attack through these areas with ruthless efficiency.
As part of the Red Bull footballing brand, the clubs in their system are expected to play with intensity in the attacking and defensive phases. We have already seen that they do this in possession with their vertical style of passing but they also play in this intense manner out of possession, especially when they press. This season, however, we have seen them add another layer of depth to their play out of possession with Nagelsmann coaching the side to play with a sense of genuine depth in the defensive phase as they move as a unit to deny the opposition the ability to easily play through their defensive block.
We see this depth in the example above with the front six for RB Leipzig, the two strikers, the two wide midfielders and the two central midfielders all positioned in a central block.
What is key here is these six players have the capacity to shift quickly from side to side without losing the integrity of their shape.
As the opposition looks to progress the ball in these areas they will find this block ready to swarm and attack the ball as one should the ball cross the line of engagement that has been set out by Nagelsmann and his coaching staff.
This type of structure tends to see the opposition looking to play quick passes over the top to bypass the potential press. Here, however, the opposition are playing into another of the strengths of RB Leipzig with the defensive players of the German side all being dominant in the air or on the ground when engaged in defensive duels.
When the transition is slightly more stretched we do see the German side press aggressively to engage the ball carrier and cover any potential passing lanes that would allow the ball to beat the press.
We see this here with two RB Leipzig players moving to engage the ball. One from the side and one from deeper and in front of the ball.
As these two players press there are three other players who move to cover opposition players to prevent the easy pass.
The key, however, is in leaving at least one deeper player in a roaming role who is capable of reacting quickly to start another pressing movement should the opposition escape from this particular pressing trap.
Last season saw Spurs progress all of the way to the Champions League final where they eventually lost to Liverpool.
If they are to repeat the trick this time around then Mourinho will have to find a way to beat not only the aggressive press of RB Leipzig but the dominant 1vs1 defensive players that they have on their defensive line.
The midfield battle will be important with the German side looking to move the ball quickly through the central areas with runners looking to play between the lines of the Spurs midfield and defence.
Do Spurs have midfielders with the positional awareness and physical capacity to counter the threat of their opponents in this position? Only time will tell.
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