Picking your poison against the top 3

short breakdowns of Bayern, Dortmund and Leipzig victories

Hello! This week is gonna be real busy in the Bundesliga, and therefore also for the newsletter as well. In today’s edition, I take a look at how and why the top 3 of Bayern, Dortmund and Leipzig were able to win relatively comfortably - with the deep dive on the best game of the weekend, Gladbach hosting Leverkusen coming later! My main argument is that essentially these teams, which are already better/deeper/tactically superior to the opposition are also benefiting from some of the idiosyncrasies of the so-called “ghost games”. The details - home field advantage disappearing (and probably hurting lesser sides relying more on emotional support, ball in play increasing thanks to quicker restarts and fewer time-wasting opportunities sans fans, pressing being slightly down - can be found in Tom Worville’s excellent piece in the Athletic. By looking at how the top 3 teams of the league played this weekend, we’ll see if some of those hypotheses hold up.

Let’s start in reverse chronological order on Sunday, where once again, Leipzig chugged a streak-busting drink of Mainz, with a 5-0 win. After the heavy-volume, but low quality generating draw against Freiburg, where they played a 343 in the first half, but had more success with the second half formation, Julian Nagelsmann again opted for a 4231. It can be also seen as an asymmetrical 4422 with Werner playing off the CF, this time Yussuf Poulsen in a free roaming role that’s been one of the keys to Leipzig’s success). More important that the formation was the positioning of the attackers and their occupation of respective spaces: The double-pivot of Sabitzer and Kampl would be able to receive from the CBs and dribble or pass behind Kunde+Fernandes. By attracting the two Mainz DMs, there was space behind the midfield for the two halfspace 10s in Christopher Nkunku and Dani Olmo. Those two would be matched up vs Niakhate or St.Juste, two mobile CBs. With the threat of Laimer\Halstenberg occupying the Mainz wingbacks and Bruma vs Poulsen, that still left Werner open. Essentially, it was a 4v3 in the shaded box area, right in front of goal, and Leipzig were free to manipulate this numerical advantage however they wanted.

In addition to this, With that front 4, there was a lot of qualitative superiority (Werner\Olmo\Nkunku) and dynamical as well, (probably for all 4 RBL attackers, though St. Juste and Niakhate could match up okay).

In short, this was an extremely aggressive starting XI, that sought to put a lot of pressure on Mainz’s 541. Ideally for Achim Beierlorzer, the chances for the counters would be via the circled Quaison\Boetius duo in the halfspaces, should Kampl and Sabitzer, as well as Leipzig’s counterpressing not win the ball back.

Yet, aside from the superior tactical setup, there were a few reasons Mainz’s game plan didn’t work, and quickly got blown out:

A big one was the upgrade by Nagelsmann on the wide players who started vs Freiburg (Tyler Adams and Angelino). Konrad Laimer, who finished that game as the RB was a force until his injury, while Marcel Halstenberg - no longer needed at LCB thanks to Upamecano’s return from suspension - always looks better out wide, because his inside combination passes come off better. For Nagelsmann one of his principles is that typically only one player can provide with on the outside and they need to provide the required athleticism, pressing, discipline, tactical intelligence, combination play and 1v1 dribbling\end product. Back in February, I did a piece for Statsbomb, which touched upon why Adams, whose best skill is his range and pressing, has some of these features, but doesn’t necessarily have enough end product, which is kind of the problem for Angelino. Although it’s a small sample size of 6 matches played, they both have 8 and 9 live ball passes to a shot respectively, which adjusting for minutes is similar to Andre Hahn, Raphael Framberger, Nico Schulz and Jean Zimmer (6 to 9 range total), essentially replacement level wide options. Let’s check out the first RBL goal to see how this worked:

It begins with a Halstenberg throw-in on the left, and the ball is circled back up to Klostermann, who plays the 2v1 vs Onisiwo well, giving Upamecano room to dribble. The return of the French CB meant another upgrade for RBL, since with his dribbling ability - which only he and Konate possess the requisite touch\technique to execute\ - Leipzig could get past the first line much easier than vs Freiburg.

Once Upamecano gets past the first line of Mainz’s defense - although Onisiwo recovers well - he draws the attention of Fernandes, allowing Werner to get free. Sabitzer’s pressed by Kunde and the pass to Laimer triggers pressure wide from Martin and Quaison.

With Poulsen ultimately “sealing off” (like an NBA center under the rim) Bruma and Olmo drawing Niakhate far out towards the touch line, Werner has a lot of space to attack and Fernandes has no chance of beating him to the spot.

The second goal, once again saw Nagelsmann’s team create numerical advantage on Mainz’s left side, this time a 6v4 after a quickly taken free kick:

Sabitzer is abandoned by Aaron and not picked up by Kunde, who is afraid to leave Werner, with Leipzig scoring from the cross. With Sabitzer expertly finishing off an attack that was almost set to make the end of the year bloopers, Leipzig put up a 1h total of 2.63 XG (and would total 5.2) vs Mainz’s zero…

The only thing that mattered in the second half was how many goals Timo Werner - 8 shots, 5 on target, 3 goals - would get. Of course when Kevin Kampl, a player whose absence is perhaps an underrated reason for what will probably be a title “lost” by Leipzig” finds his inner Xavi

or Poulsen is playing Werner in behind the defense

it was mostly the football gods and Florian Müller’s key saves that kept this from being the repeat of the 8-0 of the Hinrunde

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Wolfsburg’s slow death, Frankfurt’s quick one

Both Dortmund and Bayern seemed to have on eye on Tuesday’s Klassiker (expect a preview coming), with the two giants facing similar issues going into the weekend clashes vs Wolfsburg and Eintracht respectively:

  • missing their key CM in Thiago and Witsel, they both needed and got strong performances from marginal guys like Leon Goretzka (especially in a double pivot) and Mo Dahoud

  • one of their main CBs getting injured during the match with ex-teammates Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng both likely to make it back in time for Tuesday’s clash

  • a not fully fit dynamic\creative wide-forward (Sancho, Gnabry)

  • fullbacks\wingbacks picking up the scoring slack - Pavard last week, Davies this week, Raphael “top scorer” Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi .

  • their opponents were known for employing Red Bull-style pressing managers, with Glasner and Hütter, ranking 4th and 8th respectively. Furthermore, both had recently reverted to using back 4s and essentially playing ball-oriented zonal marking in 4-4-2 variations

Flick’s now customary 4231\433 hybrid (depending on Thomas Müller) faced the 4411 with Hütter instructing Mijat Gacinovic to follow Joshua Kimmich. With Danny da Costa against Davies and Kostic vs Pavard, there would in theory be a decent matchup out wide for Eintracht.

That plan only kind of worked for maybe ten minutes - though if André Silva had done something after his steal from Kimmich in the fourth minute - but then Kimmich’s press resistance, chipped balls and crosses, plus the passing of the free Bayern CBs (Silva was often 1v2) just picked Frankfurt apart. In addition, Eintracht didn’t do well marking on set pieces and it was mostly due to luck that they survived the first 15 minutes. The dummies and off ball runs of the front 3 and Müller disoriented SGE’s man-oriented approach and Goretzka made his classic into the box run to score the first. Goals 2 and 3 showed Eintracht’s troubles in transition: the times when they pressed (23.94 PPDA per Understat says there weren’t many of those) they just got blown apart in transition. Whether that was after Bayern regained possession thanks to superior counterpressing and athleticism (Davies), or just in transition via quick combos (Kimmich, Müller and Coman for the 3rd), Rode\Gelson and co looked overmatched. Davies would create the 4th, with some help from Gelson, while Gnabry orchestrated the fifth but the difference in energy levels, attention detail (da Costa and Toure both sprinting out and losing track of Gnabry). Then there was Hinti: the jovial Frankfurt CB found the near post hole in Bayern’s zonal corner defense once, then was sort of left alone for another, before his once a year bizarre own goal. Of course, with 8 goals on the campaign for the Austrian making him the highest scoring defender in the top 5 leagues it’s hard to blame him. Yet, it says a lot about Eintracht’s season - covered in depth here - that he is their top scorer\best finisher.

Facing the 3-4-3 juggernaut of BVB, Oliver Glasner had two choices: reverting to a 3-4-3 or keeping the 4-4-2\4-2-3-1 that has worked well since December. The downside of the 3-4-3 would have been, as Schalke proved, that you end up leaving your CBs 1v1 against Brandt\Hazard\Haaland a lot, and with all due respect to Brooks\Pongracic and Tisserand\Knoche that’s probably not what you wanna do. What I suspected Glasner would do is to play a 4-4-2 with extreme focus\pressure on the ball, giving up the switches to the wide wingbacks and then trying to recover.

In reality, we got their big CFs Weghorst and Ginczek playing off the BVB CBs and almost man-marking Delaney+Dahoud. Essentially that left Mats Hummels to play make to the wide attackers or send it deep, with some promising off-ball runs by Haaland.

It also made for a not superbly interesting match, with Dortmund being held to just 6 shots (the fewest since the 2 spot in the Klassiker), but dominating much of the first half. Their first goal came by using Brandt in an overload on the right wing, pulling Brooks out, with Guerreiro free to clean up Haaland’s whiffed shot. The first 20 minutes of the second half saw a much more aggressive Wolfsburg, changing to a 4-2-3-1 with Brekalo replacing Ginczek, and getting two nice chances for Renato Steffen. Had he made his 47th minute 1v1 or his Arnoldesque volley, the hosts might have gotten something from this game. Instead, Dortmund ran a textbook counter and made it 6 goals from 6 shots on target in two games via Hakimi. Whether the subdued 2nd half performance was energy-saving by Favre or just Wolfsburg having a good 20 minutes was unclear, but it should set up a great showdown vs Bayern at the Westfalenstadion.

We’ll be back before that, though and thanks for reading.

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