⚽ Gladbach's back three broke through RB Leipzig's forward press
⚽ Plea red card turns match on its head
⚽ Gladbach unable to adjust with man less
In football, as in so many other things, context is everything.
It is easy for us as fans of the game or even as writers to assess and pick apart a full match based purely on the statistical output of a game. Team A may have had 14 shots at goal but they only had 37% of the possession. Team B, on the other hand, had 6 shots at goal and 63% of the possession, but the game ended 1-1.
From those isolated statistics alone it is entirely possible to construct two opposing narratives around the match. Either team A were more efficient with the ball and should have won the match or team B dominated and were unlucky not to get the goals that they deserved. This is why we have to add context by assessing the statistical picture as a whole - as well as consulting the video of course.
This past weekend saw RB Leipzig host Borussia Monchengladbach in a Bundesliga match that perfectly illustrated that need for context.
In Julian Naglesmann, at RB Leipzig, and Marco Rose, at Gladbach, this match saw the meeting of two of the most tactically dynamic and flexible coaches in top-level football at the moment. Both men have the capacity to adopt various systems during the course of a match, with changes made to react to what the opposition are doing on the pitch.
While the actual systems themselves are not necessarily important (they are, after all, just numbers) the intent behind them is the key to what makes both of these coaches so effective. Tactical systems simply allow a coach to ensure that certain key areas of the pitch are occupied and that these tie in with the tactical concepts of the coach.
A team who look to play through the centre will, for example, look to have a player occupy the ‘10’ space as often as possible.
This can be achieved by playing with a designated 10 or by using wide players to come inside or central midfielders to push higher but the key is the concept not the actual system itself. We saw this clearly in this match where Marco Rose clearly had the edge over Nagelsmann with the execution of his game plan. The game then shifted very clearly on the back of a sending off that completely altered the game state.
So far this season under Rose we have seen Gladbach use systems with four at the back 57% of the time. These systems have varied between a 4-2-3-1 where Rose wanted to attack the wide areas and a 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond) system where the breakthrough would be found by overloading the central areas and attacking that way. RB Leipzig have been less consistent in their choice of systems but one key factor that tends to stay constant is that they like to play with two centre forwards and they like to press aggressively out of possession.
By pressing in this manner with two central defenders it makes it very difficult for the opposition to build out from the back. The strikers can either press the central defenders directly or cut passing lanes into the fullbacks or to the central midfielders. This can lead to teams having to play more directly as they attack whether that was the initial intention or not.
In order to combat this press, we saw Gladbach lineup with a back three as the Swiss international midfielder Denis Zakaria, who has been strongly linked to Premier League clubs, dropped back to occupy a space in the defensive line.
This switch proved to be the key factor in the away side controlling the majority of the first half of the match.
In playing Zakaria as part of a back three all that has really changed is his positional slot in the build-up phase and that in turn alters the positional slot of the other two central defenders.
In a back three, Zakaria is positioned deeper and this allows the other two central defenders to move wider. Now, with RB Leipzig looking to press with their two forwards Gladbach were able to create a 3v2 advantage in that area.
Pressing systems can be unnecessarily complicated but in fact when you break them down they all become relatively simple. By having a spare man in that 3v2 Gladbach essentially gave themselves the ability to safely progress the ball from the back on every single possession.
If Gladbach were comfortably able to bypass the first line of Leipzig's press every time then this becomes ineffective. This led to the home side having to push a wide midfielder up to join the press. This is a logical move, right? Well unfortunately this created a situation higher up the field with their wing-backs, where Gladbach were able to find a free player time and time again.
This system from Gladbach allowed them to dominate the majority of the first half of the match with RB Leipzig struggling to find ways to press effectively and prevent the away side from threatening their goal.
ONE MOMENT CHANGES EVERYTHING
The pattern of the match continued until the game state completely changed in the 61st minute when Gladbach’s French forward Alassane Plea was given a red card for two bouts of dissent towards the match officials.
From this point on the context of the match completely changed. Gladbach were no longer able to beat the RB Leipzig press and the home side began to control the pattern of the game.
In fact, the degree to which the game state shifted at this point is quite staggering. Prior to the sending off Gladbach had registered seven shots with an xG of 1.22. The had also, of course, scored twice. So, how many shots did they manage after the shift in game state following the sending off? Well, none. Now, let’s view RB Leipzig though the same filter. Before the sending off they had amassed six shots with an xG of exactly 1.0 and they had scored once.
After the sending off RB Leipzig had another thirteen shots at goal although these were only worth an xG of 0.8, and of course the equalising goal came from this period.
What does that quick examination of shot data tell us? Firstly that Gladbach were very efficient in terms of the quality of shots that they were creating but secondly that the inability to deal with going down to 10 men and adapt to still control possession saw them allow RB Leipzig to not only force them back but completely break apart their defensive organisation.
So often when a team goes down to 10 men, the opposition still struggle to find a way to break them down, but this was not the case here and this is largely due to the fact that Nagelsmann was able to find ways to take advantage of the weak spots that appeared in the Gladbach defensive structure.
BEST RESULT FOR...BAYERN
Although we speak a lot about the importance of game state it is rare that one match gives us such an obvious example of its importance. One key event in the match, the sending off, altered the available space on the pitch completely.
In the end, a 2-2 draw in this match only benefitted one team, Bayern Munich.
Both of these sides will still harbour some hopes that they can challenge for, and indeed win, the Bundesliga but three points for either side in this game would have gone a long way to convincing others that this would be the case.
Now, the Bundesliga moves on to the final months of the season and one narrative worth following will be whether Gladbach, with their three-at-the-back system, have provided a blueprint for others to show how to play against this RB Leipzig side.