In my opinion the end of the first international break of the season signifies the true start of domestic football, with the early fixtures over and players bodies becoming conditioned to regular action again we see a more accurate reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of clubs.
With that in mind the match been Hamburg and RB Leipzig on Friday evening signalled the resumption of this Bundesliga campaign. In the first two matchdays of the season Hamburg had surprised almost everyone coming away with two wins out of two following victories at home to FC Augsburg and away at FC Koln. Whilst the size and support of the club suggests that Hamburg should be capable of competing at the top of the Bundesliga there are few German sides that are as dysfunctional with many people tipping Hamburg to struggle in the bottom half of the league again this season.
RB Leipzig on the other hand came in to this match having survived the transfer window with their key players intact, despite agreeing to sell midfield dynamo Naby Keita to Liverpool that transfer will not go through until the end of the season, they also managed to hold on to German international striker Timo Wener, both players would be key figures in this match.
Hamburg began the game with a 4-2-3-1 system. Striker Bobby Wood has impressed so far this season and he would be supported by Lewis Holtby, Filip Kostic and Andre Hahn, a combination that offers pace and creativity in the final third. In midfield they favour a double pivot with Wallace and Albin Ekdal favoured for this match. In defence Dennis Diekmeir and young Dutchman Rick Van Drongelen are functional if not exceptional fullbacks whilst Gideon Jung and Kyriakos Papadopolous form an effective central defensive unit.
RB Leipzig on the other hand have continued with the balanced 4-4-2 system that served them so well last season. With Peter Gulasci in goal they started a back four of Bernardo and right back and Marcel Halstenberg at left back with Dayot Upamecano and Willi Orban in the centre. In midfield Naby Keita and Diego Demme are both full of industry and running, this prevents teams playing with three in the centre of midfield from over running RB Leipzig centrally. Marcel Sabitzer and Bruma played wide with Timo Werner and new signing from Paris St-Germain Jean-Kevin Augustin in attack.
Shape and Balance from RB Leipzig
Last season RB Leipzig took a lot of teams bu surprise with their high tempo 4-4-2 system playing a style of football that drew many admirers from across football, in this match however despite the system being the same the tempo and style of play coming from Leipzig was far more balanced and nuanced.
They still pressed the ball when necessary but in truth Hamburg were all but restricted to playing direct balls in to the Leipzig half as the away side controlled the tempo of the game expertly. Against a side that sat in a low block with a back four and to shielding midfielders Leipzig were superb in controlling the match in the Hamburg half with a truly balanced approach to the match.
This passmap supplied by @11tegen11 using Opta data illustrates superbly how balanced the tactical system was in this match from Leipzig. With Naby Keita and Diego Demme providing an excellent midfield platform there was no sense of Leipzig favouring one side to the other in their attacking build up. Instead they probed across the Hamburg defensive structure looking for a route through to goal.
Here you can see the balance within the RBL system as well as the shape of Hamburg in the defensive phase, with Dayot Upamecano in possession of the ball the two wide midfielders for Leipzig have narrowed the field by moving inside in to the half spaces. This has the effect of narrowing the defensive line for Hamburg and opening up spaces in the wide areas for the fullbacks to advance in to.
With Keita and Demme providing the base for the attack in midfield you will also notice that Werner and Augustin are looking to position themselves in small pockets of space between the central defenders and fullbacks of Hamburg. With both strikers possessing pace and clever movement the threat in behind the Hamburg defensive line was a constant throughout the match.
In this image as Halstenberg picks the ball up on the left hand side we can see the issues that sides will face against Leipzig this season. Bruma is offering an option to pass out in to the wide area having moved back in to a supporting position.
It is this movement from the wide player however that begins to cause the problems for the Hamburg defence. The right back moves out to cover the potential pass to Bruma and in doing so stretches the connection between himself and the right sided central defender, this in turn extends the space that Timo Werner has to attack in behind the Hamburg defence.
You will see that the front two for Leipzig are closely connected however, this is one of the keys for an effective front two partnerships. The positioning of the front two has effectively isolated the right sided central defender for Hamburg, If Werner moves to attack the space then the defender will have to cover his run, this in turn however creates space for Augustin to attack behind the defensive line. Essentially if Leipzig continue to build the attack in this manner then the defensive player is in a no win situation.
RB Leipzig use the half spaces
The use of half spaces by the wide midfielders from Leipzig was one of the key features of this game as they looked to create overloads and opportunities to isolate defensive players. Bruma and Marcel Sabitzer have different profiles as wide players with the former relying more on pace and explosive dribbling whilst the latter is an intelligent passer of the ball. These slight variations in player ID created an extra dimension for Leipzig in the attacking phase.
Here you can see an example of Leipzig attacking in transition with their flexibility in positional slots. Sabitzer and Bruma are both occupying the half spaces whilst Timo Werner has drifted out in to the right hand side. With Hamburg playing a deep double pivot in the centre of midfield you can see that Sabitzer has dropped in to space behind the block.
As the takes possession of the ball he is able to turn and play the pass through the lane inside the fullback for Werner to move on and attack.
Here you can see a top down interpretation of the previous image.
As Sabitzer receives the ball his positioning in space is key. The Hamburg left back is momentarily frozen unsure whether to engage the ball or to hold his position. This hesitation is costly as Sabitzer is able to feed the ball through to Werner. The second option is for Sabitzer to quickly switch the ball out to the left hand side where Halsetenberg has the opportunity to isolate the Hamburg right back in space.
This balance from Leipzig provides balance in the attacking phase.
Here again you can see the issues that Hamburg had with the movement of Leipzig players in to the half-spaces. Both Bruma and Sabitzer have again moved infield. This time however the Hamburg left back has moved in to cover Sabitzer, this movement creates an immediate structural imbalance for Hamburg.
The space is created down the right hand side for Leipzig with the pass open to the right back to advance in to and Timo Werner taking up an intelligent position just behind Jean-Kevin Augustin as he looks to attack any vertical pass in to the space.
RB Leipzig find spaces and break lines
With the movement of the Leipzig attacking players pulling Hamburg players out of position time and time again it was only a matter of time before the away side started to find routes to play through the home teams defensive structure. We saw this with the ability of Leipzig players to play vertical passes through the lines of pressure from Hamburg.
With Willi Orban in possession and under little significant pressure we see Leipzig able to control the match from the halfway line.
The midfield line of the Hamburg defensive structure is relatively spread out making it easy for the vertical pass to be played past and in to space. As Marcel Sabitzer makes a move towards the ball he leaves the wide area and moves in to the half space. The pass from Orban is excellent and Sabitzer is able to receive the ball whilst still moving in to the space.
With the fullback attracted out to engage Sabitzer the Austrian midfielder is then easily able to direct the ball out for Bernardo to move on to in space.
Here we have an example of broken play when Leipzig look to transition effectively in to their attacking phase. The ball is on the left with Marcel Halstenberg and neither side has taken up an effective structure. You can see on the far side of the image that Timo Werner has made a move off of the front line towards the ball.
The driven vertical pass from Werner effectively takes six Hamburg players out of the game and provides Leipzig with an excellent platform from which to build their attack.
In the end a 2-0 victory for Leipzig in this match was more than deserved, they controlled the entire match and limited their opponents to direct counter attacks in order to threaten the away sides goal. The goals for Leipzig were symbolic of the successful transfer window at the club as Naby Keita struck a superb goal from distance and Timo Werner ran in to space from halfway before beating two defenders and finishing confidently.
As you an see from the expected goals plot, once again supplied by @11tegen11 Leipzig were the dominant side in the match. Whilst Keita’s strike from distance would carry a low xG value given the distance and presence of opponents they still comfortably outperformed Hamburg in terms of quality chances.
This match displayed a maturity from Leipzig that could well signify that they are ready to become a top side in German football, and that should leave their competitors feeling extremely uneasy.