Die Roten Bulen struggled to create genuine goalscoring opportunities against Les Phocéens who were unlucky not to get a draw at the least.
RB Leipzig entertained Olympique de Marseille at the Red Bull Arena for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal and the match was very interesting from a tactical point of view. First, we go to each side’s lineups.
Die Bulen lined up in their usual 4-4-2 formation with a few key changes in personnel. With Leipzig skipper Willy Orban suspended, Die Bulen boss Ralph Hasenhuttl fielded the young centreback pairing of Davide Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate. In midfield, Diego Demme started ahead of Kevin Kampl while Emil Forsberg started at the right wing to accommodate Bruma at wide left. Upfront, Timo Werner led the line along with Jean-Kevin Augustin who started ahead of Yussuf Poulsen.
Meanwhile, the Marseille squad had serious injury problems coming into the match. Star winger Florian Thauvin didn’t recover in time from his ankle problem while goalkeeper Steve Mandanda looks set to miss the rest of the season with a thigh injury.
However, the biggest concern for Rudi Garcia lied in the loss of first-choice centreback pairing Adil Rami and Rolando. This forced Garcia to field a makeshift defence in a 3-4-2-1 shape. Luiz Gustavo dropped back to defence alongside Boubacar Kamara while fullback Hiroki Sakai tucked inside as the right centreback.
Well done 👏
— Olympique Marseille (@OM_English) April 6, 2018
The attack consisted of Dimitri Payet and Lucas Ocampos in roaming roles behind Greek forward Konstantinos Mitroglou who started to match the imposing physique of Leipzig’s central defenders.
Marseille thwart usual RB Leipzig progression
RB Leipzig regularly try to open up spaces in the final third through manipulating their opponents’ defensive lines. Their most usual build-up progression sees them switch play from one side to another to avoid the opponent press. As their centreback passes the ball to the nearside fullback, this naturally draws the press from the opposing fullback as the opposing nearside midfielder is tucked in and out of position due to pressing responsibilities. This usually leaves space in behind the opposing fullback, which Leipzig exploit via one of their midfielders making the run in that area.
If Marseille played with their usual backfour in this match, then their wide spaces would have been vulnerable, especially when Augustin and Werner stayed alongside Marseille’s centrebacks. Instead, Sakai provided immediate cover as part of a surprise backthree.
As with any other system, the 3-4-2-1 shape Les Phocéens utilised had pros and cons. One advantage was Marseille having sufficient cover at the backline. To add to that, they performed their functions within the structure beautifully in the middle and low blocks. Their man-marking looked impressive. The two central midfielders Andre-Frank Zambo-Anguissa and Morgan Sanson stayed positionally disciplined and knew when to press or stay in position.
This way, Marseille largely prevented the ball from reaching Forsberg who predominantly tucked inside and played between the lines. With the passing lane to their main creative force cut off, RB Leipzig struggled to fashion good chances up front. Die Bulen produced ten shots on goal in total while Marseille had sixteen despite making fewer passes overall. Hence, Leipzig probed with little success in the final third for long periods throughout.
Die Roten Bulen dominate after tweaking tactics but take lead through counter
However, one disadvantage of their deep 5-4-1 formation is that it left them light upfront. In the first half, this allowed Leipzig to gain vast territory inside the Marseille half. Along with their spectacular gegenpressing which deprived Marseille of possession, Die Bulen set off on a period of dominance.
Also, Hasenhuttl tweaked his tactics in response to Marseille’s surprise. RB Leipzig started to play balls in behind the wide areas for Bruma and Werner to run at defenders and it is on the right flank that Leipzig found the most success. Werner and Konrad Laimer terrorised left wingback Jordan Amavi during this stretch.
With a weakened squad, Marseille boss Garcia’s gameplan relied on defending deep and hitting on the counter through the flanks. This way, Marseille almost got their reward for good defensive work. Sanson exploited Leipzig’s wide left, leading to Bouna Sarr smashing a scissor kick into ground and onto the crossbar.
But as Marseille decided to break lines and move forward in numbers, they became vulnerable to the Leipzig counterattack. This change in the dynamic of the match led to its only goal. Marseille launched another counterattack through Sarr whose strike flew straight to Leipzig keeper Peter Gulacsi. He immediately sent his team on the break and Leipzig got the breakthrough. Forsberg sent Werner through who did the rest although Marseille keeper Yohann Pele should have done a lot better.
— RB Leipzig (@DieRotenBullen) April 6, 2018
Immediately after the restart, Leipzig executed superb pressing and counterpressing. This allowed them to break against a disorganized Marseille defence, with Werner featuring prominently at the left but gradually, the match opened up. Leipzig’s change in approach zipped the tempo up a notch and made their counterpressing structure less stable. As a result, Marseille bombed forward more frequently with Payet playing a vital role in it.
Les Phocéens respond through Payet but Leipzig defence stay firm
In the second half, Payet dropped deeper to get on the ball and play teammates into encouraging areas. This way, the French international served as a deep-lying playmaker and due to this, Marseille created opportunities early. One fell to Ocampos who really should have gotten his side level but his header flew across the post just inches wide. Payet came close himself but he skied his effort from inside the area after getting the ball back from Ocampos – which the French international had first furnished the ball to down the left-hand side.
Hasenhuttl responded to the growing Marseille threat by sending on Kevin Kampl for Augustin. It beefed up the Leipzig midfield as Kampl immediately displayed his genuine ball-winning quality and all-around industry. They regained some control in the centre of the park, leading to a Werner breakaway although Luiz Gustavo’s excellent recovery denied the German international.
👊 A very productive evening for 🇧🇷 @Lgustavo_19 last night in Leipzig
👀 Check out his numbers below in our in-focus analysis ⚪️🔵 pic.twitter.com/5xprOtZTpZ
— Olympique Marseille (@OM_English) April 6, 2018
Leipzig further refreshed their personnel, this time in defence as Bernardo replaced Laimer in a like for like substitution. However, it saw Lukas Klostermann move from leftback to rightback as Bernardo slotted in at the left. Die Bulen then defended in a flowing formation of 4-4-2 in the high/middle block that changed to a 4-5-1 in the low block. With ten minutes to go, Garcia introduced Valerie Germain for Mitroglou. This presumably was to test the tired legs of Upamecano and Konate but Leipzig did just enough to take a slender 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg at the Stade Velodrome in a week’s time.