Modern football is changing. Long gone are those days when the beautiful game was dominated by coaches who had distinguished or lengthy professional careers as footballers. Now, with the arrival of fresh blood in the club management, the game is not so simple anymore. Prima facie evidence of will be display this Wednesday. Julian Nagelsmann, the RB Leipzig coach is actually younger than Manchester United striker Edinson Cavani, who could make his full home debut as the two clubs clash.
But it is not only the generational gap which provides the intriguing backdrop to this game but rather the clash of two really different footballing philosophies coming to the fore. The tactics deployed by both the teams are extremely contradicting, as we will delve into below.
Since the Crystal Palace defeat at the beginning of the season, United’s playing style has undergone a subtle change. The defenders are not confident on the ball, so building from the back has been ruled out as a strategy. Also, the Red Devils have never been a possession based side which waits for openings into the opposition’s backline. The idea has always been about living upto the Old Trafford’s tradition of attacking every ball like it’s the last. With all the other tactics failing to produce results, Ole seems to have gone back to the post 2008 Ferguson-way.
Let’s take a look at this build-up for Bruno Fernandes’ goal against Newcastle United. As soon as Juan Mata receives the ball in the centre of the park, Marcus Rashford races into the left half-space, while Fernandes and Aaron Wan-Bissaka sprint towards the respective wings. What ensues is Rashford cutting in from the left half-space towards the centre taking out three Newcastle defenders on the run. Fernandes makes an over-lapping run and finished Rashford’s cut-back assist in style. Meanwhile, Wan-Bissaka on the right wing and Donny Van de Beek on the edge of the box, keep the other opposition players busy.
This has been the typical Manchester United mode of attack for many recent fixtures albeit with a slight rotation of personnel. What makes this a particularly poignant point ahead of the Leipzig game is the fact that the German club commits a lot of players forward which leaves huge spaces and channels behind to be exploited. In theory the game should be tailor made for United to thrive in, but what strengths do the Germans bring to the table?
On the other end of the pitch, Die Rotten Bullen have clear instructions from Nagelsmann to move the ball quicker using short one-twos in the final third. This style of play has been creating problems for their domestic opponents for quite some time, and we saw last season how it has proved effective in the Champions League, with them claiming the scalp of La Liga giants, Atletico Madrid.
Most of Leipzig’s shots on goal have come from a combination of three or less passes in the final third, which shows the sharpness of the offensive personnel on the field. In this attack against Schalke earlier this season, as Kevin Kampl is expected to slide in a pass to Christopher Nkunku, the trio of Emil Frosberg, Dani Olmo and even Angelino have already proactively made the run into the empty space.
This makes it easy for Nkunku to pass the ball first time into the no man’s land where his fellow attackers are waiting. This is an incredibly effective well-thought and well-practiced strategy by Nagelsmann’s side which is breaking down German and European oppositions week-in week-out.
After the arrival of Joao Cancelo at Manchester City, Angelino became the third choice in the left-back position for Pep Guardiola. Amidst this recruitment in the blue half of Manchester, the 23-year-old was loaned to RB Leipzig – where he has overturned his career altogether.
The Spaniard has undergone tremendous transformation under Julian Nagelsmann as he has now played on every position on the left-wing in his Leipzig career. Ahead of his meeting with City’s biggest rivals Manchester United on Wednesday, Angelino is also in the form of his life. He has scored in his last three consecutive games including the brace against Istanbul Basaksehir on the opening day of the Champions League last week. Not to forget, he is actually a defender.
What makes Angelino the most dangerous player on the pitch on Wednesday is his unbelievable understanding and chemistry with the fellow Leipzig attackers. This is in addition to his perfect runs into the box, to either slide in a ball to his team-mate or have a go at the goal himself.
Not only in the offensive exchanges of the game, Angelino has been no less in his defensive duties too. With a 68% ground duels success rate in Bundesliga, he is one of the best defenders to have in the team when it comes to one-on-one battles.
The battle between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Angelino – both in the attacking and the defensive phases of the game – will be key to the result on Wednsday night. This is mainly because though Wan-Bissaka is one of the best when it comes to 1v1 battles, the English right-back’s positioning out of possession has been a matter of concern for Solskjaer. After a series of attacking events in the opposition half, Wan-Bissaka is usually observed to be out of position when tracking back.
During many phases of the game, Leipzig are seen crowding the middle of the pitch to dispossess the opposition player. This leaves a lot of spaces on the flanks. Moreover, by the time the back-line is aware of the impending danger from the wider positions, the central figure in their opposition attack is already through in the middle. This is the biggest weakness of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig.
This proves costly against sides who have explosive wingers who like to cut in and can finish an attack single-handedly. This is where Manchester United have an edge over their German counterparts. In Marcus Rashford, United have a potent destroyer who can make the runs along the touchline and possesses the pace to finish from any angle.
It is evident that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not know his best back-four yet. While Aaron Wan-Bissaka seems the only irreplaceable part of his backline, the other three places are still being experimented upon. Alex Telles has arrived to give Luke Shaw a tough fight in the left-back role, but both Shaw and Telles have their inherent weaknesses that complement each other. This might be the reason why Ole went for a back-five with both Shaw and Telles in the playing eleven against Paris Saint-Germain.
With regards to the centre-back duo, while captain Harry Maguire has been improving day in day out after the Tottenham debacle, there is no consistent partner to the Englishman as of yet. Academy graduate Axel Tuanzebe was world-class against Paris Saint-Germain but looks unlikely to be fast-tracked into the first team due to his injury proneness.
Overall, this is an inconsistent back-line in which either of the four players commit an error which leads to a goal every alternate game. In the above phase of play against Tottenham, United failed to move the ball out of the Spurs’ press – leading to a goal after Harry Kane interrupted Eric Bailly’s pass. This also reflects the poor decision making of the United centre-backs as Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right wing was clear and could receive the ball easily. But an incomplete pass to Nemanja Matic in the middle derailed the entire process of building from the back.
This could be something Leipzig could exploit at Old Trafford very efficiently. Considered as a side which has some of the best pressing personnel, Leipzig usually play a high-line which enables them to mark each and every opposition player. This is no doubt a high risk-high reward gameplay, but has produced results for Nagelsmann in the recent past. Will it produce another ‘something out of nothing’ event against Manchester United? There are high chances, it will.
This fixture actually provides a plethora of parallel story-lines in the European footballing scene. There’s Upamecano’s ‘audition’ at Old Trafford ahead of a rumoured move in the coming 12 months. There’s Angelino returning to Manchester – but after establishing himself as a revamped full-back or wing-back of a Champions League side. And finally, there’s the contrasting philosophies of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Julian Nagelsmann.
From a tactical point of view, the result heavily depends upon Leipzig getting caught high up on the pitch as United hit them on the counter and Leipzig winning the ball in the final third due to their pressing prowess, resulting in a crucial goal away from home. Nonetheless, from a neutral angle, this should be an entertaining watch – especially when there are so many young European ballers on the pitch at the same time.
Manchester United: De Gea, A. Wan-Bissaka, H. Maguire, A. Tuanzebe, L. Shaw, A. Telles, Fred. McTominay, B. Fernandes, A. Martial, M. Rashford.
RB Leipzig: P. Gulacsi, Klostermann, D. Upamecano, M. Halstenberg, A. Haldara, T. Adams, K. Kampl, Angelino, D. Olmo, E. Forsberg, Y. Poulsen.