In recent seasons, RB Leipzig have transitioned well from a talented minnow to a genuinely threatening opponent on the continental stage. Their football has always been distinctive for its midfield dynamism, silky passes and relentless verticality but whilst Ralf Ragnick's role will never be forgotten, much of the credit for recent success goes to Julian Nagelsmann who has been producing the goods for his club season after season. As a result, every club wants him. But Nagelsmann is here for now and he is here for one reason. To take the club to unparalleled heights. They came close last season. They will definitely give it a go this time around as well.
It would be fair to say Leipzig have been very good this season. This season alone the club have played some scintillating stuff. More recently fans have also witnessed an evolution in their coach - a new found pragmatism and deviation from his plan A - especially in the early stages when player fitness and match sharpness was an issue. Nagelsmann's ever improving management skills and much heralded tactical knowledge has given the club a very chance of doing well this season in the European Champions League. Going into this encounter, the momentum is with the German side.
After a slow start to theIr European campaign, where they were beaten by a Manchester United side 5-0 at Old Trafford, Leipzig did come around by beating PSG at home and the side from Manchester in their home turf to knock them out and subsequently push themselves into the round of 16 at their expense. It was a moment to savor. It was after all "The Group of Death" and the German side came out runners up. They produced the goods when it mattered, a sign of a team with an elite mentality.
Vertical football is a fundamental principle but Nagelsmann's side is also known for shape shifting during games depending on the opposition and game momentum. He has at his disposal a multitalented squad with players that can play a number of positions. More often than not, the German seeks to approach games with a 3-1-4-2 but we have also seen him utilise the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2.
There is not really a 'star' man in Nagelsmann's system but Kevin Kampl who provides dynamism in front of the defense is integral to their philsophy. He is not your typical ball winner and he does not slow the game down either. His intelligent movement off the ball and vertical passes off it mean Leipzig can control the game from their own half whilst runners can move freely without worrying of being marked out in the opposition area. The opposition gets sucked in and automatically there is more space for the attackers.
The four midfielders ahead play a very flexible system. On paper, it's a flat 4 but their movement is difficult to monitor. Wingers can play inverted. Both Olmo and Sabitzer are allowed to roam in space and this allows for Leipzig to push another defender in the flanks for a numerical advantage. Justin Kluivert has been a healthy addition too but the one name consistently playing upfront has been Nkunku. His movement and approach play has been very intelligent. Adams has covered nicely for the void left by Angelino but he is not a natural wing back.
Pressing is essential for Nagelsmann. Variation can be seen against opponents as at times Leipzig press on the second pass and other times they attack the opponent on the third or fourth pass. It is a modified form of counter pressing where the team understands the importance of triggers. The press might be the same but the triggers dictate it and that varies from game to game. We have seen similar approaches plays from Pep Guaridiola's City, Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds and of course Leipzig's opponents Klopp's Liverpool.
After a few successful seasons both in the English Premier League and in the Champions League, Liverpool's march forward looks to have slowed down. Pressure seems to be telling and the team does not look as confident as they did at the start of the campaign. A number of factors are responsible. Injuries have played their part while some players have lost their early good form having been played out of position and also having to work harder and with more responsibility than they are comfortable with.
Virgil Van Dijk's injury has been devastating. Their defense has not looked the same without him. He was their main stopper in defense and starter of attacks. The team played more expansive in his presence as his positioning gave both wing backs Alexander Arnold and Robertson the freedom to sprint forward in attack. Another key factor has been their lack of controlled passing from back to front.
During their winning campaigns both in Europe and at home, Klopp's team had a key feature of playing diagonal passes from the wing backs to the forward line. These long diagonal passes helped the side bypass the congested press in the middle and gave players like Salah and Mane the freedom to move the ball inwards from the flanks. It was trademark Klopp and opposition sides had no answer to their lethal combinations. Without Van Dijk, these passes have almost diminished.
Amidst the doom and gloom is the story of Liverpool's attempt to add a new dimension to their midfield. A playmaker in the center of midfield - Thiago Alcantara. The former Bayern Munchen dynamo came with a reputation having played some of best football in Europe for the defending champions before leaving for Anfield. But the problem has not been his form or his performances. The issue has been tactics. For all the success Klopp's side have had, Liverpool have not really needed a playmaker.
The midfield included box to box runners that would support both defense and attack whenever needed. With Thiago, the impetus would be more about slow controlled possession which means intricate and incisive passing with a lot of intelligent movement. It is something Liverpool will take time to adjust to and it has taken longer than usual since the team has not been playing with their first choice defenders.
In terms of shape, this season Klopp has tried a number of formations in addition to his favorite expansive 4-3-3. The most notable variation being the 4-2-2-2 which allowed for an extra attacker in the forward line up. The results have been mixed. Whilst we have seen some brilliant plays from the likes of Salah, Firmino and Thiago, the attacking play on the whole has been stodgy and lacking in tempo. This has ben further exacerbated by key midfielders Fabinho and Henderson being deployed as make shift defenders and as as a result we have seen too many individual errors all around the team that has caused them to concede so many goals.
Even though both coaches emphasize on team functionality rather than player individuality (Nagelsmann more than Klopp in that respect), this could be a match where individual battles count. Klopp will play Salah and Mane as far wide as possible in order to stretch Leipzig's defensive backline. Nagelsmann on the other hand might be forced to play a wing back to cover for the threat in the wide areas. And that would mean gaps in the midfield, and if Klopp plays Thiago with the freedom he desires, then that could well be the press breaker Liverpool need to counter Leipzig's threat. Easier said than done.
Then comes Nagelsmann's power play where his side will try and pressure the Liverpool defense down the flanks especially Alexander Arnold. The triggers will be clear to see and Leipzig will try their level best to keep the pitch wide off the ball and narrow on it. Inverted movements will be witnessed aplenty while the two makeshift central defenders will be pressurized as much as possible by Nkunku. The first goal might well be key in this game. Whichever team scores first might have a better chance of winning the first leg.
Both teams could feel each other out in the first half with a more aggressive approach in the second. Having said that, Nagelsmann does like his men to go for the jugular at home and this is how he took apart Manchester United - but this is at a neutral venue so it remains to be seen how this affects his approach. Liverpool are a wounded animal at the moment and perhaps it is wise to knock them off their feet whilst they are vulnerable. Liverpool on the other hand are Champions League veterans and they will not go down easily even if their domestic form is in pieces. Prediction? A 2-2 draw first leg.
RB Leipzig: P. Gulasci, D. Upamecano, L. Klostermann, W. Orban, N. Mukiele, K. Kampl, M. Sabitzer, Angelino, C. Nkunku, D Olmo, Y. Poulsen
Liverpool: Alisson, O. Kabak, J. Henderson, A. Arnold, Robertson, Thiago, Wijnaldum, C. Jones, Firmino, Mane, M. Salah