Ralf Rangnick has long been one of Germany’s most nuanced football thinkers as a new generation of tactical masterminds have been inspired by his work at Stuttgart and since. After the departure of Ralph Hasenhuttl, he decided to try his hand at management before Julian Nagelsmann takes over in the 2019/20 season as he calmly and surely steered a young side back into the UEFA Champions League. The Bundesliga was reminded by his unique and hardworking approach while he showed some tactical growth as he even led Leipzig to the DFB Pokal final against Bayern Munich. He will take an executive role overseeing Red Bull’s franchises on the other side of the Pacific as RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg have moved to modern and individual leadership structures. His influence over both has helped shaped them into two of the most overachieving polishing schools of talent in Europe.
Tight lines in high-pressure
RB Leipzig pressed in a 4-3-3 shape as they looked to deny opposition teams access to the central lines by suffocating the opposition team’s deeper-lying midfielders. The front three looked to cut out direct connections from the centre-backs to the deep-lying midfielders by forcing the opposition out wide and backwards. Backwards passes would trigger a higher press with the front three moving into and nearer to the opposition box, the midfield following them to keep the lines tight and the defence moving to the halfway line. Any passes into the deeper-lying midfielders would trigger pressure from the midfield block who would push high to win possession.
Rangnick frequently switched in between a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2/5-3-2 as he would maintain the same principles in both formations. RB Leipzig conceded the least goals as they formed one of the most stubborn defences in the Bundesliga which started with the way they limited teams in high pressure areas. The pressure in both pictures is man-orientated, isolating each opposition player in a 1v1 by playing in cover shadows and disrupting the passing lanes. In the first picture, the central striker is cutting out the passing lane from the goalkeeper to the deep-lying midfielder while the other forwards are teasing passes into the centre-backs. It is intriguing to notice that if the midfielder in the six-space somehow receives possession, the most central midfielder will move out of his pressing responsibility to cut out the passing lane to the player he is marking to move forward and win possession with numerical superiority.
In the second picture, it is a 5v5 pressing situation, Leipzig are forcing the ball back to the keeper with man-marking. However, on the left flank, Konrad Laimer is standing off his man slightly to tease a pass from a goalkeeper or centre-back before Laimer will move up and press him. Playing with a back three will also allow the wing-backs to move up and press opposition wide players to give Leipzig better coverage across the pitch with the security of three centre-backs. In both formations, the centre-backs retain the incentive to push out of their zones to regain possession and drive into the opposition half. Rangnick will normally switch in between formations in between and during games due to the number of multi-positional and multi-functional players that they have at their disposal.
RB Leipzig’s commitment to lateral pressure allows them to win early turnovers in the wide areas as they force teams to progress into the lateral zones. The ball-far winger will tuck in to compress the space for the opposition to play out of while Leipzig will maintain the fundamentals of man-orientated pressure. A midfielder will drop into the six space to act as press security, while the ball-far wide midfielder will also tuck in as Rangnick’s side could also switch to a diamond shape. The side who bring a youthful zeal to defensive pressure, will aggressively hunt the ball in packs and press the side line to regain possession and work quick wide combinations to create opportunities.
Tyler Adams and Kevin Kampl in wide build-up
Tyler Adams and Kevin Kampl are crucial to RB Leipzig’s build-up as they will create a triangle with their centre back. Kampl will occupy the wide lateral zone while Adams will occupy the central zone as this gives Leipzig direct access to the wide areas or the centre-back could work a pass into Adams who can progress play through the centre. The midfielders’ positioning allows fullbacks, Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg to push up and gives Leipzig vital numerical superiority in the wide areas. Rangnick’s side will create triangular three-man combination moves to work the ball into the box for low crosses and higher quality shots on goal.
Adams will also work this combination with midfielders on the opposite flank as Amadou Haidara – who joined from Red Bull Salzburg in January – is used to playing underneath his fullback and receiving possession in that space in build-up play. Leipzig are clever and rapid in the way they work wide combinations around the box as they work a large amount of their time in possession in the wide areas. They retrieve the ball in the wide areas during the lateral press as quick interchanges and movements allow them to create goalscoring opportunities while the opposition is disorganised. This also allows them to get their strikers involved in play as Yussuf Poulsen, Timo Werner, Mattheus Cunha and Jean-Kevin Augustin are able to move out wide to chase the ball and are able to get involved in wide build-up combinations.
Leipzig can also switch to a 3-4-3 in approach play and attacking situations with Adams dropping into the defensive three-chain. In the photo above, the fullbacks are stretching the pitch with Klostermann on the ball-far side. On the ball-near side, the player spacing is organized to work a quick combination into the box or to work a crossing situation with Poulsen and Sabitzer attacking the box, Klostermann at the far post and Kampl behind the two attackers for any cutbacks or rebounds.
The three-chain allows the centre-backs to be involved as passing options in the wide lateral zones and create overloads as Adams is doing on the ball-near flank. The three-chain is also beneficial for counter-pressing purposes as Ibrahima Konate thrives at pushing up to make interceptions and driving the ball forward. If Leipzig work the ball back into the three chain and decide to switch over, Sabitzer, Kampl and Konate are perfectly positioned to slide over and support Klostermann. The players are also spaced in triangles for quick 3 man passing rotations to work possession into the box from the wide areas at a rapid pace.
RB Leipzig defensive shape and low block
If teams beat RB Leipzig’s high press, they will sit in a low and narrow 4-4-2 or 5-3-2 block if Rangnick switches from that formation. In the instance above, Leipzig’s midfield has sat off the deepest-lying midfield playmaker as that responsibility has shifted to the strikers who try and force him wide in a 2v1 situation. Kampl and Adams as the midfield double-pivot are shielding their defensive zones as the latter is not tasked with marking a player but closing the passing lane into the pockets. Once the opposition deep-lying midfielder plays the ball out wide, the ball-near winger will shift to engage the fullback in possession while the ball-near striker will also shift to close down passing lanes and force a turnover. A back-pass will allow Leipzig to put pressure on the ball and engage the centre-backs.
In the photo above Leipzig are in a 5-3-2 shape while Hoffenheim are in a 3-2-1-4/3-2-5 shape as Rangnick has ceded the 3v2 overload to the opposition’s defenders. Nadiem Amiri and Kerem Demirbay are hemmed into an upside-down pentagon while a pass to Joelinton is teased as Leipzig have the 2v1 advantage in that area and can easily close the Brazilian down. More importantly, Leipzig has denied Hoffenheim access to the half-spaces with Marcel Sabitzer and Konate shielding the area.
Amiri could play a low percentage and high-risk ball into the channels where Leipzig have the 3v1 advantage, hold onto the ball longer giving Poulsen the opportunity to win a turnover or turn and play a sideways or backwards pass triggering Leipzig pressure. Leipzig have cleverly denied Hoffenheim access to their front four while creating possibilities for turnovers as this is an example of the carefully coordinated defending that has made them one of the stingiest units in the Bundesliga.
Rangnick will turn 61 this month and took his first job in two years as well as his first Bundesliga job in seven as he passes a steady ship to Julian Nagelsmann. RB Leipzig will be one of the most talented young sides in Europe managed by arguably one of the most talented young managers next season but the work of Rangnick should not be forgotten. In a Bundesliga of laptop trainers, one of Germany’s foremost football purists proved that he had the wit and initiative to match coaches who are decades younger than him. He will take on an advisory role in the new structure for clubs on this side of the pacific while continuously spreading his football theories across the globe.