RB Leipzig haven't got off to the most successful of campaigns this season, only winning one of their opening five fixtures and losing to Shakhtar Donetsk in their first Champions League group match. As a result, coach Domenico Tedesco has been relieved of his duties, forcing the club to start again just a month into the 2022-23 campaign.
While their defence has conceded nine goals in the league already, their attack hit a new low in their most recent Bundesliga match, a 4-0 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in which they did not create a single shot on target. Last year, Tedesco came in to revitalise a front three benefitting the likes of Christopher Nkunku, Andre Silva and Dominik Szoboszlai, but this season from matchday two, they have also brought Timo Werner back after an underwhelming spell at Chelsea.
Since then, a starting line up of Nkunku and Werner have only managed to look sharp against Wolfsburg and is now quickly regressing. Why isn't it working?
Tedesco's attack in a historic season
To understand why it's failing now, we need to recognise what was so effective last year.
Leipzig switched from Jesse Marsch's high-intensity, counter-attack approach back towards a slow-possession philosophy and Tedesco, including very balanced movements from their front three, got them playing as they were used to under Nagelsmann. The main aspects of the attack that were difficult to defend involved the varieties in the patterns of the offensive players and their characteristics. For example, Nkunku was the roaming, technically-gifted and fast forward, Andre Silva was a capable, link-up striker who provided presence up front and Leipzig had a dynamic No.10 (Dominik Szoboszlai, Emil Forsberg, Dani Olmo) connecting the strikers with the midfield.
Their individual strengths were so well put together that at any given moment last season, a player could drop onto the wing or attack the space behind the last defending opponent (also known as the "last line of defence") while still being structurally balanced by their teammates. This allowed Tedesco's men to attack through all five lanes of the pitch, whether it was a ball progression through passing or a long ball with them winning the second ball.
The introduction of Werner
The tactics last year under Tedesco ended with RB Leipzig winning the DFB Pokal, qualifying for a Champions League spot and Nkunku winning Bundesliga player of the year. While they drew their first game 1-1 against VfB Stuttgart this season, they were unlucky not to win, with their front three working as expected. But in their second match, with new signing Werner staring against Cologne, we could see problems bubbling.
As a centre-forward, Werner is a very capable option to attack the space behind the last line of defence, where he can outrun the opponents with his speed and agility and move into dangerous scoring positions. However he is not as much of a link-up player as Silva and offers less physical presence. The issue that showed up at times in the first match Werner and Nkunku started together is that they are both similar in terms of movement, roaming around and not offering as much in linking-up play.
In many cases, Leipzig progress the ball from their back three onto the wing, which gives way to quick passes behind their rivals defence with Werner and Nkunku drifting wide or starting a deep run. Since their No.10 is also a very dynamic and forward-thinking player, they have no options to progress to a forward who will then hold up the ball, leading to Leipzig losing the ball or unable to fight for the second ball.
This should not be framed as simply a "Werner problem," but as an issue with the structure around him and the personnel required to make this effective. As we've seen in the DFB-Pokal, when Werner started along with Silva, the attack flowed smoothly and there were strong solutions in the final third. (They were playing a fourth-tier German team but even so, 19 shots on target and an 8-0 win is still proof that this was an efficient approach.) This indicates that having two forwards with similar patterns of play under Tedesco's philosophies hindered them as they can't collect second balls or get into a stable counter-pressing (the act of defending after losing possession) structure, which in turn also hurts their defensive balance when they lose the ball.
How could Tedesco have fixed this?
As the above already suggests, rotating between Nkunku and Werner was one way to fix this issue and as it promises to be a long season with fixture congestion and the 2022 World Cup, it's not the worst option. However, you always invite criticism when leaving your best players on the bench and results don't go your way as a result.
A more pragmatic approach would have been to use Nkunku as a No.10 in the same formation instead of Olmo, who is injured for six weeks anyway, and therefore allowing all three of the aforementioned forwards to start together without changing the structure. Last year's Bundesliga player of the season certainly has the skill-set to play as a 10 and would create space to play a physically more-present striker, such as Silva or even Youssef Poulsen, who can balance Werner and Nkunku as well as fighting for second balls and providing the structure allowing them to do so.
There was also a third option, which was to change the formation to a 3-1-4-2 with Nkunku and Werner up front, but playing two No.8s (central midfielders) behind them. This would have meant Tedesco wouldn't have had to drop any of the main starting XI, and there would have been someone behind the two strikers to collect second balls, therefore balancing the structure in both attack and defence. The downside to this is that when you push more of your team higher up the pitch, you're more exposed to counter-attacks.
Unfortunately, as we saw against Leipzig's game against Shakhtar, Tedesco did not try either of these workable solutions and opted to go for a 4-2-3-1 with Silva up front, Nkunku as a 10 and Werner on the left wing. This formation didn't suit the individual profiles of these players; furthermore, it affected their build-up play in such a way that it pushed players to make individual mistakes, looking like they had no more confidence to play.
There were solutions for Tedesco, but unfortunately he couldn't take advantage of them before his tenure at Leipzig fell away with the results. Time will tell if Marco Rose can get them back up to scratch and first up, he faces his old club Borussia Dortmund this weekend.