The Bundesliga returned this weekend, and for most the surprising result of the weekend was RBL’s 1-1 draw with Freiburg (with Hertha’s 3-0 win over Hoffenheim close behind). The result itself was a bit unexpected, but the bigger issue is that Leipzig only managed a draw despite generating 22 shots. Reaction to the match and its implications for the rest of the season seem to be split, so here’s what does and doesn’t concern me going forward for RBL.
The Obvious Issue – Finishing
When you have 22 shots and only manage to score once, the clear answer to what went wrong is always going to be lack of finishing. This match also wasn’t a situation where it can be blamed on the other team’s keeper; only three of 12 shots from inside the box were put on target. That’s a genuine concern – in this case it likely cost Leipzig two points. Multiple chances should have been buried, particularly Lookman’s miss from point-blank range.
However, I don’t consider the inability to finish itself to be a continuing concern for RBL as a team, and they’re obviously one of the highest scoring teams in the league. As I mentioned, Leipzig put only 25% of thir shots from inside the box on target. As a group that hasn’t been an issue over the course of the year – RBL’s put 40% of their shots on target overall. This can be looked at as a sign that this particular issue will a one-time occurrence related to coming back from such a long break.
One genuine concern as it relates to the team’s shots is where they were coming from. For the season, Leipzig has been generating two-thirds of its shots from inside the box; against Freiburg this was only 12 of 22. Extending this to shots on target, 5 of the 8 shots on target were taken from outside of the box. At least for one match, the shots actually reaching the net weren’t presenting much of a challenge. From there, the question becomes what caused that deviation from the season’s norms and needs to be monitored going forward.
Continuing Concerns – Tactics and the Interplay of Poulsen and Werner
The most obvious sign to me in evaluating that something could be wrong for RBL going forward is in evaluating the performances of Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. These two have shown previously and throughout this year that they can be an effective pairing, but that’s typically with the majority of chances ending up on Werner’s foot.
That didn’t happen on Saturday. Poulsen had five of RBL’s 22 shots; while that included the lone goal, it was the only one of his five attempts that he put on target. It’s not an approach I’d want to see going forward if I were RBL, because Poulsen’s inaccuracy has been a continuing concern throughout the year; out of 29 shots taken so far this season, he has managed to direct only nine on net. That’s despite 25 of those attempts coming from inside the penalty area. In comparison, in his breakout year last season he managed to put 27 of 65 on target.
If Poulsen can’t revert back to last season’s form of putting shots on net, it’s important to look at what drove the results of Leipzig’s shots being primarily from him instead of Werner. The biggest thing that worries and stands out to me is the heat maps of of the two players – they essentially overlap on the left side of the field (and primarily nowhere near the box). While Leipzig does favor short passes, there still has to be space and movement generated. The overlapping heat maps tell me that both players were consistently trying to occupy the same space instead of building off of one another.
The heatmap and spacing issue hasn’t been a consistent concern – for example, when RBL put 5 past Schalke you can see a heatmap of Werner occupying the left-hand side, Poulsen the right, and together filling the attacking third. That could be a sign not to worry going forward, but I’d be concerned that something in RBL’s tactics was different coming out of the break.
That hunch is intensified by seeing that RBL attempted 35 crosses despite struggling in the air throughout the match; that’s compared to an average of only 20 crosses attempted throughout the season. It’s also an explanation for Poulsen’s shot generation, and obviously his goal – he was one of the few RBL players that was winning aerial duels. It’s also telling to me that Werner’s best chance of the match came on a quick counter instead of the build-up through short passes that Leipzig has shown a preference for – they simply couldn’t find ways to create opportunities for him.
Let’s be clear– RBL should have won the game and are still one of the most skilled teams in the Bundesliga. However, Julian Nagelsmann will need to evaluate what went wrong and how it can be fixed going forward. A team simply can’t be successful with its two attacking threats occupying the same space and ending up sending in almost twice its average number of crosses despite struggling in the air. RBL will struggle to maintain its Champion’s League spot if they can’t get back to generating chances for Werner.