It’s a quirk of modern football that a team bank rolled by one of the richest companies in the world can go into a Champions League semifinal as an underdog. But that’s exactly the case for RB Leipzig, who face Thomas Tuchel’s Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday for a place in Sunday’s final. It may not be one for the purists, but the victor will be into the final for the first time.
With over a billion euros invested in their team by the state of Qatar, including the world record signing of Neymar, the pressure is most definitely on PSG. The French champions have never been able to convert their domestic dominance into European success, and even a semifinal is further than they’ve ever gone before. The only difference between them and Leipzig is that the pressure is on them.
Julian Nagelsmann has been considered one of the sharpest tactical minds in German coaching since he made the transition from Hoffenheim’s U19 coach to head coach of their senior team at the age of 28, making him the youngest coach in Bundesliga history. Since then, Nagelsmann’s trajectory has gone only in one direction.
He has quickly built on the existing foundations at RB Leipzig – built by Ralf Rangnick and Ralph Hasenhüttl – and turned Leipzig into one of the slickest tactical operators in European football. Nagelsmann likes to alternate between three and four at the back, and his teams are able to adapt depending on the opponent, and Nagelsmann has already spoken of the importance of defending well to stop Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and co.
“We have to be very fast in the defensive line, but we saw against Atletico that Upamecano and Klostermann are very fast and are able to defend very well,” Nagelsmann said, after Leipzig’s 2-1 victory over the La Liga side. “There will be situations when you cannot defend against these guys (Kylian Mbappe and Neymar) alone. We saw with Atalanta that they tried to defend man-for-man against them, but that wasn’t so easy because if you lose a single duel then they have numbers up quickly from midfield. There are a lot of stars in this team and it won’t be easy, but we’ll try to reach the final.”
Nagelsmann’s tactical flexibility can be seen during games too – most recently when he deployed second half substitute Tyler Adams as a man-marker on Joao Felix against Atletico. That meant Leipzig were able to diffuse the threat created by Felix and, the icing on the cake, was the winning goal by the 21-year-old American.
“Nagelsmann’s ideas are brilliant,” Adams said. “You saw against Atletico how he managed the game and the different formations we switched in and out of throughout it to cause them problems. He’s someone that pushes the envelope, he’s not afraid to take risks.
“For a young team we have this fearless mentality, and obviously with a fearless coach it makes it a lot easier.”