World Cup Tactics: Emil Forsberg, RB Leipzig & Sweden

Words By Alex Stewart Illustrations by Philippe Fenner
June 7, 2018

RB Leipizg finished the 2017/18 Bundesliga season in 6th place, perhaps a disappointment after coming second in their first ever season in Germany’s top flight in 2016/17. Last season, Emil Forsberg excelled and some of Leipzig’s drop off this term has been due to the wide man missing quite a few games due to injury. Forsberg’s creativity in a key position gives Leipzig much of their impetus, and he will also play a key role for Sweden in the summer, should he maintain his fitness.

Under coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, Die Bullen play a vague 4-4-2 out of possession, morphing into a 4-2-2-2 when they have the ball. The wide players are crucial to this, fanning out to form a defensive line when the opposition is pushing forwards, before tucking inside when Leipizig transition into attack.

Defensively, the wide man on the flank opposite to where the opposition are attacking pushes up, so that Leipzig create a pressing wrap-around the opposition player, looking to win the ball back and then transition straight into attack, either by feeding the ball forwards, switching play or, should the opportunity not present itself, playing it back and recycling the ball.

In attack, the wide men tuck in to make a narrower, 4-2-2-2 shape ahead of a deeper midfield pivot, usually ball-winner Diego Demme and one other, sometimes the more creative Kevin Kampl. Forsberg, who usually starts on the left, the opposite side to his stronger foot, has been partnered in the wide role by the excellent Austrain Marcel Sabizter or young Portuguse winger Bruma, while Ademola Lookman, on loan from Everton, has also played the position. While these players can all function as traditional wide men, looking to get forwards and cross, Forsberg especially is encouraged to roam in-field. When Leipzig attack from the back, they look to play the ball in towards the pivot, who move it forwards to Forsberg or another of the tucked-in wide players. The full backs push up on the overlap.

Forsberg’s greatest asset is to pick a pass, and he looks to release either a full back on the overlap, especially left back Marcel Halstenberg, or to play in the strikers. Timo Werner is particularly effective playing off the shoulder and looking to get in behind the opposition back line, while second top scorer Jean-Kevin Augustin is adept at carrying the ball forwards as well as breaking the line. Forsberg can see passes that switch the angle of attack, and he acts as a still point around which the moving parts of Leipzig make runs into space. His vision, and ability to find a moment to pick his pass, makes him a dangerous playmaker; his drifting movement off the wing means he’s hard to pick up.

In some ways, Forsberg acts as a number 10, a link between midfield and attack who creates opportunities for Leipzig’s quick front players. But he also poses a threat from the wide areas, carrying the ball inside to shoot or cross off his stronger foot. Leipzig often work short corner routines, as well, which can see Forsberg moving in from where he has taken it to get a better crossing position, or to move infield with the ball to find an angle to shoot or square the ball to the top of the box.

Creatively, Forsberg has not hit the heights of last season, largely because of the loss of momentum caused by injury. Leipzig have certainly suffered from his absence, but a fit Forsberg will enhance Sweden’s opportunity to progress from their group in Russia.

Forsberg’s all-round contribution is still strong, despite the drop-off from 2016/17. He is dribbling fewer times per 90 with success than he did in Bundesliga 2., because defences are tighter and press more, but his two seasons in the top flight show a consistent return from crosses and carries.

Emil Forsberg is an excellent player, creative, able to pick and weight passes, change the angle of attack, and work well with quick front men to spring opposition defences. At Leipzig, he can drift and dictate the tempo of their attack, fitting well into a well-organised, energetic system that suits his ability to cut inside and seems geared to facilitating his style of play. He’s certainly one to watch this summer.

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