Champions League Review: Manchester United vs RB Leipzig

The Red Devils cruise to three points at Old Trafford in their second week of Group Stage matches

By: Maxwell Argento

Manchester United 5–0 RB Leipzig

Fittingly, we will call this match “The Marcus Rashford Hat-trick Match”, but before we get to the main man of the evening, an analysis of the game is in order.

Tactical Breakdown

Going into the match there was always going to be a question of what formation and what eleven Manchester United was going to deploy at home in Europe against what has been a great footballing side the last several years. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, after opting for a 4–2–3–1 against Chelsea in the league over the weekend, went with a different look in this match compared to what we have generally seen. He chose a 4–4–2 with a diamond in midfield, providing his team:

  • Positional flexibility in midfield
  • A great mix of narrowness in defense and width when pressing the ball
  • An all-important numbers advantage in the center of the park
  • A chance to get Paul Pogba and Donny Van de Beek (their two best footballers) in the same team whilst giving Bruno Fernandes a much needed breather

RB Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann chose a 3–4–3 with a double pivot in midfield, looking to spring his wingbacks in the wide areas of the pitch on counter attacks and get extra numbers forward to put pressure on the back four of the Red Devils. As it turned out, the match was hotly contested for a majority of the first 45 minutes, with both teams trying to get a foothold on the action. What was clear immediately was just how important that man advantage in midfield was for Manchester United.

Pressing from the front with Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood allowed the diamond in midfield (consisting of Nemanja Matić, Fred, Paul Pogba, and Donny Van de Beek) to both cover the two holding Leipzig midfielders, as well as sprint to the sideline to pressure their wingbacks when they received the ball. Whenever Leipzig gained true possession and started trying to knock the ball around the field, Manchester United’s front six would morph, forming two banks of three to clog the middle of the pitch even more. The narrowness of the two banks of three without the ball was effective in not allowing Leipzig to really create any solid chances in the run of play.

The first breakthrough came in the 21st minute when a Fred interception in midfield sprung Paul Pogba into loads of space, who then played a perfectly weighted through ball to Mason Greenwood in the Leipzig penalty area. The English youngster was just barely onside (we learned after a lengthy VAR review) and slotted home across the Leipzig frame with his favored left foot to get the scoring underway for United. The goal played right into the hands of the hosts, who were more than happy to sit back into their banks of three in front of the back four and use their pace to counter-attack. Leipzig’s best moments came with a handful of minutes left in the half, as United looked to survive with their goal in hand, but the score remained 1–0 at the interval.

The second half begin much like the first, with both teams jostling for control amidst an expected flurry of pressing and counter-pressing. The main theme for Leipzig continued to bare its head; because of United’s ability to create a numbers advantage in the middle and press the wide areas, they were never able to consistently provide supply to their front three of Dani Olmo, Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen. As that theme became more and more evident, Manchester United’s hold on the game got tighter.

United’s Substitutions

It must be nice for Ole to be able to call on first team players with an abundance of quality like Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford even in contests when they are getting rotated for rest. The effect players like that have on a match when they are fresh is immense, which was proven by both players linking up to score the second goal for United. The goal was smartly taken by Rashford, who although originally being called offside, finished the play and continued down the pitch to slot past Péter Gulácsi in the Leipzig net. Ole, then knowing that the three points were all but sewn up, took off Matić (who was on a yellow card) and gave Axel Tuanzebe another run out for 15 minutes, sparing Aaron Wan-Bissaka a full 90 minute grind. Put this in stark contrast with Leipzig, who despite bringing on Marcel Sabitzer didn’t have anywhere near the talent or the depth to sub on and affect the end of the match.

Leipzig Wither Away

In addition to losing the tactical battle, Leipzig’s reaction to conceding the second goal to Marcus Rashford without having a defender in their half of the field was subpar. The air immediately left the sails of the German side, allowing United to tack on three more goals in less than 20 minutes. Even if the scoreline was slightly deceiving, Leipzig never looked physically capable of handling United’s ruggedness, size and speed.

Nagelsmann will also be terribly worried about conceding so easily when the game was lost. Good sides, especially in the group stage of the Champions League, don’t concede unnecessary goals after the three points are lost because of how important goal difference is. I would expect a good reaction from Leipzig in the coming weeks, but there will always be lingering concerns across the board after getting drummed by five.

Marcus in the Mood

Marcus Rashford seems to be gathering a reputation as a stone-cold match winner on European nights for the Red Devils. The newly awarded MBE (Member of the British Empire, for his work feeding homeless children during the Coronavirus pandemic) scored the decisive blow in Paris last week, and backed it up by slamming in a hat-trick against Leipzig despite coming on after around 65 minutes. His first goal, as previously described, came from a run that started in his own half, where Bruno Fernandes fed him in one-on-one with the goalkeeper. His second, which was absolutely lashed into the bottom left corner off of a loose ball in Leipzig’s final third, showed the ruthless quality he possesses. His third to clinch the hat-trick was more down to Leipzig’s lack of desire to defend the United build-up, but still required close control and was lashed home as well, this time on the half-volley.

The big moment for me from Rashford’s night of work was him letting Anthony Martial take the penalty to make it 4–0 while he was on his hat-trick. The unwritten rules of football generally state that when a striker (especially someone of Rashford’s quality/stature who wears #10) is one goal away from their third goal, they take the penalty. Rashford allowing Martial the opportunity to get off the mark in that spot highlights his maturity, selflessness and leadership. It’s little moments like that that make me think he is going to be United’s captain one day, perhaps sooner than we’d ever think. For now, United fans will just hope and pray that his achievements on and off the pitch continue in this vein.

Manchester United face Arsenal in one of the more anticipated clashes these squads have had over the last several seasons on Sunday, at Old Trafford. Kickoff at 11:30am EST.

My name is Maxwell Argento and I am a John Carroll University and Connecticut School of Broadcasting Alum who is an aspiring sports media professional!