Keita vs. Meyer, Werner vs. Naldo, Forsberg vs. Harit: the key duels that will decide Leipzig vs. Schalke
While Ralph Hasenhüttl and Domenico Tedesco pit their tactical wits on the touchline, Naby Keita and Max Meyer will face off (perhaps literally) in midfield, Naldo will tussle with Timo Werner for supremacy and Amine Harit will attempt to pinch Emil Forsberg‘s creative crown.
bundesliga.com presents the duels that will decide the mouthwatering opening to the second half of the season…
Watch: The key men for the clash between RB Leipzig and Schalke!
The midfield dynamos: Naby Keita vs. Max Meyer
While Leipzig’s Keita has so far not managed to reprise his sensational form from last season – much like his team – the Guinean talisman is still enjoying a fine campaign in the heart of the Easterners’ midfield.
Keita is pivotal to Hasenhüttl’s style, his quick recovery of possession and direct running enabling the lightning transitions that so often lead to goals. Indeed, Leipzig have never lost when the 22-year-old has found the net, and a cursory glance at his numbers in midfield – an average of 75 touches per game and a pass completion rate of almost 84 per cent – points to his influence.
When he has the ball, Keita can be lethal from anywhere: his two goals this season have both come from outside the box – including one stunner against Hamburg on Matchday 3 – with both putting his side 1-0 up.
Watch: Check out Keita’s long-distance stunner against Hamburg on Matchday 3!
Another of Europe’s most gifted youngsters will be Keita’s direct opponent on Saturday night. Converted from attacking to defensive midfield at the start of the season, Meyer has thrived in a deeper role.
Indeed, the 22-year-old’s all-round game has improved considerably under Domenico Tedesco, with the Schalke academy graduate completing more passes, winning more challenges, having more touches and covering more ground compared to last season.
Keeping Keita’s preternatural gifts in check is a tall order for the best of them, but Meyer has the heel-snapping qualities needed to get the job done. He also has the skillset to make a telling contribution in the final third, as evinced by his match-winner against Cologne in the DFB Cup third round prior to the winter break.
Watch: Check out Goretzka’s top five Bundesliga goals!
The tacticians: Ralph Hasenhüttl vs. Domenico Tedesco
Although Hasenhüttl’s side made a splash in Europe this term – finishing third in their group – things have not gone quite as smoothly domestically as last season’s record-breaking maiden Bundesliga campaign. Leipzig sit two points and three places behind second-placed Schalke coming into this one, although the Easterners have been hit by a number of injuries.
One resounding success in an altogether tougher sophomore year has been Hasenhüttl’s development of a variety of methods for his side to damage their opponents. Last season so reliant on a 4-2-2-2 system and being underestimated, Leipzig have shifted to a 4-4-2 shape this year, sitting slightly deeper, requiring the wide players to do more defensive work and relying on the pace of Werner in transition.
This subtle tactical alteration has proved a successful way of outwitting sides who attempt to beat Leipzig’s infamous press by playing the long ball, as Schalke did to devastating effect during the Royal Blues’ 2-0 win on Matchday 1.
Watch: Leipzig’s performances this term continue to show that last season was no flash in the pan!
The architect of that triumph? Tedesco, who, with that tactical masterstroke, turned Gelsenkirchen doubters into believers.
Given that Tedesco’s age, 32, makes him the youngest ever Schalke coach and second youngest coach in the top flight (after Hoffenheim‘s Julian Nagelsmann), there were sceptics aplenty upon the Italy-born tactician’s appointment. While victory against Leipzig won them over, Tedesco has turned even the hardest of hearts by inspiring the Royal Blues to second in the standings at the halfway mark.
Tedesco’s masterplan relies less on a specific tactical line-up – although he does prefer his sides to play with a three-man defence – but rather, in the modern German fashion, envisages players winning the ball high up the field, attacking directly, all the while retaining a solid defensive shape. “I like to compare it to a boxer, who should never let his guard down,” Tedesco told bundesliga.com of his style in October.
As the away coach in Leipzig, whether Tedesco adopts a rope-a-dope strategy to soak up Leipzig’s pressing, or comes out swinging in an attempt to score an early knockout is likely to prove decisive on Matchday 18.
Watch: Go behind the scenes of Tedesco’s tactical revolution at Schalke!
The talismanic figures: Timo Werner vs. Naldo
If Goretzka is Schalke’s heartbeat, then Naldo is both the brains and the brawn. The centre-back has featured in every minute of the Bundesliga campaign so far – no mean feat for a 35-year-old.
Three years older than his coach, the Brazil-born veteran has been inspirational both in the centre of the Royal-Blues’ defence and in the opposition box.
Defensively, Naldo has won 75 per cent of his individual duels – the best return in the Bundesliga; offensively, he is enjoying an Indian summer and has netted three times already this term, two of those goals late equalisers against Borussia Dortmund and then Eintracht Frankfurt.
Watch: Naldo headed in a last-gasp equaliser in a dramatic Revierderby against Dortmund!
Also his side’s talisman, Werner has hit a purple patch this campaign. Or, rather, the striker has continued where he left off from last season. Leipzig’s top scorer with eight goals, the 21-year-old has found the net twice as often as the club’s next top scorers (Yussuf Poulsen and Jean-Kevin Augustin both have three).
Establishing himself as Germany’s first-choice striker ahead of this summer’s FIFA World Cup has also brought improvements in Werner’s all-round game; only Marcel Sabitzer (three) has picked up more assists than the youngster (two) among the RB squad.
Although there is a 14-year age difference, both Naldo (334 outings) and Werner (141) are the most experienced Bundesliga players in their respective ensembles: Naldo has come out on top in six of the pair’s eight meetings, but this one is tantalisingly poised.
Watch: Check out Werner’s top five Bundesliga goals!
The creators-in-chief: Emil Forsberg vs. Amine Harit
Europe’s leading assist provider last season in Leipzig’s dream maiden campaign, Forsberg needs no introduction.
Although he helped his nation to reach the World Cup, the Swede has found it tougher going this term, only scoring once and returning two assists, his previously prodigious output checked by a combination of injuries and domestic opponents wising up to Leipzig’s style. The latter explanation would also point to why Forsberg has impressed more in Europe, scoring twice and picking up an assist in only five continental outings.
Yet despite missing eight Bundesliga games with injury, the 26-year-old has still managed to create more chances (36) than any other RB player this season.
Aspiring to Forsberg’s mantle as the Bundesliga’s creator-in-chief is Harit, a player who combines tricky feet and breakneck pace in thrilling fashion. Signed from Nantes in the summer, the Morocco international took a few games to get up to speed, but how it was worth the wait.
Harit has picked up three assists already and – on top of averaging an impressive 31 sprints a game – is the Bundesliga’s most dangerous dribbler, beating his man 58 times (of an attempted 109). That he has won three penalties underlines his all-round threat.
Still only 20, Harit offers more than just artistry, though: proof that he can mix it with the best of them was evident in his battling display during the 4-4 draw with Dortmund, his efforts to come back on after injury wrote him into Schalke folklore.