As João Félix sliced his way through a previously unflustered RB Leipzig defence like the generational sucker he is, before drawing a foul from a desperate Lukas Klostermann lunge inside the box, there was a sense of inevitability about what would ensue in the minutes that followed.
With Felix himself emphatically dispatching the resulting spot-kick to restore parity at 1-1 and still 20 minutes on the clock, the masters of the dark arts were set to do it all over again; win a contest they simply shouldn’t have won and break east German hearts with the most typical of El Cholo-masterminded triumphs.
The enthralling contest was destined to be settled by a thumping José Giménez header from an in-swinging set-piece, and although a third goal did arrive before the two sides were forced into an extended period, the script had been flipped.
It was the underdogs in white who retook the lead, not the side donning their almost demonic red and black strip which fittingly resembles the way in which they set about achieving results.
Instead of a Giménez header or another bit of Félix magic thrusting the undeserving Atlético into the last four, it was young American Tyler Adams who struck the decisive blow to catapult 11-year-old RasenBallsport Leipzig into their maiden Champions League semi-final – remarkably becoming the first side not containing Cristiano Ronaldo to knock a Diego Simeone-coached Atléti out of the Champions League.
And too right ‘n’ all.
This was an encounter where Die Roten Bullen totally outfoxed the seasoned masters. Where ‘mini Mourinho’ schooled El Cholo and Dayot Upamecano embarked on a centre-back performance for the ages.
From the get-go, Julian Nagelsmann was out to befuddle any wannabe football analysts with the way he set-up his Leipzig side. The 4-2-3-1 out of possession – which morphed more into a 4-4-2 as the game wore on – was easily distinguishable, but in possession, well, things certainly got confusing. Ambiguous, shall we say.
There’s no questioning the presence of a back three, but from there, it’s anyone’s guess. Was it a 3-3-3-3-1, 3-3-4, 3-6-1 or 3-1-5-1? Who knows, but the principles remained stark; verticality, overloading the flanks – mainly down the right – and maintaining a focal point with Yussuf Poulsen, while half-space penetration provided by Christopher Nkunku and Marcel Sabitzer – who returned to a more advanced role after emerging as part of the double pivot for Nagelsmann – led to spellbinding examples of supreme combination play and overwhelming vertical football.
The 33-year-old didn’t shy away from atypical tactical quirks and innovations in this one either.
His utilisation of midfield engine room Konrad Laimer was unprecedented and flat out absurd. Laimer was tasked with dropping alongside Kevin Kampl to form a double pivot out of possession, and forced to maintain the width when Leipzig had the ball by playing as a right wing-back. The demands of the function were unrivalled, but the unsung Austrian executed it diligently. Sabitzer, meanwhile, provided stable cover for his compatriot in the necessary situations.
The imperious Upamecano was interestingly deployed as well, particularly when Leipzig were trying to play out from goal kicks. The Frenchman was positioned a little more advanced than his two centre-back partners – Marcel Halstenberg and Klostermann – from these situations, almost forming a pivot with Kampl. But, the technically proficient defender mastered his unique, specialised role and as a result, Leipzig were immense in the first phase throughout; minimising the errors which are typically detrimental and progressing the ball upfield with remarkable efficiency.
His fresh nuances set his side up for success in the opening period, while the relentless counter-press we’ve seen him establish since his summer arrival overwhelmed an Atlético side distinctly lacking ideas with the ball.
Barring the dangerous dynamic established by Yannick Carrasco and Renan Lodi down the left, Los Rojiblancos struggled mightily in possession and failed to pose any sort of threat in transition – a phase of the game where you can expose Nagelsmann’s men, especially with Kampl serving as the sole pivot in front of the defence.
However, despite the manner in which they stifled their opponents and their brilliance in regards to ball progression, the Germans let themselves down massively in the final third.
Nkunku took up brilliant positions but his decision-making and execution were sub-par, while Poulsen was shepherded expertly by Giménez and Stefan Savić. When they were able to work the ball out wide – which was often – targets were often missed. Although, the telepathic relationship between Angeliño and Nkunku was a thorn in the Atléti defence – without achieving any sort of tangible reward, mind.
Leipzig’s final third inefficiencies led to a half-time stalemate, but it didn’t take long for the underdogs to take a deserved lead after the restart – with Nagelsmann’s genius coming to the fore.
Following a period of purposeful sustained possession – 18 passes to be precise – impressive converted centre-back Halstenberg drove into the Atléti third, overloading Leipzig’s left-hand side before the ball was swiftly switched out to an isolated Sabitzer via a combination between Poulsen, Kampl and Laimer. It was the overload to isolate concept in all its glory, with an onrushing Dani Olmo pouncing on Sabitzer’s delivery to head past a previously untested Jan Oblak.
Their lead was totally deserved, and instead of João Félix’s introduction and subsequent strike from the spot serving as the start of a predictable Simeone comeback, the sequence merely proved a blip on a special night for Nagelsmann and his young squad.
Nevertheless, the generationally talented Portuguese star proved his worth after entering the fray. He was the sole member of Simeone’s sh*thouses to add any sort of thrust to their tepid attacking play – causing issues for the Leipzig midfield with the positions he was taking up in the left half-space, often behind a fatiguing Laimer.
But his influence swiftly started to wane, perhaps mostly as a result of Tyler Adams’ arrival in 72nd minute. The versatile American performed a similar role to the immense Austrian, but was able to cope with the fresh-legged Félix more competently than his teammate.
And it was he who proved to be the unlikely match-winner.
As the Spaniards retreated, Leipzig pounced: the build-up was all about Sabitzer’s awe-inspiring outside of the foot pass to expose Kieran Trippier’s errant positioning – ring any bells, Spurs fans – to find a surging Angeliño who finally hit the mark with his cut-back. The ball fell to Adams, who fired past Oblak via a Savić deflection, sparking scenes of pure psychosis from his sensational string-puller on the sidelines.
Michael Jordan has ‘The Shot’. Dallas Clark has ‘The Catch’. How about Marcel Sabitzer and ‘The Pass’? Too far? Thought so.
Nevertheless, despite Atlético working out this whole attacking lark in the dying embers, the Germans held on. And while the resentment towards Leipzig’s artificial rise to the upper echelons of European football is rife, there’s no doubting – from purely an on-field perspective – football won in Lisbon on Thursday night.
Their display was the sport in it’s purest form. A modernised, German-tinged iteration of ‘Total Football’ where the collective approach was spellbinding.
From Kampl’s midfield magic, Laimer’s execution of the most demanding of roles, that Upamecano monsterclass to Nordi Mukiele and Peter Gulacsi’s late body on the line heroics, Leipzig’s method of success starkly contrasted the overwhelming individualism on display the previous night in the form of their semi-final opponents; Paris Saint-Germain.
Nagelsmann’s novices have no business toppling France’s dominant superpower when they meet on Tuesday, but with a man of the Menschenfänger’s capacity masterminding Leipzig’s play, nothing is out of Die Roten Bullen’s reach.
How’s west London treating ya, Timo?