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RB Leipzig's Emil Forsberg: a more effective quarter-back than winger?


What on earth has happened to Bundesliga assist king Emil Forsberg? In 2016/17, RB Leipzig's midfield architect chipped in with a league-leading 19 assists. That number fell to two a year later, before climbing back up to seven last season.

Are the Sweden international's powers on the wane at 27? Have opposition players got him sussed?

As it turns out, he's gone less prolific winger and more refined quarter-back...

RB Leipzig's Emil Forsberg is so much more than a wing wizard and set-piece supremo. - 2019 DFL

Forsberg the Assist King

In 2016/17, Leipzig and, by extension, Forsberg, had the element of surprise in their favour. No one knew what to expect from the Bundesliga newcomers, and for a good while no one could quite figure out how to handle their break-neck counter-attacking style of football.

The proof was in the points haul. Leipzig were setting pretty in second place behind record champions Bayern Munich by the halfway point in the campaign, having won 12, drawn three and lost two of their opening 17 top-flight fixtures.

Of their 34 goals, Forsberg had scored five and directly assisted eight.

Almost inevitably, Leipzig met stiffer resistance in the new year as teams began to sit off and allow the Lower Saxony upstarts more time on the ball in a bid to limit their rapier-like transitions.

RBL collected fewer points (28 compared to 39) and registered marginally fewer goals (32 compared to 34), albeit still finishing as runners-up, thanks in no small part to Forsberg's game-changing influence: namely, a further three goals and 11 assists in 15 Rückrunde outings.

Watch: All 19 of Emil Forsberg's 2016/17 Bundesliga assists

Forsberg in flux

Forsberg had given Leipzig wings, but a bout of sophomore slump was inevitable. And when Leipzig went into the 2017/18 winter break - although fifth in the standings - Ralph Hasenhüttl's men had collected 12 fewer points and scored nine goals less than at the same juncture in the previous campaign.

Forsberg, meanwhile, had scored one and assisted just two.

A persistent pubic bone injury did not exactly help Forsberg's cause. He missed eight games (Matchdays 14-22), set up only one more goal (on Matchday 29) and did not play 90 minutes until Matchday 29. He also sat out the final three games of the season through suspension as Leipzig scraped a place in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds, after finishing sixth.

On the surface, Forsberg had lost his edge. Two assists in 21 Bundesliga games was a far cry from the 19 he provided in 30 outings in the previous campaign.

But what those numbers fail to reveal is a subtle positional change even the Leipzig teamsheet continues to mask to this very day.

Almost half of Forsberg's 71 Bundesliga appearances half come in central starting roles. - 2017 DFL

A more complete Forsberg?

In 2016/17, Forsberg played as an advanced left winger. He registered eight goals and 19 assists, but only completed 78.2 per cent of his attempted passes, won 47.7 per cent of his challenges and covered 6.7 miles per game.

The following season, with Leipzig having to adapt to seeing more possession, the Swede was - at times - shifted into a slightly deeper and more central role.

His direct influence in terms of goals dropped significantly, but his pass completion increased to 83 per cent, his challenges won to 49.2 per cent and he covered 6.9 miles per game.

So, whilst he’s seen as less effective, he’s actually become more productive since floating between the left wing and a quasi-quarter-back role.

That's not to say Forsberg isn't still Timo Werner's chief supply line. He provided the Germany striker with his first goals of the 2018/19 season in the Matchday 3 win over Hannover, and produced seven assists in 21 league games all told - a team best for a nominal midfielder.

The difference is the Swede now has a grip on the entire midfield rather than just the attacking wide spaces.

As was the case in 2017/18, his passing accuracy (84 per cent) and challenges won (54 per cent) were all up to career highs in each category last season.

His pass-to-assist numbers, on the other hand, dipped. That, along with his improved touch count (59 per game), reinforces the idea that the Swedish synergist increasingly initiates rather than finishes off attacking moves.

So next time you're wondering why he isn't on the scoresheet or directly laying on goals by the bucket load for Werner and Co., ask yourself one question: is that really all Forsberg 2.0 is designed to do?

Chris Mayer-Lodge