It’s a question that many have asked since Nagelsmann was announced as head coach back in 2018. The 32-year-old managed to turn Hoffenheim from relegation candidates into regular top 4 challengers. The number of goals he got out of the likes of Belfodil, Szalai and Uth made me wonder what he could do with genuine elite talent. We’ll be looking at Leipzig’s start to the season, to see why they are currently at the top of the table.
Leipzig’s history is short, yet full of controversy. Before the Red Bull takeover, RB Leipzig were formally known as SSV Markranstadt and playing in the 5th division of German football. The exact reasons for choosing Markranstadt isn’t certain, but I can guess it’s down to a few things. The club were stuck in the 5th division of German football, and right next to them was the city of Leipzig, with a population of nearly 600,000 people. It was an untapped market and gave them the chance to invest in a club which could become a global brand, providing a city with a football club to match its size. I can imagine RB Salzburg was in the owners’ thoughts, making, socially, a clear path from Austria into the Bundesliga. From their formation in 2009, it took them only 6 seasons to reach the Bundesliga, climbing the football pyramid with ease, thanks to a clear plan and massive investment.
It’s difficult to talk about RB Leipzig without even mentioning why nearly every fan in Germany despise them. It all begins with the name. The ‘RB’ stands for RasenBallsport, which translates to lawn ball sports. It ensured they didn’t break the league’s strict laws of no branding in club names, but through abbreviation, could keep their brand recognition. It’s things like this that really infuriate German fans, putting the importance of corporate needs over the fans, a part of the game that Germany empathise. While Red Bull’s lack of subtlety is frustrating, it’s the way they managed to work around the 50+1 rule. It was first inforced in 1998, to ensure football fans wouldn’t be treated as customers, remaining the majority voice at their respective clubs. Bundesliga clubs do possess a lot of members, with Dortmund having over 140,000 fans who pay an annual fee of €62. Once again, Red Bull found a way around this. RB Leipzig only have 17 members, all Red Bull employees, paying over €800 annually. It ensured they could legally play in the Bundesliga through bypassing all of their rules, without having the same routes as other clubs in Germany.
Football is a working-class sport, originating from hard-working men attempting to take a break from their lives through sport. It had the easy viewing for everyone to get into but had that extra level of sophistication, which made it extremely popular Germany, Austria and Hungary. Red Bull made it look so easy to abolish real fan ownership and build a club in their own image.
I sympathise with these views, but part of me finds it really hard to hate a club when they are just so good at finding talented players and managers. Their first season in the Bundesliga included some of the brightest talents in Europe. Naby Keita broke onto the season and dominated the midfield through high defensive actions and showing himself to be one of the best prospects for any Champions League club. Marcel Sabitzer was always seen as one of Austria and Red Bull’s brightest prospects, and moving to a more competitive league helped his development. Their crown jewel was young German forward Timo Werner. At only 20, he was alongside more experienced forwards like Aubameyang and Lewandowski in the race for the Golden Boot. While full of future prospects, they had players who were there during their stint outside of the Bundesliga. Emil Forsberg arrived as a promising 21-year-old and proved to be a fantastic creator. Yussuf Poulsen and Diego Demme both came in 2013. I’ve expressed my love for Poulsen, having a skill set that combines well with any goalscoring forward. Being coached by Ralph Hassenhuttl, RB Leipzig were aggressive, energetic, young and plenty of fun to watch during the 16/17 season.Embed from Getty Images
They’ve remained relatively consistent since their first season in the Bundesliga, finishing 6th in 17/18 and 3rd last season. Finishing 3rd and returning to the Champions League is a positive season, but it did feel like a transition into a new era, spearheaded by Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim manager is one of my favourite coaches in Europe, being able to turn a weak Hoffenheim side into a fun yet effective side in Germany. However, what was holding him back was the personnel. Last season, he was stuck with Ishak Belfodil, who was basically moving clubs every season and only managed 4 goals for Werder Bremen in 17/18. Nagelsmann’s teams create a vast amount of chances that it’s difficult for any forward who starts over 20 games not to get at least 10 goals. Mark Uth might be the perfect example of Nagelsmann supercharging strikers. The German contributed to 22 goals in 17/18, earning him a move to Schalke once his contract expired. However, he only scored 2 goals in 15 games in his first season for Schalke. If Nagelsmann could get a lot of goals out poor to average players, it makes you wonder what he could do with Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, who just had the best seasons of their careers.
The defence was the other area which did hold Nagelsmann back. His sides have usually played a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 with a very high line. To perform a system like that, you need to have genuinely elite defensive talent, something the 32-year-old just didn’t have at Hoffenheim. Last season, Hoffenheim gave away more penalties than any other side with 7 and gave away the most fouls per game with 13.9. In teams that play high-lines, you expect a lot of fouls to be made, in an attempt to recover the ball when the line is beaten, but the frequency in which they were taking down their opponents is concerning. Now at Leipzig, he has four extremely talented centre-backs. Willi Orban has been at the club before their promotion in 2016. While the club captain is an essential figure for the team, he backs that up with being a terrific defender, comfortable in possession and commanding his backline. The French trio of Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and Ibrahima Konate are all extremely promising defenders. It’s a testament to how good Red Bull are at spotting talent. They arrived for a combined fee of £23 million, with Konate arriving on a free transfer. The club could manage to sell these players for over £70 million each, showing how they’ve remained to find value in the market, even with such a well-known brand like Red Bull behind them. All are comfortable on the ball and possess extreme athleticism to help them cover the distance needed to play in a Nagelsmann side.Embed from Getty Images
So how have Leipzig played in the first few games of the Bundesliga? While I don’t think they’ve been the best team in the league, they’ve been the most impressive. The main reason for this is because of the opposition they’ve had to face, with the Red Bull-owned club already playing Frankfurt, Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayern Munich in their opening 6 games. I’ve watched three of these games and so far have been impressed with what I’ve seen. Nagelsmann has been extremely flexible in terms of formation and personnel. Against Frankfurt, Nagelsmann lined his side up in a 3-4-3, to match Adi Hutter’s team in terms of formation. Thanks to Leipzig having extremely athletic defenders, it allowed them to double-up on Frankfurt’s wing-backs Filip Kostic and Erik Durm, their opponent’s most prominent attacking threats. In breaking them down, Leipzig used Christopher Nkunku and, after an hour, Emil Forsberg, to run into the space that was left from Frankfurt’s marauding wing-backs. The pair completed 5 dribbles, showing how effective they were in moving the ball into the opposition half.
Their game against Borussia Monchengladbach saw some changes, with Nagelsmann switching to a 4-4-2 and bringing in Kampl and Forsberg for Mukiele and Nkunku respectively. These changes allowed them to deal with Gladbach’s weaknesses, being their lack of width and the full-backs. Rose usually lines his side up in a 4-3-1-2, with Thuram often drifting to the left. Leipzig countered this through their compact shape. It made it difficult for Rose’s players to break them down, and with the press from Leipzig’s front men giving them no time on the ball, it showed just how much work Rose has to do in turning this side into a Champions League regular. Their defenders lacked mobility and Leipzig used that to their advantage. Poulsen and Werner were consistently making diagonal runs into the box, making it very difficult to defend against Nagelsmann’s side. Werner’s hat trick was a combination of superb chance creation and elite finishing. Leipzig haven’t been topping the table in terms of shots and chance creation, but their forwards are consistently getting chances in fantastic areas. Even if Werner’s shots are of weak locations, his finishing is unrivalled in Germany, meaning he will be able to put all sorts of chances away.Embed from Getty Images
The two games so far have shown Leipzig to be flexible, aggressive and clinical. Like every team in the Bundesliga, the games against Bayern Munich were going to show just how good Leipzig were when facing better opposition, and for 45 minutes, it did not look good. I haven’t spoken about it yet, but in all their games so far, Leipzig’s press is consistent. Whatever formation was deployed, they would always press in a 4-2-4, with Forsberg moving over to the left, Poulsen and Werner in the middle and Sabitzer on the right. They plan to force their opponent into the flanks. He’s tried this against Bayern before, to some success. In their 3-1 defeat to the champions in August 2018, Nagelsmann used Joelinton and Szalai to keep pressure on the central defenders and force them to play the ball to the full-back. Hoffenheim’s wing-backs and wide midfielders would then aggressively press Bayern, and for a lot of the game, it was effective. The problem was Bayern were just too much for Hoffenheim, but trying a similar tactic against them once again might work considering the players Nagelsmann now has to work with. But that game was Kovac’s first game in charge of Bayern in the league. The team have since grown in quality and showed this at the Red Bull Arena. When Leipzig did try and press Bayern from the front, Bayern’s midfield duo of Kimmich and Thiago, the best midfielders in the league, found space and exploited the room that was left from Leipzig’s pressing. Both were at their usual best in this game, Kimmich especially, who created 6 chances from midfield. It wasn’t just in midfield where Leipzig were exposed, but in attack, where Lewandowski’s goal perfectly showcased this. Whenever one of their forwards were in possession, Bayern were quick to outnumber them, usually making it a three against one, to recover possession. This is what happened for Bayern’s goal. Sabitzer had three men around him, and when dispossessed, Klostermann attempted to recover the ball, but Muller was quick to get it back. A fantastic pass from Muller and a great run from Lewandowski to show some naivety from Nagelsmann, and Bayern continued to dominate the first half. Leipzig did get back in the game through a Forsberg penalty, but the half didn’t scream optimism.Embed from Getty Images
The second half is where Nagelsmann shined in his tactical adjustments. His players were being completely outclassed in the centre of the park and needed to fix it. He did so by taking off Klostermann and bringing on Diego Demme, to add numbers and ensure they could compete with Bayern. They switched to a 4-3-3, with Mukiele moving over to right-back. This was when Leipzig started creating chances, while remained stable at the back. Yet, they still weren’t exceptional. A lot of the opportunities they created just weren’t of high quality. Mukiele had a decent chance with a shot from the right side of the 18-yard box, but it was a routine save for Neuer. Sabitzer attempted to a shot from long distance, and while it did have some spin on it, it wasn’t going to trouble Germany’s number one. While this approach might have worked against a weaker team, Bayern are more than that. Thiago and Kimmich are so difficult to simply bypass. This game felt like a lesson for Nagelsmann.
So, can RB Leipzig win the Bundesliga this year? They definitely have a chance, but Bayern look too good to beat at the moment. Leipzig still have room to improve. Amadou Haidara hasn’t played much this season, and Tyler Adams is still yet to return, a player who could seriously make a difference in the middle of the park. Nagelsmann will have to be more open to rotation his key players if he wishes to compete on all fronts. This team is very aggressive, and I worry how often they might be caught on an off day, similar to how easily Schalke beat them at the Red Bull Arena. Nagelsmann should either change the approach for specific games or use the vast number of players in the team. Ademola Lookman and Matheus Cunha have rarely featured, and definitely have a part to play this season. If Leipzig wish to win the league this season, they’ll have to hope Bayern’s form begins to plummet and Dortmund remain unlucky. On the bright side, I do expect Leipzig to improve over the next couple of years, and the team is still young enough to stay competitive. Bayern still have a massive rebuilding job on their hands, so even if Leipzig do falter, their chance will come.