Are Leipzig Good Enough to Win the Bundesliga?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #1 – Lampard to Change Chelsea?

With the season returning in a month (it cannot come any quicker), there are already so many players, teams or managers who could do something special next season in taking their team to another level. These are twenty things you should be keeping your eye on next season. There isn’t a particular order, but it does include some teams I have discussed in the past. I thought I’d split them up into four parts so it wouldn’t be so overwhelming.

Atletico Madrid’s rebuild

After a hugely disappointing season in both La Liga and in the Champions League, this might be one of Atletico Madrid’s most important seasons to date. With the futures of Griezmann, Rodri, Partey, Oblak and Morata all in a cloud, and Hernandez already departing the club, this is arguably their most significant rebuild since the summer of 2015. An ageing defence, their best attacker leaving a potentially losing their whole midfield paints a picture of a team that needs a lot of reinforcements this summer.

It isn’t just signings, but the manager. I have a lot of respect for what Simeone has done with Atletico Madrid over the last 5 years, but his tactics seem to be showing their age. Their defence will always be reliable, but it is in attack where the problems have consistently been. Players have been brought in for a lot of money, talented ones that have shown a lot of promise at their previous clubs, but as soon as they arrived in Madrid, that form went out of the window. We’ve seen Lemar, Costa, Carrasco, Gaitan, Gameiro, Mandzukic all fail after succeeding at their previous clubs. Since their title win, they have continually sacrificed attacking output to ensure they have remained stable at the back. This isn’t a way to win a league title. Simeone seemingly forgot what won him the league back in 2014, which was a huge goal output from Diego Costa, who scored 27 goals. Griezmann managed 15 with Morata managing 6.

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The massive rebuild is a chance for Simeone to return to a more attacking style. With the arrival of Europe’s next big superstar in Joao Felix, this could be the perfect chance for Atleti to start looking like the title challengers we all want them to be. Madrid and Barcelona are both looking miles ahead of their competition in terms of talent, so this could be Simeone’s chance to surprise them once again.

Julien Nagelsmann’s Leipzig 

Without a doubt, the Bundesliga looks to be the most exciting league to watch next season. All of the top 6 in Germany have an exciting coach. Favre’s Dortmund defying xG as usual, and Adi Hutter getting the best out of a Frankfurt side with impressive attackers are 2 teams I haven’t put on this list, solely for not wanting to crowd this list with the Bundesliga.

We’ll start with by far the most talked about young manager in Europe and his arrival to arguably one of the best-run clubs in Europe. Nagelsmann did miracles at his former club, turning Hoffenheim from relegation candidates to Top 4 challengers with a squad full of mediocrity. His teams were fantastic at creating chances for the forwards and were so adaptable. It begged the question of what could he do with a talented team which has the best scouting network around. Leipzig have a fantastic young group of players and could see the best form out of the likes of Werner and Poulsen. If Nagelsmann managed to get over 10 goals out of average forwards like Mark Uth and Belfodil, it’s crazy to think what he could with some genuinely elite attackers.

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What I’m looking forward to seeing from Leipzig is the output from the midfield. While Nagelsmann did do wonders with his former club, he never indeed possessed any top-level midfielders. Florian Grillitsch is very good, but he had to rely on players like Sebastian Rudy because he lacked any elite defensive midfielders. He now has Amadou Haidara and Tyler Adams, the most promising midfielders in the Bundesliga, and both developing through the Red Bull machine, with the pair coming from RB Salzburg and NY Red Bulls respectively. Both are great box to box midfielders with massive defensive numbers. It’ll be interesting to see if Nagelsmann can form one of the best midfielders partnerships in Europe, and push Leipzig to be the Bundesliga title challengers they could so easily be.

Marco Rose in the Bundesliga 

Austria has become one of the leading innovators in Europe, as it was a century ago. They have had managers like Roger Schmidt and Ralph Hasenhüttl coach in their first division, with systems focussing on pressing, attacking football. The next in this line of up and coming managers is Marco Rose. While Nagelsmann is an exciting appointment, Borussia Monchengladbach bringing in Rose is arguably the most impressive managerial signing of the summer.

The Austrian built a fantastic team in Salzburg that focused on full backs pressing extraordinarily high and crowding the centre. On paper, they set up in a 4-3-1-2, but when watching them play, their midfield can adapt to match their opponents and the current circumstances. This is slightly dependent on having midfielders who are physically spectacular, with the likes of Haidara, Schlager and Samassekou putting in an insane amount of defensive work. It’s a system that requires players who are tactically flexible and can cover a lot of ground. It’s similar to pressing systems deployed by the likes of Pep and Klopp, but there is much more intensity, that it suffocates their opponents.

Most of my viewings of Rose’s Salzburg side all came in Europe, where they were excellent. They managed to win every game in their Europa League group containing Celtic and RB Leipzig. Rose’s side managed to beat talented opponents using a superior, more effective approach that stopped the opposition from playing their favoured way. They could outnumber you in the wide areas, press your centre back and block of the passing lanes. They were one of the best sides in the competition two seasons on the bounce.

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It’ll be fascinating to see what Rose will bring to the top flight in Germany. Monchengladbach have been underachieving for some time now and have needed an elite coach like Rose to push them closer to those Champions League spots finally. I think he will like a few of the players he will be working with, guys like Plea, Zakaria and Elvedi could be significant in what Rose will want to implement. Monchengladbach were quick in giving their manager the players to fit his system, with Breel Embolo coming in as a very athletic and versatile forward, and Stefan Lainer joining from Rose’s former club as a much-needed improvement over Lang. Monchengladbach are easily the team to watch next season.

Lille’s Young Side in Europe 

PSG have been the expected champions of Ligue 1 for years now, with Lyon or Monaco coming in second. This changed this year, with Lille finishing as the runners up in France. This came as a surprise considering they were close to relegation under Bielsa on numerous occasions. The arrival of French manager Christophe Galtier seems to have changed the way the club plays and operates. They are a defensively solid side with players who are so dangerous on the counter-attack and are very difficult to deal with. Only PSG managed more goals on the break than Lille’s 10. Galtier managed to get the best out of a messy situation and got them performing. Lille continued to sign young talent but weren’t spending nearly as much, with Bamba, arguably their best signing, arriving for nothing. Combine that with the free acquisitions of Jose Fonte and Rafael Leao, and you have a team taking astute, low-risk signings.

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It’s given them the platform to allow them to sign players for nothing and sell them when their stock increases. We’ve already seen this with the recent sales of Thiago Mendes, El Ghazi and Kone how they can turn a profit on their players. They’ve picked up a sensible model of how to operate in the transfer market, and with a rather pragmatic style of football, leaves it more comfortable for players to adapt to the system. Not only are they smart in selling players, but bringing in talent. The signing of Timothy Weah is a stroke of genius and another export from PSG’s academy, one that cannot stop producing talent. He could potentially be the striker I’ve previously mentioned they’ve poorly needed. They’re returning to Europe after a 5-year hiatus, and this could be the chance for Lille to show Europe how good they are when it comes to player recruitment.

Chelsea Under Lampard

This might be the most significant power move Abrahamovich has played since bringing Jose Mourinho back to the club. The arrival of Frank Lampard might seem premature, and its primary purpose seems to be to give Chelsea fans something to smile about since their transfer ban. From a non-football perspective, it makes sense. It is insanely unlikely the Chelsea fans will turn on their manager like they usually do when the manager is one of their greatest ever players. Lampard will not put up with some of the poorer attitudes witnessed in the Chelsea dressing room in recent years. The Blues are going to have a tough season, suffering from the same problems they have had for a long time. A squad full of talent in some areas but incredibly weak in others. The departure of Eden Hazard has left this team, and the Premier League, without their most talented player and the man who has dragged Chelsea in an attacking sense since his arrival, that it’ll be fascinating in what Lampard will do to get this attack working without the Belgian superstar.

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By far the most enticing prospect of having Lampard in charge is what he will do with the younger players. It’s been a desire from everyone to see this trophy winning youth side produce players who actually play for the Chelsea youth team. I’m not expecting 30 players to be handed debuts, but the most promising players to at least are given a chance. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Ethan Ampadu to be given an opportunity in the Premier League, to see if they can add something to a team that I criticised under Sarri for not having players who were willing to change the system. This could be Lampard’s chance to show everyone at Chelsea that the club can produce Champions League level talent who can start for Chelsea, instead of resorting to the transfer market for every issue.