RB Leipzig are unloved for a good reason, but they deserve respect for trusting young players, promoting exciting managers and challenging Bayern Munich’s hegemony
The headlines from the Bundesliga last weekend belonged to Eintracht Frankfurt and rightly so. They had just trounced Bayern Munich 5-1 and ended Niko Kovac’s brief reign. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the east, Mainz 05 had their backsides handed to them by RB Leipzig in a game that finished 8-0 to the hosts. Although not quite as spectacular as hammering the champions, the emphatic victory was exactly what Leipzig needed after four league games without a win. The scoreline was the latest reminder that another horse has entered the race for the Bundesliga title.
After Leipzig’s recent mini-slump, Julian Nagelsmann had demanded a reaction from his players. He got it. The 8-0 victory came days after his team had beaten Wolfsburg 6-1 in the cup. And those results were bookended by home and away wins against Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League, which put Leipzig top of their group and well placed to reach the knockout phase for the first time.
Nagelsmann’s players were ruthless against Mainz. They were 5-0 up at half time but did not stop there. Timo Werner scored their sixth goal straight after the break and went on to finish the game a hat-trick of goals and a hat-trick of assists. The young forward has already scored nine league goals this season, second only to the remarkable Robert Lewandowski.
Werner’s goals have pushed Leipzig to third in the table, above Bayern, a point behind Borussia Dortmund and four points back on league leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach, who are having a wonderful start under Marco Rose, who joined the club from RB Salzburg, Leipzig’s sister club, this summer. The Bundesliga is remarkably tight this season, with the nine clubs in the top half of the table separated by just six points. The league badly needs a club to step up and give Bayern a run for their money. There is nothing to stop Leipzig from doing exactly that.
RB Leipzig is no ordinary football club. They have many detractors, mainly due to the manner of their inception. The club was created by taking over and subsequently dissolving a fifth-tier village side on the outskirts of the city and buying their playing rights. In a country that places a lot of value in the history and traditions of their football clubs, RB Leipzig were never going to be many people’s second team. They are hated.
Despite the corporate shadow that lurks over the club, RB Leipzig is in the hands of two of the brightest lights in German football in Ralf Rangnick and Nagelsmann. Rangnick had an extensive managerial career before becoming a director of sport at the two Red Bull clubs. He managed various clubs in the Bundesliga – Stuttgart, Hannover, Schalke and Hoffenheim – before joining RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig in 2012.
By 2015, Rangnick’s focus had shifted more towards Leipzig, who by this time had flown up the leagues to the second tier. He managed the club for one season in 2015-16 and guided them to promotion. Instead of having a crack at the Bundesliga, he recruited Ralph Hasenhüttl, who had just led newly promoted Ingolstadt to an impressive mid-table finish in their first season in the top flight. With Hasenhüttl installed as manager, Rangnick went back to his position as director of sport. Hasenhüttl had two successful seasons at Leipzig, finishing second and sixth in the Bundesliga, before succeeding Mark Hughes at Southampton last December and helping them avoid relegation.
Leipzig lined up Nagelsmann to replace Hasenhüttl as manager last year but, having guided Hoffenheim into the Champions League for the first time in their history, Nagelsmann stayed put for one more season. Once again, Rangnick swapped his desk for the dugout, taking charge of the team. He maintained the club’s rapid rate of development, leading them to the German Cup final and third place in the league.
It was clear why Leipzig were happy to wait for Nagelsmann. He was the youngest manager in the history of the Bundesliga when he took over at Hoffenheim as a 28-year-old. They were in the relegation zone when he joined in 2016 and had experienced the Champions League by the time he left in May. Nagelsmann is an extremely impressive and confident young coach whose future may lie beyond the Bundesliga. Leipzig have won 10 of his 16 games in charge so far, scoring 2.5 goals per game.
It is easy to criticise Leipzig. They have talented players and a healthy transfer budget, but so do many clubs in the Bundesliga. A lot of their success is down to the leaders they have employed. Nagelsmann has a steely determination and self-confidence, but also tactical nous. He prides himself on being able to adapt his tactics to what is going on in a game, switching from his favoured possession-based approach to the high pressing instilled in the team by Rangnick. When a Nagelsmann team loses the ball, it should be in the best position to get it back high up the pitch.
Nagelsmann has undoubtedly been given a talented squad, but he did not walk into a dressing room full of superstars with a blank chequebook under his arm. Many of their key players over the last year were at the club when they were in the second tier, such as Timo Werner, Emil Forsberg, Marcel Halstenberg, goalkeeper Peter Gulaschi and club captain Willi Orban. Regular starters Yussuf Poulsen, Marcel Sabitzer and Lukas Klostermann played for Leipzig in the third tier. This is more than just an expensively assembled collection of stars.
Leipzig are not extravagant in the transfer window. Their most expensive purchase this season was the €18m signing of English forward Ademola Lookman from Everton, a player they had already assessed during a previous loan spell. They have the youngest squad in the league (with an average age of just under 22) and their new signings this summer had an average age of just under 20 – also the youngest in the league. Naby Keïta remains their record signing; they bought him for €30m and sold him to Liverpool for €65m a couple of seasons later.
The Bundesliga is full of teams that yo-yo in form. Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Wolfsburg come and go. Some seasons they set their sights on challenging Bayern and Dortmund, other seasons they merely challenge for a place in Europe. Leipzig have already shown they can be consistent.
Their approach and ambition are not to everyone’s taste, but they could help re-energise a league that is in danger of becoming devoid of any sustained excitement and drama. Bayern’s seven titles in a row makes the Bundesliga one of Europe’s most high-profile monopolies, with Juventus currently leading the way with eight in a row in Serie A. If the Bundesliga wants to hold on to viewers – as well as talented managers and players – it needs to become a healthy, sustainable competitive environment.
Bayern have already sacked a manager this season, but they weren’t in much better shape this time last year and still walked off with a domestic double. It is not enough to rely on Dortmund to be the sole challengers year after year. The majority of fans in Germany hate RB Leipzig, but their emergence as a genuine contender should not be scoffed at.