Jon Mackenzie –
The rise of RB Leipzig has been nothing short of meteoric: eight years ago, they were in the NOFV-Oberliga Süd (V), and now they find themselves dining at the top table of European football, the UEFA Champions League. In this preview, Jon Mackenzie looks forwards to what is in prospect for them over the course of the next season.
RB Leipzig – Last Season
As debut seasons in top divisions go, Leipzig’s was a close as it gets to perfection. Through the course of the Hinrunde, they went toe-to-toe with a Bayern team who have barely moved from the top spot in the Bundesliga for the last four years. Despite falling away a little in the second half of the season, they ended up running out comfortable second place winners with a stake in the top European cup competition.
Of course, much has been made of the operational loopholery of Red Bull’s German franchise: a factor which led to the closure of the famous Yellow Wall at the Westfalenstadion after the BVB fans attacked Leipzig fans before their home fixture with Die Roten Bullen. However, what is most interesting about Red Bull’s experimentation in ‘capitalism meets 50+1’ is the fact that their espousal of free market logics in the board room is not matched in the transfer market. Ralf Rangnick, the club’s erstwhile coach and now director of football, has famously championed the principle of youth over experience. Regardless of how you view their off-the-field activities, then, there is almost no way that you can find their on-field performances objectionable in any way. With a pressing game focussed around the front six forming a constricting hexagonal cluster around the ball carrier coupled with blistering counter-attacks fashioned by talismanic midfielder Naby Keita and spearheaded by the raw talent of striker Timo Werner, the team are always exciting to watch. A ‘score-more-goals-than-the-opposition’ mentality came to its clearest instantiation in the Rückrunde fixture against Bayern – a game Leipzig were leading 4-2 before finally succumbing 4-5 to the grandees of German football.
If there was a disappointing aspect to last season for the Leipzig side, it was the early exit in the Pokal to second division outfit, Dynamo Dresden. Even with a strong starting line-up and two goals to the good, they ended up losing the game on penalties. The early Pokal exit could be a concern going into the next season. With the added endeavour of the Champions League this year, Ralph Hasenhüttl is going to have to utilise his squad far more carefully than he ever had to in 2016/17. There is a sense, then, in which Hasenhüttl might have to temper his gung-ho ‘attack at all costs’ brand of football for a more measured approach, particularly in Europe, and this might have to mean a reining in of the gregarious swashbuckler of his young charges. This notwithstanding, on last season’s showing at least, the adage is proved correct: Red Bull does give you wings.
RB Leipzig – Transfers
‘We don’t bring in players older than 24,’ Ralf Rangnick said to FourFourTwo earlier in the year. ‘We have the youngest team in the Bundesliga. If you weigh up experience against youth – being able to sprint, being willing to invest a lot of energy – we are proving that experience is overrated.’ And he’s not lying. In fact, this summer, the oldest full signing the club made was twenty-three-year-old Yvon Mvogo who impressed in goal last season at the aptly-named BSC Young Boys.
In effect, there are two channels by which new additions are brought into the RB Leipzig team. In some instances, as was the case for last season’s star player, Naby Keïta, there is the development path from one of Red Bull’s feeder teams, in this instance, the Austrian branch in Salzburg. A most notable graduate of the RB school of excellence this summer is the central midfielder, Konrad Laimer, who will perform as understudy to Keita who is likely to be gone by this time next season.
Beyond this, the club like to keep an eye on youth players around Europe and have brought some exciting new faces into the fold through this route. In the central defensive area, Ibrahima Konaté was signed from Ligue 2 side FC Sochaux and, in spite of his youthfulness, the eighteen-year-old has shown a composure that belies his age. With Dayot Upamecano also performing well over the summer months and Marvin Compper approaching full fitness, Leipzig look very strong in the centre-back position going into the new season.
At the other end of the field, Die Bullen have brought in a couple of exciting attacking prospects in the course of the transfer window. Jean-Kevin Augustin arrives from PSG with an accolade from none other than Lionel Messi himself who picked him as one of ten of the most exciting talents in football for an Adidas advert last year. Fighting off interest from Spurs and Juventus to land the youngster, Augustin’s signing proves that there is mileage in the Rangnick approach to youth. As a pacey forward who is both strong and possesses a good aerial ability, expect to see Augustin challenging Yussuf Poulsen for a place in the course of the next few years.
The other attacking option brought in by Leipzig this summer is the twenty-two-year-old winger from Galatasaray, Bruma. With fifty-seven Süper Lig games already under his belt, the Portuguese youngster should be immediately ready to slot into the side, a fact which has been confirmed by his performances in the summer’s Testspiele.
As ever, Rangnick’s youth policies have furnished the club with strong players in areas across the pitch. There is, however, an additional benefit that emerges from the unique approach of the club’s director of football: a footballing egalitarianism exists in the club. With players brought in young and given a chance to prove themselves, the teams fielded by Leipzig are always greater than the sum of their parts and it would be unsurprising if more clubs began adopting this approach to squad building as RB Leipzig continue to flourish.
RB Leipzig – Pre-Season
Following in the German tradition of playing a couple of weaker teams at the beginning of their pre-season programme, RB Leipzig ran out comfortable winners in their opening games against SV Dessau 05 and ZFC Meuselwitz. A debut hattrick for Jean-Kevin Augustin in the first fixture will have pleased the Leipzig fans despite the weak opponent. From here, a harder fought one-nil win over Turkish side Konyaspor brought the team into the Emirates Cup with a 100% record.
With the Emirates Cup being played at the over two consecutive days, Ralph Hasenhüttl split his team in two, with the stronger team playing in the first fixture against Seville. Despite an assured performance by the team that included Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg and Yussuf Poulsen, they would eventually end up losing to a solitary goal, a Wissam Ben Yedder penalty in the first half after Bernardo was unfairly judged to have brought down Walter Montoya in the box. In light of the opponents and the performance, then, Hasenhüttl will hardly have been disappointed by the result of a game which suggests that Leipzig can compete with the best teams in Europe.
The following day, in the match against Benfica, the Rangnick principle was utilised to its maximum potential. While there were a couple of veterans on show in the form of Dominik Kaiser and Marvin Compper, the team was permeated with youngsters who quickly went about repaying Rangnick the faith he had laid in them. Bruma ran the Benfica right-sided players ragged and was fundamental to the first goal, going on a meandering run from the halfway line before laying the ball off for the interplay that lead to the goal. Oliver Burke, the Scottish winger who joined from Nottingham Forest, was equally devastating on the opposite wing and was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions. And it was not simply an exciting attacking performance from Leipzig: Ibrahima Konaté impressed with his calm handling of the Benfica forwards. With Marvin Compper popping up at the back post from a Kaiser freekick to score the second, RB Leipzig finished the match 2-0 winners, and Hasenhüttl will be delighted at the way in which what was essentially a second team acquitted themselves.
Any positivity that had been accrued earlier in the pre-season would be somewhat evaporated in the final game as Leipzig gently capitulated to a 2-1 loss to the English club, Stoke City. Having taken an early lead from the penalty spot, won and dispatched by Emil Forsberg, Leipzig eventually yielded to a Mame Biram Diouf equaliser followed by a Marvin Compper own goal which proved to be enough in the end. While the hackneyed idiom ‘pre-season counts for nothing’ will be dragged out for precisely this sort of occasion, what will worry the Leipzig supporters was the fact that their team was only Diego Demme away from full a strength side.
RB Leipzig – Predictions
Ralph Hasenhüttl made it clear in interviews across the summer period that he does not have a starting eleven but a starting sixteen or seventeen at the very least. He will set the team up in the customary 4-2-2-2 of which his favoured line-up is probably:
Player of the Season:
When settling on a player of the season for Leipzig, it is hard to look beyond their much-vaunted midfield dynamo, Naby Keita. Of course, the hype is well-deserved: it’s hard to imagine Die Roten Bullen having had the season the season they had last year without Keita being installed as the engine of Hasenhüttl’s well-oiled machine. With all the speculation that surrounded him in the course of the summer, it will be interesting to see if Keita can maintain his focus and continue to impel the team on its upward trajectory.
The Signing of the Season:
Ralph Hasenhüttl has made no bones about the fact that Portuguese winger Bruma offers something that the club previously lacked. His capacity to take on players in one-on-one scenarios has meant that he has terrorised players in wide areas during pre-season. Having impressed throughout the summer break fixtures, it will be interesting to see both how the youngster finds life in the Bundesliga and how Hasenhüttl deploys him in his team. One thing is sure though, with RB Leipzig competing on three fronts this season, there will be plenty of opportunity for him to make his mark.
The Disappointment of the Season:
If there is a weak link in the Leipzig chain, it is their goalkeeper, Peter Gulacsi. Despite the club bringing in Yvon Mvogo, he is still young, and it is unlikely that he will replace Gulacsi anytime soon. This could prove worrying for fans of Die Bullen, who will be well aware of Gulacsi’s tendency towards laxity which reared its head on a couple of occasions over the course of last season. Still, the very fact that it is difficult to single out one player over the others in this area indicates the all-around strength of the team.
Despite a picture-perfect inaugural year in the top division of German football, it is important to remember that RB Leipzig were buoyed by a couple of factors which allowed them to sail to second place in the end. With no European commitments to worry about and an early exit from the Pokal, the season was all about the Bundesliga. This season is different. For a club with such lofty ambitions, it is imperative for Leipzig to perform well on the European stage not only to attract the calibre of players they want to attract but also to give them a chance to become familiar with Champions League football. Add to this, the fact the Borussia Dortmund will look to be sterner opposition within the league, and it could be tough for them in the Bundesliga this season. As a result, I’m predicting that they’ll find themselves in third place at the end of the season: still comfortably in the Champions League spots but under pressure for the inauspicious title of ‘Germany’s second-best side’.
The embarrassment of losing to a Bundesliga 2 side in the Pokal last season should mean that RB Leipzig are keen to exorcise the demons this season. However, the competition is likely to be the least important to the club in the grand scheme, so it will be interesting to see the approach that Hasenhüttl takes in the later stages. I suspect Leipzig will make it to the semi-final stages where they will be knocked out by the eventual winner of the cup.
Champions League Prediction:
It has been commented on how Leipzig’s style of play suits the Champions League. Given the impact that Leicester City had in the competition last season, it will be interesting to see how Die Bullen, who play a similarly aggressive brand of football with a comparable formation, perform on the European stage. Their goal has to be the last 16, but a favourable draw at that stage could even see them through to the quarter finals.
Jon Mackenzie has a portfolio career which includes freelance journalism, cryptic crossword setting, bar tending and lecturing at universities, amongst other things. You can follow his tweets @Jon_Mackenzie, listen to his podcasts at ateamofjohnosheas.com and read his writes at jonmackenzie.com.