Millwall fans used to sing “No one likes us, we don’t care” in response to the reputation they developed in the 70s & 80s as the flagship hooligans of English football. Nowadays, teams from other sports have adopted the same chant, such as the Philadelphia Eagles, who have a somewhat less terrifying reputation, but are still unpopular. But it feels as though this is a chant that should really belong to RB Leipzig. Leipzig spawned like a suspect looking lump on a German football testicle and proceeded to climb the football ladder (don’t worry I’m not going to carry on the metaphor), making enemies of everyone along the way. No one likes them. Absolutely no one.
In the process, they have forced German football to ask a lot of questions about itself. But if anything, they may have galvanized the rest of the nation’s clubs in the resolute belief in what is good and right about the sport, and what sets them apart from the rest of European football. The existential debate about RB Leipzig and German football’s heart and soul will carry on long into the future, but in the meantime, they keep on growing. Given this, we should probably take a look at where the club is now, and what we can expect from them this season.
Bundesliga: 3rd place – 66 pts (19 W, 9 D, 6 L)
DFB Pokal: Runners up, losing 3-0 to Bayern Munich
Europa League: Group stages, finishing 3rd behind RB Salzburg and Celtic
In their first three seasons in the Bundesliga, they have finished 2nd, 6th, and 3rd. Their 3rd place finish last season guaranteed them Champions League football for only the second time in their history. They also reached their first DFB Pokal final, though they lost to Bayern when they got there. That’s a pretty successful season by any standards, but especially given that this was a stopgap season while they waited for new manager Julien Nagelsmann to join the team. That’s what happens when you can call on Ralf Rangnick to take the reigns. Rangnick has had a monumental impact on the development of RB Leipzig, but also on German football as a whole. He has helped develop the football philosophy that underpins the whole Red Bull football group, based around high pressing and counter-pressing, fast, direct and fluid attacking, and youth development. He continued this philosophy last season, and left Nagelsmann with a great core to work with.
Last season, more than anything, can be viewed as another step in the right direction for a very talented young group. Werner and Poulsen continued to grow as a front two. Werner went from strength to strength, tallying up 16 league goals (compared with 13 the year before), while Poulsen scored 15 (compared with 12 the year before). They combined for a total xG+A of 40 goals (Werner = 23, Poulsen = 17). Werner is the primary goal threat, while Poulsen acts as a facilitator and a solid secondary threat. Werner averaged 3 shots and 0.6 goals per 90, and a conversion rate of about 20% (all improvements on the previous season), while Poulsen took fewer shots but his conversion rate was a lot better, and his 0.55 goals per 90 was pretty good (again, an improvement across the board on the previous season).
Behind them, Forsberg, Kampl, and Sabitzer provided the majority of big chances for the team. Forsberg continues to make this team tick, adding 0.5 assists per 90 and 2.88 key passes per 90.
In defense, Konate and Upamecano continued to develop into great defenders. Alongside Willi Orban and in front of Gulasci, they were the best defense in the league last season. Over the course of the season, only one player made a single error leading to a shot or goal (Stefan Ilsanker ruined the perfect season).
They struggled in the Europa League, but in all other competitions they did really well. Leipzig will surely view last season as a success, irrespective of the fact that it was a transitional season.
- Ademola Lookman (LW) – Everton – €18m
- Christopher Nkunku (CM) – Paris Saint Germain – €13m
- Hannes Wolf (AM) – RB Salzburg – €12m
- Luan Candido (LB) – Palmeiras – €8m
- Ethan Ampadu (CB) – Chelsea – Loan
- Philipp Tschauner (GK) – Hannover 96 – €350k
- Bruma (LW) – PSV Eindhoven – €15m
- Julian Krahl (GK) – FC Koln – Free
- Marius Muller (GK) – FC Luzern – Undisclosed
As mentioned, the main change at Leipzig is the new manager, Julien Nagelsmann. Otherwise, they’ve only made a couple of changes, and other than Tschauner (who has just been signed as a depth piece) all of their additions are 21 or younger.
They have added Ademola Lookman from Everton, after his successful loan spell with the club two seasons ago. He’s a talented kid, and seems to be a perfect fit for the system. I’m sure he will prove to be a threat off the bench, but I’d be surprised if he is starting games. That said, he should have the quality to contribute if he was called upon if necessary.
They’ve also added exciting prospect, Hannes Wolf, but he unfortunately suffered an awful broken leg in the U21 Euros so will be unlikely to feature at all next season. Perhaps the most important bit of business Leipzig could do this summer would be to retain Timo Werner. There have been rumors that he is on his way to Bayern and though there is sense in selling now in business terms, he’s incredibly important to this RB Leipzig team. So far they have kept Werner, but it remains to be seen whether they make it to the close of the transfer window with him still on their books.
What to expect in 2019/20
There are similarities between Nagelsmann and Rangnick’s system. Nagelsmann used a 3-1-4-2 (which can blend into 3-4-3 and 3-4-1-2 depending on situation) formation at Hoffenheim, which has some similarities to the 4-2-2-2 that Leipzig employ. In defense, it is structurally a little different, and relies on wing-backs a little more, but offensively, it uses the same 2-2 block. The four attacking players are fluid, and often the attacking midfielders will drift wide or overlap with the forwards. The biggest difference is that Hoffenheim tended to be a little more patient in possession. Nagelsmann’s approach focuses on attacking overloads and the use of space between defense to create openings for high quality opportunities.
I think we will probably see a bit of a blend of styles. Leipzig will become a little more careful, but they will continue to play with the intensity they’re known for. I think they’ll be defensively similar, and in offense, they’ll slow their build up a little but continue to play fast from turnovers.
The RB Leipzig defense is perfectly set up for this system. Gulasci will continue to do his duties between the sticks, while at center back, I think Upamecano might operate as a ball playing center back between the more defensively active Orban and Konate. Konate and Orban are both very active defenders, blocking a lot of shots and making a lot clearances, while Upamecano tends to be active earlier in the attacking phase, making a lot of interceptions. Upamecano is the best of the three on the ball, and would be well suited to helping Leipzig transition into offense from the back. He is likely to perform a similar role to Hoffenheim’s Kevin Vogt. He will be the guy dictating the defensive game, while Orban and Konate play off of him. All three are defensively very strong. Last season, Konate won 66% of his duels (61% for Upamecano and 63% for Orban). Meanwhile, Orban is the aerially dominant of the three, winning 5 aerial duels per 90 (Konate and Upamecano both winning over 3). In addition, Upamecano and Konate were very difficult to dribble past as well. The three of them appear to complement each other really well.
In offense, Poulsen and Werner’s partnership looks likely to continue under new management, while Augustin and Lookman will provide quality alternatives from the bench. Forsberg will continue to be the creator that links all of this together, and will face competition from Sabitzer, Nkunku and eventually Hannes Wolf in that attacking role. Haidara will offer a more industrious, box to box approach in center mid (or the Naby Keita, as it’s probably known to Leipzig fans), while Kampl is more of a classic deep lying playmaker. Behind them, Demme, Adams, and Ilsanker will provide holding/defensive duties.
Nagelsmann likes to develop young talent, so expect to see guys like Adams, Nkunku, and Lookman given plenty of opportunities. Both Tyler Adams and Nkunku could get quite a few minutes at one of the central midfield slots. Adams especially has the flexibility to play all over, including as a wing-back. Nagelsmann seems like a perfect fit for this young team. His football philosophy is similar, but there is room for this team to develop an identity beyond Ralfball under the new manager. The fact he is also great at youth development is just the icing on the cake.
It’s definitely possible that Leipzig could force their way into the title race this season, but I’m not sure this team is ready just yet. As we saw with Dortmund last season, youth and inexperience can count against a team in the long run. Even if they are to compete with Bayern and Dortmund this season, they’d be facing up against a perpetual winner and a team that gained a wealth of experience from a close title run last season. It feels like they’re probably just a little short of competing.
With that said, they also look a little stronger than Bayer Leverkusen, and they’re far ahead of the rest of the league. I could see Leipzig finishing anywhere from 4th to 2nd, but 3rd feels like the most realistic spot for them. That could all change if Werner leaves, but I’d be surprised if they let him go without a plan for replacing him. Having undergone the transition from Rangnick to Nagelsmann, and playing in only their fourth season in the Bundesliga, I think they’d be pretty pleased with a top 4 spot. But it won’t be long before they start knocking at the door of title contention.