RB Leipzig 2017 Title Challenge Back on Track
1st February 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
After a flying start to their first ever top-flight campaign, the last game before the winter break presented the biggest test in the short history of RB Leipzig.
The Red Bull-owned team travelled to the Allianz Arena to take on Bayern Munich, a win, or even a draw, would have left their fans, and the neutrals swept up in their rise to become apparent Bundesliga contenders, absolutely ecstatic.
But they lost 3-0 in a thoroughly one-sided affair. The Bavarian’s exuded an air of superiority throughout, almost swatting away the plucky upstarts with disdain — how dare they come to our patch and think they can tussle with the big boys.
Leipzig’s star playmaker Emil Forsberg, arguably their most impressive player of the season to date – although Guinean midfielder Naby Keita would make a serious clam for that distinction – was sent off, betraying his nervousness and seemingly over-hyped and underprepared for the occasion.
Their Bundesliga dream didn’t lie in tatters, but it suffered a severe blow. Having only been promoted from the 2.Bundesliga last season, the fact that Leipzig were anywhere near the upper-echelons of Germany’s top division was an achievement in itself. Perhaps now they would readjust their sights a little, aim for European qualification rather than chase an increasingly unlikely title.
Had RB Leipzig slipped into that way of thinking, few would have been critical. But Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men have bounced back from their pre-Christmas set-back and showed impressive levels of resolve and determination since the Bundesliga resumed earlier this month.
A win away to Eintracht Frankfurt exercised the demons of Munich. Aided by an early sending off for goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, the away side romped to a 3-0 win thanks to goals from Marvin Compper, Timo Werner and a Jesus Vallejo own goal.
And last weekend they took on Hoffenheim at the Red Bull Arena. Under the guidance of 29-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann, Die Kraichgauer were the only remaining unbeaten side in Europe’s major leagues heading into the game.
Despite going a goal down early on, strikes from Werner and Marcel Sabitzer ended Hoffenheim’s streak and showed the Bundesliga that Die Roten Bullen were well and truly over their December humbling at the hands of Bayern.
Tagged as the “most hated team in Germany” for their circumvention of the country’s “50 Plus One” ownership rule and the fact that they are the latest in a line of Red Bull-owned soulless franchise clubs, slowly but surely, the way Leipzig have played this season has won over many observers.
And those that remain in opposition have been forced to at least respectfully acknowledge what Hasenhuttl and his charges have achieved and continue to achieve this term.
Although it may be more for economic reasons, a desire for their players to have a high resale potential rather than any commitment to a romantic ideal, Leipzig have youth at their core.
Their policy of buying players only aged 23 or younger has seen them sweep up some of the most promising and exciting young players from around the Continent.
Werner, a 20-year-old striker, was acquired from relegated Stuttgart, and Scottish international winger Oliver Burk became the club’s record signing last summer when he shunned Premier League interest to move to East Germany from Nottingham Forest.
Midfield dynamo Naby Keita was transferred from sister club Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and, earlier this month, teenage centre-back Dayot Upamecano, who was wanted by Arsenal and Barcelona, made the same switch.
With the recruitment process overseen by former Schalke manager Ralf Rangnik, a highly respected figure within German football, the Red Bull project is using joined up thinking to identify which players tick all of the boxes.
They must be young, have high potential for future development, and, crucially, must fit the system the Rangnick laid the blueprint for while coach of the club until last season, and which has been picked up and expanded on by Hasenhuttl.
From their unique 4-2-2-2 shape, a high-tempo press is a key ingredient in the Leipzig system. When in possession, strikers Werner and Yussuf Poulsen are adept at running the channels to both offer a direct out-ball while also providing width. This then allows playmaker Forsberg to move inside from the left, with Sabitzer doing the same from the right.
It’s a fluid system which sees them well covered when out of possession, able to break quickly and effectively when countering and morph into a 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 when circumstances dictate such switches to be necessary.
If Werner is the goal-scorer and Forsberg is the creator, Keita is the engine. The Guinean midfielder covers every blade of grass, plugging gaps defensively and breaking up; launching attacks and bursting forwards, utilising his superb dribbling skills and incredible knack for playing accurate forward passes while on the run.
They perhaps lack the overall quality, experience and squad depth of Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, meaning their hopes of securing a first Bundesliga title were always slim.
But the way Hasenhuttl has set his team up, maximising the strengths of his players while systematically covering for their weaknesses, has brought them to the top end of the division.
The loss to Bayern would have undoubtedly stung their pride, and the reigning champions will have felt like they had taught the young upstarts a lesson, putting them in their place and ending any talk of a title challenge.
And that may have been the case, for a short while at least.
But the way Leipzig have bounced back from this set-back has told us more about the team than anything we could have discerned from the run of results which took them to the Bundesliga’s summit in the first half of the season.
We already knew they were not the most experienced, with few players equipped with the know-how to sustain a push for major honours. We also knew that they were capable of seeing off the teams below then and upsetting the big boys on occasions, but were still years behind Bayern and BVB developmentally.
But we now know that they are imbued with a steely determination; that they will not allow one defeat to derail their fairy-tale season and that, if anything, it has only made them stronger.
The title remains an unlikely dream for RB Leipzig, but, if Bayern slip up, they’ll be waiting.