In 1998 a freshly promoted Kaiserslautern side won the Bundesliga. A little over ten years later Hoffenheim led at the half way stage in their maiden season in the top flight, before eventually dropping back into mid-table. This year German football has seen the rise of RasenBallsport Leipzig who went unbeaten in the opening fourteen rounds of the season and currently provide the stiffest competition to Bayern München, the undoubted juggernaut of the league. What factors have led the newly promoted side to start so well? And can they keep up their impressive form until the end of the season and beyond?
RB Leipzig were founded in 2009 by the drinks company Red Bull who have most notably had success in the footballing world in Austria and the MLS. The only thing preventing the company from adorning their new club with the name of the energy drink were the laws of the German FA, but the principle remained the same as at their other clubs. A huge amount of resources were poured into the infrastructure of the club which boasted top flight facilities before they were anywhere near the Bundesliga. For their promotion to the Bundesliga, that translated into a significant transfers budget with outgoings of €50 million Euros so far this term. That money has allowed for the purchase of young talents with an average age in the first team squad of just 24 – the youngest in the league. The club’s financial backing will, without doubt, remain constant in the coming seasons and new additions are more than possible in the winter transfer window.
Leipzig have certainly made use of their substantial budget to assemble personnel, on and off the pitch, who have the right mixture of experience and potential. That is certainly true within the management which includes Sporting Director Ralf Rangnick, one of the most respected coaches and administrators in German football. Having been involved in coaching Bundesliga clubs since 1999, the former Schalke boss was courted by the English FA before and after the short reign of Sam Allardyce. Rangnick has played a significant role in recruiting promising coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, but also several of the key players. Amongst the playing staff two have distinguished themselves this season – Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner. Forsberg was signed from Swedish side Malmo in 2014 and quickly established himself in the first team in Leipzig. This season he has been hugely influential as he currently tops the assists table with 8 after fifteen matches, in addition to 5 goals. Likewise, German U21 international Timo Werner has been almost ever present since signing in the summer, and is the club’s leading scorer with 8 goals in 12 starts, whilst also adding 5 assists. Both of these players, in addition to head coach Hasenhüttl, are certainly on the radars of big European clubs, but are currently essential to what has become Leipzig’s highly successful brand of football.
Style of play
Since Jürgen Klopp’s success in the Bundesliga with his trademark ‘full-gas football’, a high tempo style has become the favoured approach for many sides in the league. Leipzig have certainly incorporated the ideals of Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side into their tactics this season, with a very attacking style of play. Only heavyweights Bayern München (34 goals) and Borussia Dortmund (32) have found the net more often than Leipzig’s 29. Moreover, RB’s average of 14 shots per game is the second highest in the league, indicating that Hasenhüttl’s side create plenty of chances every match. The club’s youthful squad allows them to press their opponents all over the pitch as indicated by the distance covered of 116,35 km per match. This value is well above the league average and second only to fellow promoted side SC Freiburg. Leipzig’s ability to put other sides under pressure early in matches, while also being deadly in front of goal, has meant that Leipzig had been behind for a total of just 13 minutes before their defeat to Ingolstadt in round 15. Their quality in attack is underpinned by a very solid defence which has conceded just 12 goals so far. Crucial to their defensive consistency has been the fact that two of their back four, Willi Orban and Marcel Halstenberg ,as well as goalkeeper Peter Gulasci, have played every one of 1,380 minutes of football so far this season. When required, Leipzig are able to adapt and use a more physical approach as evidenced by their 1- 0 win over Dortmund earlier in the season, and their average of over 15 fouls per match.
Prognosis for the future
In a highly competitive league such as the Bundesliga it will not be easy for Leipzig to sustain the success they have had since being promoted. With big games coming up both immediately before and after the winter break, Hasenhüttl’s side will be tested, but arguably their best is yet to come. The squad will develop and evolve together if key personnel can be retained. Moreover, the club will be able to attract even higher calibre players as their status continues to grow. With a pass completion rate of just 73%, which is below the league average of 77% ,there is room for improvement when in possession, which would also be a source of building pressure in matches. Part of the challenge of competing at the top of the league regularly will be to continue developing their approach, as sides have been found out in the past if they remain tactically static for too long. Should the club earn European football next season that would also force a rethink in terms of their rotation policy. Thus far however, Leipzig have equipped themselves very well and are forging something of a reputation in the league, especially at home where they remain unbeaten. Should Hasenhüttl and his side stick to the principles which have gotten them this far, they will surely be able to compete amongst the top sides in the coming seasons.
All statistics accurate as of 15/12/16
While the Brazilian league season ended in tragedy...