June 29, 2017

2016-17 Report Cards: RB Leipzig

The earth quaked. A fissure opened. Into the void slid traditional football. The earth swallowed. Upon this site was built Modern Football. All in the year of RasenBallsport Leipzig.

At least this was story according to one melodramatic reading of the just-finished 2016-17 Bundesliga season during which RB Leipzig swept through the Bundesliga.

So we all survived RBL’s first season in the Bundesliga. Although we were attuned by RB Leipzig-fueled Angst in the opening months of the season, it seems we mostly gave up and gave in as the Rückrunde. Of course, some of us never freaked out in the first place. In the meantime, we all collectively kicked the can down the road, I think.

What all this means is unresolved, of course, so I won’t try to figure it all out in the this piece. You can stay tuned to my “Cross Pressured Bundesliga” series as I try to figure these things out. Instead in this piece I will talk about is the football played by RB Leipzig this season.

And excellent football it was — so excellent that, by season’s end, most RBL-related talk centered on the Red Bull’s 2nd place finish, direct qualification to the Champions League, and the attractive brand of football played by the Ralp Hasenhüttl-coached team. Basically, RBL played a high tempo game of intense pressing, which created many scoring chances off the counter. The three standout players were Timo Werner, who was the team’s leading scorer with 21 goals (33% of RBL’s total goals); Emil Forsberg, who chipped in a Bundesliga best 19 assists and 3.1 Key Passes per match; and Naby Keita, who became the Bundesliga’s knockoff version of N’Golo Kante, albeit with pace and scoring menace.

Make no mistake about it: RBL’s season was a sensational success. However, for you readers unfamiliar with the Bundesliga, Leipzig doesn’t closely resembling “the Bundesliga’s Leicester City story” in the slightest. Far from it. After being promoted, RBL’s roster was already chock-full of starlets and talent. Personally, I predicted something like a 6th-7th place finish for RBL this season. And the likes of our own Max Regenhuber even predicted that, after a hard-earned 2nd place finish for direct promotion in the 2.Bundesliga, RBL would conceivably have an easier time in the Bundesliga, since clubs wouldn’t cram the box with defenders, but would (vainly) try to take the match to RBL. He was right. Hiring Ralph Hasenhüttl also changed the equation, as during the offseason RBL’s youthful talent was transformed into an elite pressing outfit with the flexibility possession game DNA of Ralf Rangnick’s previous coaching philosophy still lurking within. A lethal combination. For these reasons, a Europa League spot finish from RBL wouldn’t have surprised me; however, not in my most Lynchean dreams would I have picked a 2nd place finish for these Bullen.

After this preamble, it’s time to grade RasenBallsport Leipzig’s inaugural Bundesliga season.

Highlight

It’s gotta be the main fruit of finishing 2nd place: direct Champions League qualification for 2017-18. It’s been a long time for the former East Germany. Cue scenes:

A season ago, RBL finished 2nd in the 2.Budnesliga behind a rampant SC Freiburg. Don’t forget this. A promoted club finishes 2nd and will be in the Champions League. It is a remarkable story, regardless of the staggering talent already on the roster. I mean, the club still needed to adjust to a (top flight) new league, which has new rhythms and intensities. Don’t forget this. We’ve never seen anything like this before in German football. Don’t forget this.

A corollary highlight though would have to be RBL’s three week stint as the 1st place Bundesliga side during the Hinrunde. This this remarkable run, Leipzig certainly looked like Bayern’s near equal and the real title challengers this season. Suddenly, a whole knot of usual European-bound clubs were been squeezed out of one of the top spots in the proceeding domino chain.

RB Leipzig topped the Bundesliga table for three weeks in the Hinrunde. Source: kicker.de.

During this stunning Hinrunde, Leipzig reeled off 8 (!) straight wins, before strangely, and finally, losing its first Bundesliga match on December 10th at Ingolstadt 1-0. Regardless, and given the preseason build up and context, Leipzig surely pulled off one of the most memorable Hinrunde runs in Bundesliga history.

Lowlight

This is a funny one for Leipzig. Quality-wise, the lowlight was a seven week stretch during the Rückrunde, sandwiched by RBL’s only strings of back-to-back losses. But the funny thing was that, thanks to the sensational Hinrunde, Leipzig was never really in danger of slipping below 2nd place. I mean, woah. Nevertheless, this seven match stretch wasn’t pretty for RBL:

  • 02/04: 1-0 loss at Dortmund.
  • 02/11: 0-3 loss to HSV (biggest upset of the season?).
  • 02/19: 1-2 win at Gladbach.
  • 02/25: 3-1 win vs. Köln.
  • 03/03: 2-2 draw at Augsburg.
  • 03/11: 0-1 loss to VfL Wolfsburg (SRSLY?)
  • 03/18: 3-0 loss at Werder.

But come on, what a “luxury” lowlight to have. Aside from Bayern, any other Bundesliga club would happily trade its birthright for this “lowlight.” It must be nice to be the Bulls.

Attack

RBL’s 66 goals was the 3rd most in the Bundesliga, after Bayern and BVB. Over the season’s run, Leipzig scored 24% of its goals in the final 15 minutes of a match, and overall scored 58% of its goals in the 2nd half — a bit of a slow match starter, you could say.

Of its 66 goals, 16 were scored from set piece situations (corners, freekicks, penalties), which was only 8th most in the Bundesliga. Otherwise, RBL frequently scored off counter-attack-ish situations. (I say “ish,” since given RBL’s high press, the kinds of counters the Bulls created were widely varied in nature; nonetheless, these moments all were still technically counters. Other sources disagree with me. For example, WhoScored.com claims that RBL scored 11 goals in what the site defines as “Counter Attack.” In response, I’d argue that with any Hasenhüttl coached side, we need to expand our definition of counter attack. Make sense?)

Aside from the awesome Werner, the other key goal scorers were Forsberg, Keita, and Marcel Sabitzer, who each scored 8. Finally, although Yussuf Poulsen’s 5 goals look paltry, given his position and height, don’t forget that he was injured at times and is more of a decoy or set-up man right now, rather than pure goal scorer. Moreover, all these players mentioned so far led the team in shots per match, although Sabitzer was the actual leader (2.5) with nearly — and only! — a third of the goals to show for his efforts contrasted with Werner (2.4). Heh.

Speaking of shots, Leipzig’s 13 per match was 7th most in the Bundesliga and its 5.1 shots on target was 5th most. On average, and this number surprised me, RBL possessed the ball for 25.9 seconds per possession leading to scoring chance. (The league average was 19.1 seconds.) However, I don’t have the chronological data to see if/how RBL’s average possession length in this regard went up or down throughout the season as opponents adjusted defensive schemes, etc.

Additionally, on these scoring opportunity possessions, RBL made 9 passes on average (3rd most in the Bundesliga; the league average is 6 passes). Although good ol’ Charles Reep would certainly be wrinkling his nose at these numbers, they bear out Leipzig’s reputation as a slick passing unit, as much of the club’s core has already played together for 3-4 seasons now. Finally, Leipzig’s 10.5 Key Passes per match was 4th most in the Bundesliga and, when correlated with the club’s 3rd most goals scored tally, gesture toward a slightly above-average shot conversation rate. (RBL’s PDO number — a rough index of luck — was 103%, corroborating piece of evidence, for technically-inclined readers.)

Fun final fact: Leipzig was offside the most in the Bundesliga (3.4 times per match). I blame Poulsen.

Defense

Goals-wise, Leipzig conceded the Bundesliga’s 3rd fewest goals (39); only Bayern (22) and Hoffenheim (37) conceded fewer. Of these, Leipzig conceded 14 goals from set piece situations (11th most in Bundesliga) and 25 goals from open play (17th most in the Bundesliga). However, and perhaps here we see a vulnerability emerge in the “high” of the Hasenhüttl high press, RBL conceded 48% of these open play goals on the counter (the Bundesliga average is 32%). This number reminds me of late vintage BVB sides under Jürgen Klopp.

Fun fact: RBL conceded 33% of goals in the last 15 minutes (thanks, Bayern … on Matchday 34), giving the Bulls a goal differential of -3 for the entire season during this crucial time period. Yikes.

Otherwise, RBL conceded the 2nd fewest shots in the league (10 per match); by the way, opponents had a shot conversion rate of 10.4% against Leipzig, which is fractionally lower than the 10.5% Bundesliga average. Speaking of conversation rates, RBL did a fantastic job preventing shots on target from opponents (29%), which was much lower than the Bundesliga average (35.5%).

This defensive work made Hungarian keeper Peter Gulásci’s job easier. Per match, Leipzig’s Expected Goals Conceded number was 1.1 goals, which Gulásci bettered by only conceding 0.84 goals per match — the 4th best keeper differential in the league.

Stylistically, RBL was also defined by defensive physicality and aggressiveness. For example, Leipzig committed the 2nd most tackles per match (21.4), the 4th most fouls (15.4 per match!), the 5th most interceptions per match (22.3). Of the fouls, 6.8 occurred within RBL’s own half of the pitch, the league’s 4th most. Usually only bottom table sides are seen high in this column. For example, look at some of the company Leipzig is keeping in this chart:

RasenBallsport Leipzig was among the Bundesliga’s most fouling sides in this own half in 2016-17. Source: InStatFootball.com.

Who did all this fouling? Well, Diego Demme (2.5 fouls), Keita (2.3), Poulson (2.1), and Lukas Klostermann (2.0) were all the per match fouling culprits. As for Keita, he tied for the most yellow cards on his club (8).

Defensive fun fact #2: Leipzig won the ball 74.5 meters on average from the opponent’s goal. The league average? 75.8 meters. So wasn’t as if Leipzig’s defensive pressing resulting in the Bulls winning the ball much closer to the opponent’s goal than on average.

From the Leipzig roster, shout outs to Demme, Willi Orban, and Marvin Compper. You boys in the defensive middle deserve some love for solid seasons all round.

Midfield

Keita, Keita, Keita. No, really, Keita ruled RBL’s midfield in a way only akin to what Thiago did for Bayern this season. The 22 year old Guinean was my pick for new comer of the year in the Bundesliga. Keita plays smack dab in the middle of Leipzig’s pitch, but he can be inflected both as a defensive or offensive central midfielder. Really, what this flexibility underscores is Keita’s box-to-box territory. He’s a roamer of the straight line corridors.

Statistically, Keita’s contributions look like this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a Matisse-styled mustache shape here. Mysterious. As for the statistical categories, any questions? Obviously, Keita is both a heavy defensive and offensive contributor, hence my box-to-box claim about him.

Obviously, Keita is a skilled and dazzling dribbler; however, his passing contributions are underrated. For example, he led RBL in passing completion (81% on 1150 completed passes), which on one hand is surprising given Keita’s box-to-box profile, but on the other hand might tell you all you need to know about how build up play does/doesn’t work in the Leipzig midfield! Regardless, here’s a sample of Keita’s passing contributions:

An example of Keita’s passing work on October 23rd in a 3-1 win against Werder Bremen. Source: Squawka.com.

Something you should understand about Leipzig: the Bulls don’t really do build up play. Their overall pass completion rate of 74.8% and 51.8% possession per match demonstrate this fact. Instead, Leipzig works the flanks a bit more and dribbles a bit more than a slower build up side like Bayern or Dortmund. For example, RBL averaged 9.2 dribbling sequences per match (4th in the league); conversely, Leipzig was dispossessed 9.8 times per match (5th most) and had 13.1 “unsuccessful touches” per match (the league’s 3rd most!). So yeah, the Bulls are a bit loose with the ball.

But it’s not like Leipzig doesn’t pass the ball; after all, it averaged 465.7 passes per match (6th most in the Bundesliga), and we already seen that Keita was a key contributor here, but so were Diego Demme, who led the team with 68.6 passes per match, and holding midfielder Stefan Ilsanker who averaged 48 passes per match. Expect that RBL will have to grow into slower passing play these upcoming seasons, as opponents adjust to the pressing schemes and/or Keita moves on to a bigger club.

Fun fact: Leipzig averaged 26:23 of possession per match, which is basically the league average; however, in terms of quantity of possession instances, RBL had 116 per match, only Ingolstadt and HSV had more. What this means is that, aside from the possessions leading to scoring opportunities that we saw above, the average RBL possession was short — and hopefully exciting.

Improve for Next Season

Versatility. That hallmark of elite contemporary football. Above, I outlined what Leipzig already do well. However, to succeed in Europe and remain in the Bundesliga’s very top bracket, the Bulls will need to vary it up. How? Well, there’s the slower possession game I mentioned above, which, in turn, will probably slow down opponents’ counter (recall that RBL was vulnerable to conceding counter goals) opportunities.

Additionally, RBL should probably groom a solid #2 scoring option so that Werner doesn’t take on more and more of the burden. Here’s looking at you Poulson, Oliver Burke, and anyone else who transfers in.

Player of the Season

Emil Forserg. You’ve already read that the Swede was the league top assister and Key Pass man.Without Forsberg, Werner doesn’t score 21 goals.  But he also scored 8 goals, like shalom of a run against Leverkusen:

Or this stunner at Wolfsburg:

Forsberg has the potential to become a Marco Reus-esque playmaker who’s equally game for assisting and scoring, at least this is how I envision his role growing over the next couple seasons.

Grade

A+

Come on, you seriously thought I’d go with anything else? Are you delusional?

In footballing terms, RB Leipzig’s season was sensational and one of European football’s biggest stories. You can’t deny this. Domestically, the Bundesliga suddenly has a new Champions League club, and who looks set to stay this way for a long time. The Bundesliga pecking order changed in a season, thanks to the new club from Leipzig, who even managed to give Bayern the chills this season. Yes, 2016-17 was the year of the Bull in the Bundesliga.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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