November 18, 2017

RB Leipzig Watch: We have a Title Race, again

 

(Editor: This piece is the beginning of a series covering RasenBallsport Leipzig’s seemingly inevitable promotion to the Bundesliga at the end of this 2015-16 season. The eastern German club is sitting confidently at 1st place in the Bundesliga 2 table with a sizable gap between themselves and clubs #2 and #3. Promotion seems extremely likely for this most polarizing of German clubs. In this series, Max Regenhuber will document the energy drink company-backed club’s march to the top flight. If you’re new to this topic, check out our topic tag for RB Leipzig.)

By Max Regenhuber

Those “Wochen der Wahrheit” (weeks of truth) are over for Leipzig and it hasn’t been pretty. Three points from three games is bad enough on its own, what makes it even worse is the fact that the Red Bulls dropped three points each against promotion rivals Freiburg and Nürnberg. The game in between was a home win against lowly 1860 Munich, where anything but three points wasn’t acceptable anyways.

Coming into this crucial three-game-stretch RB was nine points clear of 3rd place Nürnberg and had an opportunity to lock up direct promotion without entering the Relegation Playoffs. Hoffenheim, who are 15th in the 1. Bundesliga at the moment would be the opponent of 2.Bundesliga’s third best team if the season ended today.

That’s what made the Nürnberg loss so tough to swallow, RB will be in the middle of a three way battle for two spots the rest of the way.

Fasten your seatbelts a crazy season finale is coming.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBdFWPARRms

The Bad News

In the 2016 Rückrunde, Leipzig has now lost three games and all of them were handed to RB away from home by promotion rivals. Losing “6 Punkte Spiele” (games against direct table rivals mean a 6 point swing) hurts and RB’s young squad has lost all of them.

The offensive players RB employs are talented but inexperienced and need too many chances to score. And when they score they show that they aren’t “there” yet in terms of mental toughness against clever teams.

In Nürnberg, Leipzig actually went ahead after 52 minutes on a nice pass by Forsberg to Poulsen who set up Davie Selke perfectly. To celebrate the occasion Selke and Poulsen did the “dab” in front of 2500 travelling Leipzig away supporters.

I personally love when players have fun on the pitch, but with 40 minutes left in a tight match in front of a pumped up crowd, the “dab” was the dumbest thing RB’s young strikers could possibly do.

It wasn’t like the people of Nürnberg and 40.000 people in the Grundig Stadion needed a spark to get going.  Nürnberg is one of the proudest and most traditional clubs in Germany. “Der Club” has nine German championships and four cup wins to it’s name, you can probably imagine how little they appreciate RB Leipzig down there. Selke and Poulsen gave them all the reasons in the world to be even more pissed at RB.

Nürnberg’s physical team and raucous crowd drew some extra blood from this disrespectful celebration, you could feel it even on TV.

Dabbing” is a celebration/dance originally invented by NFL Quarterback Cam Newton and introduced to European Football by Paul Pogba of Juventus Turin.

Paul Pogba - of the dab.
Paul Pogba – of the dab.

So why did I hate that Selke and Poulsen got in on the fun?

Newton has a NFL MVP and a Heisman trophy, Pogba is a three time Italian champion. Both of these guys have earned the right to be a little eccentric.

Davie Selke and Yussuf Poulsen simply aren’t at that level yet and even lost the match in the end. They look like disrespectful idiots now. Save that stuff for the promotion festivities, dancing is only cool as long as you are winning. Until then “taking care of business” should be the only concern. Can you imagine Thomas Müller “dabbing”? Me neither.

Of course the football gods punished RB. The equalizer and go ahead goal both happened because RB was unable to clear the ball and got unlucky bounces. Everybody who follows 2.Liga knows how effective Nürnberg are with set pieces and that they depend on them to create goals since talented midfielder Alessandro Schöpf left for Schalke in the winter.

Nürnberg was simply more physical and “wanted it more” after Selke’s goal while RB’s spirit was broken after the one two punch they took.

In the end the 3:1 goal that killed the game came off a counter attack in extra time when RB had already abandoned defending altogether.

The Red Bulls now find themselves just a single match ahead of Nürnberg with seven games to go and can’t afford any more slip ups. Leipzig needs six wins and a draw now to get promoted for sure. The safety buffer has gotten slim.

The other big RB rival SC Freiburg managed a 1-0 derby win against Karlsruher SC on Monday night and have pulled ahead of Leipzig on goal difference.

To successfully close out games is what separates good teams from great teams. Leipzig’s roster is 23,8 years old on average. The offense around Sabitzer (22), Poulsen (21), Selke (21) and Forsberg (24) looks like a kindergarten on paper, naturally they look like deers in the headlight sometimes. They also make mental mistakes that experienced teams take advantage of.

Aside from 30 year old defender Marvin Compper, who has Bundesliga and Serie A pedigree, nobody on that team has experience at the highest level yet.

RB’s players are still boys and the final stretch season will be a real test of character for RB’s youngsters. Nürnberg and Freiburg aren’t more talented than Leipzig but they are mentally tougher and have more veteran leadership on the team.

Ralf Rangnick might have outsmarted himself a little by putting together a squad with that little experience. Willi Orban for example is a former Under 21 national team player who has all the tools in the world to become great. But in tricky away matches Leipzig would have been better served with a solid, battle tested veteran. With the funds available in Leipzig it would have been no problem to add a couple of Bundesliga veterans on short term loan deals. Nürnberg subbed in 35 year old club legend Jan Polak in the RB game and you could sense the extra assurance Polak gave young Nürnberg teammates just by showing up.

But Rangnick, stubborn as always, lives and dies by the youth movement and had to watch Orban mess up twice in crucial situations of the Freiburg and Nürnberg matches. If RB fails to make the top two, those two mistakes will be a large part of the reason.

Critics of RB can hope that the young Bulls starlets will crumble under the immense pressure of a close promotion race. From now on every game will be a final.

 

NUREMBERG,GERMANY,20.MAR.16 - SOCCER - 2. DFL, 2. Deutsche Bundesliga, 1. FC Nuernberg vs RasenBallsport Leipzig. Image shows Ondrej Petrak (Nuernberg) and Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig). keywords: goal. Photo: GEPA pictures/ Roger Petzsche
1. FC Nuernberg vs RasenBallsport Leipzig. Photo: GEPA pictures/ Roger Petzsche

The Good News

RB is a young team.

Why is this listed also as good news, you might ask? Because young players learn from mistakes, raw talent on the other hand is either there or not. So these Rückrunde losses aren’t a reason to panic. When two evenly matched teams meet, the more experienced side often comes out on top. Leipzig’s youngsters will get the experience they need at some point, relax.

What’s also pretty good for RB is the fact that fourth place FC St. Pauli has been in a slump too and trails Leipzig by 11 points and -13 goals now. That translates to “4 games behind with 7 left”.  Leipzig is therefore all but guaranteed to finish in the top three, at least a Relegation Playoffs entry seems secure.

The little problem with the Relegation Playoffs is that teams from the 2.Liga have won just twice since this system was re-introduced by the DFL seven years ago :

Nürnberg beat Energie Cottbus in 2009 and Fortuna Düsseldorf beat Hertha BSC in 2012. That’s it. Every other matchup was won by the 1st division team.

A third place finish in 2.Bundesliga only translates to a 2 of 7 (28%) chance at promotion, while the first and second place clubs go up for sure.

Yes, 3rd place would be an unwelcome consolation prize but should not be taken for granted. RB will get a shot at Bundesliga football, we just don’t know in what way yet.

Red Bull fans can also feel positive about the way Leipzig responded to the defeats at Pauli and Freiburg, they answered both with wins the week after. During the 2016 Rückrunde RB has lost to all good teams they played on the road, that’s a problem. But they have also won every other game, let’s not forget that.

The extremely tough part of the schedule is over now and RB still holds a one game lead over 3rd place. Of course it sucks for RB fans that they failed to get results in head to head matchups with direct rivals. Especially since RB hasn’t been outplayed in any of those games.

Losing tight matches away from home against elite competition doesn’t have to mean anything though. As long as the Red Bulls get the job done against mediocre and bad teams they will be fine.

  • Leipzig has to play 5th place VFL Bochum at the Red Bull Arena next week and that will be the last tough matchup (on paper) of this season
  • Four of the seven games left will be at home where Leipzig has been perfect so far in 2016
  • RB’s final six opponents have an average table rank of just ~13th.

These facts mean Leipzig is still in pretty good shape and can go up without any outside help. They have a three point lead, an extra home game and the easiest schedule, that’s why gambling websites still see Leipzig as a lock for promotion.

However this will play out in the end, the promotion finale will be epic. Although we won’t get a finale as crazy as 2015, when 4 teams were fighting for promotion on the final matchday.

But we might get to witness the best 2.Bundesliga season any team ever had.

HerthaBSC promotion

Hertha BSC gained a record number of 76 points in their 2013 promotion campaign, looking at the three 2016 promotion candidates and their point totals, this record is in danger.

The crazy thing about it: A record setting season might not be good enough for first place  because two teams are on track to play the best season ever.
You gotta love this league.

Anyways, here is how the race looks on paper after Matchday 28 with seven matches left for each team:

1st Place: SC Freiburg (direct promotion)

  • Points: 56
  • Goal difference: +29
  • Home games left: 3  
  • Avg. opponent table position: 9.9
  • Bookmakers promotion odds: 3.0 (i.e. you get 3€ for a 1€ bet on Freiburg, if they get promoted)

 

2nd Place: RB Leipzig (direct promotion)

  • Points: 56
  • Goal difference: +18
  • Home games left: 4
  • Avg. opponent table position: 13
  • Bookmakers odds: 1.44

3rd Place: 1.FC Nürnberg (Relegation Playoffs)

  • Points: 53
  • Goal difference: +22
  • Home games left: 3
  • Avg. opponent table position: 11.4
  • Bookmakers odds: 9.0

(Check out http://www.restprogramm.com/restprogramm/liga/Zweite_Liga/ for more detailed  information.)

The RB Watch Series will be back after the Düsseldorf game, which will be played at the ESPRIT Arena on Monday night April 11th 20:15 CET.

Next Saturday RB will host Bochum first, kick off will be 13:00 CET.

 

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