March 23, 2017

Will RB Leipzig Collapse like Hoffenheim did in their debut Bundesliga Season?

Rich investor. Ralf Rangnick. Young squad. Promotion. Topping Bayern in the table in December.

There are so many similarities between Rangnick’s 2008 Hoffenheim team, that took the league by storm and the 2016 Leipzig squad he assembled in Leipzig. RB’s veteran defender Marvin Compper has actually been on both teams and the season opener between Hoffenheim and RB was called “El Plastico”. But no matter how similar the two clubs that stormed through their first Bundesliga Hinrunde seem at first glance once you look under the hood, you’ll see that comparisons between the two clubs don’t work.

The meteoric rise of Rangnick’s Hoffenheim

Ba, Eduardo and Ibisevic during their amazing run
Ba, Eduardo and Ibisevic during their amazing run

RB Leipzig was created from a  blueprint that worked extremely well at Hoffenheim. What’s different is the scale of both operations. In the middle of Hoffenheim’s final season in the 2.Bundesliga, SAP founder Hopp released some funds and Rangnick hit the jackpot on each of his signings: Carlos Eduardo (7 million €), Chinedu Obasi (5m€), Demba Ba (3m€), Vedad Ibišević (1m€) and Luiz Gustavo (loan).

Once Hoffenheim arrived in the Bundesliga, Rangnick’s young squad took everyone by surprise. Ba, Ibisevic & Obasi were unstoppable, while opponents had issues with Rangnick’s zone defense scheme. The almighty FC Bayern was in rebuilding mode under newly hired coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Borussia Dortmund was still in year one of the “Kloppo experience” and far from being a contender. Bayer Leverkusen had a total off-year and finished in 9th place, while Schalke 04 (8.) and Werder Bremen (10.) also disappointed.

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So after 17 games, nouveau rich Hoffenheim looked like a serious title contender when they travelled to the Allianz Arena. Bayern prevailed, but Hoffenheim showed that they can even hang with Bayern. During the winter break, journalists proclaimed a “new world order” in German football. Nearly every supporter group in Germany launched heavy protests against “SAP 18,99€ Hoppenheim”. Most of the anger was directed towards SAP founder Dietmar Hopp, who got insulted, harassed and even received death threats. How big would the outcry have been, if Hoffe actually won the whole thing that year? Thankfully, Hopp never had to find out.

The “Downsizing” of 1899 Hoffenheim

Dietmar Hopp wants to keep Hoffenheim a regional thing
Dietmar Hopp wants to keep Hoffenheim a regional thing

Before Hoffenheim could even try to destroy German football, opponent Bundesliga coaches came up with countermeasures against Rangnick’s frantic up tempo play style. To make matters worse, goal getter Vedad Ibišević, who found the net 18 times during the Hinrunde, went down with a ligament rupture during winter break. An adequate replacement for the injured Bosnian never arrived. Rangnick was only authorized to spend 900k Euros to bring in Boubacar Sanogo off the Werder Bremen bench on loan. Hoffenheim’s Brazilian and African players became distracted by transfer offers from all over Europe. During the Rückrunde Hoffenheim only managed to gain 20 points and was ultimately passed down to 7th place. Ironically, a different corporate club, Volkswagen’s VfL Wolfsburg, capitalized on the rare “Bayern off year”.

In the meanwhile, the Rangnick-Hopp relationship fell apart just like Hoffenheim did on the field. Dietmar Hopp was intimidated by the media attention and the hatred he faced for bankrolling Hoffenheim’s rise to power. Hopp never asked for this and felt more comfortable when Hoffenheim turned into a mid table team. His TSG 1899 was never meant to be more than a “local thing”. After all, the Rhein-Neckar-Arena was built for 30.000 visitors.

Nice stadium, but nothing that screams Champions League
Nice stadium, but nothing that screams Champions League

Naturally, Rangnick wasn’t happy with the lack of ambition and resigned in 2011 when Luiz Gustavo was sold to Bayern in mid-season. Dietmar Hopp is a smart businessman and not a mean or evil guy. So I guess he made the right call when he downsized the Hoffenheim project. Hopp correctly identified the economic limitations of his club, that is located close to Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Freiburg. Hopp also witnessed how Wolfsburg’s popularity never took off, despite winning the title in 2009.

Since Rangnick left, Hoffenheim never finished higher than 7th place and averaged an 11th place finish in nine top-tier seasons. None of the big clubs feel threatened by 1899 anymore. Depending on where you stand with RB Leipzig, you might hope/fear that the same thing will happen with Leipzig over time.

The scale of Red Bull’s project in Leipzig is much bigger

naby-keita2

The biggest difference between RB and 1899 is the ownership model. Dietmar Hopp co-founded SAP, so technically Hoffenheim is backed by “SAP money”. However, there is no official affiliation with SAP and Hoffenheim, besides a (probably pretty generous) sponsorship deal. All in all, Hopp paid for Hoffe out of his own pocket as a private person. You could do the same thing starting tomorrow, if you have the cash lying around.

By contrast, RB Leipzig is part of a global football marketing strategy and the Red Bull owned clubs are funded and controlled through Red Bull itself. One might call Dieter Mateschitz “The face of Red Bull”, but he isn’t the face of one particular club or racing team. Red Bull has it’s hands in so many sporting events and teams, that protests against RB won’t even be noticed. While Hoffenheim never planned to buy their way into the Bundesliga elite, this is exactly what RB tries to accomplish. This summer Red Bull funded the acquisitions of Oliver Burke and Naby Keita for 15 million Euros a piece, even though RBL made 0,00€ off outgoing transfers. Those numbers alone illustrate that RB Leipzig means business and will spend aggressively to acquire and retain talent. So far, Hoffenheim has only had one double-digit signing in almost a decade (10 million for Andrej Kramaric this summer), which was covered by the sale of Kevin Volland to Leverkusen (20 million).

Another huge difference is the earning potential. RB games at the 43.000 seat RB Arena were sold out five out of six times this season. Leipzig’s front office is openly talking about plans to build a bigger arena that seats 70.000. Pay TV ratings (390.000 a game, 6th overall) are better than the numbers of Hamburg, Gladbach, Frankfurt and Leverkusen.

A lot of that has to do with the location of Leipzig, which isn’t a crowded marketplace like the regions Hoffenheim, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg ate in. Compared to the small market corporate clubs, RB Leipzig football operations may generate enough income down the road to fund a UCL calibre squad.

How likely is a “2008 Hoffenheim” like collapse with RB?

ralph-hasunhutl

Speaking as a Hertha BSC supporter (we’re trailing RB by 6 points), I would love to tell you that RB is just a lucky team that will eventually collapse. But unfortunately, that would be a lie. RB Leipzig is really THAT good, it’s not like weak competition makes them look good.

As mentioned earlier, 2008/09 was a weird campaign. A pedestrian 11W-2D-4L record and 35 points were good enough for Hoffenheim to win the Herbstmeisterschaft.

By contrast, RB Leipzig is still unbeaten and already has 33 points with four games still left in the Hinrunde. Leipzig’s roster is also deeper than the one Rangnick assembled in 2008.

The Bulls’ offensive rotation might be the deepest and most balanced in the whole league. Coach Ralph Hasenhüttel has a platoon of offensive starlets at his disposal in Emil Forsberg, Timo Werner, Yussuf Poulsen, Marcel Sabitzer and a bench so good that’s just unfair.  Burke (one goal in 220 minutes) and Davie Selke (two goals in 120 minutes) are ready to step in if anything happens. A season derailing blow, like the Ibišević injury dealt to Hoffenheim, seems highly unlikely looking at Leipzig’s depth up front. And there is still a winter transfer window ahead.

The statistics also love RBL. According to their Packing  numbers, Leipzig is first on offense and fifth on defense while midfielder Keita is the most effective player in the whole league by that metric. Kicker’s grade point average rates Forsberg and Keita as the two best players in the Bundesliga so far. In the team grade category, Kicker ranks Leipzig number one, slightly ahead of FC Bayern. And even though half of RBL’s wins came in one score games, Leipzig’s total goal difference is impressive at +18. That number puts the Bulls right between Bayern (+20) and Dortmund (+16). RB’s 14.2 shots per game compared to only 8.9 allowed also indicate that the Bulls aren’t on some unsustainable lucky streak. Going through Whoscored.com stats pages, you’ll have a hard time to find any metric that indicates that RB Leipzig is a fluke. Gambling websites like bwin have adjusted their title odds accordingly. “Bayern gonna Bayern”, so you’ll only get 1.15 Euros for every Euro you bet on a Bayern championship. Yet it really says something when Bwin rates Leipzig’s (6.0) chances to win the Bundesliga three times as high as those of Dortmund (19.0).

A huge factor is always how close the race at the top is at midseason. During Hoffenheim’s miraculous debut campaign, first and ninth place were separated by just nine points at the winter break, so it wasn’t all that hard for six clubs to eventually overtake “Hoffe” in the Rückrunde. By contrast Leipzig has already put some serious distance between them and clubs that normally strive for Top Four finishes. The Bulls hold a substantial 16 point advantage over Schalke and Leverkusen, while Gladbach (20 points behind) and Wolfsburg (23) are in need of a miracle if they want to finish ahead of the Bulls.

European football looks like a foregone conclusion for Leipzig next year. Going by the last two seasons, a Europa League spot can be had for roughly 50 points, while a point total in the ballpark of 60 gets you in the Champions League. So RB can basically afford to put up a mediocre 7W-6D-8L record over the remaining 21 games and would finish on 60 points right in UCL territory. A lousy 5W-2D-14L record would get the Bulls to 50 points and probably over the Europa League threshold. Can they win the title? I say no.

Until proven otherwise, Bayern and Dortmund are obviously heavy favorites to come in first and second in some order. Plus there are plenty of conceivable scenarios in which Leipzig could still drop out of the Top Four. However it’s just as reasonable to expect that Hertha (3rd), Hoffenheim (4th) and Frankfurt (5th) will slow down at some point. All things considered, it looks like Leipzig has a free run at Champions League football this year.

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