September 23, 2017

2017-18 Season Preview: Rasenballsport Leipzig — When Red Bull Gives You Wings, How High Can You Fly?

Basics

Name: Rasenballsport Leipzig GmbH.
NicknamesDie Bullen (The Bulls) Die Roten Bullen (The Red Bulls).
Founded: May 19th, 2009.
Club Colors: Red and White.
Primary Rivals: Every last club in the Bundesliga, 2nd Bundesliga, 3. Liga etc.
Fan Friendship: No one wants to be their friends.

Red Bull Arena

Capacity: 42,959
2016-17 Attendance: 704,720 (41,454 per match — 9th in the Bundesliga).

Red Bull Arena, Leipzig, Saxony, Germany

 Trophies

  • Regionalliga Nordost Champions: 2012-13
  • NOFV-Overliga Süd Champions: 2009-10
  • Saxony Cup Champions: 2010-11, 2012-13

2016-17 Finishes

Bundesliga: 2nd Place with 67 points (66 goals scored, 39 allowed, +26 goal differential)

DFB Pokal: 1st Round (2-2 vs Dynamo Dresden a.e.t., lost 5-4 on penalties)

Number of matches won by two or more goals: 11
Number of matches won by one goal: 9
Number of matches drawn: 7
Number of matches lost by one goal: 4
Number of matches lost by two or more goals: 3
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in a loss: 1
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in a draw: 5
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw: 1
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a win: 2

2016-17 Leading Scorers

  • Timo Werner: 21
  • Emil Forsberg: 8
  • Marcel Sabitzer: 8
  • Naby Keïta: 8

Summer Test Results

Record: 4-2-0
Goals Scored: 17
Goals Conceded: 3

  • SV Dessau 05 0:7 RB Leipzig
  • ZFC Meuselwitz 0:6 RB Leipzig
  • RB Leipzig 1:0 Konyaspor
  • RB Leipzig 0:1 Sevilla
  • RB Leipzig 2:0 Benfica
  • RB Leipzig 1:2 Stoke City

 

When Last We Saw Them

2016 was the year RB Leipzig officially announced to the Bundesliga: “We are here and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it, and you better get used to it, ’cause we ain’t goin’ nowehere.” RB Leipzig are to the Traditionsvereine of the Bundesliga what Guns ‘N’ Roses were to 1980’s Glam Rock: A new breed that leaves the “old guard” behind them to fade away into obscurity. Leipzig’s theme song should be “Hate Me Now” by iconic rapper Nas. There has never been a football club in German history more universally hated than RB Leipzig. Nope, not Leverkusen, not Hoffenheim, not even Wolfsburg. No other club comes even remotely close, and it does not faze Die Roten Bullen in the slightest. In fact, they embrace it. Their fans are unified by it. Hate for Leipzig breeds love among Leipzig.

RB Leipzig’s ascent to the top in 2016-17

RB Leipzig opened the 2016-17 campaign against the two clubs that would finish the season in third and fourth place respectively. Following a 2-2 draw at Hoffenheim, they hosted European giants Borussia Dortmund in what would be their statement to the football world: “We have arrived.” They beat Dortmund 1-0 that day and if people were not paying attention before, they certainly were now. Things only improved for Leipzig after that match and became unbearable for their haters, i.e. everyone who was not a fan of the club. After match week eight the Bulls ascended to second place in the Bundesliga table, a position they would not drop out of for the remainder of the season. Lets focus on that for a moment, shall we? RB Leipzig, a newly promoted club playing their first-ever season of top tier football, were no worse than second place for 26 consecutive weeks, which included a three week stretch as table-leaders. The haters will say: “Sure, they can do this, they have money.” Pardon me, but the players still have to perform on the pitch. The manager still has to man-manage as well as have his tactics correct. There have been many clubs with far greater financial resources than Leipzig that have performed much worse than the Bulls. To ignore the fact that RBL played exceptional football during the entire 2016-17 season indicates one of two things: Hatred potentially clouds your own judgment or, you simply were not paying attention.

There was one club that humbled the Saxons however, FC Bayern München. If Leipzig had one team that gave them hell last season, it was without a doubt, the Bavarians. Bayern were the only club to take all six points from the Bulls in 2016-17. The Vorrunde match in Munich was particularly epic. This was the final match before the winter break and one club’s bubble would be busted while the other would carry a heap of momentum into the Rückrunde. As has been the case the past five seasons, whenever Bayern has been challenged atop the Bundesliga they have responded with a knockout blow each time. The match day 16 encounter with Leipzig was no exception. It was reminiscent of an aging prizefighter that isn’t quite ready to give up his title: “One day young fella, but that day ain’t today.” München scored all three goals in the first 45 minutes and cruised to an easy victory, leaving Leipzig for dead as the first half of the season came to a close.

RB Leipzig had endless question marks surrounding them during the winter break: “Are they done?” “How far will they drop now?” “Can they recover from that beatdown?” RBL responded to those questions with a resounding: “No we are not done.” “We are not dropping a single spot.” “You are damned right we can.” Leipzig’s first match after the break was a 3-0 hammering of then fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt. Leipzig’s message was clear: They were not going to be rattled. Very seldom did the Bulls have a setback last season, though, if they did have a slight drop in form, they would immediately recover. As Leipzig approached match day 33 and a rematch with Bayern München drew nearer, one could only marvel at the team’s accomplishments and their long list of victims in the Bundesliga. Dortmund, Leverkusen, Schalke, Bremen, ‘Gladbach, Hamburg, had all fallen victim to the Leipzig. Bayern stood alone as the only club who had not been humbled by RB Leipzig. This matchup was vastly different than their first against Die Bayern. Leipzig controlled the match from the first minute and with six minutes to play, were ahead 4-3.

A wise man once said: “No lead against Bayern is safe.” If you are going to claim a victory against Der Rekordmeister you must stay mentally composed for the full 90 minutes.” Leipzig collapsed and allowed München to score three goals in the final twelve minutes (including stoppage time). Yes, it left a bitter taste in their mouths. Yes, they choked away a guaranteed victory over Germany’s most successful club. What this match said more than anything was this: “You may have won the Bundesliga, but we finished second, right behind you, and in front of all of these so-called Traditionsvereine. You have something we want and we are coming to take it.” Bayern, you have been put on notice. The Red Bulls are coming, and they are coming for your crown.

Aspiration

Without question, these lads want to be German Champions. You can put an exclamation point on that too! After finishing second in their inaugural Bundesliga season, RB Leipzig can almost feel the Meisterschale. Their main obstacle in 2017-18 will be the dreaded dreifach Belastung (triple burden, playing in the Bundesliga, the DFB Pokal and the UEFA Champions League). Many argue that much of their success was due to an early exit in the DFB Pokal and no European competitions. They have added more depth to an already loaded roster with the signings of center forward Jean-Kévin Augustin, (from Paris Saint-Germain) left winger Jeffrey Bruma, (from Galatasaray) and Konrad Laimer (from sister-club RB Salzburg). It remains to be seen of course, but for the moment these look like exceptional signings on paper.

Leipzig’s starting eleven is as good as any in the Bundesliga. It was essential that they not only add depth in the offseason, which they have done, but simultaneously fend off other European giants such as Liverpool, who were extremely aggressive in efforts to obtain star midfielder Naby Keïta. It was also heavily rumored that Bundesliga assist leader Emil Forsberg was on his way out. Unlike the majority of clubs in their position, the Bulls stuck out their chests and declined the Premier League money on numerous occasions. Schalke or ‘Gladbach could learn a thing or two from Leipzig. After all, retaining your stars means you do not have to find a replacement for them,  all the while building team chemistry. The inevitably leads to more success on the pitch. Whether you like them or not, it was refreshing for a Bundesliga club to tell a major English power to: “get lost, and take your money with you.” But hey, haters gonna hate!

Reality

RB Leipzig Forward, Timo Werner

Leipzig’s aspiration may not be far from reality. There is no need to remind anyone who follows the Bundesliga with even one eye open, where RBL finished last season. They arguably have the best young corps of talent in Germany at the moment with leading goal scorer Timo Werner (21 goals in 2016-17, fourth best in the Bundesliga), versatile do-it-all midfielder Naby Keita, the Bundesliga’s 2016-17 assist leader Emil Forsberg, midfielder Marcel Sabitzer, and forward Yussuf Poulsen, to name a few. Even the most stubborn holdouts in the German media had to concede as it pertained to Leipzig’s on-pitch accomplishments. The truth is, these lads are very good. There simply is no rational argument to the contrary.

For RB Leipzig, much depends on their UEFA Champions League draw in a few weeks. Should Leipzig advance past the group stage of that competition, the world will be watching with eyes wide open. A third place finish in their group still guarantees the Bulls will be playing international football into February at a minimum, as they would be entered into the round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League. How they fair in the Bundesliga up to that point is what most critics will be paying closest attention to. It is almost an expectation in today’s game, that a first-time Champions League qualifier experience at least a slight drop in their league performance from the prior season. If Leipzig can overcome this prophecy, there truly is no limit to what this youngest of clubs is capable of.

Leipzig has had to overcome immense hatred for years now. Their debut season in the Bundesliga was no exception. From a severed bull’s head being hurled onto the pitch, to the attack on their fans by those of Dortmund, Leipzig have casually shrugged off every insult that has come their way. Do not expect that to change any time soon, if ever. The Reality is this: RB Leipzig will win the German Championship, not this season, but certainly in the near future. Die Roten Bullen have been legitimized and are quite frankly, the future of German football. My advice to you: “Get used to them.”

The Boss

Is there a more fitting manager for RB Leipzig than Austrian-born Ralph Hasenhüttl? Never short on commentary, Hasenhüttl also displayed that he is far beyond the tactical “one-trick pony” many had him labeled as, during the 2016-17 season. As manager of clubs such as Unterhaching, Aalen, and Ingolstadt, he was not able to expand his tactics and let them fully breathe due to a lack of roster quality. This is no longer the case in Leipzig. His belief has always been to adapt his team’s style of play to the quality of player at his disposal. With Leipzig’s roster he has a fully locked and loaded arsenal to attack with. Nevertheless, his teams, regardless of talent level, have always been more proactive on the pitch than reactive. Hasenhüttl believes this is what the fans pay their money to see.

In radical contrast to other managers, he believes that not only can RB Leipzig compete in the Bundesliga with a roster of young players, but in fact, excel. To quote the man directly: “We (RB Leipzig) are against any claims that it’s impossible to survive in the Bundesliga with a squad of under-23 players. We have proven this to be false, and have no intentions of bringing in older players for next season (2017-18) or making knee-jerk reactions after defeats. That would be the sign of weakness and the lack of a plan.”  Hasenhüttl also possesses a sense of calm which was witnessed when his young team suffered four defeats in a span of six weeks between match day 19 and match day 25. When asked about the possibility of a Rückrunde collapse for the Red Bulls this was his response: “I never had such worries. The games we lost were mostly down to bad luck. The opponent maybe had one shot on goal and scored, whilst we created plenty of chances without finding the back of the net. Some people in winter were already prophesising a complete collapse in the new year, that teams had cracked us and would learn to adapt to our style of play. And when the euphoria of the first few months had subsided then we would become just an average, mid-table team. But I always knew we had great quality and that would not be the case. The Rückrunde has proven me right. We are already playing like a top team and are rightfully where we are in the table.” The perfect fit, Ralph Hasenhüttl is undoubtedly the right man in charge at the right time for this club.

RB Leipzig front man, Ralph Hasenhüttl

Hasenhüttl made a name for himself in the Bundesliga as manager of FC Ingolstadt in 2016-17, ironically another club making their debut in Germany’s top football tier. He transformed Ingolstadt into a team of pressing maniacs in the 2nd Bundesliga, which he continued to preach upon their promotion to the top flight following the 2014-15 season. With a roster far less talented than that of RB Leipzig, he kept Ingolstadt far clear of the drop zone and in fact, had the club in reach of a Europa League qualifying spot at one point. He was able to expand his tactical approach after being hired by Leipzig, thanks to a massive upgrade in talent from his previous roster with Die Schanzer. In fact, it has been debated whether RB Leipzig, having just been promoted, began the 2016-17 season with a more talented squad than all of their Bundesliga counterparts (many of whom have long tenures in the top flight), with the exception of Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund. Such a statement would have been unfathomable prior to last season. As a result, Hasenhüttl switched from the 4-3-3 formation he used in Ingolstadt and instead opted for a 4-2-2-2 (More on this later). The results of this strategic change could not have been better.

With the dreaded dreifach Belastung looming as yet another “first” for RB Leipzig in their brief history as a football club, it will be with great intrigue that we watch Ralph Hasenhüttl adjust his tactics, lineups and formations to this latest challenge. There is unquestionably no manager better-skilled to lead this team of young stars to further success in 2017-18, as the spotlight on the Red Bulls from Leipzig continues to grow.

Philosophy

Ralph Hasenhüttl’s preferred formation for the Red Bulls is a 4-2-2-2. What this does is give him great versatility depending on the lineup. Each player has a specific assignment and knows when to push the attacker toward the line or force them to cut inside. Hidden within this formation is also a clever defensive trap, pinning their opponents between the first and second pressing lines. Leipzig tend to pressure their opponents early on in the build up phase with each line supporting the one in front of it. Hasenhüttl has constructed a calculated, and when well-executed, effective strategy, to force opponents into errors and ultimately, turnovers. This requires patience as well as discipline. Hasenhüttl has instructed his players to only apply pressure when the opposing team exhibits certain behaviors during their build up play. If this happens, the first three lines of the 4-2-2-2, acting as a unit, will turn up the aggression on the opposition. Hasenhüttl refers to these behaviors as “defensive triggers.” If the unit fails to work cohesively, Leipzig has a tendency to get into trouble. It is a system that was designed specifically for this team, a step away from Hasenhüttl’s strategy at Ingolstadt. When everyone on the pitch is in sync, this defensive approach can be suffocating for the opposing offense.

Offensively, there could not be a better formation for RB Leipzig than the 4-2-2-2. Their lineup typically features players who are both technically sound and intelligent. As they are building up the play, their back four, often consisting of Halstenberg, Orban, Compper and Bernardo, work seemlessly with midfielders Keïta and Demme, to advance the ball. The four defenders will demonstrate precise ball-circulation, then will pass to either Demme or Keïta when the opportunity is right. Both players possess the ability to quickly move the ball to midfield where either Forsberg or Keïta himself, will deliver to one of Leipzig’s scoring threats, Sabitzer, Poulsen, or Werner. Werner and Poulsen sometimes abandon the center and move outward to the wings, allowing the central midfielders, Forsberg, Sabitzer, or Keïta, to make deep runs up the middle. The forwards will often move back towards the center, giving Leipzig a variety of options to score in open play. This is all a product of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s brilliant use of the 4-2-2-2 formation.

Notable Transfers

In:

  • Jean-Kévin Augustin (Paris Saint-Germaine)
  • Bruma (Galatasaray)
  • Konrad Laimer (RB Salzburg)
  • Yvon Mvogo (BSC Young Boys)
  • Philipp Köhn (VfB Stuttgart U19)
  • Ibrahima Konaté (FC Sochaux)

Out:

  • Davie Selke (Hertha BSC Berlin)
  • Atinc Nukan (Besiktas – Loan)
  • Agyemang Diawusie (Wehen Wiesbaden – Loan)
  • Rani Khedira (FC Augsburg)
  • Felix Beiersdorf (Wiener Neustadt – Loan)
  • Marius Müller (1. FC Kaiserslautern – Loan)
  • Nils Quaschner (Arminia Bielefeld)
  • Anthony Jung (Bröndby IF)

 

Strengths

RB Leipzig Midfielder, The Great Emil Forsberg

There could could be a book written on all of the things RB Leipzig excels at on the pitch, but for the sake of keeping it short and sweet, lets hit the high points. Die Roten Bullen are lethal when attacking down the right side, which is their preferred method of moving the ball upfield. If the opposition is caught defending an aggressive Leipzig counter-attack, best of luck to them. There is hardly a stronger team in the Bundesliga than the Bulls at creating turnovers and turning those into quick counter-attacks. Combine that with players such as Keïta, Forsberg, Werner, or Sabitzer, who possess unbelievable individual skill, and its “lights out” for the opposition. Their team chemistry is uncanny as even the great Bayern München had difficulty cracking them, specifically in the reverse fixture. RBL creates a heap of chances through their amazing ability to work as unit in the 4-2-2-2 formation. Each player knows his role and executes it well. More importantly, Leipzig converts those chances, as they ranked fifth in the Bundesliga in shots on target (5.1 per game) during the 2016-17 season.

RB Leipzig scores goals, lots of them. They scored before their opponents in 24 out of 34 matches last season. Only once did they lose a match after scoring first (Bayern München, match day 33, lost 4-5). The Red Bulls are a calculated unit defensively. They go after the ball when the moment is right. This strategy produced fantastic results as Leipzig averaged the second-most tackles per game in the league last season (21.4 tackles per game), the fifth most interceptions (22.3 interceptions per game), and the second-fewest shots allowed (10.0 shots allowed per game). Regardless of what you may think of the club, statistics do not lie. RB Leipzig left people’s heads spinning and produced numbers that are truly remarkable, especially for a club playing in the Bundesliga for the first time.

Weaknesses

They do not have any. That was quick. Sorry, I am only kidding, Every team has weaknesses and RB Leipzig is no exception. It can be argued that they do not have many, but they can be beaten. So how do you do it?

For starters, you should take a page out of Bayern München’s playbook. They were able to rattle the Bulls greatly in their matchup at the Allianz Arena back in December. Forsberg was sent off with a red card in that match, as things spiraled out of control for RBL. Something to consider, as good as Leipzig are at executing counter-attacks, they are almost the opposite at defending against them. Opposing teams would typically play aggressive against the Bulls, which resulted in Leipzig having to exhaust resources trying to reclaim the lead after their opponents would score an equalizer. Although Die Bullen were among the best in the league at scoring first, they did not fare particularly well at protecting their lead. Leipzig had to settle for a draw five times last season after scoring first, which for a team of their caliber, is most bothersome.

RB Leipzig had their “down” moments just like all teams have during the course of a season. Suffice it to say, they had far more “up” moments in 2016-17 than the opposite. To break Leipzig down you had to crush their spirit and kill their perseverance. One lone team was able to achieve this for all 180 minutes last season, one out of 17. Leipzig can be defeated, but it will require great composure and nearly flawless football to get the job done.

Crucial Stretch In The Schedule

A six week stretch in the Vorrunde (Sept. 30th 2017 – Nov. 18th 2017) that could have a major impact on the top of table. 1. FC Köln (A), Borussia Dortmund (A), VfB Stuttgart (H), FC Bayern München (A), Hannover 96 (H), Bayer 04 Leverkusen (A)

Verdict

Bundesliga: 2nd

DFB Pokal: Semi-Finals

UEFA Champions League: Round of 16

To quote the great Axl Rose: “Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. Oh won’t you please take me home?” Paradise City, for clubs in the Bundesliga, is lifting the Meisterschale. Very few have done it, in fact, only 12 clubs have accomplished this since the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963. RB Leipzig, the youngest club in major European football, wants to be lucky number 13.

This club was built into a powerhouse overnight with money from Austrian energy drink giants, Red Bull. As a result, everyone in Germany hates them. They cheated “the system.” This is however, not a review of the club’s finances or how unfair of an advantage they may have. This is about eleven lads on the pitch working together as a unit, playing exciting football, and winning as many matches as possible. They play for their fans, and those fans do exist. RB Leipzig may be hated at the moment, but they will be the first of many clubs who will ascend to the top using similar, if not identical, financial methods. You could call them, pioneers.

The bottom line is this: love ’em, hate ’em, they don’t care. Understand though, RB Leipzig are here to stay. The Bundesliga has been put on notice. Bayern München, Borussia Dortmund, FC Schalke, you need not watch your backs. All of you can clearly see the Red Bulls coming from the front. They are coming for what every German football fan outside of Leipzig cringes at the thought of them winning. RB Leipzig are coming for the Meisterschale, and you can bet your bottom dollar/euro/pound, they are going to get it. Much sooner than you may think.

 

 

 

 

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Christopher Smith

Christopher grew up in Amberg, Germany, but now resides in Charleston, South Carolina in the USA where he follows the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga on a weekly basis. He is an avid Borussia Dortmund fan, but enjoys all German football from top to bottom. His favorite players are "Super" Mario Götze and Christian Pulisic. You can follow him on twitter @crittysmith

2 Comments

  1. Good read and so true. Bundesliga as a whole needs to jump on the bus (for lack of better words). -Andrew von Park Circle

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