With just five games played it is still very early in the season, but it cannot be denied that RB Leipzig have made a great start to the new campaign. There was much talk prior to the season as to whether Borussia Dortmund would give Bayern a real battle for the league title. Could it be that we are actually set for a genuine three-horse race for this year’s Bundesliga crown?
Are RB Leipzig (the team that so many love to hate) genuine title contenders this season? Right, now you would have to say so based on the start they have made. Yes, five games doesn’t define a season, but there is plenty of evidence that they have all the ingredients to make a good fist of it.
Any side serious about challenging Bayern for the title are going to need a squad deep enough to cope with a long season- especially with European football thrown in for good measure. Having a stand-out first XI is all well and good, but there is a need for squad depth- and we’re talking quality not quantity.
Dortmund’s big spending summer, which saw them bring in Mats Hummels, Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard and Nico Schulz was a conscious and necessary decision to add quality to a squad that fell agonisingly short last season.
Leipzig’s policy over the past few seasons has been to only sign young players, who fit their philosophy, and many of those players have now matured into important first-team regulars and gives the Saxony side some real depth.
Just a quick look at the incoming players over the previous four years reveals an injection of young quality.
2016/17 Timo Werner and Dayot Upamecano
2017/18 Kevin Kampl, Konrad Laimer, Ibrahima Konaté
2018/19 Nordi Mukiele, Amadou Haidara, Mattheus Cunha, Marcello Saracchi, Tyler Adams
2019/20 Christopher Nkunku, Ademola Lookman, Hannes Wolf
The elder players in the squad have gained the Bundesliga experience over the past few seasons and the combination with the talented young players is exciting.
Getting Timo Werner to finally sign a new contract was a real plus for the club and the German international has shown in the early part of the season that he is ready for a big campaign. Leipzig can claim to have one of the best goalkeepers in the league in Peter Gulacsi, potentially Germany’s first-choice fullbacks at international level in Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann as well as the power and athleticism of Upamecano and Konaté at centreback.
Add in the wise head of Willi Orban, the ever-improving Marcel Sabitzer, as well as Emil Forsberg (who looks like he is returning to the form that made him a stand-out in Leipzig’s first campaign) and you have a core of top players.
The arrival of Julian Nagelsmann could be the just the spark to take Leipzig to the next level- from top four to real title contenders. The young coach has already shown what he can do with a limited set of players (no disrespect to Hoffenheim), and the league is waiting with bated breath to see what he can achieve at the Red Bull Arena.
In Sinsheim, Nagelsmann built a reputation for tactical acumen as well as an ability to make his players better. You only have to look at the likes of Nico Schulz and Serge Gnabry to see examples of players who really blossomed under his tutelage.
Just imagine what he can do with Sabitzer, Konaté, Adams and Cunha for example.
Tactically, Nagelsmann has been very smart in the opening part of the season. He has not come in and instantly dispensed with Leipzig’s pressing and gegenpressing tactic, but his has tweaked the club’s DNA ever so slightly and introduced a more flexible approach- one which involves more controlled possession of the ball and a more structured attacking style.
The familiar 4-2-2-2 formation is still in evidence, but already this season we have witnessed 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and even 4-2-3-1. Nagelsmann is not afraid to bend his formation to suit the opponent, but what he doesn’t sacrifice is his attacking principles. When something is not working, as against Bayern Munich, he will react.
It cannot be said that Leipzig have had an easy start to the new season. Meeting Union Berlin for their first-ever Bundesliga outing was a challenge and no one can claim Eintracht Frankfurt (home), Borussia Mönchengladbach (away) or Werder Bremen (away) were easy tasks.
The big test of course was against Bayern and despite a poor first half, you would have to say RB deserved a point following their second half display.
Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg are their next three opponents and they will provide another serious test of Julian Nagelsmann’s side.
Borussia Dortmund showed last season that a good start doesn’t count for much, if you do not show the consistency and mental strength throughout the entire season. Bayern are understandably favourites, BVB understandably also considered a real contender, but Leipzig’s evolution is showing them to also be a team worthy of consideration when listing your Bundesliga contenders.
Bundesliga traditionalists will hate it, but RB Leipzig are here to stay and are evolving into (whisper it) ‘title contenders’. It may not be this season, but as Bob Dylan once warbled ‘Times they are a changing’.
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