The Bundesliga is the most exciting league in Europe right now, with three teams that all look like serious title contenders, with no real favourite between them. One can make a case for the inevitability of Bayern Munich, but the dynasty in Bavaria has shown cracks over the last year or so, and the problems seem to be persistent still even with the team churning out good results as of now.
The other two contenders are not teams with a history of trophies, but rather a pair of teams that have shown exciting glimpses of football in the past, but have now paired it with consistency, a more sustainable style of play and groups of players that seem to have finally broken the glass ceiling of ‘great player’ and evolved into world class individuals. We will today explore one of these teams, namely RB Leipzig.
Leipzig have threatened Bayern for a few years now, becoming Bayern’s primary contender for the Bundesliga title several times although they’ve never quite been able to unseat Die Rekordmeister. However it seems this year may finally be the year for Leipzig, with the team’s bombastic and vertical style of football now being combined with an elite defense and somehow even better attacking quality than before, as now the attack is more than both the well-oiled low-skill units of the past as well as the sparkling but at times tactically disjointed attacks of more recent seasons. Let’s look at how the team stacks up this year.
Leipzig are admittedly a little short-staffed in goal, as while Janis Blaswich is a more than serviceable backup, he is not quite Peter Gulácsi. While Blaswich is far better than Bayern’s Sven Ulreich, he may not be up to scratch. The rest of the defense however, is more than up to scratch. Leipzig have Willi Orbán in the centre of defense, who has been one of the league’s best centre-backs for a few years now, and have added Olympique Lyon wonderkid Castello Lukeba to their ranks. The two are capable of forming a formidable pairing, but they won’t be getting much time together anyway because Leipzig have an ace in the middle: Mohamed Šimakan, one of the fastest, strongest and most safe centre-backs in the world both with his back against the wall as well as with the ball at his feet.
Leipzig have struggled with getting their full backs to tick since the turn of Angeliño and Nordi Mukiele’s form all those years ago, but they seem to have finally cracked the puzzle, as Benjamin Henrichs and David Raum are both firing on all cylinders right now. Henrichs is playing the best football of his life in a more reserved full back role, while Raum is a contender for the best left back in the world this season so far using his explosive pace and offensive capabilities in a free role down the left flank. Leipzig have the perfect profiles to deputise for these two too, as Lukas Klostermann is experienced playing as a right centre-back in a back three which demands very similar duties to Henrichs’ current role, and new signing Christopher Lenz is most comfortable playing as a left wing back in a back three system which is a role very akin to the explosive free role Raum operates with.
Leipzig have in recent years struggled with finding a reliable midfield partnership, but seem to have finally settled on a pair with clear roles that work well together.
Kevin Kampl and Xaver Schlager are a destructive pairing, both being absolute work-horses in the middle. Schlager and Kampl are both active ball winners, looking to break shape and harass midfielders on the ball, but have an understanding between them that allows the midfield to not go completely loose as one players hangs back to screen. Even on the ball, Schlager and Kampl have a great understanding with each other, always offering themselves to each other and the defenders, a natural double pivot. The pair are fluid in their roles in the final third and even complement the rest of the team, as Kampl can often be seen dropping into the left side to cover for the marauding Raum while Schlager becomes a lone pivot through the middle, often recycling possession and aiding side-to-side movement. Leipzig have strength on the bench too, as Amadou Haidara and Ilaix Moriba are more than capable backups for Kampl’s more reserved role and Nicolas Seiwald has shown in early weeks that he is well suited to Schlager’s central and aggressive ball-winning duties. Leipzig’s midfield on paper may not look even close to as good as Bayern’s, but the chemistry between the players and their familiarity with their roles makes it a far more effective one than the one in Bavaria.
Leipzig have always had an excellent attack, but it’s always been imbalanced one way or the other. In Leipzig’s earlier Bundesliga campaigns, the attacking cohort was a relatively ungifted set of individuals that had very specific profiles which worked very well in tandem. Later, the advent of changing tactics shifted the focus to individual brilliance, and while Leipzig had a bundle of attackers they could call world class, there was always a sense that their profiles didn’t gel together very well. However, that has now changed.
Leipzig line up on paper with a 4-2-2-2, but the attackers shape themselves much more like a 4-2-3-1. Marco Rose has found his best shape in this system, with Emil Forsberg as a creative presence in the left half-space (leaving space out wide on the left for Raum), Youssouf Poulsen and Xavi Simons in the central and right zones of attack and Loïs Openda up top. The four are a kinetic group, running down defenses when they don’t have the ball and combining with unprecedented fluidity when they have the ball. On top of this chemistry, they have the individual brilliance to bail their team out if Leipzig are ever backed into a corner. Xavi Simons in particular is a special, special player, but credit must be given to Poulsen and Forsberg who use their game IQ and experience to great effect time and time again, and of course Loïs Openda who is frankly an insane pick-up for Leipzig, replacing the departing Christopher Nkunku with a player who is of the same quality but just lacking a bit of experience. On top of that, Leipzig have perhaps the deepest attack in all of Europe. With these four taking up the majority of the minutes as of late, Leipzig have Dani Olmo, Christoph Baumgartner, Fábio Carvalho, Timo Werner and Benjamin Šeško on the bench. Ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is that four of these players have very distinguishable roles that they fulfill, with Olmo as the back-up for Forsberg, Baumgartner for Poulsen, Carvalho for Simons and Šeško for Openda (sorry Timo).
Can they challenge?
This unit is undoubtedly special. All the players know their roles and some great business in the window and knowledge of the squad has allowed Ralf Rangnick and Marco Rose to create a squad that has very clear duties and roles not just in the starting XI but on the bench too. Instead of having a squad that gives Leipzig options in multiple game situations, Leipzig have adapted their team into a generalist tactic that works with all the specialised roles, and then found players who fill those roles exactly. Every substitute has an exact position and role that they fulfill.
This team could very well make a run for the title, the Bayern brass should be eyeing the January window with desperation as the current Bayern squad is simply not as well as equipped as Leipzig’s is right now. On top of that, Leipzig have matured as a squad, as under previous manager Domenico Tedesco the rag-tag group of up-and-comers was turned into a game-winning machine, breeding a winning mentality that can be seen even now in the way the leaders pull the team together and even other players like Raum and Šimakan play a lot more aggressively under pressure rather than capitulating. It is very likely they reach the quarter-finals, as there doesn’t seem to be any team in Europe comfortably beating them right now other than Manchester City and Bayern Munich, neither of which Leipzig can face in the round of 16.
What do you think of RB Leipzig’s chances this season? Will they be the ones to slay the kings of Germany? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion below.