If victory at home to Eintracht Frankfurt was a cause for optimism, then Friday night’s win at Borussia Mönchengladbach could be the point where the fans themselves start to believe they could go all the way. RB Leipzig have numerous reasons to believe. For one, they already have a style and a way of playing under Julian Nagelsmann, blending slick passing play with quick transitions and counter attacking football. They press with ferocity, are assured in the tackle and clinical at the sharp end with Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen on hand. The only cloud hanging over Leipzig during the first two weeks of the season was, of course, the immediate future of talismanic forward Werner.
Season after season, the former Stuttgart striker has continuously been linked with a move away from the Red Bull Arena, with the likes of Liverpool and, most prominently of all, Bayern Munich reportedly keen on acquiring him.
At times last season, Timo exhibited the behaviour of someone outright attempting to force a move away from Leipzig, with endless reports of the 23-year-old intending to run his contact down until 2020, where he would inevitably sign for Bayern as part of their continued efforts to rebuild the squad.
However, for an as yet unknown reason, he had a drastic change of heart. Whether it was due of a lack of concrete Bayern interest, new signings for RB Leipzig, or perhaps just the Nagelsmann factor, Werner chose to sign a new four-year deal. And with that, the course of Leipzig’s season could look altogether different, compared to what it might have been. RB, with Nagelsmann in the dugout, spearheaded by Werner and Poulsen, with a dutiful engine room of Laimer, Sabitzer, Forsberg and co – are surely a force to be reckoned with. And with the attacking prowess that Leipzig now possess, it would be worthwhile punters checking the odds of Werner finishing top scorer in the Bundesliga this season.
Add in an exciting, youthful back line, alongside an array of promising, explosive summer signings in Lookman and Nkuku – and, in my opinion, you’re looking at an underdog for the Bundesliga title.
What will be even more assuring to the RB faithful, is the early form they have shown. One might have expected Die Roten Bullen to get off to a slightly shower start than most, given Julian Nagelsmann’s reputation as a meticulous manager, known for his forensically detailed training sessions and innovative tactics. And yes, for his ideas to be fully implemented, time will surely be required. With that in mind then, how impressive it has been that RB have managed 3 wins from 3, all in trying circumstances.
Matchday one brought the challenge of an away game at a newly promoted side – never an easy task so early in the season. This was no ordinary promotion party either, this was away at Union Berlin, who’s loyal fanbase’s distain for RB Leipzig was immediately clear – following a 15 minute silent protest at the beginning of the match. Adding to cauldron like atmosphere (from min 15 onwards) was torrential rainfall, intermittently present throughout. And yet, RB walked away with a comfortable 4-1 win, scarcely looking phased in the face of tremendous hostility from the skies and terraces alike.
Next up for Julian Nagelsmann was a home debut against Eintracht Frankfurt, hardly an easy start to life at the Red Bull Arena, even if this was a Frankfurt side blunted by the loss of Jovic and Haller. A spectacular win this was not, but it was effective and clinical, with Werner and Poulsen emphasising their importance to the side by scoring the all-important goals in a 2-1 triumph.
Friday nights trip to Mönchengladbach was arguably their toughest yet, but once more, RB Leipzig delivered. It was a game where Nagelsmann’s side rode their luck for periods, Breel Embolo for instance will be wondering how he left Borussia Park with only one goal rather than three. RB had the rub of the green, but once again, the tenacious pressing, and quick efficient transition play, was crucial as RB returned to Saxony with all three points.
The triumphant return of Emile Forsberg played a key role in the victory, his pressing pushing Gladbach into mistakes, with Werner’s first goal coming courtesy of a lovely Forsberg through ball. The options RB Leipzig possess are another source of strength for the side, with Forsberg’s absence from the starting line up in the first two games of the season allowing other players like Nkunku and Sabitzer to shine (the latter earning a rare 10/10 rating from WhoScored.com against Union Berlin).
Friday night could well prove to be a watershed movement for RB, a blueprint for travelling away to the league’s top teams. It’s not the hardest task they will face this season, but it was an early litmus test of their credentials, and on this occasion, they passed. There are issues of course.
For one, Konate at centre-back still looks error prone, while Gulacsi between the sticks had one or two issues with dead ball situations – one of which led to Embolo’s late consolation. Some would also point to the lack of obvious width in midfield, with Forsberg and Sabitzer not exactly pacey, conventional wingers. But that problem is solved in part by the wing-backs, both of whom are able to bomb up and down the touchlines endlessly as part of the often used 5-3-2 formation. On top of this, new arrivals Christopher Nkunku and Ademola Lookman are yet to fully show what they are capable of, and will surely add another dimension to Leipzig’s attack when they do so.
Ultimately, RB Leipzig will likely fall short of winning the Bundesliga, despite the many positives I’ve attempted to highlight. But what we have seen so far, is why Nagelsmann took this task on. When a job at Bayern seemed the most likely long-term path for the 31-year-old coach, he instead plucked for Leipzig, seeing a project worthy of his time and efforts.
Yes, both Bayern and BVB do still have obvious deficiencies that RB could capitalise on, but the fact remains that both sides are still packed with an array of world class stars and experienced winners. RB will entertain, divide opinion, and above all else, win. Whether they can win enough games to mount a title challenge, remains to be seen. But if they do fall just short this year, everything is in place for this side to get better and better with each passing campaign.
The longer Nagelsmann has to mould his side, and the more experience his young guns can gain in the process, the better they will become. In Werner, Kampl, Poulsen and Forsberg, they have ready-made match winners, while the likes of Konate, Upamecano, Haidara and Lookman are all waiting in the wings for their chance to shine. It’s an exciting group, with an exciting manager at the helm – and while they will never be the neutrals first choice, they will, at the very least, be impossible to ignore.
By Tom Fenton.