RB Leipzig: Pressing on for success
RB Leipzig are different.
Yet it isn’t the unique ferocity of their high-pressing style, their vibrant young coach Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical ingenuity or a supremely engaged fan base which separates Leipzig from most of their Bundesliga rivals; it’s the way the rest of German football perceives Die Roten Bullen’s mere existence which inspires such disparate reactions.
In May 2009, the energy drink manufacturer Red Bull completed the long-held wish of co-owner Dietrich Mateschitz to invest in a German football club. Having settled on Leipzig – a football-mad city of 600,000 people in the former East Germany with a ready-made 43,000-seater stadium – as the base for their team, Red Bull bought the licence of fifth-tier SSV Markranstadt, a village just outside the city limits.
Crucially, at that level they were able to circumvent the ‘50+1’ rule, which means that individual members must own the majority of voting shares within a club. They did have to call themselves RasenBallsport (‘Lawn Ball Sports’) Leipzig, with statutes preventing a corporate entity appearing in a club name, but Red Bull had a fifth franchise in arguably its biggest market.
Though the club won promotion from the fifth tier in their debut season and knocked Wolfsburg out of the German Cup in 2011, it took the arrival of Ralf Rangnick as sporting director of both RB Leipzig – as they were now known – and sister club Red Bull Salzburg in 2012 to change the course of their history. Off the pitch, Rangnick – who had already transformed Hoffenheim from third-tier also-rans into Bundesliga regulars and taken Schalke to the Champions League last four – adopted a holistic approach.
He wanted the club to become the
“Oxford, Cambridge or Yale of football”, blending an almost scientific methodology to talent identification and player development in the best facilities available.
Rangnick had another ace up his sleeve. Eight years the sporting director’s senior, Helmut Gross was a revolutionary tactician who had been Rangnick’s sidekick since the mid-’80s, when Gross worked in construction by day and coached local amateurs Geislingen by night.
The pair bonded over a shared adoration of the high-pressing styles of Dynamo Kiev under Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Arrigo Sacchi’s European Cup-winning AC Milan and for a while wrote coaching programmes for the Wurttemberg FA, one of the German FA’s 21 state organisations. An early pupil of theirs was Jurgen Klopp.
“Your biggest chance to score is within 10 seconds of winning the ball,” Rangnick told FourFourTwo of his pressing mantra.
“And the highest chance to win it back after losing it is within eight seconds.” In essence: win the ball and look forwards; and when you lose the ball, counter-press like maniacs to win it straight back.
Such a system brought instant results. The summer he arrived in 2012, Rangnick recruited Alexander Zorniger as head coach, a progressive young tactician perfectly suited to implementing the desired high press on an unsuspecting fourth tier. Die Roten Bullen went undefeated, winning the first of three promotions in the next four seasons to reach the Bundesliga. In the end, it was Rangnick who achieved promotion to the top flight in 2016, installing himself as manager having dispensed with Zorniger a season earlier.
Remarkably, the team’s spine has remained intact since those lower-league days, which is testament to the other tenet of RB Leipzig: buy young, hungry players who are receptive to coaching. Striker Yussuf Poulsen, right-back Lukas Klostermann, midfield dynamo Marcel Sabitzer, club captain Willi Orban and Marcel Halstenberg all arrived over five years ago and are still regulars. One player, however, slipped through the net. The 25-year-old had just scored 31 goals in 36 games in the Conference Premier for Fleetwood Town, but was deemed too old.
“At some point, every manager in the world has said no to someone who turned out to be a top player,” Rangnick later recalled.
“Mine was Jamie Vardy.” Others, like Timo Werner and Naby Keita, improved to such an extent that multi-million Euro departures became inevitable. Centre-back Dayot Upamecano and attacking midfielder Dani Olmo, both 22 and under, could be the next high-profile exits.
For Leipzig’s first top-flight season, in 2016/17, another fast-rising head coach wedded to an aggressive press was recruited. Ralph Hasenhuttl had taken unfancied Ingolstadt into the Bundesliga and kept them there, but at Leipzig the current Southampton boss did more than just survive. Leipzig went on a 13-game unbeaten run to finish runners-up to Bayern Munich, becoming the first Bundesliga debutants since reunification to qualify for Europe.
Sixth in 2017/18, RB Leipzig reached the Europa League quarter-finals that season after finishing third in their Champions League group. Hasenhuttl left that summer, with Rangnick returning to the hotseat ahead of Nagelsmann taking charge for 2019/20.
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Still only 31, the young coach switched to a 3-4-3 system – albeit one still underpinned by the same ferocious intensity, with and without the ball – with Leipzig securing the unofficial Herbstmeister title (league leaders halfway through the season) and reaching the Champions League semi-finals.
In disposing of Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, they were finally acknowledged for the thrilling new interpretation they have brought to elite football. Just 11 years old, RB Leipzig are already a force to be reckoned with, and as the early Bundesliga pacesetters again this season, it’s surely only a matter of time before they secure a coveted major trophy.
This feature was written by United Review contributer Andy Murray and features in Wednesday's match programme at Old Trafford.