RB Leipzig: The German Football Alternative

The Bundesliga has, over time, developed into a league subjugated by the elite—namely Bayern and Dortmund. Unsurprisingly, after Dortmund made the decision to rejuvenate and rebuild their team last year, this season looked like it was going to be another walkover for the Bavarians.

It’s no surprise that Bayern have always gone to extreme lengths to ensure that they dominate their domestic league. They’ve brought in brilliant coaches, ensuring that the team on the pitch plays brilliant football. Off the pitch, they’ve invested heavily in their youth system to ensure a sustainable future, and have made smart—albeit somewhat controversial—signings to strengthen their roster.

However, this season has seen the emergence of a controversial rival to the German Crown. RasenBallsport Leipzig, a financially-backed newcomer, has experienced a meteoric rise through the footballing ranks since its founding in 2009. After a difficult promotion campaign, the divisive German club has taken the Bundesliga by storm through its unique methods of management.

Throughout the course of its tenure in the top flight, RB Leipzig has been shrouded with controversy. In a league where fan ownership is of utmost importance and direct links with commercial brands and capitalism are frowned upon, the energy drink owned team stands out. Many feel that the team’s shrewd bypassing of the “50+1” rule and exorbitant membership prices go against Germany’s footballing philosophy. Many believe that their newfound “wings” (financial influence) have made it easy to buy their way through the divisions. And, at the end of the day, many of the sceptics fail to see how this team is more than a marketing stunt.

However, some are in favour of RB Leipzig, claiming that the team brought some life into a stagnant league. During their maiden season, they’ve picked up an impressive list of achievements—they are the first team in nineteen years to go unbeaten in their first seven games. They have felled the likes of Dortmund, Mainz, Schalke, and have even managed to hold their own against surprise contenders Hoffenheim. Despite their divisive and controversial nature, RB Leipzig are exhibiting their ability to sustain consistency within the pinnacle of German football, and are destined to enjoy a lengthy stay in Germany’s preeminent division, for better or for worse.

More of the Same, but with a few Twists

RB Leipzig’s tactics aren’t “revolutionary”, per se. On the contrary, they’re just a culmination of the experiences, inspirations, and ideals of Ralph Hasenhüttl. Leipzig mirror his previous side, Ingolstadt; in terms of their tactical setup, however, they’ve also thrown something new into the mix.

RB Leipzig look to combine a tactically shrewd defence, a high intensity game, a swashbuckling yet sometimes patient attacking swagger and a focus on quick transitional play to ensure that they win their games. They use the predominant playing style of German football; however, their unique touch has turned average tactics into successful ones.

One of these twists is their preference for fielding young and promising players. During the summer transfer window, they only signed players under the age of twenty-four. Despite their unlimited financial power, they’ve been wise in their acquisitions. They look to sign fledgling talent, players that are good enough to fit into their squad and philosophy, while ensuring that they would also fit in their long-term plans. Furthermore, young players have a point to prove, and are ready to go to any length to make their gaffer happy—anything for first-team football. Their individual determination allows the team to play with an unparalleled collective intensity.

While defending, RB Leipzig line up in a 4-2-2-2 formation. This allows them to employ a unique form of defending using high-intensity, pressing, counterpressing and staggered movements between their lines. The compactness of their formation allows them to exert control over the midfield area, while reducing the amount of space that players need to move to press their opposition.

The press in question is carried out with incredibly high intensity, yet, at the same time, the players also display high levels of tactical intellect. For example, against Mainz and Dortmund, they didn’t press the opposition centrebacks, opting instead to restrict their passing opportunities. They forced the centre-halves to play the ball to the wing-backs, or make them punt the ball upfield, making it easier for them to win the ball back through their trademark pressing. This allows Leipzig to take over the midfield, while forcing play to the wide areas where they can win the ball back easily.

They press using three lines: the first line of players force the ball out wide, the second line press the wide areas while providing adequate cover in the midfield, and the third line look to compensate for the space covered by the movements of the second line. Furthermore, the last line of defence act as a last resort, bailing the midfielders out from the chaos that could be created due to the intensity of the pressing game.

To summarize, Leipzig defend with intensity and tactical wit. They always seem to know how to play against their opponents, and have a unique and highly successful approach to winning the ball back. A great example of this is their match against Dortmund, where they managed to reduce the effectiveness of the press-resistant, intelligent Julian Weigl. Their pressure forced Dortmund to play quick football, leading to their demise.

Turning defence into attack is another valuable skill in the world of football, and, as luck would have it, RB Leipzig excel in their transition play. They’re direct in moving the ball forward using vertical play, which is, coincidentally, another incredibly German characteristic that they possess.

The overloads created by the forward runs puts a lot of stress on the opposition defence, forcing them to crack open. The compactness of the team, combined with their willingness to attack once they win the ball back, allows for quick passing combinations. The midfielders can also opt to punt the ball up to their forwards, and allow them to take them over from there. Leipzig move the ball to their strikers with blinding pace, which allows them to create and finish chances during the periods of play in which their opponents are extremely weak.

This is where RB Leipzig’s striking partnership comes into play—Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. Both are young and upcoming strikers, both possess a unique skillset, and both complement each other when they’re played upfront. Poulsen stands at 6’4″, making him the first target for his teammates during their counterattacks. His ability to receive vertical passes, hold the ball up and an overall technical prowess allow him to catalyse his side’s attacking exploits.

He has the tactical intelligence to create space for his strike partner, Werner, by dropping deep and dragging defenders with him; he managed to put Werner through on goal many times this campaign with his incisive flicks. At the ripe age of 20, he has done well for himself in his maiden season, establishing himself as a regular first-team player and an integral part of his side’s tactics.

Timo Werner has resurrected his promising career after a transfer to Leipzig. At his previous club, Stuttgart, he wasn’t given enough playing time, and when he did, he often failed to meet the high expectations from his managers. He was employed in positions that didn’t suit him and had difficulty in adjusting to them; it was tough for him to find open spaces, and he struggled to take on players in the middle of the park.

At RB Leipzig, he has exceeded all expectations. Matched up with young players that have the same amount of talent as him, his high energy playing style makes him a troublemaker in every area of the pitch. He harasses defenders with his blistering pace, making them uncomfortable on the ball. While his team have the ball, he makes darting runs behind the last lines, allowing the likes of Poulsen and Keita to pick him out. His runs also create space for his teammates to run into, making him, once again, another integral part of Leipzig’s attacking system. One year after being labelled a failure, Werner has made a comeback, silencing the critics while propelling RB Leipzig to new heights.

Werner is a clinical finisher, and is the final piece of the Leipzig attack. His prowess at making runs in behind—abilities that he inherited during his time as a winger at Stuttgart—combined with a sudden surge in his finishing abilities have seen Leipzig use him to bury the hatchet during their attacking moves. In the first half of this season, he has already displayed his impressive goal conversion rate. If he improves on his playmaking ability, he could become a brilliant player.

Another standout player in RB Leipzig’s swarm of talent is Naby Keita. Over the course of this season, the fledgling midfielder has made himself known as one of the most promising talents of his generation. He has been an influential figure, using his versatility in midfield and direct playing style to aid his side in their attacking endeavours. He fits brilliantly in the system of fast-paced football—his ability to swiftly bring the ball out from the back allows the team to transition with relative ease. His dribbling ability mimics the likes of Eden Hazard and Arjen Robben; however, he plays in the centre instead of the wing, and the fact that he boasts an impressive three dribbles per 90 puts other wingers to shame. Keita attracts a lot of attention from the opposition midfielders—which isn’t really a problem for him, because he excels in dribbling through tight spaces and can easily pick out his teammates in the created space with his incisive passing.

While defending, Keita helps in forcing the turnover, with his speed and agility allowing him to pounce on loose balls with Leipzig’s pressing endeavours. He has a calm, tactically-tailored mind, yet still he plays 100mph football, making him a very unique midfielder. Like many of RB Leipzig’s talents, he has impressed in his maiden season, and the future looks bright for him. Once he matures, he’ll fit brilliantly in Leipzig’s system

However, RB Leipzig’s nonchalance and direct play is also their double-edged sword—the overcomittment in their attacking play makes them weak at the back. The midfield is often stretched due to the of the teams’ intensity, and it would be easy for teams to break them down by lulling them into a false sense of security during their counterattacks, winning the ball off them and breaking them down with a counterattack of their own.

Leipzig’s attacking moves, sometimes, are nothing but chaotic, likely due to the high margin of error in fast-paced passing combinations and the complexity of the movements that the players must make. Moreover, the youthfulness of the squad and the general tendency of young players to make mistakes often causes an error or two, but all can be forgiven if we look at the bigger picture. Thankfully, their faults can be corrected over the course of time.

As their players mature, they will become more comfortable in their decision-making and high-energy playing style. It’s just a matter of time. RB Leipzig are a force to be reckoned with, and once their standout players mature, they will be one of Europe’s most powerful clubs.