Leipzig looking to win trophies rather than hearts
RB Leipzig’s rise to prominence in German football has been controversial, but the club has been undeniably successful since it was formed in 2009. Having bought the licence of fifth-tier side Markrandstädt, they zoomed up the divisions, and won promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016.
Die Roten Bullen (the Red Bulls) have reached three German Cup finals (including this season’s), they have contested a Champions League semi-final against PSG and they have now made it to a Europa League semi-final, having played a UEL quarter-final against Marseille back in 2018.
Leipzig’s league form has been exceptional since reaching the top flight. They have finished second twice, third twice and had one disappointing campaign where they ended up sixth. For a team with no previous experience of the top division, it is a remarkable body of work.
RBL had hoped to challenge Bayern this season, but the defections of Dayot Upamecano, Marcel Sabitzer and particularly coach Julian Nagelsmann to the Bavarian giants proved too damaging. Nagelsmann’s replacement Jesse Marsch struggled in the role, and his wish to return to the basic Red Bull playbook of direct, fast-paced football went down like a lead balloon with a group of players who had become used to the more nuanced approach of Nagelsmann.
Since former Schalke boss Domenico Tedesco has replaced Marsch, the team has been transformed, and they have eclipsed both Bayern and Borussia Dortmund in 2022. Ultimately, Tedesco had too much catching up to do to mount a title push, but Leipzig are on track for a top-four finish, they will face Freiburg in next month’s DFB Pokal final and they are a couple of good results away from a European final.
But regardless of how flashy and entertaining Leipzig’s football is, the battle for hearts and minds is one they are never likely to win. The club is seen by many German football fans as merely a marketing vehicle for the Red Bull drinks empire, and an understandably dim view has been taken of the circumvention of the 50 + 1 rule, which says no one entity can have more than 50% of the voting rights at a club. German football is generally resistant to the success of clubs that aren’t seen as having been organically grown. There is antipathy towards Bayer-backed Leverkusen, Volkswagen works club Wolfsburg and indeed Hoffenheim, who are bankrolled by software billionaire Dietmar Hopp. While traditionsvereine (traditional clubs) like Hamburg, Schalke, Nurnberg and Werder Bremen languish outside the Bundesliga, the rise of the nouveau riche is reviled.
Leipzig have caught the eye in UEL
RB Leipzig’s Champions League campaign was a ultimately a disappointment. The failure to adapt to Marsch’s methods saw the team suffer three defeats in six group games, including a 6-3 hammering at Manchester City, although they did manage to finish third in their group above Club Brugge to prolong their European adventure.
Leipzig got a bit of fortune, as their quarter-final against Spartak Moscow turned into a bye due to Russian clubs being expelled from continental competition, but they impressed against Real Sociedad before that and against Atalanta afterwards. After drawing the home leg on both occasions, Tedesco’s side won in San Sebastian and then Bergamo, and deserved to do so.
Nkunku the man to fear
Christopher Nkunku has been the one constant is a season of flux for Leipzig. The French star has scored 30 goals in all competitions, and his switch to a central striker’s role has been a huge success. Nkunku suffered a little in the past from his ability and willingness to play in different positions, but he is now one of the deadliest forwards in Europe. His pace, skill, movement and composure form a potent package, and he is a hugely tempting option in the To Score market at 2.447/5.
Leipzig may need Nkunku’s firepower, as they are stretched at the other end of the pitch. Centre-backs Willi Orban and Mohamed Simakan are both suspended, as is excellent holding midfielder Kevin Kampl, a master of the subtle tactical foul.
There is great quality and variety in midfield and attack. Konrad Laimer is an indefatigable warrior in the middle of the park, Dani Olmo is a delightful player who drifts between the lines, Angelino and Benjamin Henrichs offer a threat in wide areas, centre-forward Andre Silva has been revitalised by Tedesco’s arrival, Josko Gvardiol has really settled in at centre-back and former Liverpool goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi has improved a lot in recent years.
Leipzig are probably aware that Rangers will be many neutrals’ favourites to progress, but playing the pantomime villain is nothing new for this young German club. They have their sights set on trophies at home and abroad, and it would take a brave observer to bet against them.