Six years ago, RB Leipzig didn't exist. They were, rather, SSV Markranstadt, an Oberliga (fifth division) side anonymous in the ranks of the German football hierarchy. Then in May of 2009, Red Bull came and bought the club's license, establishing the club as RasenBallsport Leipzig (although disallowed from using a corporate name in their club name, the initials RB and the club's logo were indicators of Red Bull's ownership).
Much like Hoffenheim during the early and mid-2000s, Leipzig have come from nowhere, spurred on by corporate investment. The Bulls were promoted to the 2. Bundesliga last May and, although eight points out of the race for a spot in the play-off for promotion to the top flight, they look likely to become the first Bundesliga side from former East Germany since Energie Cottbus were relegated in 2009.
Leipzig made a big step towards their goal of promotion and becoming a serious side on Wednesday when the club announced (via Twitter, in German) their signing of Werder Bremen striker Davie Selke effective of this July. The centre-forward, who won the 2014 Under-19 European Championship with Germany last summer, has agreed to a contract that will run until the summer of 2020.
Until now, Leipzig's transfers have been rather muted. True to the style of sporting director Ralf Rangnick, who coached Hoffe into the German top flight and has since become director of both Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, the 2. Bundesliga side have made it a habit of snatching up a large number of young talents for generally modest transfer fees.
Via Transfermarkt, 20 new players have joined the first team since the end of last season, only two of whom are on loan. The club also released 17 players, although one was simply demoted to the reserves and 11 were loaned. Essentially, Leipzig are mimicking the Chelsea method of keeping their hands on a large number of players and hoping that some turn out well. The strange thing is, they're a new team with little organic revenue and no history of top-tier football.
Among Leipzig's recent additions are Rani Khedira (Sami's 20-year-old brother, who was called up to the German Under-21 national team last fall), Joshua Kimmich (a German under-21 international now set to join Bayern after Stuttgart activate a buy-back clause this summer) and Federico Palacios-Martinez, who'd scored 29 goals in 14 games for Wolfsburg's under-19 team before joining the Bulls last January.
Still, none of Leipzig's previous transfers can compare to the signing of Selke. Their most recent acquisition is akin to Hoffenheim bringing in Carlos Eduardo from Gremio in 2007. The Brazilian was considered a major coup at the time, a 20-year-old, €7 million signing (per Transfermarkt) who would within two years debut for the Selecao.
At €8 million (per Bild, in German), Selke is the most expensive signing in 2. Bundesliga history and has not only potential but experience. The 20-year-old was top scorer and named best player at the Under-19 Euros and has real Bundesliga experience. Although he's far from a finished product, six goals and four assists in 1439 minutes this season (per Transfermarkt) is a very respectable record for a 20-year-old, especially considering how few players are able to impose themselves in the striker position at such a young age.
Whereas many of their other recent additions were of relatively low profile, Leipzig managed to sign a player who would be useful to many other 1. and 2. Bundesliga sides. It was a statement of intent that will make the club a more attractive place for aspiring players and managers.
Incidentally, Selke's transfer comes as Thomas Tuchel is being courted by Leipzig. The trainer, who left Mainz due to "burn-out" with a year left on his contract, has been on sabbatical all year long. Rangnick has made no secret of his interest in signing Tuchel, but speaking with Welt am Sonntag (in German) last month, said that the club might struggle to convince the trainer to join his side if they are unable to gain promotion to the first division. With Hamburg rumored to be joining the race for Tuchel (via Bild, h/t Deutsche Welle) in recent days, the Selke signing is a timely signal to the trainer and future prospects that Leipzig are serious and have some potential.
In fact, on Thursday, Bild (subscription required) reported Rangnick had a €50 million budget from Red Bull and aimed to sign Germany under-21 captain Kevin Volland (who has a €15 million buy-out clause at Hoffenheim) and 17-year-old Bochum center-back Erdinc Karakas, who allegedly is on Chelsea's radar.
For Rangnick, the narrative is familiar. Tuchel would be a big piece in the puzzle, and with a young and talented trainer and a marquee signing in their ranks, Leipzig would be well on their way to replicating Hoffenheim's success in completing a rapid rise to the German top flight and becoming the next "artificial" Bundesliga club (along with Wolfsburg, Leverkusen and Hoffe) to build success with thanks mostly to wealthy investors.
Such clubs are widely viewed with criticism in conservative Germany, where fan culture is sacred and traditional clubs like Nurnberg and Kaiserslautern have been displaced from the top flight as the nouveau-riche have replaced them. On the other hand, such clubs may represent the Bundesliga's best chance to increase competition.
Wolfsburg, for example, have managed to spend €32 million on Andre Schurrle, €25 million on Kevin De Bruyne and €16 million on Luiz Gustavo (all values via Transfermarkt) in the last 20 months. At the same time, their wage bill has ballooned, with Gustavo earning €8 million (via Bild) and Schurrle €6 million (via Bild).
Traditionally, rising Bundesliga clubs have been picked apart by Bayern and foreign sides. But if clubs like Wolfsburg can, with help from their owners, offer competitive wages, that could allow them to make a sustained challenge.
Leipzig are some distance from that level, as are even Hoffenheim. But it's a model the Bulls can aspire towards: If they want to be a successful club, that's the way forward.
There are still many steps Leipzig need to take to even reach the Bundesliga, but on Wednesday, they took a big step. They already had a sporting director who knows what it's like to bring a small club to the top flight, and now have a relatively big-name signing in Selke, upon whom they can build. The next step is bringing in Tuchel or the next best thing, then to achieve promotion and beyond. They may be heavily dependent on Red Bull, but as long as the company's backing remains, the sky is the limit.