Bundesliga Leaders RB Leipzig Are Much More Than a German Leicester

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2016

RB Leipzig players celebrate on the pitch at Leverkusen after another fine recent win
RB Leipzig players celebrate on the pitch at Leverkusen after another fine recent winPATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

For outsiders, a curious facet of the Bundesliga post-match ritual is the joint press conference given by the two teams' coaches. It makes sense, though. Teams and their bosses have all week to make their plans and rehearse their best moves, but on matchday, they don't exist in isolation. It's about the dynamic between the two.

That symbiosis was keenly felt after RB Leipzig's win at Freiburg on Friday night. The pair had been Bundesliga 2 rivals last year, and Freiburg even pipped Leipzig to the title by a five-point margin, having won the corresponding fixture 2-1 back in March, but there is a considerable gulf between them now.

Leipzig's stylish 4-1 win at Schwarzwald-Stadion was their seventh in succession in the Bundesliga.

So when the questions had come to an end on Friday night, it was with visible sincerity that Freiburg's coach Christian Streich embraced his opposite number, Leipzig's Ralph Hasenhuttl. The latter's achievements, having previously done what Streich is currently attempting by guiding newly promoted Ingolstadt to safety last season, must already be regarded as outstanding, even if we're not yet in December.

Hasenhuttl should, theoretically, be in the same boat as Streich, seeking to stabilise a top-flight new boy, but he and his team are already way past such modest aims. Unbeaten and three points clear at the top after 12 games (and the lead could have been more, had Bayern Munich not been so fortunate to close out a win against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday), Leipzig's is the best start to a season by a promoted side in the competition's 53-year history.

With Bayern fighting to hold on to their coattails, their Austrian coach is emerging as something of a national celebrity. He was the main guest on ZDF's Das Aktuelle Sportstudio, the public access show that rounds up the Bundesliga highlights and reaction every week, on Saturday night and was warmly received.

Coach Ralph Hasenhuttl (right) deep in conversation with sporting director Ralf Rangnick
Coach Ralph Hasenhuttl (right) deep in conversation with sporting director Ralf RangnickJens Meyer/Associated Press

Hasenhuttl was largely happy and relaxed but started to look a little uncomfortable when presenter Katrin Muller-Hohenstein introduced a brief recorded segment on how Leipzig have been received on the road.

So we saw the (pixelated) severed bull's head that Dynamo Dresden fans launched towards the pitch when the pair met in the DfB Pokal. We saw the Hamburg supporters' mass sit-down protest in the street outside the entrance to their Volksparkstadion. We were also shown images of the paint-stained team bus as they were "welcomed" to Leverkusen by local fans a fortnight ago.

The coach, and his players, have had to get used to this, fielding questions not on their style of play but on the reaction of the German football public at large to their rise to the top table. The club was only formed in its current guise in 2009 by Austrian drinks giant Red Bull, armed with the playing licence of fifth-tier club Markranstadt, rebranding it in its own image and outlining an ambition to reach the top flight in the space of eight years.

This boldly, unapologetically corporate construct is simply unpalatable to many German fans and even some of the major figures inside the game, with Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke calling Rasenballsport Leipzig (league rules forbid the changing of a club's name to that of a sponsor's, so they have gone for matching the initials) just a vehicle "to sell cans of soda" (as per Eurosport.com).

Many of Dortmund's most prominent supporter groups declined to go to their side's away game in Leipzig in September, the new boys' first home match of the season.

Naby Keita has been one of the team's standout performers
Naby Keita has been one of the team's standout performersJens Meyer/Associated Press

That Leverkusen fans have taken part in these vehement protests is notable. Many clubs' supporters regard Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, former workers' teams who are exempt from the 50+1 member supporters' ownership rule, as a bit artificial. Yet Leipzig's model is a step further on from those two or from Hoffenheim, who started from a similarly lowly rung on the German league ladder before the plentiful investment of software billionaire Dietmar Hopp.

This isn't about funding—it's about identity and tradition. Yet the uncomfortable truth for the vocal majority is that Leipzig look like they're here to stay. They are emerging as a credible challenger at the top of the Bundesliga far more quickly than anybody anticipated.

Red Bull have redoubled their efforts as things have begun to take off. Five players—including Naby Keita, who scored the winner against Dortmund and rattled in a superb opener at Freiburg—have been moved from Red Bull Salzburg to the Leipzig arm of the operation since summer 2015, underlining a re-ordering of Red Bull's sporting priorities.

Speaking to The European Football Show on TalkSport 2 back in August, Salzburg coach Oscar Garcia (formerly of Brighton and Watford) told listeners that the Austrian champions were now looking at a more youth-focused model, rather than anchoring their squad development plans on significant levels of investment. Garcia is a horse for a course, brought in for his knowledge as a graduate of Barcelona's La Masia academy.

They fielded three teenagers in the starting lineup of their Champions League play-off with Dinamo Zagreb this season, as they missed out on qualifying for the group stages by three minutes. That Salzburg are having to get by on less is a theme of local consternation.

Not that Leipzig's squad is exactly packed with pensioners. Their model—and the sporting group's plan as a whole, with sporting director Ralf Rangnick having also moved from Austria to Germany, coaching the team to promotion last term before moving back upstairs—is based on youth.

According to recent figures from CIES Football Observatory published here, only Toulouse, Nice and the Bundesliga's own Leverkusen have a squad with a lower average age than Leipzig's among Europe's top five leagues (average age 24.6).

Accordingly, they run more than anybody else in the Bundesliga, a collective 116.4km per game (as per Bundesliga.com). Their squad-construction model has much in common, in fact, with the way in which Hoffenheim built their squad, buying up some of the best young talent available. After their promotion in 2008, they brought in the likes of Luiz Gustavo, Marvin Compper (incidentally Leipzig's current captain) and later Roberto Firmino.

Besides Keita, Leipzig's biggest signings have been 19-year-old Oliver Burke, at €17 million from Nottingham Forest, and Timo Werner, now 20 but who made his debut for Stuttgart in 2013 at 17 years and four months old, making him the youngest first-teamer in the club's history.

Werner had become stuck at a dysfunctional club. Now liberated, at a club with a great coach, excellent facilities and a plan to grow, he looks the part again and has scored seven times already in the Bundesliga after his brace at Freiburg.

Burke has only been needed as a (very effective) pinch-hitter from the bench, starting just once. Midfielder Emil Forsberg, who has already scored five and laid on another seven, is a further example of sensible recruitment rather than wanton spending. 

In another parallel with Hoffenheim, Leipzig go to Bayern in the last match before the winter break. In December 2008, only Luca Toni's stoppage-time winner denied Hoffenheim the title of winter champions. After Vedad Ibisevic's serious injury during winter break training, it all fell apart for the team then—interestingly—coached by Rangnick.

One feels that this Leipzig team aren't quite as reliant on one figure. Hasenhuttl and his coaching staff posed for a group selfie on the pitch after the win at Freiburg. It was a quietly touching moment, but one hopes they have plenty of memory left in the camera. It could just be the tip of the iceberg.

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