Even faster than they climbed Germany’s footballing pyramid, RB Leipzig became the country’s most hated club. Red Bull have had their fingers in the pie for a while in New York, Salzburg, Sao Paulo and Sogakope but Leipzig is the first time they have muddied the waters in a major league. And not just any league – the Bundesliga, where clubs were run as non-profits until 1998 and even today must be majority owned by members rather than a private company.
Red Bull skirted around this rule by having only a handful of employee or company-affiliated members, making its membership expensive and rejecting applications. When Bayern Munich have over 280,000 members at an annual fee of €60 whereas Leipzig have just 17 at €800, Germany’s 50+1 rule is being made a mockery of – the RB may technically stand for RasenBallsport but we all know what it really means.
However with an average attendance of over 40,000, clearly not everyone hates them. Fans of clubs like Bayern may sneer at the business affiliations of Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, nevermind the nouveau riche of Hoffenheim and Leipzig, yet they sit at the head of the table – their success primarily built on out-muscling and poaching from their rivals. Leipzig’s promotion is the first time an East German club has played in the Bundesliga since Energie Cottbus were relegated in 2009 and it’s unlikely that would have been achieved had SSV Markranstadt not sold their playing right to Red Bull. East Germany having to pay war reparations while the West had investment pumped into it meant that when the Berlin wall fell the Western clubs had the economic might to lure players away. Despite being home to the founding of the DFB and the first national champion, Leipzig hadn’t even had a professional team since 1998.
Nevertheless, RB Leipzig is clearly a marketing campaign that goes far beyond sponsorship. Wolfsburg and Leverkusen are owned by Volkswagen and Bayer but were intended as clubs for the companies’ workers, while Dietmar Hopp’s investment in Hoffenheim is mainly benevolent. Red Bull, on the other hand – from their red and white colours to their Die roten Bullen nickname – are the success story rather than simply a brand logo slapped over it. The insiduous spread of corporations into every facet of life is fuel for nightmares, although, separating off-field developments from on-field, Leipzeig are undeniably an impressive side – a youthful squad that have gained four promotions in six seasons and qualified for the Champions League in their debut campaign playing fast attacking football.
With Ralf Rangnick heading back upstairs to his position as sporting director, Leipzig were in search of a new coach. After being turned down by Thomas Tuchel and Sascha Lewandowski the summer before, Rangnick had taken the reins but now looked for someone else to continue his counter-pressing style. He settled upon Ralph Hasenhuttl, who had taken Ingolstadt to the Bundesliga and kept them there, finishing in 11th place, against the odds.
In came Naby Keita, Benno Schmitz and Dayot Upamecano from their sister club in Salzburg, Timo Werner from Stuttgart, Oliver Burke from Nottingham Forest and Marius Muller as a back-up keeper from Kaiserslautern. Strengthened in key positions, Leipzig raced to the top of the league, undefeated until December.
For a grandiose advert from an energy drinks manufacturer, they have the right sporting director overseeing matters. The Bundesliga’s been ahead of the rest tactically for a few years now but Rangnick was a forerunner for the aggressive pressing style that so many German coaches have adopted, explaining his ideas in a television interview in 1998 while manager of Ulm. Unsurprisingly then, Leipzig’s players are expected to run like they have hoovered up a diabetes-inducing amount of sugar. It’s more organised than simply chasing the opposition out of possession however.
Leipzig don’t actually press too high up the pitch generally. Instead, they retreat into a narrow 4-4-2 shape and encourage the opposition to move up the pitch – this gives them space to break into once they reclaim the ball. They then wait for certain triggers to press, typically looking for body language that one of the centre-backs is going to play a lengthier pass across to the other with some distance between them. When this occurs, one striker presses the receiving centre-back, with the other moving across to mark the deepest midfielder. This covers the pass into midfield but also usually stops them from simply returning the ball back to the centre-back, as the other striker can then press the other centre-back while covering a pass into the midfielder they have just marked, and the first pressing striker blocks a pass back again to the centre-back, leaving them with little time and fewer options.
As a result, the centre-back is typically forced into passing to the goalkeeper (which starts the process again), long (which should be easily covered by Leipzig’s defenders) or to the full-back (which may actually be the first pressing trigger if the centre-backs don’t pass between each other). If the ball goes out to the full-back, then the wide midfielder presses him and the Leipzig full-back tracks any higher wide player closely to stop the ball being played down the line, in addition to the centre midfielders getting close to any free opposition midfielders to cut off passes inside and the rest of the team shifting across to that side of the pitch to cover.
Leipzig defend in a narrow block. With the centre blocked, the first line can only pass amongst themselves or play it wide.
The centre-back passes to the other with some distance between them. This is a pressing trigger for Leipzig so Yussuf Poulsen presses the defender who has just received the ball while Timo Werner covers the deepest midfielder and Marcel Sabitzer remains narrow to block off the middle put prepares to press if the ball is sent wide. With Poulsen approaching quickly he must think fast.
With Werner cutting off the pass into midfield and in a position to press his partner if he returns the ball, the defender plays it out to the full-back, who has Sabitzer approaching fast when he receives the ball. Keita steps up to get tight to the midfielder Sabitzer has left to prevent the ball being played inside and Poulsen stops the pass back to the defender.
The full-back plays the ball down the line but Schmitz stays tight to the winger to stop him turning, Keita prevents the pass inside and the furthermost midfielders have shifted across to plug gaps.
There are a few weaknesses to this approach though. Firstly the narrowness of the players means there’s a lot of space on the opposite flank if the players have the passing range to find it. Secondly this narrowness also means that the wide players have a lot of ground to cover to press and can be late in reaching their men. When the Leipzig wingers are having to run at full pelt to press the full-back it can be difficult to change direction and the defender can evade the press with a quick give-and-go. Likewise, if an opposition winger moves deep, the full-back has to confront him very high up the pitch, often getting nowhere near him. This wouldn’t be such an issue were it not for the way the midfielders push up high to block passes inside, rather than covering the defence. Instead the cover is provided by the centre-backs – both Willi Orban and Marvin Compper are fortunately capable defenders in wide areas, although they often have their own men to worry about.
The high aggressiveness in the defending, tied to the heavy man orientations of the pressing, makes it very difficult for the opposition to play the ball out, having no time to think or control before being harried by a Leipzig player. The system has a tendency to break down if a player does have the technical ability to avoid the press though, especially as the aggressiveness doesn’t settle down while Leipzig recover. It’s not too uncommon to see a Leipzig player miss their challenge, the opposition player then having time to collect themselves as whoever would be covering in a fully zonal system has stepped away to mark someone elsewhere, another Leipzig player come storming in only to also miss their challenge, leaving them with only two defenders against three attackers at the back. The wide midfielders often pushing up so high, coupled with having just two centre-midfielders, means that the wide areas are frequently inadequately covered and the easiest way to expose Leipzig. Also the high line that the pressing requires makes pacier forwards a real threat to the backline.
Nevertheless, the intense pressing is tough to evade and, when it does work, Leipzig can recoup the ball and attack immediately. The nature of the pressing means that there are usually plenty of players either ahead of or around the ball and it can be easy to overload a recovering backline. The attackers are all quick and mobile and allowing the opposition defence to move up the pitch in the early stages of the build-up gives them space to attack. Werner, Poulsen and Sabitzer use their pace to get themselves behind the defence and go one-on-one with the keeper, while Emil Forsberg and Keita supply them with through balls to run onto, although they are each capable of performing the other’s job.
They don’t solely rely on counter-pressing for their attacks, even taking advantage of many Bundesliga teams’ propensity to press high up the pitch. Rather than try to play out through defence, Leipzig are happy to draw teams up the pitch with passes amongst their defenders to create space either in midfield or for their forwards to attack behind, then send the ball back to goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi to thump long. The Hungarian’s kicking is good and nearly always finds 6ft 4 Poulsen, who will often move towards the flank to win headers against full-backs rather than face usually aerially stronger centre-backs. The wider midfielders tuck in ahead of the centre-midfielders when attacking making a 4-2-2-2 shape, ensuring that Poulsen has someone to chest the ball down to or that someone is on hand to retrieve the loose ball if he doesn’t win the challenge. Alternatively, he can flick the ball on for Werner running behind, putting defenders in two minds whether to retreat to stop Werner from being clear through or stepping up to stop the attacking midfielders from having space on the ball between the lines.
To advance from here, Leipzig have a tendency to lay off the ball to a player deeper or to the side then dashing forward into space to receive it back again, repeating this process as they move forward. This means that players rarely have to turn on the ball and can avoid one-one-one challenges, instead laying it off with their back to goal, turning and running beyond before getting it back again facing the goal. Their narrow positioning means they rarely have to pass it far and that they don’t have to travel far to win it back if a pass is misplaced. This narrowness also means there’s little positional difference between attacking and defending – a blurring of the lines between phases of play which is a key idea of counter-pressing.
The directness of their attacks also mean that the full-backs mostly aren’t expected to make the lung-busting runs to provide width that typically accompany such narrow formations as ideally the attacks would have already finished by the time the full-back had joined them, allowing them to save energy and remain in position for their defensive tasks.
This directness doesn’t necessarily work against teams who are willing to sit back and let Leipzig have the ball though. In these instances, a long ball is likely to be mopped up and the attackers outnumbered if they do manage to win it. Therefore Leipzig must be more patient and move the ball up the pitch a step at a time.
This is where Keita and Forsberg tend to really stand out. The front four all interchange positions, forcing the defensive line back by darting in behind, coming short for passes or moving into the channels to make them hard to track, but Forsberg is at his best moving laterally between the lines. The Swede moves side to side, standing in gaps behind the opposition midfielders in front of him so that the deeper players can slide a ball through to him, where he will turn and hit a through ball to the attackers around him in one smooth movement – usually between the left-sided centre-back and left-back for the other attacking midfielder charging in behind, but also through the centre, capable of hitting weighted through balls to the forward or lofting a pass over the top.
The aforementioned tactic of evading challenges through quick lay-offs doesn’t apply to Keita because he doesn’t need the help. The Guinean midfielder has the dribbling ability of the best wingers, carrying the ball forward past several players by himself, and has the eye to pick out a pass. On top of their energetic winning of the ball, both Keita and his usual partner Diego Demme are intelligent on and off the ball, moving into positions to receive the ball yet also acting as decoys, distracting and attracting opposition midfielders towards them to open up a gap for a defender to send the ball through to the attacking midfielders ahead of them. Although Demme is very good at getting on the ball, often standing behind a player so that they believe they have him covered then changing the angle so he can receive a ball in space easily, he lacks the passing range of Keita, who really is a master of all trades – more than capable of playing in one of the roles higher up the side.
The defending forward has Demme covered and the German remains in this position until the forward begins to press his teammate.
Demme then moves out of the cover to provide an easy pass.
Keita then moves back to receive the ball. This is a win-win situation for him as either the opposition midfielder follows him and space is created ahead of him or, as it happened, he receives the ball in space.
Keita plays a pass ahead of the onrushing Demme, forcing a midfielder into stepping out to meet him, and Demme plays a pass through to Forsberg between the lines.
Forsberg turns and sprays a through ball between the centre-back and full-back to Sabitzer running beyond them. The Austrian pulls back for Werner but the right centre-back had tracked him well and nipped it from his toes as he goes to shoot. Rather than playing it along the ground, Sabitzer could have chosen to loft it over to Poulsen to head in at the back post.
One particular move they elect to use has Demme or Keita dropping in to the right of the centre-backs, allowing the right-back – Bernardo, Schmitz and Stefan Ilsanker all getting opportunities there – to move forward into the space ahead of them, with the narrow attacking midfielder and one of the strikers often moving to occupy the opposition’s wide players so the full-back has the run of the entire flank. Inside the other midfielder either looks to get on the ball in space or tries to open up passing lanes into Forsberg between the lines.
Second place in their debut season was an amazing achievement but they could have ran Bayern closer. Their first eleven is very talented however the squad depth gets shallow after that. Ilsanker’s versatility plugged some gaps and Dominik Kaiser was a capable replacement in midfield, yet such an intense style tires the players and is likely to result in injuries in the long run. Their aggressive defending also results in plenty of bookings, which is likely to catch up with them without adequate replacements. It’s probably not a coincidence they fell away after such a strong start.
Their success has also brought attention to their talents: Keita’s transfer to Liverpool arranged for the summer of 2018, and plenty of other clubs hovering around his teammates. They did incredibly to build such a strong team while still moving through the divisions, however now they are in the top league they will have to add that same quality to their second string, especially with extra Champions League fixtures to contend with.