ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae is in Berlin for the DFB-Pokal Final (stream LIVE, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN+ in the U.S.) between Freiburg and Leipzig. He reflects on the twists and turns of RB Leipzig’s season. Will it end with the club’s first major trophy or in tears and soul searching for a club still denied wider acceptance.
It has become fashionable to mock RB Leipzig’s fan support or more accurately, the lack of it. Not even the recent Europa League semifinal decider at Ibrox against Rangers could tempt more than a handful to make the journey, something that would have been a special, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for supporters of better-established clubs.
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This week in the German capital, RB Leipzig will be hoping to change perceptions about themselves as a club and an entity. It must be said it’s a pretty straightforward train journey from Leipzig to Berlin and in good times, it’s a drive of little more than two hours along the A9 Autobahn. So you would worry if they weren’t going to take a large travelling support for Saturday’s showdown at the Olympiastadion. In fact, an estimated 27,000 from the Heldenstadt (“city of heroes”) will descend on the western part of Berlin and they even have their own stage show and fan march planned. It’s a sizeable number, but they will be in the decided minority in a different way. Meanwhile, 99.9999% of Germany’s football fans are willing on Freiburg, the ultimate organic community club who stand in contrast to the Leipzig business model, one that many still argue is at odds with the essence of German football culture.
Among Leipzig fans, is there a reaction of “nobody likes us but we don’t care?” More precise would be “nobody likes us but we will just remain quiet about that and not make too much of a fuss.”
And so will Saturday, in Berlin’s Westend district, be the night when RBL start to look north and usher in an era of trophy lifts? A first major honour beckons, after all: the Regionalliga Nordost and Sachsen Pokal were nice to win during the club’s infancy, but they don’t quite qualify.
At the start of the season, there was considerable optimism within the club. Jesse Marsch was part of the family, true to the Ralf Rangnick counter-pressing approach and blessed, by his own admission, with the deepest, most comprehensive squad in the entire Bundesrepublik. I’ve written before about why the marriage between Marsch and Leipzig simply had to be terminated before it became too late to salvage a Champions League place. Essentially the team had moved on stylistically to ball-control football under Julian Nagelsmann, and Marsch’s back-to-the-future approach wasn’t going to work.
Leipzig CEO Oliver Mintzlaff recently said that Marsch was trying to change too much, too soon. Either way, the players wanted a possession game, and that’s what they got under new man Domenico Tedesco, who really began to hit his stride come the turn of the year. Squad members in various interviews have expressed their contentment at things since his arrival.
Leipzig have been the form team for a good portion of the Rückrunde (second half of the season). If you go strictly by the numbers, they have been the best team in the league since the winter break: Between early January and late April, they lost just one of their 20 competitive matches and that was 3-2 away to Rekordmeister Bayern. It has looked a lot more like “Nagelsmann football,” too, with a return to a back-three defense and the banishment of the overly hectic, wild style favoured by Marsch.
I was genuinely beginning to think that had it not been for the ill-fated Marsch period, Leipzig would perhaps be on a winning course for the Meisterschale. But something strange has happened to RBL in the past few weeks and it must surely be down to the Belastungssteuerung, a great German word for “excessive work load.” You could detect a big dip, even in victory away to Leverkusen just before their Pokal semifinal date with Union. Leipzig then appeared nervous and twitchy in the first half against the robust Unioner, and were frankly fortunate that Emil Forsberg’s late header to clinch a place in the final wiped out memories of a skittish, under-par performance.
Facing Union at home again three days later, Leipzig struggled once more and this time let the game slip from their grasp in the closing stages. It was a portent of disappointments to come against Gladbach, but most noticeably over the two meetings with Rangers when on squad strength, RBL were favourites to go through to the final in Seville.
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This tag of being the “nearly team that can’t quite get it over the line” is something Leipzig would prefer to shed — and not just in European competition. Leipzig have lost their two previous DFB-Pokal finals … albeit against Bayern and Dortmund respectively. In Freiburg, a bit like against Union and Rangers, they will face the ultimate Mentalitätsmonster (thanks to a certain Jurgen Klopp, some in the English speaking world already know this word.) They must be especially careful in defending set-pieces.
The positive for Tedesco and Leipzig is they have already nailed down their Champions League place for next season, although it was a much closer shave than it really should have been.
When Leipzig are at their best, they still need a balance between their newest stars — the fabulous Christopher Nkunku and talented Dani Olmo being the prime examples — and the old guard. Peter Gulacsi, Emil Forsberg and Yusuf Poulsen provide this link to the club’s recent past, when the club was in a rush to ascend the divisions. Continuity is important.
As against Rangers, Leipzig are favourites to beat Freiburg tomorrow even though both Bundesliga meetings of the sides this season ended in 1-1 draws. This and the fact that they finished a mere three points apart suggests a final played at eye level.
German football fans recognise that for all their reservations about RB Leipzig, sooner or later, a trophy will come their way. Their advantage in terms of resources over most of the rest of the Bundesliga virtually ensures this. Whatever happens on Saturday, at least no one will accuse RB Leipzig of not having enough of their own fans on site to witness a key moment in their history.