Julian Nagelsmann, RB Leipzig’s innovative coach, faces a brush with his Augsburg past in the Friday Bundesliga game (2:20 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), the prelude to a huge Champions League week for the club. ESPN’s Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae believes Leipzig have a chance to become the second-force in German football.
That Julian Nagelsmann, at 33 years old, has ascended to the upper slopes of world football’s coaching mountain is nothing short of remarkable. The story began in the foothills of Landsberg am Lech, his home community a short drive from Augsburg. An aspiring central defender with the FC Augsburg reserve team, Nagelsmann’s playing career ended abruptly at 20 due to a knee injury. His manager at the time, Thomas Tuchel, asked him to scout forthcoming opponents, and only then did the young Bavarian begin to think about coaching as a potential career.
What a powerful fist Nagelsmann has made of it, initially with TSG Hoffenheim and now Leipzig, the attractive and up-and-coming eastern city that in some ways matches his own trajectory and ambitions.
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Because they were constructed in a way that is far removed from the traditional German idea of what a football club should resemble, RB Leipzig are never going to be particularly attractive or appealing to the general football-watching public. Yet there’s nothing but the utmost respect for Nagelsmann and an acceptance that his visionary ways will be accompanying us for the long term.
Leipzig went to great lengths to secure his services in time for the 2019-20 season, knowing they needed a coaching upgrade. The hardware was already in place with a preference for counter-pressing football, but CEO Oliver Mintzlaff understood that more versatility, especially an effective possession game, was needed against deeper-sitting opponents.
Nagelsmann made visible improvements last season, although results were mixed. On the one hand, a Champions League semifinal appearance and another third-place finish in the Bundesliga speak to high standards. On the other, the second half of the campaign yielded eight points fewer than the Hinrunde. Too many points were frittered away at home, and Nagelsmann has conceded that if he got one thing wrong in the early part of the pandemic, it was leaving the players to their own devices in an effort to give them space amid the challenging circumstances. He says he won’t repeat that mistake.
The big question coming into this season was how to replace a formidable goal scorer — namely Timo Werner, who netted 28 times in the Bundesliga last season before joining Chelsea. Unusually, Leipzig have done it by committee, including a host of defenders. No-one in the first team has scored more than four goals through 20 matchdays, but Leipzig have nevertheless spread the wealth efficiently, with 15 different scorers.
When you add to the equation the fact that Leipzig have the tightest defence in the league, with only 17 goals conceded and 10 clean sheets recorded, you get the picture. Rekordmeister Bayern Munich will blow any team away with sheer attacking firepower, but Leipzig are unmatched when it comes to doggedness and keeping the ball out of the net.
One of the keys to their success is Hungary international goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, one of the best in the league for a while now. Tuesday in the Champions League will mean going home to Budapest, where he’ll face the club that was once his home: Liverpool, where he technically spent six years despite never appearing for the Merseysiders. One potential problem Leipzig face is Gulacsi’s paltry buyout clause of around €10 million and €15 million, which can be triggered this summer. Borussia Dortmund are certainly one club in need of a goalkeeping enhancement, but Gulacsi, whose deal otherwise runs until 2023, seems settled in the city of heroes.
Dayot Upamecano will almost certainly be on his way out in the close season for the buyout figure of just more than €40m. As discussed in this space previously, I’ll be surprised if his ultimate destination isn’t Bayern, although there is competition from top Premier League clubs. Plans are already afoot for life after Upamecano thanks to the arrival of Josko Gvardiol and, potentially, Mohamed Simakan.
For now, it’s a movable feast in the positions around Upamecano, and Nagelsmann is spoiled for choice between Nordi Mukiele, Willi Orban, Marcel Halstenberg and, now that he’s fit again, Lukas Klostermann. Place any two from that group beside Upamecano and you have defensive solidity.
Not by accident, Leipzig have scored twice as many goals from the left than from the right, and you can put a lot of that down to the thrusting Angelino down that flank. Marcel Sabitzer is having a banner season and thriving as captain, orchestrating from central midfield.
The two attacking midfield positions are crucial to Leipzig’s success, and in Dani Olmo and Christopher Nkunku, Nagelsmann has two artists who can change the course of any game. Both get fouled a lot, both can create as well as score.
The centre-forward position is slightly odd in that while Werner was their main scorer, it was rarely as a true attacker through the middle. Leipzig tend to like a fixed, physical, aerially capable line leader. Yussuf Poulsen, who first joined when they were in the third tier, fits the bill perfectly, although rotation is the norm in this position. Alexander Sorloth has generally found the going tough since moving to Germany in the summer, scoring just once in 18 league appearances. Emil Forsberg, though more an off-the-front player, has had more success when deployed through the middle than the Norwegian newcomer.
This is the statistic I particularly like as regards the Nagelsmann XI: If you include Angelino (mostly a wing-back rather than a full-back), 13 Bundesliga goals have come from Leipzig defenders, including two more last week in the 3-0 win at Schalke 04.
Really, we’re only scratching the surface of RB Leipzig here. It’s such a competent squad that Nagelsmann can and does shuttle players in and out at will. Above all, Leipzig are a club with a plan and devoid of the emotional daily soap opera that can engulf, say, Dortmund. Calmly, Leipzig have made strides in each of their five Bundesliga seasons.
Catching Bayern from seven points behind is surely a task too great, and Nagelsmann has said protecting a Champions League place remains the priority, but I won’t be shocked if RB Leipzig remain the second force in German football in the short to medium term.