With Champions League football secured for next season and just one more Bundesliga match to play, thoughts will soon turn to inward introspection at RB Leipzig for the season just played. It was the first of ‘Project Nagelsmann’, but has it been one they should be pleased with, or has the can of Red Bull gone a little flat?
Leipzig’s 2-0 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund on Saturday meant that second place in the league is now beyond them, but with Leverkusen also losing to Hertha Berlin, Champions League football is virtually guaranteed for next season. Third place looks the likely finish, although fourth could be their final landing berth should Gladbach get a better result than them next weekend.
Third place would match last season’s finish, while fourth would be a slight step backwards. Looking at it in those terms and viewing both the Hinrunde and Rückrunde, is the RB Leipzig glass half-full, or half-empty?
Speaking at his unveiling back in July 2019 new trainer Julian Nagelsmann was full of optimism saying, “The next few years should be as successful as the last three years in the Bundesliga. The goal is to bring something shiny home at some point. The RB Leipzig DNA will continue to be our foundation, but I’ll bring in some of my own approaches. I want to build on what they achieved last season. We’ll focus particularly on ball retention and having the right mentality.”
Those new approaches were surprisingly quick to be taken on board by the players and the season began very well for Die Roten Bullen. They began with three successive wins and then a 1-1 draw with champions Bayern. Losses to both Schalke and Freiburg were blows, but then they thrashed Mainz 8-0 on matchday 10. Seven wins out of eight through November and December meant that they finished the Hinrunde as Herbstmeister-four points ahead of Bayern and seven ahead of Dortmund. They had averaged 2.18 points per game and scored 2.82 goals per game.
The Rückrunde however didn’t run quite as smoothly as the Leipzig machine under Nagelsmann’s tutelage faltered a little. Their average points per game dropped to 1.63 with too many draws creeping in, while their goal average also fell to 1,9 per game. While not a injury crisis, the coach did have to cope without the likes of Dayot Upamecano, Willi Orban and Ibrahima Konate for large parts of the second half of the campaign, while Kevin Kampl has proved what a big miss he was during his injury lay-off.
To blame injuries is too easy with Bayern suffering equally with the loss of both Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez and the fact that RB’s squad possesses the depth to cope. The pace of development clearly slowed after the Winterpause and the five matches without a win at home after the Corona virus restart is a worry.
“Development work is required” Nagelsmann told the Sport1 TV show Doppelpass in mid-June. “It’s the philosophy, I also knew that when I signed, and we have slightly different requirements than maybe Dortmund or Bayern. It is normal for every trainer to always strive for more. It’s normal that we want to be champions someday. Everyone who plays in the Bundesliga should have the urge to be as successful as possible.
“With more coolness and cleverness in the last third, more would have been possible. In a difficult year, the goal was to include parts of the new football so that the club’s development could continue.”
So, mission accomplished in terms of Champions League qualification (don’t forget they’re still in the quarter-finals this year) and in terms of getting the players onboard with the Nagelsmann brand of football. However, there will remain a nagging doubt that there was more in this season for Leipzig especially considering the difficulties Bayern had in the early part of the season.
The loss of Timo Werner and his goals needs to be compensated as it seems clear that both Bayern and BVB will come back stronger next season. Lots of positives can be taken from this first season under Nagelsmann, but lots of questions remain as to whether RB Leipzig are close to taking the next step from becoming a top four ‘Champions League qualifier’ to genuine Bundesliga contenders.
Glass half-full, or glass half-empty?