GERMAN FOOTBALL could be on the brink of a power shift – RB Leipzig, the controversial team from the old DDR that threatens to challenge the status quo, is now top of the Bundesliga.
RB Leipzig hit first place on the weekend that Borussia Dortmund, the last team other than Bayern to win the Bundesliga, beat the aristocrats from Munich 1-0 in Der Klassiker. Leipzig are three points clear of Bayern and six ahead of five other clubs, a group that includes the only other remaining unbeaten side, Hoffenheim.
After 2015-16, when a modest club from the Midlands shocked English football and finished ahead of the usual title-chasing suspects, everyone is looking for the “next Leicester”. They may have found it in Leipzig, who are intensely disliked by the purists and those that yearn for football democracy.
Of course, other parts of Europe have long been corrupted by mammon: England and France are just two examples. Germany was almost on a pedestal, but clubs like Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have long benefitted from corporate sponsorship on a grand scale. RB Leipzig are a different type of club and one that “cocks and snook” at the conventional German football club structure of stakeholder ownership.
But if you’ve watched RB Leipzig play, you cannot help but be impressed by their sheer energy and spirit. They play a very high-octane pressing game that wears down the opposition. They clearly have a high fitness level, evidenced by the number of late goals they score. And, as seen in their last Bundesliga game when they came back to win 3-2 at Leverkusen, they don’t give up. Their owners, the Austrian beverage company, Red Bull, has a marketing mission that supposedly aligns its brand with “a lifestyle of an adventurous spirit”. Whatever you think of the drink that carries the name (actually, it is rather disgusting), the football team from Leipzig is definitely “walking the talk”.
RB Leipzig are unbeaten in 11 games, a record for a newly-promoted team and people are starting to wonder if they can overcome the stranglehold that Bayern Munich have had on German football since 2012. But while people are fed-up with Bayern’s monotonous domination, very few will welcome Leipzig at the top of the tree.
In the summer, Bundesliga clubs spent something like EUR 550m on new signings. While Borussia Dortmund topped the list with EUR 115.8m, RB Leipzig were the fourth biggest spenders at EUR 49.8m.
The cynics would suggest that Leipzig are using their wealth to lure big names to the club, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Indeed, Leipzig’s biggest fee was the EUR 15.2m they paid to Nottingham Forest for Oliver Burke, a relatively unknown 19 year-old Scottish midfielder. They also paid Red Bull Salzburg EUR 15m for Naby Keita, another young player, and EUR 10m to VFB Stuttgart for 20 year-old Timo Werner.
Although the traffic between Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig is something that demands discussion, it is clear that Leipzig are not throwing money around to lure superstars to Saxony. In fact, they are signing young players of potential while also building a much-envied youth academy.
But transfers between Red Bull stable-mates have roused a lot of suspicion – in the past three transfer windows, there have been nine moves between the two clubs and there is a feeling that fees such as the EUR 15m that Leipzig “paid” Salzburg are merely for accounting purposes. It has caused some unrest in a city that as well as creating a platform for football corporatisation has also given the world Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and The Sound Of Music. Critics of the player drain from Salzburg also include members of the coaching staff who have suggested Salzburg is becoming a feeder club for Leipzig. It is easy to see why Red Bull might prioritise Leipzig over Salzburg given the commercial differences between German and Austrian football. Moreover, one of Salzburg’s players moved away from the Red Bull portfolio to sign for Augsburg rather than shift to Leipzig with the parting words: “It’s not nice to see the way Leipzig is destroying Salzburg.”
Salzburg, Austrian champions for the past three seasons, are off the pace in 2016-17 and are chasing Sturm Graz and Rheindorf Altach. Given they won the title by nine points last season, have they been weakened by the summer activity involving their sister club in Germany? Attendances at the club have declined by more than 20%, which should tell you something.
No such problem for Leipzig, who are averaging more than 40,000 for their home games, an increase of 37% on last season. This suggests that while the club is faced with widespread condemnation from the rest of German football for appearing to be the plaything of a drinks company, the people of Leipzig are buying into the project. This is no bad thing as the old DDR has been a barren wasteland as far as Bundesliga football has been concerned, but the rest of the German game cares not for that.
Certainly, Leipzig are poised to be the best performing promoted side in recent history. Over the past decade, of the 25 promoted clubs, some 40% are relegated in their first season in the Bundesliga and a further 8% do down after two campaigns.
Can they upset the form book and end Bayern’s four-year run of titles? There are rumours that all is not well at the Allianz at the moment as Carlo Ancelotti tries to get his feet under the table. As well as losing to Dortmund, one or two performances have been below par and the club’s grandees have commented about a distinct fall in quality.
But have Bayern reached a point where they might need to turn their squad over? Just consider that they have a group of over-30s in Neuer, Lahm, Alonso, Ribery and Robben and only two regulars under the age of 25. It’s a squad that has achieved much, but is the hunger still there? – indeed, is the flesh still willing?
Bayern don’t lose many games in a season and they’ve been beaten just 10 times in the past four Bundesliga programmes. In the last three, they’ve scored 80 goals each time, conceding 17 in 2015-16 and 18 in 2014-15. This season, the balance sheet is 24-11.
Although Leipzig are younger, and players like the Swede Emil Forsberg and Willi Orban have caught the eye in the first few months of 2016-17, Bayern’s incredible experience will doubtless come to the fore when they reach the serious end of the season. Leipzig travel to Munich on the last weekend before the winter break (December 20/21). If they manage to hang on to their lead at the top after that, we should see one of the most interesting Bundesliga run-ins for some time. Whatever happens, the protests about the ethics and spirit of RB Leipzig will persist around German football grounds for some time to come.