There was a Bundesliga title race last season until all of a sudden there wasn’t. The turning point came following the resumption of the 2019/20 campaign. When play started again after the two-month hiatus due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, Bayern Munich held an advantage of just four points at the top of the table. Within just a handful of games, though, they were out of sight.
RB Leipzig were one of the sides, along with Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach, who had hoped to stick with Bayern Munich all the way to the finish line. Julian Nagelsmann’s side had been top at Christmas, but fell away dramatically, winning just four of their final 11 league fixtures.
What had been a title tilt soon became a scramble to merely finish in the top four and qualify for next season’s Champions League. RB Leipzig managed that, keeping their place at European soccer’s top table, but only by three points as they finished a giant 16 points behind runway champions Bayern Munich.
In the Champions League, RB Leipzig progressed past Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico Madrid, but lost 3-0 in the semi finals to Paris Saint-Germain. Many put their toothlessness in that game down to the loss of Timo Werner who left the club for Chelsea after the end of the Bundesliga season, but before the Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon kicked off.
Werner wasn’t just RB Leipzig’s top scorer, netting 28 times 34 Bundesliga appearances last season, but the figure who set the tone for their attack. It would be incorrect to claim Nagelsmann built his forward line around the German international from a tactical point of view, such is Werner’s positional versatility, but he was RB Leipzig’s primary difference maker.
Two months on from their fade out of the Champions League, Leipzig have retooled and reshaped their team over the off-season and look ready to take another step closer to the Bundesliga title. Nagelsmann still boasts one of the most interchangeable and fluid frontlines in the European game and this hasn’t changed, even after the departure of Werner.
It might only be three games into the new season, but the sight of RB Leipzig at the top of the Bundesliga table is symbolic of their renewed ambition. Emil Forsberg and Youssef Poulsen have both been used as the furthest forward attacker, with Dani Olmo, Christopher Nkunku and even Angelino deployed around them as support. The signing of Patrick Kluivert from Roma will also give Nagelsmann more options in the final third, with the Dutchman still to truly fulfill his obvious potential.
Olmo and Nkunku look set to become the new attacking nucleus of Nagelsmann’s side. The latter enjoyed a breakout season last term, notching 13 assists and five goals in 32 Bundesliga appearances following his summer move from PSG. The former joined in the January transfer window and hit the ground running.
The signing of Olmo demonstrated the efficiency of the RB Leipzig recruitment department, with a €30 million deal struck with Dinamo Zagreb for the transfer of a player seen as one of Spanish soccer’s brightest hopes for the future. Barcelona and Real Madrid were both linked with a move for Olmo, but the attacking midfielder saw the Bundesliga as the best destination for him at this stage of his career. That speaks to the success RB Leipzig have had in harnessing young players over the last few years.
Of course, Bayern Munich are still heavy favourites to retain their Bundesliga crown. The Bavarians are living through a golden age in their recent history, winning last season’s Champions League at a near canter. In the European game right now, only Liverpool can claim to be as strong as Hansi Flick’s side.
But this Bundesliga season will be unlike any other before. As witnessed in the Premier League in recent weeks, there is an additional element of unpredictability and chaos this season, brought on by various factors related to the Covid-19 world we now live in. Bayern Munich have already sampled this, suffering a shock 4-1 defeat to Hoffenheim in only their second game of the new campaign.
If the door is open for an outsider to challenge Bayern Munich this season, RB Leipzig look well-placed to be the ones to walk through it. They might not boast the raw talent of Borussia Dortmund, who possess the likes of Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Gio Reyna among others, but in Nagelsmann they have German soccer’s next great coach and an over-arching ideology that extends beyond the players on the pitch. No one player is greater than that. Not even Werner.