The global coronavirus pandemic changed a lot for RB Leipzig. Of course, the unprecedented events of 2020 has seen the sporting landscape shift as a whole, but the Bundesliga club emerged from the two-month lockdown period in very different shape to how they entered it.
Before the hiatus, Julian Nagelsmann’s side were seen as German title challengers, maybe even the primary challengers to Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga. By the close of the 2019/20 season, RB Leipzig were merely thankful to have finished in the top four and kept their place in the following season’s Champions League.
Before the hiatus, RB Leipzig were viewed by many as potential dark horses to go all the way in European soccer’s premier club competition. They had already, after all, put away 2019 Champions League finalists Tottenham Hotspur in the round of 16. They had one of the game’s sharpest goalscorers too in Timo Werner. Had.
Werner is no longer a RB Leipzig, leaving the German club for Chelsea in a €56 million deal that was sealed before the 2019/20 Champions League could be finished. The 24-year-old who netted 34 times for RB Leipzig this season might still end up with a winners’ medal having already participated in eight matches, but he will be watching from afar if his former teammates are to sample continental glory this month.
“It has been talked about a lot, but Timo is not here any more,” Nagelsmann replied when asked how he viewed the loss of Werner and whether his team could still compete in the Champions League without him.
“But it’s not as if we have to play with a man less. We have the ability in midfield and attack to score goals. We have players who played little because of Timo and those players who were in the shadows can now take the responsibility.”
Nagelsmann is right to be bullish about his team’s Champions League chances. Werner might have been their top scorer and frontman, but RB Leipzig were always about much more than just one player. This is a dynamic, forward-thinking side that could still make their mark at the top of the European game over the next two weeks.
RB Leipzig possess the versatility and fluidity to survive without Werner. Christopher Nkunku, for instance, is capable of playing through the middle, with January addition Dani Olmo giving Nagelsmann even more creativity and invention to play with in the final third. Emil Forsberg is another who could step into the void left behind by Werner.
Then there’s Marcel Sabitzer, the Austrian attacker whose positional interchangeability and in-game intelligence makes him one of the most compelling players playing in Europe right now. Sabitzer has scored 16 goals and assisted nine more this season and will play a key role for RB Leipzig if they are to get past Atletico Madrid on Thursday and make a run even deeper into the Champions League.
The basis upon which Nagelsmann has built his team remains, with Dayot Upamecano recently putting pen-to-paper on a new contract to keep him at RB Leipzig until 2023 amid intense speculation that a move to the Premier League could be on the cards for him this summer. The highly rated centre back hasn’t followed Werner’s lead. Not yet, anyway.
In midfield, American Tyler Adams has proven himself since making the switch from the New York Red Bulls in January 2019, with the 21-year-old bringing a great deal of energy and drive through the centre of the pitch. At a time when Christian Pulisic is blossoming into American soccer’s first true global superstar, it might be Adams who stands the best chance of getting to the top of the European game first.
Despite Nagelsmann’s insistence to the contrary, there’s no denying RB Leipzig are a weaker side and a less threatening proposition without Werner as their attacking apex, particularly before they have had a chance to replace him in the transfer market. But his exit shouldn’t see the German side completely discounted as a Champions League force.
The abridged nature of the final stages of this season’s competition means RB Leipzig are just three wins away from being European champions. Werner might have given them a better chance of going all the way, but what he has left behind still makes RB Leipzig contenders. This is a club that rarely ever takes a backwards step.