Tied 4-4 against RB Leipzig, Arjen Robben received the ball on the right touchline in the second to final weekend in the Bundesliga season and did what he had done so often in his career: cut in on his left foot, dribble past two defenders, and score. The Robben trademark finish, and Bayern Munich again reasserting their domestic dominance, was another example of both the individual magic of sports and its systemic inevitability. At least for now, in 2017, the x-factor that an overriding management philosophy and well drilled team cannot solve is a moment of instinctual match winning play.
Regardless of the loss, the match felt like a coronation of how far RB Leipzig had come since being founded in 2009. They finished in second place in their inaugural season at the top level. Uli Hoeness symbolically announced Leipzig’s arrival in naming them alongside Dortmund as Bayern Munich’s biggest enemy. Leipzig may be too young to have achieved a lifestyle status, but they are a philosophy - one that either represents the future of the global game or another example of the relationship between fans and supporters divided by spreadsheets and finances.
The playing style of RB Leipzig, and their umbrella clubs Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls, invoke the traits of modern German soccer of high pressing and vertical play. Yet their pressing especially is taken to an extreme, as featured in viral highlights of the 2014 Salzburg side managed by Roger Schmidt. In regards to Schmidt, we should consider how strange it is to highlight a manager within the Red Bull soccer structure. A key idea of analytically inclined sports books ranging from Moneyball to Soccernomics is the manager as just a vessel to transmit the overarching playing philosophy. So now, a word for Leipzig manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, who took the base of a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2, pressing, direct approach and added small nuances. His use of center midfielder Naby Keita created a fluidity and flexibility in attack that is rarely associated with the gegenpressing approach.
Sporting director Ralf Rangnick sets the overall club philosophy. The 58-year-old German is an unlikely visionary, especially when compared to the other recent Bundesliga visionary Pep Guardiola. Having managed some 12 sides over 30 years, a second place finish in 2005 with a Schalke side he took over in September was his highest in the league. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to trace his coaching tree to reveal his quality as well as the relationships powering the gegenpressing era: after Thomas Tuchel retired due to injury, Rangnick was first to offer him a job managing Stuttgart’s U-14 side. While at Augsburg, Tuchel managed Julian Nagelsmann, and gave him a scouting opportunity after his playing career. To come full circle, Nagelsmann noted Rangnick’s influence in how his side plays without possession. But like Hasenhuttl, his nuances lie in what his side does with it.
Yet the seemingly unlimited budget overshadows any perception related to Leipzig, although the manner in which Rangnick built this season’s side signals an intelligence one would expect in researching his past. The attacking trio of Timo Werner (21 goals in league play), Naby Keita (drawing comparisons to Andres Iniesta for his dribbling ability), and Emil Forsberg (8 goals and 18 assists) cost around $30 million total.
And while Rangnick’s transfer policy of signing players under 23 years old with a wage limit of $3 million a season should draw praise for its austerity, it is another example of Leipzig pushing the bounds of tradition for their benefit. The Keita signing from Salzburg highlights a new avenue for youth development. Chelsea’s 38 players currently on loan draws eye rolling and humor. The relationship between Leipzig and Salzburg makes the idea of a feeder system one step more explicit.
Whether an inherent mistrust of corporations or the in your face branding of an energy drink crossing over to the sanctity of sports fandom, the club are structured to win no favors in an old football culture. The 50+1 rule unique to Bundesliga side symbolizes the close relationship between club and supporter. While Dortmund’s membership group costs $70, the same position at Leipzig costs more than $1000, and has no voting rights. Thus, the inspiration behind the banners that read “In Leipzig, the football culture dies”.
Taken this way, Leipzig are the industry disruptors with a focus on growth at the expense of following social mores. It only took Red Bull five years after establishing a Formula 1 team to win a championship. The spoken and unspoken rules, including the 50+1, are seen as obstructions that no longer apply in the age of social media, virtual reality, and technology. Juventus changed their logo to battle for worldwide attention on a smartphone; Leipzig threaten the Bundesliga pecking order. Rangnick responded to the criticism in observing “if you only celebrate the ashes, you are nothing”. How one values those ashes is a battle onto its own.
On the field, RB Leipzig, its umbrella clubs, and their youth academies will bend verticality and direct play as far as it can go. The UEFA Youth League title winning Red Bull Salzburg’s U-19 side featured the trademark split center back, direct, attacking style. With Rene Maric of the Spielverlagerung site, they may be the only U-19 side that features a four minute highlight video. Keita mentioned that the ease in transition between the Austrian side and the German parent club played a key role in his decision to turn down Premier League clubs. The method is international: the New York Red Bulls also adhere to Rangnick’s pressing, direct vision.
Next season’s challenge in the Bundesliga and in Europe revolve not around how, but with whom. Keita and Werner are rumored transfer targets for the usual suspects of Premier League clubs - as is Rangnick himself. Meanwhile, the club remain active on their eternal search for quality players under 23 years old. There’s the usual reminder of the importance of a deep squad to challenge in the Champions League, yet one would assume that Rangnick had a plan ready long ago. There’s no doubting his ability to build a successful side based on a coherent financial and playing style. Now if only he can convince the rest of the Bundesliga of his vision for the future.