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Know Thine Enemigo: RB Leipzig-Atlético Madrid Q&A with Jack Brace

Into the Calderón gets an expert’s take on all things Red Bull.

FC Augsburg v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga
AUGSBURG, GERMANY - JUNE 27: Julian Nagelsmann, head coach of Leipzig reacts during the Bundesliga match between FC Augsburg and RB Leipzig at WWK-Arena on June 27, 2020.
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Leipzig’s rise up the German football pyramid has been meteoric and continued this season with a third-place finish and historic quarterfinal qualification. How have they done it without splashing hundreds of millions of euros on players?

While there was a bit of a cash injection to help push the club’s promotion to the Bundesliga in 2015/16, it has been largely down to the club’s smart recruitment of players that are 23 and younger (there have been some exceptions) that fit the Red Bull philosophy and have a potentially large resell value — as well as (former manager and sporting director) Ralf Rangnick’s heavy use of Red Bull Salzburg as a “feeder club” before both clubs qualified for European competitions in 2017.

Why is Leipzig’s business model criticized so heavily in Germany?

It goes against German football’s traditional values, in which fans are heavily involved in the culture of a club.

Firstly, the club managed to circumnavigate the DFL’s prohibition of clubs being renamed after a company by naming the club RasenBallsport Leipzig, which conveniently abbreviates to RB.

Secondly, while the club conforms to the 50+1 rules which prevent organisations from purchasing a majority share of a German club, it charges astronomical membership fees to become a non-voting member, and the original members were in fact employees and affiliates of Red Bull. The most recent number of members I recall seeing is 19, which is nothing compared to the thousands of members at other clubs.

Finally, the club is seen as the epitome of modern football due to the rising presence of commercialisation in the game, and opposition fans believe the club is merely a marketing construct for Red Bull.

Has Julian Nagelsmann distinctly changed how Leipzig play?

Under Rangnick’s supervision, Red Bull football was highly intensive and focussed on quick transitions to score as soon as possible after retrieving the ball. While the principles remain, Nagelsmann is evolving Leipzig into a possession-based side that can control a game and unlock tight defences rather than focus on counter-attacks.

Particularly before the winter break, Leipzig played some scintillating football but stumbled in the second half of the season. If the team can reignite this form, Thursday’s encounter will be a fascinating battle.

Chelsea FC v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

What’s the plan to replace Timo Werner, both in this match and in the future?

There is a minor offensive crisis at Leipzig heading into the match. Yussuf Poulsen and Patrik Schick have recently returned from injuries sustained last season and they haven’t worked well as a pairing up front in 2019/20.

It has been previously reported that Nagelsmann is considering using Christopher Nkunku, Emil Forsberg or Marcel Sabitzer up front, while he has previously alluded to using a false-nine, which could see Dani Olmo come in.

It remains to be seen how Werner is replaced in the long-term. Hwang Hee-chan has arrived from Red Bull Salzburg — who, in my opinion, is of a similar ilk to Werner but less clinical. But the club has reiterated that it will be impossible to replace Werner’s input with a direct replacement.

What was your initial reaction to drawing Atlético Madrid, and how do you feel about the match now?

The immediate thought that came to mind was that it will be a fascinating tactical battle between an up-and-coming, progressive, exciting team against what is a European powerhouse and one of the toughest locks to pick. It may not be the game for the neutrals, but it will surely be one that will be covered by a lot of analysts.

Can you name one or two RBL players who could influence Thursday night’s game?

If you ask a Leipzig fan or someone else who follows the club extensively, the likes of Dayot Upamecano, Marcel Sabitzer, Kevin Kampl, and Olmo will be mentioned. For me, if Leipzig are to progress it will depend on the form of Péter Gulácsi, who has developed into arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, and Konrad Laimer, who is arguably one of the best pressers of the ball in the league and will have an instrumental role in preventing Atlético’s counter-attacks.

Finish the sentence, if you would: RB Leipzig will advance to a Champions League semifinal if ___

The team can avoid the defensive lapses that occurred when the Bundesliga resumed in May and be as clinical with their chances in front of goal as they were in the first half of the season.

Your scoreline prediction, please.

Atlético Madrid 2-1 RB Leipzig (AET)