Business gave Leipzig sudden wealth, but all the goals have given them wings

Julian Nagelsmann's team set to enter Bundesliga break as ‘winter champions'

Leipzig's players walk back after scoring during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig in Dortmund, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. The match ended 3-3. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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“Lucky you’re so lazy, eh,” smiled Julian Nagelsmann, the head coach of RB Leipzig, to his leading goalscorer, Timo Werner, once they had both caught their breath after Tuesday’s night’s see-saw of a Bundesliga summit meeting at Borussia Dortmund.

Werner had collected his 17th and 18th goals of the league season in the space of seven minutes, both thanks to Dortmund errors. Nagelsmann’s point, made in jest, was that if Werner had been tracking back earnestly, he might not have been in the right positions to capitalise on the mistakes that gifted him his chances. It had been a wild night of several slip-ups, by both sides, and some moments of excellence, too. It finished 3-3.

Which is fairly close to standard scoreline these days for soaring Leipzig, who could this weekend go into the long Bundesliga mid-season break as Germany’s ‘winter champions’, top of the pile at the halfway stage. They host Augsburg on Saturday and need only match second-placed Borussia Monchengladbach’s result to lead what has been a refreshing, open Bundesliga when they resume in 2020.

What Leipzig will almost certainly be is the most gluttonous goalscorers of Germany’s top division once the campaign has played its 17th matchday. When substitute Patrik Schick brought Nagelsmann’s entertainers level for the second time on Tuesday, with the night’s sixth goal, he brought Leipzig’s total to 45 from 16 fixtures. There’s a momentum gathering, which will have been noted in North London. Tottenham Hotspur, where clean sheets have been hard to come by, are drawn against Leipzig in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Since the beginning of November, when Werner struck a hat-trick in an 8-0 demolition of Mainz, Leipzig have put four past Hertha Berlin and Cologne, and scored three times against Paderborn, Hoffenheim, Fortuna Dusseldorf and Dortmund.

And only once in all those matches did they not concede themselves. Nagelsmann is frustrated at that aspect of this thrilling season, his first in charge of Europe’s most upwardly mobile club, but knows that his proactive approach will always carry an element of risk, and that in some respects many of his players are still learning about the game at the elite level.

All of which makes Leipzig, the youngest club in Germany’s top flight, guided by an improbably precocious head coach – Nagelsmann is 32 – immensely watchable. Even sceptics are having to acknowledge that.

The sceptics are numerous. Leipzig, you see, have an inbuilt popularity problem. Not because their own support base is not growing, eagerly clutching onto the coat tails of their rapid rise up their hierarchy, from third division five years ago to Champions League last-16 contenders now.

Being in the old East Germany, they have a large potential catchment area, because clubs from the East have generally struggled to achieve and retain top-flight status since German reunification in 1990. No, what makes Leipzig resented outside their own locale is the fact that they are, essentially, a manufactured entity and have been propelled upwards by big-business.

The RB in the name stands, officially, for ‘Rasenball’. These days it might stand for Rollercoasterball. But what the RB really represents – but the German FA’s constraints on sponsorship in the naming of clubs prevents them spelling out – is Red Bull, the multi-national who back the club, as well as clubs in Austria and the US, and have provided the finance behind the fairytale.

Leipzig's manager Julian Nagelsmann reacts to his players during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig in Dortmund, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. The match ended 3-3. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

A decade ago, Red Bull bought the franchise of a fifth division club, from just outside Leipzig, moved the new entity into the Zentralstadion in Leipzig, a 2006 World Cup venue, and announced their ambition to be a major Bundesliga force within a decade.

They reached that target well ahead of time, while others snarled at their arriviste presence in a football culture where club ownerships are traditionally protected against outside takeover. RB had, the sceptics thought, bent the rules.

Traditionalists still disapprove of RB Leipzig’s corporate character, but with every stirring goalfest, Nagelsmann’s team are offering strong counter-arguments that, in practice, they are much more of a cohesive unit than many clubs with far longer histories. Theirs is, defiantly, not a team assembled and then half-discarded every transfer window.

In fact, seven or eight of a typical Nagelsmann starting XI are players who were with Leipzig when they were promoted from the second division, in 2016.

Two of those, midfielder Diego Demme, and Norwegian striker Yussuf Poulsen, had joined Leipzig when they were still in the third tier of German football in 2013-14. So these men go back a long way, have striven together when the derision directed at their club from opposing fans was being heard in echoey, rickety arenas very different from Bayern’s Allianz or, for that matter, the gleaming new Tottenham Stadium they will visit in February.

A corporate giant may have given Leipzig sudden wealth, but it is a band of brothers who give them wings.