When Julian Nagelsmann bumped fists with Mainz manager Achim Beierlorzer at the weekend, he was doing so with a man old enough to be his father. This is a common occurrence for RB Leipzig’s head coach, who celebrated his 33rd birthday in July. There was also cause for celebration in a professional capacity that month, as Leipzig reached the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in the club’s short history.
They were ultimately outclassed in their meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in the last four, and Leipzig fans may have been disappointed by their team’s failure to rise to the occasion. But as they look back on last season as a whole, everyone involved with the club will be proud of their achievements. Leipzig knocked out Tottenham Hotspur, the previous year’s runners-up, and Atletico Madrid on their way to that semi-final appearance, as Naglesmann got the better of Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone – two of the most high-profile and respected managers in European soccer – in consecutive rounds.
Leipzig also enjoyed a positive season in the Bundesliga, finishing third behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in Nagelsmann’s maiden campaign at the helm. At one stage it looked as if 2019/20 could be even better for the club from the east of the country: Leipzig topped the table at the midway point of the season and remained in the top two as late as matchday 24. However, a stuttering finish allowed Dortmund and the relentless Bayern to climb above them, but there were promising signs for Leipzig throughout 2019/20.
Nagelsmann’s side was certainly hard to beat last time out, losing only four of their 34 league matches – a record that no other team in the division could better. Yet they also won fewer games than the teams around them – not just Bayern and Dortmund but also Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen. Twelve draws are ultimately too many for a team with aspirations of finishing on top of the pile. Had Leipzig turned half of those ties into wins, they would have finished as runners-up, just four points behind champions Bayern.
Still, Nagelsmann exceeded expectations in his first season at the Red Bull Arena, with a third-place finish and run to the Champions League semi-finals more than the club’s hierarchy could have anticipated. The curious decision to announce Nagelsmann’s appointment a year in advance could have backfired, so it is a testament to the 33-year-old’s coaching ability that he was able to hit the ground running upon assuming control.
While some questioned the method of his appointment – Nagelsmann agreed on a deal in 2018 but remained at Hoffenheim for 12 more months – no one doubted whether Leipzig had got the right man. It was widely recognized that the German had done a magnificent job at Hoffenheim, who had made competing for the European qualification spots a habit under his tutelage. In fact, some opined that Leipzig had pulled off a coup in snaring a man who has been linked with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and other heavyweights over the last few years.
Nagelsmann spent his youth career with Augsburg and 1860 Munich, but an injury forced him to retire as a teenager. Thomas Tuchel, the PSG boss who faced his former protégé in the Champions League semi-finals in July, encouraged him to go into coaching, and he duly took up a position with 1860 Munich’s Under-17 side. His impressive work there earned him a job in Hoffenheim’s academy, and eventually, he was promoted to take charge of the Under-19s at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.
In 2015 he got the biggest job of all. Installing a 28-year-old as head coach was a major gamble that could easily have backfired. And despite his tender years, Nagelsmann was thrown in at the deep end: initially set to take charge at the start of the 2016/17 season, his tenure was brought forward when Huub Stevens was forced to resign due to health problems. Nagelsmann steered the club clear of relegation trouble in his first few months at the helm, before qualifying Hoffenheim for the Champions League for the first time in their history in 2016/17.
Expectations are higher at Leipzig than at Hoffenheim, even though the former has only been a Bundesliga club for four years. The Red Bull Group has invested large sums into making Leipzig a success, although this has not been a case of throwing money at established superstars à la Roman Abramovich at Chelsea or Qatar Sports Investments at PSG.
Leipzig prefers to sign promising young talent who they can develop and hopefully sell on for a profit. Timo Werner is a fine example. The striker arrived at Leipzig as a 20-year-old for €10 million and has just joined Chelsea for more than five times that fee. Dayot Upamecano will almost certainly leave Leipzig next summer, but the price will be significantly higher than the €10 million his current employers paid for his services.
Werner’s exit poses a challenge for Nagelsmann this term. Last season’s top scorer plundered 28 goals in the Bundesliga and six more in other competitions, and Leipzig has not yet signed a direct replacement. In Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Mainz, it was Yussuf Poulsen who led the line, but his career to date does not suggest he is ready to fill the scoring shoes of Werner. Alexander Sorloth is set to arrive in the coming weeks but he is unproven at this level.
RB Leipzig is available at +2500 with DraftKings Sportsbook to win the Bundesliga title this term, with Bayern Munich (-1000) and Borussia Dortmund (+700) expected to finish above them by the bookmakers.
However, the joint-fourth favorites – Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach – are offered at +8000, which goes to show that Leipzig is now considered among the top three in German soccer. For a club that was only founded in 2009 with a manager who is just 33 years of age, that is some achievement.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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