As RB Leipzig prepare for their UEFA Champions League quarter-final debut, they do so buoyed by the fact that - even without Timo Werner - they have an excellent chance of beating Atletico Madrid and securing a spot in the last four.
Julian Nagelsmann will lead his side out against the two-time Champions League runners-up on 13 August at Sporting Lisbon’s Estadio Jose Alvalade stadium, aiming to keep alive their hopes of ending the elongated 2019/20 campaign by claiming a first major trophy.
Here, bundesliga.com outlines why Nagelsmann & Co. can be confident going into the one-legged knockout.
Leipzig's case for the defence
Leipzig sealed a third-place finish in the Bundesliga for a second year in succession and guaranteed a third straight Champions League campaign next season in the process, thanks to standout performances where it mattered most: at the business ends of both boxes.
Only champions Bayern Munich conceded fewer goals this term, with a meagre 37 strikes hitting the back of the Leipzig net. Paired with the third-highest goals (81) - behind top-two pairing Bayern (100) and Borussia Dortmund (84) - it proves just how good Leipzig have been at each end, and it may provide them with the cutting edge they need to get beyond Atletico, who have clearly struggled to replace the goals of Barcelona-bound Antoine Griezmann.
It’s a concern Leipzig have already managed to offset by themselves in Werner’s case - whose 28 league goals was only bettered by the goalscoring freak of nature that is Robert Lewandowski - with the likes of Christopher Nkunku, Marcel Sabitzer and Patrik Schick finding form in front of goal after the restart and Hwang Hee-chan recruited for next season.
Renowned for the sturdiness of their own defence, Atleti have the second tightest defence in La Liga and conceded just seven times in eight Champions League games - one fewer than Leipzig. But, despite boasting an attack that features Diego Costa, Joao Felix and Alvaro Morata, they have scored 34 fewer league goals (47) than Leipzig from one more game (35), two less than Leipzig (14) in the Champions League and have failed to find the back of the net on nine occasions in the Spanish top flight, compared to Leipzig’s four Bundesliga blanks.
Leipzig’s not-so-secret weapon
"The main reason why he's currently perceived differently is that he has become more involved in terms of scoring and setting up goals. He does that very well.”
Those were the words of Nagelsmann earlier in the season, when discussing the fine form of his captain in the absence of Willi Orban, Sabitzer. The Leipzig tactician is not wrong, with Sabitzer proving to be Die Roten Bullen's go-to man this season, especially in Europe. No Leipzig player has more UCL goals (four) or assists (two) than Sabitzer this term and it was his star turn against Tottenham Hotspur in the 4-0 aggregate win in the last-16 that spurred his side beyond the North London club and into the quarters.
To go with his fine Champions League efforts, the Austrian’s nine league goals and seven assists are a big reason why Leipzig are well prepared to find other sources for goals in life after Werner, and it is little wonder that his output hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coach.
"I've always said I want more goal threat from midfield. He clearly took that both literally and personally. He's a very important player for us,” said Nagelsmann of his 26-year-old charge who has never lost a European game in which he’s scored (W5, D2). Both he and his boss will be hoping he can find the back of the net in Portugal and add to that record next month.
The inside men
The Spanish duo of Angelino and Dani Olmo have grown into important members of the Leipzig team at the back end of the season, allowing their coach to settle on a 3-4-2-1 formation that has looked revelatory in recent weeks. Nagelsmann picked them both out for praise last month, delighted with how quickly they have adapted to German football in their first Bundesliga seasons.
“I've never seen anyone settle in as quickly as Angel did here, and we'd love to have him playing for us in the future,” he said of his full-back before adding that Olmo's “developing well as a player. He's quick, has a high footballing IQ and he always wants to win. He's one of those who just can't stand to lose, a bit like his Spanish counterpart at left back."
With the club looking to extend Angelino’s stay beyond the originally scheduled season end, the pair may well be the men for an inside job on the side from their motherland. And their clear ability on the pitch may not be the only reason why the Spaniards could prove to be the difference.
With no fans in the stadium, on-field communication is heightened and with no Germans in the Atletico ranks, Leipzig should find it easier to keep tactical instruction out of enemy comprehension, while Angelino and Olmo can feed back everything they hear - in real-time - to the Leipzig setup.
The 2019/20 season will be into its third additional month by the time the two sides meet, and the campaign’s extension into August has, in a roundabout way, been kind to Leipzig. It means that they are able to welcome back a number of players whose seasons looked to be over, with Orban, Tyler Adams, Emil Forsberg, Kevin Kampl, Ibrahima Konate and Yussuf Poulsen all on the mend in recent weeks.
After suffering long-term injuries earlier in the year, Orban, Adams, Kampl and Konate all managed to get back on the pitch over the course of the Bundesliga run-in, with their unavailability this year highlighted by the 45 Bundesliga appearances they managed between them.
Forsberg’s tonsillitis was a more recent issue, but Leipzig will be delighted that the man with four goals and an assist in the eight Champions League games so far will be back in contention to sharpen an attack that is now deprived of Werner.
Poulsen will equally restock Leipzig’s attacking arsenal, having returned to training after an ankle injury kept him out of the reckoning for the final seven Bundesliga matchdays. He’s expected to be fit enough to play a part against Atletico and, again, bolsters Nagelsmann’s options as Leipzig go in search of history.
From prodigy to master?
To do so, Nagelsmann will have to edge out one of the best in the business when he faces Diego Simeone who, at 50, is 18 years senior, with 479 games and seven trophies on his German counterpart. In other words, he has the experience and the silverware to back up his pedigree as a world-class coach.
And it speaks to Nagelsmann and Leipzig’s shared growing reputations in the game that Simeone spoke so highly of them recently, saying: "You'll always meet good teams at the quarter-final stage and that’s the case here. They've been having a great season as they've competed right at the top of the Bundesliga. I'm sure it'll be a competitive match.”
In his even more nascent coaching days at Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann twice tasted defeat against both Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp - two more heavyweight modern coaches who operated in the Bundesliga - but the comprehensive dismissal of Mourinho’s Tottenham in the last-16 suggests a coming of age for a man once dubbed the ‘mini’ version of the Portuguese.
Evidence suggests Nagelsmann will be up for the challenge against Simeone, as he was when taking on Hansi Flick earlier this year. Nagelsmann produced a tactical masterclass and became the first - and only - side to stop Bayern scoring in a Bundesliga game this season.
But for rare prolifigacy in front of goal, Leipzig would’ve won as Nagelsmann shifted to the 3-4-2-1 that now looks a perfect fit; not only for the club moving forward, but also for combating Atleti’s rigid preference for 4-4-2, with an extra man in midfield, protection against two strikers, width from his wing-backs and a forward threat in two attacking midfielders operating behind his frontman.
If he does get it right, both club and coach will indeed remain on course to make history and, as mentioned earlier, Nagelsmann doesn’t often get it wrong.