Recovering from their worst start to a Bundesliga season since gaining promotion in 2016, RB Leipzig are right back in the top-four hunt thanks to a seven-game unbeaten run. How has head coach Jesse Marsch done it?
Your initial thought might be 'with a big helping hand from Christopher Nkunku'. The former Paris Saint-German attacker has hit career-best form following Marsch's appointment in place of Bayern Munich-bound Julian Nagelsmann, producing a team-leading five goals and three assists after 11 rounds of fixtures. He's also lit up a difficult UEFA Champions League group campaign with star turns against Manchester City and former employers PSG - but Marsch's Leipzig are no one-man band.
Watch: Christopher Nkunku - showing PSG what they're missing
Marsch himself deserves a huge slice of the credit for hauling Leipzig up from 12th and a point above the relegation zone after Matchday 5 to within a point of the Champions League places heading into the November international break.
The American's had to deal with the weight of Leipzig's recent history - they finished as Bundesliga and DFB Cup runners-up for the second time in 2020/21 - not to mention the double-whammy departure of defender Dayot Upamecano and captain Marcel Sabitzer to Bayern. Invariably, results were going to be mixed, despite his Red Bull education.
After overseeing an even split in pre-season (W1, D1, L1), the former Salzburg coach and assistant to Ralf Rangnick at Leipzig kicked off his tenure with a comfortable 4-0 win against Bundesliga 2 outfit Sandhausen in the DFB Cup first round. A 1-0 defeat away to a well-drilled Mainz unit followed, but the response - a 4-0 rout of VfB Stuttgart - was emphatic.
Leipzig lost their next three to Wolfsburg (1-0), Bayern (4-1) and Man City (6-3), before a 1-1 draw with Cologne arrested the slide. While Champions League knockout qualification is beyond them with two group games to go, Die Roten Bullen have advanced to the DFB Cup last 16, whilst accruing 15 points from a possible 21 during an unbeaten march up the Bundesliga standings.
In all but six of their seven matches unbowed, Marsch has deployed a three-man defence. The one exception was the Matchday 8 fixture at third-placed Freiburg, themselves unbeaten until falling 2-0 to Bayern on Matchday 11. A more conservative approach yielded the opening goal and a point, in any case. Four wins by an aggregate score of 15-2 and a 1-1 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt complete the set.
"We’ve invested a lot in the past few weeks and had expected more, but difficulties are always opportunities to improve," Marsch explained following's Leipzig's 2-1 home win over Dortmund prior to the final round of 2021 internationals. "It was never easy. I lie in bed every night and think about the next game. Today was very, very important for us. We had a lot of confidence and also played well on an individual level."
Watch: Leipzig 2-1 Dortmund - match highlights!
Marsch proceeded to single out Mohamed Simakan and Josko Gvardiol for praise, labelling the fledgling defensive duo - 21 and 19 respectively - as "world class". Brought in with a view to replacing Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate, they rank as Leipzig's top two for challenges won in the Bundesliga.
Frenchman Nordi Mukiele topped off the back three against Dortmund, but long-serving defender Willi Orban continues to feature regularly in his seventh season at the club. Industrious forager Amadou Haidara takes the honour of first-choice central midfielder, ably assisted by either American Tyler Adams, unsung workhorse Kevin Kampl or Austria international Konrad Laimer.
Angelino hasn't quite hit the same heights in terms of goal contributions as last season, but remains the first pick on the left-hand side. Benjamin Henrichs has begun to share duties on the opposite flank, responding positively to his coach's call to bin social media and focus on his football.
A shaky start behind them, Leipzig boast the second meanest defence in the Bundesliga, with 11 goals conceded. They're also up to fourth for goals scored (23), behind only Bayer Leverkusen (24), Dortmund (28) and Bayern (40). Given the attacking riches at Marsch's disposal, it's little wonder.
In the absence of Dani Olmo - only recently back in the fold following a taxing summer schedule of international football with Spain - Nkunku has assumed the role of creator-in-chief. The 23-year-old has found his calling in central attacking midfield, though pulled Dortmund defenders all over the shop in a freer false No.9 role last time out. League-wide, only Robert Lewandowski (14), Erling Haaland, Thomas Müller (both 12) and Anthony Modeste (nine) have been directly involved in more goals that the Leipzig man (eight).
January 2021 signing Dominik Szoboszlai is not far behind. Following an injury-delayed start to his Leipzig career, the Hungary international has produced two goals and an assist in seven Bundesliga starts, whilst scoring one and setting up two in three substitute outings. Beginning three of Leipzig's last four, the October Rookie of the Month nominee appears to have edged ahead of seasoned pro Emil Forsberg in the pecking order.
One crafty veteran making a strong case to be Leipzig's leading man is Yussef Poulsen. Stationed at the Red Bull Arena since 2013, back when Leipzig were still in the Third Division, the Saxony club's record appearance-maker has scored four times across his last six Bundesliga matches, with his winner over Dortmund marking his third goal-scoring appearance in a row. Historically, the Dane isn't the most prolific of marksmen - 15 is his personal best single-season haul - but he does add old-school steel to the silky skills of Nkunku and Szoboszlai in attack.
The fact Poulsen has been able to relegate marquee summer signing Andre Silva to the bench - the Portugal international who hit a club record 28 Bundesliga goals for Frankfurt in 2020/21 - underlines Marsch's pre-season assertion that "Leipzig probably have the most strength in depth in the league". Fringe players such as Brian Brobbey, Ilaix Moriba and Hugo Novoa, as well as a treatment room currently home to Germany internationals Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann, reinforces that theory.
"We have a lot of depth in our squad which allows us to play very intense football," said Leipzig's master tactician, who responded to Dortmund captain Marco Reus' equaliser by switching to a back four and introducing Forsberg in attack. "One way of doing things is always going out with the same team, like Bayern. But we use the depth in our squad to rotate."
Watch: Yussuf Poulsen - a Leipzig diehard
It remains to be seen whether Leipzig can rescue a place in the UEFA Europa League knockout rounds, but it is clear they are decidedly well equipped for a potential three-competition tilt in the new year. Marsch-ing on together, a season that started with something of a whimper could yet end with a bang.
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