bundesliga

How Julian Nagelsmann has made RB Leipzig Bundesliga title contenders

RB Leipzig went into the winter break sitting pretty at the top of the table, and with Julian Nagelsmann in charge they have designs on staying there for the rest of the season. But how have they become so effective?

bundesliga.com delves into the reasons why Leipzig are proving an unstoppable force.

Many observers predicted that Nagelsmann could improve league leaders Leipzig, but the youngest coach in Bundesliga history has perhaps surpassed all expectations.

At the halfway point of his first season in charge, Leipzig sit two points clear of Borussia Mönchengladbach at the top of the Bundesliga, are through to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the first time, and also have a DFB Cup round of 16 tie to look forward to.

“You get the feeling that something special is happening,” striker Timo Werner said after his side’s final game of 2019, a 3-1 win over Augsburg.

Watch: See all of Werner's Bundesliga goals this season

So how has Nagelsmann changed the team since his summer switch from Hoffenheim? One obvious area is the stunning number of goals they have scored so far. Heading into the winter break, Leipzig were the leading goalscorers in the Bundesliga – having registered 48 in 17 games. That’s two more than defending champions Bayern Munich, and only 15 off what they managed in the whole of last season.

An 8-0 win over Mainz at the start of November certainly helped, but that’s not much of an exception for Nagelsmann’s Leipzig. In 10 of their 11 wins so far they have scored at least three goals, and they also hit three in a draw with Borussia Dortmund in December. With the success against Augsburg, they became the first team in Bundesliga history to score at least three goals in eight consecutive league games.

Marcel Sabitzer, one of several players to have excelled on Nagelsmann’s watch, says a slight change in approach this term has paid off handsomely.

“We no longer play as aggressively – we’re not as high up the pitch,” the Austria international told German magazine Der Spiegel in December.

“In the past we almost only worked out of possession and then switched to the counter attack [when we got the ball]. This season we’ve had more of the ball. And now we also know more about what to do with it.”

Watch: How Leipzig score so many long-range goals

Sabitzer definitely does. The 25-year-old wide man has played a part in 17 goals in 24 competitive matches for Leipzig this season, including scoring six and making four more in 17 Bundesliga appearances.

Nagelsmann told kicker in November that he values the Austrian’s hunger, reliability and respect for tactical guidelines, and the former Salzburg player is a prime example of what makes the league leaders so dangerous.

A dead-ball specialist and sharp shooter from open play, Sabitzer has helped Leipzig top the table for long-range scoring. Capable of flooding the opposition penalty area with players, Nagelsmann’s side have been able to create plenty of space for players on the fringes. Swift on the counter and with high-flying full-backs in Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg, they have scored nine goals from outside the box as a result.

When you’re not sure where the danger will come from next, goals can come from all areas. Werner has grabbed the headlines with 18 league goals this season – not forgetting his six assists – and the Germany striker is just one behind the Bundesliga’s leading goalscorer Robert Lewandowski. Leipzig, though, have had a league-high 13 different names on the scoresheet so far.

Having had two top-four finishes with Hoffenheim, Julian Nagelsmann is looking to reach new heights with RB Leipzig this season. - imago

Autumn champions for the first time, they have only dropped points once – in the 3-3 draw at Dortmund – since the end of October. And that’s despite the added burden of playing Champions League group stage games every couple of weeks. The 2016/17 Bundesliga runners-up registered seven wins and one draw in their last eight league games of 2019, and Werner says that’s due to the resolve that is developing under Nagelsmann.

“We don’t have to go into the lead to win games,” he told Sky Germany after his team hit back from 1-0 down to beat Augsburg. “We can be behind and then come back. That’s the mentality that our team has. That’s also what’s got us to where we are now.”

CEO Oliver Mintzlaff, meanwhile, credits 32-year-old Nagelsmann with building on the good work of Ralf Rangnick, who led the easterners to a third-placed finish in 2018/19.

“Julian has developed our game further,” Mintzlaff told Sport1 following the Augsburg game. “He took over a great team from Ralf Rangnick, who were already very good – especially out of possession.

“Julian brings elements that have made the team better. With the ball, we can now finally find solutions against deep-lying opponents – the type of games we often drew or possibly even lost last season.”

Nagelsmann (l.) took over from Ralf Rangnick (r.) as Leipzig head coach ahead of the 2019/20 campaign. - imago/Jan Huebner

Earlier this season, Sabitzer praised Nagelsmann for striking a good balance between having fun and expecting a lot from the players on the pitch. Having discussed his coach’s detailed approach and “unique perception of football” back then, last month the attacking midfielder offered further insights into what makes the former Hoffenheim boss tick.

With games coming thick and fast before Christmas, the Austrian revealed that Nagelsmann had sometimes not had a team meeting on the day of a game. All the analysis of an opponent was discussed the day before, so the players had little more than the warm-up to worry about before kick-off.

“He maybe has the feeling that everything has been said already and that we know what to do,” Sabitzer told Der Spiegel. “Sometimes talking too much is not a good thing.”

Perhaps Nagelsmann hasn’t needed to drive home his message too much because his advice has been proving so on point.

“You have a plan before the game, then you try to stick to it,” Sabitzer explained. “And then there are times when you realise ‘OK, that’s the key to success.’ A lot has already worked out the way we had envisioned.

“It’s often impressive which solutions that the coach finds for an upcoming opponent. That helps us attacking players in particular. We have already scored a huge number of goals, and that can certainly be put down to that.”

A four-game run without a Bundesliga win in late September and October win has been the only real blip on Nagelsmann’s watch, although a heavy Champions League schedule during that period probably had a lot to do with it.

The way Leipzig finished in 2019, meanwhile, suggests that they will be hard to knock off their perch before the end of the campaign. Record champions Bayern are only four points behind in third, but their head coach Hansi Flick has recognised that Nagelsmann’s team looks like they could stay the course.

“Out of all our competitors, Leipzig has the biggest potential and the most options,” Flick told kicker as the winter break kicked in.

Czech frontman Patrik Schick scored a vital equaliser in Leipzig’s 3-3 draw at Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 16. - Laci Perenyi via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Laci Perenyi

Flick pointed out that Leipzig have a balanced and deep squad, and he’ll be aware that Nagelsmann’s options seem to be growing. Although Willi Orban and Ibrahima Konate have been long-term absentees in defence, versatile United States international Tyler Adams returned from injury against Augsburg to make his first appearance of the season.

Summer signing Hannes Wolf is back in action to add further to the attacking arsenal, while Czech forward Patrick Schick is also settling in, having scored in his last three games of the year.

Both Sabitzer and Werner think the league leaders can improve defensively, too, although they currently have the third-meanest backline with only 20 goals conceded.

“A lot of teams still don’t know what we’re made of,” Werner, who hit a top speed this season of close to 22 miles per hour, told Sky. “We can still do a lot more.

“We can create a lot more chances against deep-lying opponents. We still have potential [to improve] in defence. If we manage to do that, then we can finish up where we are now.”

USA international Tyler Adams (l.) made a welcome return to action in Leipzig’s Matchday 17 win over Augsburg. - Roger Petzsche via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Picture Point LE

Mintzlaff feels that both Leipzig’s playing style and individual talents have been enhanced this season. Like many of the players at Nagelsmann’s disposal, he also feels that there’s more to come in the second half of the campaign.

“This team has grown together over the last few years and has been playing great football,” Mintzlaff told Sport1.

“When they develop further and they get fresh momentum, it’s a logical consequence that they will make the next step.”

Leipzig will look to make further progress when they face Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League and Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB Cup in 2020. But could the next step for this side see them become German champions this season?