The 2021/22 DFB Cup final was always going to be historic, with either RB Leipzig or Freiburg winning their first major trophy ever. It went down to penalties, with Die Roten Bullen eventually coming out on top to cap a meteoric rise. But where to from here?
It was a significant victory in many ways. Leipzig, the founding city of the German FA (DFB), hadn’t been home to a national title since 1936, when VfB Leipzig – the first champions of Germany and once the country’s most successful club with three championships – won the DFB Cup. The club in its various guises would claim honours in the East German system
VfB had one season in the Bundesliga after reunification, but the city – once a powerhouse on and off the pitch – remained devoid of top-flight football from 1994 until RB came along in 2016.
Another significance of Leipzig’s DFB Cup victory is that it came just 13 years and two days after the club was founded. The promise of a rapid ascent after Red Bull took over the playing rights of SSV Markranstädt in the fifth tier in in May 2009 has very much come to fruition.
Die Roten Bullen have appeared in three of the last four DFB Cup finals, previously losing to established giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. They have reached the semi-finals of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, and twice been Bundesliga runners-up.
“We have to pause for a moment and look at everything we’ve achieved in the last 13 years, in six years in the Bundesliga. It’s terrific,” said club managing director Oliver Mintzlaff after the success in Berlin.
There is no getting away from the fact that Leipzig’s initial rise was the result of financial investment. It took them only seven seasons to climb from the fifth tier to the Bundesliga, but the point they have reached now has been down to clever decisions and forward planning from many years ago.
Watch: Leipzig’s Bundesliga promotion celebrations
Immediate promotion to Bundesliga 2 followed. As did the signings of Emil Forsberg, Lukas Klostermann, Marcel Sabitzer and more. The next year saw Willi Orban, Marcel Halstenberg and Peter Gulacsi join as they earned Bundesliga promotion with Rangnick now as coach.
Five of those aforementioned players started the 2022 DFB Cup final, while Poulsen – the club’s longest-serving player and record appearance holder – was an unused sub. They have formed a core that has taken the team from Bundesliga 2 to Europe and domestic silverware.
“We’ve always said we want to crown this journey we’ve taken so far and win a title one day,” said captain Gulacsi ahead of the final.
The journey began with an objective of reaching the Bundesliga within a decade. That was quickly achieved. The DFB Cup has shown that this club can indeed win trophies. So, with the crown now on their heads, where to from here?
Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, openly spoke at the beginning about the possibility of winning the Bundesliga in the long term. Leipzig’s long term is not as long as other clubs’, though.
Only Bayern and Dortmund have picked up more points in the six seasons since Leipzig came up in 2016. They finished second and qualified for the Champions League in their maiden top-flight season. They were runners-up again in 2020/21 under Julian Nagelsmann, the coach brought in the previous season to take them to the next level.
The aforementioned longstanding core was added to with yet more prodigious players like Christopher Nkunku, Dani Olmo, Angelino, Tyler Adams, Dominik Szoboszlai and Josko Gvardiol. Meticulously scouted youngsters about to enter their peak and flourish alongside now experienced heads and faces of the project.
Things took a wobble at the start of 2021/22 under Jesse Marsch, the one coaching appointment that has not worked out in the last 10 years, but Domenico Tedesco stabilised things quickly before giving RB wings again.
He was coach of Schalke in 2017/18, the only other team besides BVB or Leipzig to finish second to Bayern since Die Roten Bullen joined the Bundesliga action.
“He [Marsch] left behind an intact team. We just tweaked a couple of things. The team is the same,” Tedesco said after the cup win.
Watch: How Tedesco turned Leipzig’s season around
But those tweaks have had a massive effect. The 36-year-old, who finished top of the same DFB coaching class as predecessor Nagelsmann, guided Leipzig to the joint-best points total of the 2021/22 Rückrunde, with the meanest defence and actually scoring one goal more than Bayern across the 17 games.
And he has unleashed the full potential of Nkunku, who ended the campaign with 35 goals and 18 assists from 52 competitive matches and was voted the Bundesliga Player of the Season. It was his equaliser in Berlin that took the final to penalties for the 10 men of RB.
Keeping the France international in that devastating form will be crucial to what Leipzig do again next season. He and others are perfect examples to any prospective new signings – and players already there – that the club is an ideal place to blossom and now also win trophies.
Watch: Nkunku, Leipzig’s superstar
They are now an established side on the continent and will appear in Champions League Pot 2 alongside the likes of Chelsea, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus. However, European glory is not seen as an immediate objective.
The next step is the Bundesliga Meisterschale as Leipzig look to continue ruffling feathers in Germany. The league is the hardest to win as it requires consistency over 34 games. That has to be the outcome from this DFB Cup triumph or risk momentum being lost and the project needing to start afresh.
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