Konrad Laimer: RB Leipzig's replacement for Liverpool-bound Naby Keita shining... at right-back!


He was originally brought in as a long-term replacement for Liverpool-bound Naby Keita in central midfield, but versatile young Austrian Konrad Laimer is instead thriving as RB Leipzig's new first-choice right-back.

Laimer is one of a host of current Leipzig players to have joined from sister club Red Bull Salzburg, along with Peter Gulacsi, Dayot Upamecano, Benno Schmitz, Bernardo, Stefan Ilsanker and Keita himself. He arrived in Germany with an impressive reputation as a shrewd and aggressive holding midfielder, who was named the Austrian Bundesliga's Player of the Season for 2016/17 after helping Salzburg secure a third straight league and cup double.

Even at 20, he had no shortage of offers from the Bundesliga and beyond, but the Austria Under-21 captain clearly saw his future in Saxony, where he would have the opportunity to work with fellow compatriot Ralph Hasenhüttl and former Salzburg sporting director Ralf Rangnick.

"We've been following Konrad's development for quite some time," Rangnick explained last summer, when Laimer penned a four-year contract with Leipzig through to June 2021. "He made a big step up last season, and he wasn't voted the Austrian Bundesliga's best player for nothing. He will strengthen our midfield with his skill in winning and moving the ball. We're delighted to welcome another talented young player with great potential."                  

"After 10 wonderful, instructive and successful years in Salzburg, I decided to look for a new challenge," Laimer explained. "I had several interesting opportunities, but I took the time to get this important decision right. I've been in regular contact with Ralf Rangnick for over a year now, and his arguments convinced me that RB Leipzig is the right step for me." 

Plan A, then, was to give Laimer the chance to cut his teeth in the Bundesliga alongside Keita, and the two men lined up together in the first outing of the season - only for Leipzig to suffer a 2-0 defeat in Schalke. In the next two games, Diego Demme was preferred to Laimer in wins over Freiburg and Hamburg, while the competition for places in midfield intensified on deadline day, as Slovenia international Kevin Kampl arrived from Bayer Leverkusen.

- © imago / Jürgen Schwarz/DeFodi.de

Vying with Keita, Demme, Kampl and Ilsanker for a place in Ralph Hasenhüttl's XI, Laimer was limited to just four starts in the first half of the season, although he did make regular appearances from the bench - and one in particular would have unforeseen consequences. On Matchday 8, the Austrian replaced Jean-Kevin Augustin and slotted in as an emergency right-back, as Leipzig looked to defend a 3-2 lead over Borussia Dortmund. With Laimer's help, they did so, becoming the first Bundesliga side to win at the Signal Iduna Park in over two years. His performance clearly got the cogs in Hasenhüttl's head turning.

When Leipzig returned after the winter break, they lined up in a 4-3-3 against Schalke, with Keita, Demme and Kampl across the middle - and Laimer at right-back. The young Austrian fully justified his coach's decision by teeing up Timo Werner for Leipzig's second goal, as they ran out 3-1 winners and ended the Royal Blues' 13-match unbeaten run in all competitions. After his largely forgettable Bundesliga debut, Laimer was no doubt delighted to play a part in getting one over on Domenico Tedesco's side. 

"The coach has given me confidence about playing in the right-back position, so I'm glad to have repaid his faith," he said afterwards. "It was a tough game against a very strong opponent. Schalke took everything out of us, which makes the victory even sweeter." 

Watch: Laimer grabbed his first Bundesliga assist as Leipzig got their revenge on Schalke

Since then, Laimer has played all but one game at right-back, with injury ruling him out of Matchday 24's shock defeat at home to Cologne. During the Hinrunde, Leipzig won 43 per cent of their games with Lukas Klostermann at right-back, and that figure has improved to 57 per cent since Laimer took over in the Rückrunde.

"I'm very pleased with his ability to solve problems," enthused Hasenhüttl, who also started Laimer at right-back in both legs of the remarkable UEFA Europa League last-32 victory over Serie A leaders Napoli. "His development is coming along brilliantly, and he's now a regular fixture in the side."

One of Laimer's major attributes is his speed, which he had fewer opportunities to showcase when operating in central midfield. In February, he averaged around 28 sprints a game and clocked a top speed of 21 miles per hour. As well as setting up Werner against Schalke, he grabbed an assist for Augustin's opening goal against Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 23.

- © imago / GEPA pictures/Philipp Brem

"I'm a player who runs a lot, and one of my big strengths is battling for the ball," explained Laimer, who cites Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as his role model. "The way he played football, displaying such passion and emotion - I've always identified with him."

One day, Laimer will surely get his chance to show what he can do in Gerrard's position - especially when Keita leaves for Anfield - but for now, he is demonstrating his flexibility and growing importance in Hasenhüttl's team. As the club battle to return to the UEFA Champions League next season, the 20-year-old Austrian is definitely putting the RB in Leipzig.

Andy Smith

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