After an exceptional debut Bundesliga campaign, RB Leipzig suffered from second season syndrome last time around. As a result, they’ve started 2018-19 much earlier than most. Will that be a help or a hinderance?While those they wish to challenge were on money-spinning pre-season tours and rebuilding fitness, RB Leipzig, and a tiny number of their fans, have been slogging through two-legged Europa League ties and travelling to Sweden and Romania.
With a 2300km journey to Ukranian side Zorya Luhansk hot on the heels of their German Cup (DFB Pokal) opener against Viktoria Cologne on Sunday and the small matter of a Bundesliga opening weekend trip to Borussia Dortmund before the return leg, it’s fair to say it’s not been the off-season most clubs would hope for.
But the club’s spearhead, Germany international striker Timo Werner, believes the early start forced by last season’s sixth-placed finish has been a positive.
‘Perfect time’ to start
“The team are in a really good place right now. We have played more competitive games than usual, compared to a normal August,” he said ahead of the 1-1 draw with Universitatea Craiova on Thursday that confirmed their place in the Europa League playoffs.
“The players who featured at the World Cup are regaining their match fitness. The DFB Pokal game against Viktoria Köln comes at a perfect time for us.”
Comfortable first leg wins in both rounds to date have allowed interim coach Ralf Rangnick to shuffle his pack a little and afford the likes of Werner, Emil Forsberg, Yusuf Poulsen and Marcel Sabitzer plenty of rest, while also giving new signings an early opportunity to show their worth. Brazilian forward Matheus Cunha, who joined from Swiss side Sion has been particularly impressive, while fellow new signings Nordi Mukiele and Marcelo Saracchi have also begun to find their way.
Mixed bag for Bundesliga’s early birds
But recent history shows that these early European matches, often played in extreme heat, can help sides hit their stride early against opponents who have often gone three months without a competetive fixture, though it’s far from a universal experience.
On the plus side, Borussia Dortmund won their first five league games of 2015-16 after finishing seventh the season before and went on to finish runners up in the league and cup under Thomas Tuchel. Hertha Berlin had a similar experience after their Europa League qualifiers the year after, winning their first three games and four of their first six. In 2014-15, Mainz went unbeaten for the first eight league games after their early start.
But there’s a very recent warning sign for Rangnick’s men in the shape of Freiburg. Christian Streich’s team lost in the third qualifying round this time last season and endured a shocking start, failing to win in their first six games and winning just one of their first 12. It was a run that almost cost them their top flight status. Frankfurt, who came 6th in 2012-13 and Stuttgart, who won the German Cup, that season, also endured poor beginnings and sluggish campaigns after their European adventures.
Of those sides, Leipzig are probably closest to Dortmund, in terms of personnel, resources and squad depth, if not much else. While they’ve lost a major driving force in Naby Keita, Werner’s continued presence is a huge boost and they’ve continued their youth-oriented recruitment over the summer with the additions of Cunha and fullbacks Saracchi and Mukiele. All three of their major signings are under 21 and all three cost between €12 million ($13.7 million) and €16 million.
Form fell away after Europa ties
The domestic lessons from their first European campaign are also mixed. Contrary to many expectations, Leipzig excelled after their Champions League group stage matches, picking up 14 out of 18 points. But as the season went on, and they entered the Europa League knockout stages, things went south. In the games immediately following their six knockout ties, the Red Bulls picked up just five points. That statistic is one of the reasons they’re playing on Thursday nights.
Nevertheless, Rangnick – who is taking the reins for a season until the arrival of Julian Nagelsmann – intends to fight on all fronts.
“Our goal is to progress far in the Europa League this season, but in order to do that we need to make it through the three qualification rounds first,” he said recenntly. “We want to be involved in all three competitions [Bundesliga, German Cup and Europa League] for as long as possible.”
So far, so good. But if Leipzig are to recapture the form that took them in to Europe in the first place, then a fast start on all three fronts seems close to essential.