Until 2009, RB Leipzig – currently second in the Bundesliga – was a 5TH division semi-professional club called SSV Markranstädt that few had heard of (even in its native Saxony in East Germany). Then the Austrian energy drink manufacturer Red Bull bought the club’s license, and went about rewriting the club’s history and tradition – for better or for worse depending on who you ask. There was a catch to the purchase though, since the rulebooks of German football do not allow clubs to be named after their sponsors, the new club was renamed Rasenballsport Leipzig, meaning “lawn ball sports” – a name that the club’s marketing team religiously avoids in its promotional material in favour of “The Red Bulls” or simply “RB”. Following the acquisition of the club by their ultra-rich sponsors, RB Leipzig embarked on a remarkable seven-year rise into German football’s top division. A rise that has been dogged by boycotts and protest stunts by opposing fans. At the Signal Iduna Stadium this season, RB Leipzig supporters were spat on and pelted with cans and stones by Borussia Dortmund fans that sadly left 5 people injured.
Why are they doing so well?
Firstly, the club’s progressive football philosophy; they invested in under-24 players with big potential and gave them a platform to perform. Big names are conspicuous by their absence from this squad despite their enviable wealth. Leipzig’s biggest signings before their first Bundesliga season were the 19-year old blistering quick Scot via way of Nottingham Forest Oliver Burke, the 21-year-old Guinean midfielder Naby Keita from sister club Red Bull Salzburg and the 20-year-old striker Timo Werner from Stuttgart. All raw talents with everything to prove and more importantly, malleable and open minds ready and willing to learn. At the heart of their impressive development is their excellent director of football, Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick – the former manager of Hannover 96, Hoffenheim, Schalke and Stuttgart – is an innovative tactician renowned as the brains behind the frenetic gegenpressing game that has become the hallmark of German coaches, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. He steered RB Leipzig into the Bundesliga before handing over the keys to Ralph Hasenhuttl.
The Man on the Bench
After beginning as a youth coach at SpVgg Unterhaching in 2007 in the newly formed 3. Liga (German league 3rd division), Hasenhuttl moved to VfR Aalen, where he where he transformed a club that was in danger of falling into non-league football into an established second division side in less than three seasons. On the back of this success he was appointed head coach at another second division club, FC Ingolstadt. He took them up to the Bundesliga and gave them a mid-table finish in their first ever season in the top division. Perhaps, his history of overachievement should have convinced us that RB Leipzig were going to take the league by storm.
Having steered his energetic, swashbuckling RB Leipzig side to the top of Bundesliga within five months of taking charge, he has kept up with his overachieving standards. According to him, the star of the team is the system. They play the way most like to see football played, with fast, passing football combined by a dynamic pressing style that enables them to cut open teams with surgical precision. Offensively impressive, they have scored 43 goals in 25 matches in the Bundesliga so far this season.
Their training facilities are state of the art and they have invested €65m (£60m) in an academy and boarding school with rooms for 50 student-players (the largest of its kind in Germany) which their head of youth development, Frieder Schrof, last year claimed would “be setting the standards when it comes to training facilities, education levels and accommodation”. The youth academy was awarded the highest rating and the title “Excellent” by the German Football Association (DFB) in 2015, placing it among the highest rated youth academies in Germany.
In addition, RB Leipzig intend to do what many other Bundesliga clubs have done recently by investing in and then bringing through local youngsters from their own academy into their first team. Red Bull’s owner Ditreich Mateschitz has even set a target of RB Leipzig eventually composing a majority of their starting eleven from youngsters brought up in their youth academy.
The way RB Leipzig have gone about their business is sure to attract criticism from all corners, but one thing is certain: they have made serious waves in the re-writing of their history.