RB Leipzig: The 2017 Leicester City?
The biggest success story in world football last year was the dramatic championship season of Leicester City in the English Premier League.
In Germany, RB Leipzig is chasing a championship that would be just as unlikely as what Leicester achieved in 2016.
With the Bundesliga winter break coming to a close RB Leipzig trail leaders Bayern Munich by just three points with an 11-3-2 record to sit in 2nd place.
This is remarkable given back in 2009 RB Leipzig was in the German 5th Division. Qualification for the Champions League, let alone a Bundesliga title, would clinch what appears to outsiders to be a fairytale story come true.
Not Your Typical Club
But RB Leipzig has plenty of critics and many neutrals don’t want them to go all the way. In fact, it would be fair to say that the majority of German football fans despise them.
The main reason for the scorn being heaped on the club is its commercial structure and perceived reason for being.
Billionaire Red Bull drinks company founder Dietrich Mateschitz owns the club with football fans of other clubs seeing RB Leipzig as nothing more than a vehicle to sell the ubiquitous benefits of energy drinks.
Rather than existing for the core purpose of winning football matches, the accusation leveled at the club is that it was created as a sponsorship opportunity first and foremost.
German football is very focused on ensuring local community connections to clubs.
Enshrined in the German game is the “50 +1 “ rule that effectively means that club members (fans) have the ultimate ownership of the club and a true voice in the running of the club. Borussia Dortmund’s 139,000 members, for example, have the right to agree to any changes in ticket prices before the club makes them.
RB Leipzig has challenged this rule by setting membership prices at such a level that the club currently has just 17 members. Most of these individuals are Red Bull employees or connected personally to Mateschitz. As such, the club is effectively privately owned rather than owned by the community.
The name of the club is also a point of contention.
Formerly known as SSV Markranstadt when its license was acquired in 2009, Mateschitz wasted no time in circumventing a Bundesliga rule that prevents the sale of club naming rights.
The “RB” prefix does not officially stand for Red Bull Leipzig but rather “RassenBallsport” Leipzig, translated as the slightly peculiar Lawn Ballsport Leipzig. Shortened to RB, it aligns with other Red Bull associated clubs such as Red Bull New York (MLS) and Red Bull Salzburg (Austria) particularly given the club crest is very similar to the Red Bull logo. Not surprisingly Red Bull is the front of jersey sponsor and the team plays in the 42,500 capacity Red Bull Arena.
The Case for RB Leipzig
Despite the commercial overtones, the club has attracted strong local support, particularly from people living in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). It is the only club in the old East Germany playing in the Bundesliga so gives focus and pride to a region that has previously been relatively ignored.
The nature of youth development in the East has also changed with the advent of the club.
When Germany was reunited 25 years ago, elite clubs in the West snapped up the best players in the old East Germany. Without professional structures to aid development, outstanding young players have continued to leave the region to build a career. RB Leipzig has changed all that and provides an option for young players to stay closer to home.
While it has a different approach to other clubs it has fulfilled the role that clubs with a community focus traditionally deliver.
Even some fans of opposing teams are beginning to see that the club does have a positive role to play in the Bundesliga.
The rise of the team has created excitement and made the league more competitive – challenging the Bayern Munich status quo. Over time this should make the league more appealing internationally and result in increased TV rights revenues that would make German clubs more competitive in European club competition.
With the historic success of the German national team at major tournaments it is about time the German domestic game was recognised for being one of the world’s premier leagues.
However, the biggest reason that RB Leipzig is regarded as a welcome addition is for its style of football.
Supported by the financial strength of Red Bull Inc., the club has recruited exciting young talents by offering a vision to challenge the existing old order in German.
The most captivating prospect is Naby Keita.
At just 21 years, the Guinean attacking midfielder could develop into one of the premier players within the game. His creativity and fast, spectacular dribbling ability is the fulcrum for many of the RB Leipzig offensive strikes.
When coupled with the hard pressing style implemented by coach Ralph Hassenhuttl, RB Leipzig is all-action compulsive viewing. Playing a 4-2-2-2 formation the team press opponents without over committing defenders. The nature of this system means that the front six need to work closely together and be perfectly synchronized to cut out passing lanes. It also means the ball is often won close to the opponent’s goal and defence can explode into attack.
This approach is an important reminder to young players that defense starts at the front of the field and all players need to have strong game intelligence. Young players need to learn to make quick decisions when both in and out of possession to benefit the entire team.
By investing in a youth development system and recruiting players under the age of 25, RB Leipzig are setting themselves up as a club that will go from strength to strength.
In 2016 RB Leipzig demonstrated that it can test the top clubs in Germany.
In 2017 can it go all the way and the win the Bundesliga title?
The Bundesliga is available is available on the TVNZ freeview Duke channel with one live match (usually Saturday morning) and a highlights show each week.
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