“A new era awaits us,” announces RB Leipzig chief executive Oliver Mintzlaff, gazing over to the two men with him at the club’s first press conference of the 2019/20 season. The first man needs no introduction to those who follow German football, such is his reputation: 31-year-old wunderkind Julian Nagelsmann, the new coach of the team.
Nagelsmann comes from what is considered the second most-hated team currently playing in the top tier of German football – Hoffenheim – joining a club that has endured a vitriolic reception ever since its inception in RB Leipzig, described by many as the most-hated team in Germany, seen as a vehicle for commercialisation and wealth, public enemy number one for any supposed “true” fan of the beautiful game.
Alongside Nagelsmann sits a man who has enjoyed meteoric success in a short period of time, but whose name is lesser-known: new sporting director Markus Krösche. “Markus embodies everything that RB Leipzig stands for,” explains Mintzlaff – and it is clear to see why. In the two full seasons he has overseen as sporting director at minnows Paderborn, Krösche has celebrated back-to-back promotions, a radical U-turn to a vicissitudinous two years beforehand that had seen the club suffer back-to-back relegations and almost fall into the fourth tier of German football.
He is a man who has experienced great success in an extremely short period of time, similar to the sudden ascendancy of RB Leipzig, who in a decade have risen from the fifth tier all the way to playing in the Champions League, counting themselves as one of Germany’s top teams. “We’re hungry for more,” adds Mintzlaff, repeating the strapline that RBL have coined to announce their new kits for the upcoming season; an extremely apropos one, because right now the sky is the limit for RB Leipzig.
Backed by the financial firepower of one of the world’s biggest drinks companies, they have hired their two ideal candidates in Nagelsmann and Krösche, and find themselves at the dawn of a new era now that Ralf Rangnick has left after seven thriving years as sporting director and coach.
Nevertheless, the 60-year-old’s influence lives on. Since the start of July, the German has taken up a new role as Head of Sport and Development Soccer at Red Bull, a move which raised plenty of eyebrows upon its dissemination. Rangnick helped build RB Leipzig into the club it is today, both on and off the pitch. Indeed, his DNA is RBL’s DNA.
It is his high-pressing, aggressive style that has been imprinted onto the team from two stints as head coach, and it is his nous that has provided the vital stability the Leipzig boat needed, one that was rocking hard back in 2012 due to a period of numerous changes and overarching influence from Red Bull managing director Dietrich Mateschitz.
Rangnick’s sudden announcement of his departure surprised many, especially off the back of showing his unwavering commitment to the club by coaching the side for an interim season, just so the team could have Nagelsmann for the next campaign.
The 60-year-old’s departure brought its fair share of concomitant shock. Although Rangnick is no longer sporting director at RBL, he will now wield greater influence than ever before over the Red Bull project, overseeing the franchises in New York and Brazil, too. Nagelsmann is indeed head coach, but Rangnick’s presence will still be felt.
Nagelsmann’s track record in trusting and developing young players is well-known. It could perhaps be seen as repaying the faith that Hoffenheim once put in him, back when they appointed the then 28-year-old as head coach in 2015. The players who have improved and progressed to major clubs during Nagelsmann’s tenure at Hoffenheim are impressive, with prodigies like Niklas Süle moving to Bayern Munich, while other highly-rated youngsters like Joelinton have continued to develop and flourish.
With Hoffenheim achieving European qualification multiple times since the 31-year-old took over – last season notwithstanding – it may seem odd that Nagelsmann would choose to join a rival with a similar profile, a club that has also recently played in Europe and has a strong track record of working with highly-rated young talents.
What differentiates RB Leipzig from Hoffenheim, and indeed most clubs around the world, is its network of Red Bull-affiliated clubs. It is no secret that Leipzig has strong ties with its sister teams, and Red Bull do not shy away from explaining the nexus they have created. “A lot of what has happened in Leipzig in previous years is related to the structure we have built,” said Rangnick upon the announcement of his new role at Red Bull. “We want to create a synergy effect between these clubs, from which RB Leipzig, in particular, can profit and develop even further.”
This “synergy effect”, as Rangnick explains, seeks to primarily benefit Leipzig, the club that Red Bull has identified as its main vehicle after the mistakes it made with the taking over of SV Austria Salzburg in 2006. “In New York and Brazil, we want to build a scouting network and new youth academies should arise to develop top players, who then move on to Europe and in the best case go to RB Leipzig,” he added.
What Julian Nagelsmann is inheriting is not one youth academy but three, with Rangnick and his experience overseeing all of them so that the manager can focus on coaching his team. Combine this with Red Bull’s projects in Austria and the scouting network grows to five different locations.
Nagelsmann now has a global network of players at his fingertips, who can transfer to Leipzig for minuscule amounts of money in comparison to what other clubs would pay for them, as seen from the fees paid when Naby Keïta joined from Salzburg back in 2015, or more recently when Tyler Adams arrived from the New York Red Bulls. Indeed, 16 players have moved from Red Bull Salzburg to RB Leipzig in recent years, a conveyor belt of talent that will only keep on rolling.
And as if having a man of Rangnick’s experience wasn’t enough, Leipzig’s head of recruitment and development is Paul Mitchell, a man with a clear eye for talent, responsible for bringing Sadio Mané to Southampton, unearthing Dele Alli, and signing Son Heung-min and Toby Alderweireld for Spurs.
The 37-year-old hasn’t yet been in the job long enough to have made a serious impact, but RB Leipzig are a club with an eye on the future. “They convinced me to try to look at the bigger picture, trying not to get too induced by the short-term,” said Mitchell after his appointment. “The driving force is to do it our way, the Red Bull way. Keeping to our beliefs and not trying to be the same as Dortmund or Bayern buying older and more ready-made players, [rather] grow and develop your own talent, have a longer-term plan and strategy.”
The so-called ‘Red Bull Way’ also means acquiring players aged 24 or under – a club policy – in a bid to focus on seeking out and developing young talent. RBL want players they can keep in the long-run, rather than being forced into selling, like they had to after Liverpool turned Keïta’s head. This faith in youth is extremely Nagelsmann-esque, so it came as no surprise when the young coach said, “The team is very young – that suits me well,” at his first press conference. It is this underlying structure that gives Nagelsmann all the tools he needs to achieve success.
“I want to maintain this DNA that RB have so successfully created and add my ideas on top. If that works, then we can be very successful,” avows Nagelsmann, youthful in comparison to the man who once occupied the coach’s chair in the press conference room at the RB Leipzig training facility.
The style of football played by his predecessor will be voraciously emulated by the young German, as Nagelsmann admits that he is a fan of Leipzig’s high pressing, one that bears similarities to his own: “The club has a clear footballing philosophy, aimed at winning possession and quick build-up play. I love this style of play.”
Rangnick has also laid the foundations for Nagelsmann to employ his favoured flexible 3-5-2 formation, should he choose to. At the start of last season, Rangnick admitted he was a fan of his successor’s preferred formation, in particular its flexibility: “We know that he’s been playing it more and more and changed [formation] during games. It’s something that we also intend to use.”
An example of this flexibility came during Leipzig’s game against Bayer Leverkusen on 6 April. Deploying his standard four at the back, fluid six up-front formation, Rangnick saw his side overrun in midfield by a dominant Leverkusen, going 2-1 down into the break. At half-time he changed to a 3-5-2, moving midfielder Konrad Laimer to right full-back and bringing on Nordi Mukiele to accompany regular starters Willi Orban and Ibrahima Konaté at centre-back.
The change paid off, with Leipzig committing the right amount of men in the centre to stop Leverkusen marching straight through the middle, while opening up the outer channels of the pitch. Leipzig ran out 4-2 winners after an impressive comeback, with Rangnick accentuating how important the formation change was after the match: “We didn’t have a grip on the game. We then changed to a 3-5-2 and we showed what we’re really made of.”
Despite this 3-5-2 being an anomaly to Leipzig’s normal set-up throughout the course of last season, Nagelsmann inherits a squad that will be accustomed to playing a system which is essentially his bread and butter. He has the necessary steel in central defence with Konaté and Dayot Upamecano, who have over four seasons’ worth of playing experience between them despite both being only 20, while Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg’s recent call-ups to the national team are a testament to the full-back talent Nagelsmann has at his disposal. When it comes to tactical transition, Nagelsmann should have little problem in bringing his attractive style of football to the Red Bull Arena.
Something that Nagelsmann will change at RB Leipzig, however, is the role of the academy. The club has won a myriad of titles in a relatively short time period at youth level, with three under-17 regional Bundesliga title wins in the last six years. Yet, no single youth team player has gone on to secure a regular starting place in the first-team, with the current system favouring imports from other Red Bull-affiliated teams or buying highly-rated talents from elsewhere.
A good example of this is 19-year-old academy product Erik Majetschak, who left the club in June to join second-tier side Erzgebirge Aue. Despite coming through the RBL youth set-up and making a couple of first-team appearances – notably against Celtic in the Europa League – Majetschak, aged just 19, decided to drop down a division instead of staying and fighting for a regular starting berth.
Promotion to the first team will be something that Nagelsmann will surely look to accomplish given his faith in youth. Leipzig themselves have even expressed their desire to have a homegrown player featuring regularly in the senior team, with Florian Scholz, the director of communication, marketing and sporting relations, saying in a recent interview: “Our aim is see at least one youth team player in the first-team squad in the long-term. That will certainly be further accelerated under Julian Nagelsmann.”
It is clear from Scholz’s namedrop that the 31-year-old’s arrival will bring about some change. Nagelsmann certainly has a wealth of young talent at his disposal. Free-scoring 18-year-old striker Fabrice Hartmann has just been handed his first professional contract, while Danish midfielder Mads Bidstrup, whom Rangnick previously described as “a player who we’re confident will make the jump to the first team”, is ready to break through. As the Nagelsmann era begins, Leipzig will become more enticing to talented young players looking to play regular football and reach their full potential.
More eyes than ever across the footballing world will turn towards Leipzig this season as Julian Nagelsmann takes the reigns of a club looking to challenge the very best in the future. During his presentation in front of the assembled press, he produced plenty of noteworthy soundbites, ready-made for the back pages of the German tabloids. One in particular stands out: “The move is a healthy and logical next step for me.” And it’s clear why. Red Bull are building a talent empire, with RB Leipzig the jewel in their crown. And Nagelsmann has just inherited the throne.
By James Caple @CapesJE