Bundesliga season preview III: The top teams

RB Leipzig and Leverkusen: Better than last season?

The Bundesliga is back! On the 24th of August, FC Bayern Munich and TSG Hoffenheim will kick off the new season. In our three-parter we introduce you to all the teams, clarifying their varying expectations with 18 experts. Today is about the championship and the European places.

Seven up? Will FC Bayern Munich write history again? Will they really get their seventh successive title? We look at the requirements of the top five clubs which could be most dangerous to the Rekordmeister.

The first part was about the battle to stay up. The second part was more about the midfield of the league. This time it’s about the big money, the best places and the Bundesliga title.

RB Leipzig

Can Rangnick keep up with the times?

Oliver Mintzlaff, chief executive of RB Leipzig, has emphasised of late that this year doesn’t have to be a year of transition. Their ambition, he says, is too high for that, and their chances too good.

It is, however, a fact that Ralf Rangnick will take the reins at the Red Bulls for a year. Then Julian Nagelsmann begins his new job.

It’s not easy to figure out the Leipzigers right now. Hasenhüttl having to leave was also down to the fact that his side clearly had insurmountable problems in phases of possession.

Rangnick now wants to get back to the roots. “We have to make sure that we bring our football onto the pitch at 100% again,” the temporary coach told Kicker. In Kicker’s feature ahead of the new season, he is declared “father of the philosophy of aggressive (counter-)pressing and sudden transitions”.

Pace, aggression, transition moments – RB were very successful with all of that in their first Bundesliga season. The year after that, their performances weren’t consistent enough, their own game not creative enough – particularly in possession. Rangnick won’t be able to block out those experiences.

He will have to make sure that his team finds solutions with the ball. Otherwise there is the threat of a disappointment. Because the Bundesliga has adjusted to the Leipzigers. They know what counter-methods to use to pull the rug from underneath the Red Bull style.

Nagelsmann has shown in Hoffenheim that he can give his team a sensible plan in all situations. That may also be a reason why RB Leipzig chose him. Nagelsmann doesn’t just stand for a style, but for flexibility and control in all four phases of football – adapted from Louis van Gaal.

As a manager Rangnick, meanwhile, stood very long for what the Bundesliga could now sell as its brand identity: winning the ball and shooting in just a few seconds.

In Leipzig he’s now coaching a favourite for Champions League participation. The necessary space for transition football will only be available to Leipzig in a few games. With all the quality in their squad, then, the question is whether Rangnick is able to deviate from the normal approach. Can he give the team more than just lightning-quick transitions and aggressive pressing?

Rangnick was once seen as a revolutionary of German football, and in the mean-time as the head of RB Leipzig. Other coaches, though, have caught up with him, some have even overtaken him. Can he hit back and show once more in the 2018/19 season that he’s a distinctly talented strategist?

In any case it may help him that the squad has largely stayed together and had some important experiences last year. The transfer of Naby Keita, though, will certainly be disadvantageous. The midfield man would have been the perfect player around whom to develop a better way of using possession. Rangnick must now find another solution.

The result will decide what kind of conditions Nagelsmann takes over in next year. That’s precisely why “transition year” might be a good term. Because transition and ambition are not mutually exclusive.

Leipzig want to develop further footballistically. Depending on how quickly they manage that, RB will be serious competition for the league’s top sides again.

Our prediction: Leipzig will have another up-and-down season, coming in fifth this time.

Ralf Rangnick has big ambitions.
(Image: Christof Koepsel / Bongarts / Getty Images)

Expert interview

We spoke to Rotebrauseblogger about RB Leipzig.

In principle, Leipzig didn’t have such a bad season as people tried to make out. 6th place in the league, however, may not be the target. What needs to improve in particular for RB to challenge at the top again?

In their second Bundesliga season, RB Leipzig had typical growing problems. Problems competing on their fronts. Problems integrating new signings into a functioning promoted side. Problems moving forwards tactically. The task must be, then, to strengthen the internal cohesion again and also to tweak the playing philosophy so it is clearer and more consistent. Both tasks are being worked on. In particular, team chemistry and integration of new players and the dissolution of cliques (partly due to languages) are right at the top of Ralf Rangnick’s agenda in his first weeks as coach.

In Keita, a very important player departed. Are you happy enough with the transfer window so far that you don’t expect any big drop in quality in spite of that? How will Keita be replaced?

That’s hard to answer so far. A Keita replacement hasn’t been signed yet, and in terms of quality one would be impossible to get. The club really wanted to get Amadou Haidara from Salzburg, but he stayed in Austria. He is reminiscent of Keita in lots of aspects of his game and is maybe even more purposeful in his game. At the moment it doesn’t seem like RB will get a player like Keita (even forgetting the quality that such a new signing would have).

As such, variability in midfield will especially have to be compromised on, since the types of player there are very similar to one another and can’t replace Keita’s dynamism, aggression and quality in one-v-ones. Other than the question marks in central midfield, though, it has been a very good transfer window. Bringing in Cunha, Mukiele and Saracchi has improved the width and dynamic of the squad and added to the depth. Getting Lookman (or another attacker, AKA a player for the left attacking midfield position) and adding depth to central midfield (putting Laimer there again and getting someone for right-back, where Laimer has been playing recently, could happen), then everything would be perfect and we’d have a group of 20 outfielders with barely any drop in quality when subs are made. In terms of quality in the squad, we’d then be somewhere behind Bayern and Dortmund at the front of the chasing pack.

Do you expect a different strategic set-up with the new interim coach? Where does work still need to be done?

Ralf Rangnick has already made clear that he wants to go back to RB’s origins. As a result, pre-season has mostly been about pressing and counter-pressing. The first impression is that we will be attacking higher up again, much more so than under Hasenhüttl recently, which doesn’t reduce our vulnerability to counters. It feels a little bit like a step backwards, because last season’s tasks were actually to add good possession play (even if only for saving energy while maintaining a lead) to pressing and counter-pressing elements. That, at least, was Hasenhüttl’s idea, which didn’t come off in practice unfortunately.

Our future coach Nagelsmann also stands for the flexible combination of different playing styles. Wanting to tackle the coming season under Rangnick with a more radical version of pressurising and transitioning, however, is a bit astonishing. The Europa League likely adding an extra competition to the agenda only adds to that. It will be intriguing to see how that works over a long season. At least Nagelsmann should take over a team that is really well-versed in the arts of transitions upon turnovers…

Where will RB Leipzig finish and who will be champions?

RB Leipzig want to get into the Champions League and will also manage that in fourth place. Champions will be Bayern.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen

Bayer Lever-cruisin’?

In 2017, Leverkusen had a decisive year ahead of them. The club, which had been one of the league’s few consistent sides, had fallen from the top third of the table. The search for a suitable coach proved difficult, until Heike Herrlich got the opportunity to prove himself in the first division.

A decision that was discussed with great controversy. Can a coach from the third tier make the leap? He could. Herrlich made a unity once more of the talented Leverkusen squad, bringing order to their game.

Under Roger Schimdt, Bayer stood for merciless attacking football, though had mounting problems at the back. The coaches after him found it difficult to find the right mixture. Herrlich was the first to manage to find a good balance of attack and defence.

In the end it was 44 goals conceded, with 5th place resulting from that. A big flaw was the efficiency in attack. With 15 shots per game, however, Leverkusen carved out the most opportunities after Bayern. 58 goals as a yield is okay, but could be improved upon.

“We have to learn to be deadly,” Herrlich told Kicker. Volland, Bailey, Brandt, Havertz, Bellarabi, Paulinho, Alario – the potential in the attack is huge. Herrlich has got the team going defensively. Now he has to tweak in attack.

Leverkusen can only do their big ambition justice with more goals. If they don’t get into the Champions League again, it will be difficult to keep their best performers for another year.

This component can’t be underestimated. Certainly, the side is no longer starting from zero. But because of that, they’re under greater pressure. After a good season, more is expected from Bayer 04. At least Champions League qualification should be delivered.

How well can Herrlich, how well can his young players cope with that? In Leverkusen, things smell of success again. But precisely that could also block and endanger a good season. The coach impressed in a decisive year, getting his team going. Now it’s about ultimately reaping the fruits of their good work.

Our prediction: Leverkusen will have an excellent season and come third.

Not just the German FA, but Europe will also hear about Bayer Leverkusen again soon.
(Image: Adam Pretty / Bongarts / Getty Images)

Expert interview

In Frank Lussem, we have managed to win an expert from Kicker for our season preview. He gives us an overview of Bayer Leverkusen.

Leverkusen for a long time stood for incredible consistency. The Champions League spots were always made safely. Then all of a sudden there was a big drop. How optimistic are you that the club can draw on the consistency of old?

Since belonging to the Bundesliga, Bayer have been in big danger of relegation once per decade. Relegation in 1981, salvation in the last second in 1996 and 2003, big problems in 2016. Except for 1981, each time the team rallied quickly and secured European competition the following season: in 1997 and 2004 the Champions League. In 2017 Europa League. Between these problem years were long phases of consistency. In the 20 year table Bayer are second, in the 10 year table in third. Very innovative scouting, great infrastructure thanks to the Bayer syndicate, and in Calmund, Reschke and now Boldt men who knew how to use all of that. I’m sure that Bayer will also be right up there in the coming years, if not a lot goes wrong. Boldt goes about things assertively, speaking decidedly that 2nd-6th is no longer the goal, saying instead: “We want to get into the Champions League!”

Herrlich was laughed at a little a year ago, but was able to surprise. Where do Leverkusen still have to improve to continue to be successful?

If Herrlich becomes braver, his team can only profit from that. Bayer are great in every area with a versatile squad, in my eyes stronger than BVB or Schalke. Only a back-up for Alario is missing, however the attack is so talented that even the Argentinian being out wouldn’t open up a great hole. Footballistically everything is good, mentally unfortunately not. Leverkusen have to be braver, go out there with more confidence, project aggression and dominance. I’m sure that 15 of 17 opponents are worried about their games against Bayer – that needs to be felt on the pitch. Here, Herrlich is needed as a mental coach.

Players like Julian Brandt have committed to Bayer 04 quite decidedly. What makes Leverkusen better than many other top teams in the league who lose their talents early on?

Quite simple: in Leverkusen, the Tahs, Wendells, Baileys, Havertzs and all the rest play. Paulinho, the Brazilian just turned 18, is the next in this troupe. If Herrlich doesn’t wrap the players in cotton wool (key words: double load), then they could play a role that matches their potential. Dettmar Cramer once put it like this, quite prosaically: “If you want to form men, you have to foster youngsters.” It sounds stupid and pathetic, old-fashioned, but there’s something to it. Players like Tah, Havertz or Brandt obviously know that they’ll make themselves invincible if they win a title with Bayer. That drives them on more.

Where will Leverkusen finish and who will be champions?

Bayern Munich will be champions, Bayer Leverkusen ending up between 2nd and 4th. It could be more if they understand that both games against FC Bayern can be lost. But not against the weaker teams.

On the next page, it’s about Dortmund and Hoffenheim.

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