After two top three finishes in three years, RB Leipzig go in to the new season with one of Europe's hottest coaching talents in charge. Can Julian Nagelsmann and some exciting new signings challenge for the title?
Even for a club with almost as many new eras as past seasons, the winds of change are whipping through RB Leipzig this summer.
With Ralf Rangnick, the most critical football figure in the club's rise, deciding he'd be more comfortable in another branch of the Red Bull family, new head coach Julian Nagelsmann (pictured above) has been plotting his first season in charge with sporting director Markus Krösche. The latter recently arrived from Paderborn, whose suggestion of a special relationship between the clubs was rejected after protests by their fans.
Nagelsmann, who turned 32 this week, started work last month and found a club in good shape: "I'm delighted to be here and I've had a healthy period off to prepare me for my new challenge. I have an exciting young team to work with and this works well for me. It was a good way to start."
Tight at the back, faith in youth
Though Leipzig were never in the title race last season, the eastern club had the league's tightest defense and picked up an impressive 31 points from 13 games between January and late April that secured a return to the Champions League, before falling to Bayern Munich in the German Cup final.
That run saw a number of the club's collection of young players take on added responsibility. Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate, both 20, are already among the league's best central defenders, American prospect Tyler Adams, also 20, looked immediately at home in the middle of the park and Amadou Haidara, 21, showed glimpses of his talent after returning late in the season from a cruciate injury.
Summer arrivals Ademola Lookman, Christopher Nkunku, Hannes Wolf, Luan Candido and Ethan Ampadu (loan) all continue the club's policy of signing players young; all are 21 or under. While Wolf suffered a bad injury at the under-21 European Championships, Lookman has already shown what he can do in a Leipzig shirt in a productive end to the 2017-18 campaign while the arrival of the highly regarded Nkunku from Paris Saint-Germain perhaps says more about the French club's priorities than his potential.
But having left a Hoffenheim side that he took in to the Champions League for the first time in their history, Nagelsmann hasn't moved to Red Bull Arena for potential alone. In captain Willi Orban, midfielder Kevin Kampl, German international fullback pairing Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann and goalkeeper Peter Gulaci, arguably the best stopper in the league last season, Leipzig have an experienced and capable spine of Bundesliga players.
Werner question remains open
But there are three flies in Nagelsmann's ointment: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Timo Werner.
"It will be very difficult to attack them if they play another outstanding season," Nagelsmann said of the champions in an interview with the German Sunday paper Bild am Sonntag. "But if they falter, other teams must be right there, and we are among them."
Lucien Favre will feel similarly at Dortmund, with his side having raided Nagelsmann's former club as well as Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach to strengthen their squad and weaken their European rivals.
Unlike his former employers, Nagelsmann's current outfit have the financial clout to resist selling their stars. But with Werner's contract expiring at the end of the season and constant speculation linking him with Bayern, Leipzig want their biggest goal threat to make his mind up.
"We don't want to set an ultimatum, but eventually we need a decision," CEO Oliver Mintzlaff said recently. "It is desirable that we have a solution before the league starts."
Demands of Europe
A more postive issue for Nagelsmann to contend with is the extra demands that Champions League qualification will bring.
The high-energy, pressing style the young coach prefers, demands a lot of his players and the extra matches and travel required for European competition often appeared to take their toll on Hoffenheim. TSG's Rückrunde (second half of the season) displays once out of Europe, usually outshone their Hinrunde (first half of the season). He'll hope a much bigger, and significantly younger, squad can ease some of the issues, allowing him to rotate without too big a drop in quality.
As Nagelsmann suggests, his side will almost certainly need a slip up elsewhere to get in the title race. But with Bayern Munich's players expressing justified concerns about squad depth and Dortmund having several new first teamers to integrate, a decent start could see the Red Bulls muscle into the title picture.
Stopping the Bavarians making it eight in a row is a huge ask, but Nagelsmann has made his name by exceeding expectations.