Amidst all the discussion of Dortmund’s title chances, it’s RB Leipzig who have quietly taken the lead at the top of the Bundesliga. Unbeaten so far, they host Bayern on Saturday, looking to prove their own credentials.
"An enrichment for the Bundesliga." It's a phrase which crops up time and time again in Germany in relation to RasenBallsport Leipzig.
Former head coach, sporting director and general strategic mastermind Ralf Rangnick first coined it when the club was promoted to the top flight in 2016, and repeated it multiple times thereafter. The club's first Bundesliga coach Ralph Hasenhüttl also referred to it, while CEO Oliver Mintzlaff still uses it as an occasional catchphrase.
This summer, new sporting director Markus Krösche hinted at a different approach. "We're one of the most exciting teams in the league,” he said. Before adding, right on cue: "We're an enrichment for the Bundesliga."
The turn of phrase is delivered with the regularity and precision of a well-managed marketing campaign. Now, even Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is convinced.
"Fundamentally, I do think that RB Leipzig have enriched the league since their promotion," he said this week ahead of Bayern's trip to Leipzig. "At FC Bayern, we're always interested in competition because that's where the excitement and emotion comes from in football."
Under the radar
Domestic competition has been in short supply for Bayern in recent years. Borussia Dortmund took the title race to the final day last season and after strengthening in the summer, it was presumed – and perhaps even hoped – that the Black and Yellows would mount an even stronger challenge this time. They still might, although defeat to Union Berlin before the international break saw old problems resurface at the Westfalenstadion.
Meanwhile, with all the attention focussed elsewhere, another team has slipped under the radar to open up an early lead at the top of the Bundesliga, three points clear of Dortmund and two clear of Bayern. On Saturday, RB Leipzig have the chance to extend that lead even further when Bayern visit the Red Bull Arena (kick-off at 18:30 CET).
Apart from a 2-1 win in March 2018, when the title was already as good as done, RB have never beaten Bayern since their arrival in the Bundesliga. Last season, they didn't even manage to score against them as Bayern beat them 1-0 in Munich and drew 0-0 in Leipzig before strolling to a 3-0 win in the German Cup final.
With Mats Hummels imperious at the back, Thiago Alcantara and Leon Goretzka solid in midfield, and Robert Lewandowski deadly up front, Bayern looked immune to RB's trademark aggressive pressing game and made their opponents look painfully one-dimensional. The responsibility for changing that now falls on Julian Nagelsmann.
The Nagelsmann effect
The highly-rated 32-year-old proved his tactical variability at former club Hoffenheim, where he was frequently forced to adapt and compensate for the loss of key players without abandoning his own attacking instincts.
That flexibility has already been evident in Leipzig this season, with RB overwhelming Union Berlin in an offensive 3-4-3 formation, overcoming Eintracht Frankfurt in a more conservative 3-5-2 and blowing away Borussia Mönchengladbach in a counter-attacking 4-4-2.
The key man in the 3-1 win at Borussia Park was, predictably, Timo Werner, who scored his first hat-trick for RB and took his tally to 55 goals in 96 Bundesliga games for the club – a strike, on average, every 139 minutes. No wonder Bayern Munich were interested in the 23-year-old but Werner has stayed put, signing a contract extension until 2023.
On Saturday, he'll resume his individual battle with Lewandowski, the man he had been earmarked to replace. While Werner has five goals already this season, the Pole already has six, but Nagelsmann believes that his striker is "capable of doing a lot of damage" to the champions.
"Step by step, our performances are getting closer to Bayern," captain Willi Orban told kicker magazine this week. "It's about time we beat them again, we have nothing to lose."
Bayern at a crossroads
Their opponents, by contrast, have everything to lose. Defeat on Saturday would leave Bayern five points behind RB and increase the pressure on Niko Kovac who, despite becoming the first ever person to win the double with Bayern Munich both as a player and a coach last season, knows he still has his doubters – on Säbener Strasse and beyond.
"We've adapted too, we've added more potential,” he insisted on Thursday, almost defensively. "It's not as if we've stood still while others around us have moved on.” But that's precisely the long-term concern for Bayern Munich, who are yet to fully complete key transitions in personnel on and off the pitch.
There was little Bayern could do aboutLeroy Sane's injury. However, there must be concern that both Nagelsmann and Werner, two figures who embody the future of German football and who were both courted by Bayern, ultimately opted for Leipzig, a club with a clear sense of direction while Bayern are still at a crossroads.
An enrichment for the Bundesliga though? Others are not so sure. The Red Bull-backed project in Saxony might be an attractive professional proposition but, despite the sound bites from key protagonists and increasingly favorable media coverage, opposition remains.
The first 15 minutes of RB's opener away at Union Berlin was played out in silence as the home fans protested against the very existence of "the construct from Leipzig." Two weeks later, Borussia Mönchengladbach supporters continued the protest by blowing on whistles whenever RB were in possession. This Saturday, Bayern Munich's hardcore ultras are once again boycotting the trip to Leipzig.
RB Leipzig have the chance to mount a quiet title challenge this season, but whether that enriches the Bundesliga is another question altogether.