A point away at Lyon on Tuesday ensured RB Leipzig top spot in Group G. For both the club and coach Julian Nagelsmann, the Champions League knockout stages are unchartered territory. It's time to take the next step.
With Borussia Mönchengladbach topping the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich mired in transition, Union Berlin surprising everyone and Borussia Dortmund as unpredictable as ever, there's no shortage of stories in German football this season.
In all the excitement however, one team has slipped under the radar somewhat. After a run of eight wins from their last 11 games in all competitions (combined score: 38-14), RB Leipzig find themselves just one point behind Gladbach and have already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in the club's short history.
A 2-2 draw away at Lyon on Tuesday night secured RB progress from Group G as group winners and put them in a strong position as they advance into unchartered territory – both for the club and for new head coach Julian Nagelsmann.
RB's only previous foray into the Champions League – in 2017-18, after finishing second in their first ever Bundesliga season, ended in the group stage while Nagelsmann's experience at Europe's top table is also limited to last season's group stage exit with Hoffenheim, plus a qualifying-round defeat to Liverpool the year before.
Viewed through that simple prism, its not the most flattering of records for a club with the lofty ambitions of RB Leipzig, nor for a coach frequently dubbed a wunderkind and the next big thing in German football. Both, however, have faced similar hurdles in their short European careers, and so it's fitting that they are now developing and progressing together.
The Rangnick school
The rise to prominence of both RB Leipzig and Nagelsmann is intertwined with that of Ralf Rangnick, the football "professor” whose philosophy has influenced German football significantly in the last decade. High pressing, spatial overloads and rapid transitions might be familiar concepts to football fans nowadays but Rangnick was explaining them on German television as early as 1998.
As Rangnick was masterminding Hoffenheim's rise from division three to the Bundesliga between 2006 and 2011 (over €350m ($387m) of backing from SAP owner Dietmar Hopp also helped), Nagelsmann was cutting his teeth coaching the club's under-17s, soaking up the professor's teachings. Following Rangnick's departure, he was promoted to the under-19s and then to first team coach, where he first saved Hoffenheim from relegation and then led them into Europe for the first time.
Rangnick, meanwhile, became sporting director for Red Bull's football franchises in both Salzburg and Leipzig, his philosophy quickly influencing the football played by teams in both locations and across all age groups.
That style of play saw RB Leipzig take the Bundesliga by storm in 2016-17 and has seen them establish themselves as one of Germany's top sides. Again, substantial investment from the Austrian energy drink manufacturer has also helped, as have a number of controversial transfers and the club's circumvention of German football's 50+1 ownership rule.
But the footballing successes of both Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig don't just share similarities; they come with similar drawbacks, too.
While deadly effective and pleasing on the eye, Rangnick-ball also demands a high degree of tactical discipline and significant physical exertion. The former requires detailed training sessions – aided by Nagelsmann's use of huge pitchside TV screens in Hoffenheim – and the latter longer recovery times. Both are harder to come by when competing on multiple fronts, twice a week and with long journeys in between, which goes some way to explaining both teams' struggles in their fledging European stories so far.
Former RB Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhüttl was aware of that but his attempts to implement more possession-based elements in his second season at the club didn't find favor with Rangnick. Two years later however, with Rangnick now "Head of Sport and Development Soccer” at Red Bull's Fuschl-am-See headquarters in the Austrian Alps, and that is precisely what Nagelsmann, 32, is tasked with doing.
"Leipzig's philosophy was based heavily on pressing, winning the ball and counter-attacking,” Nagelsmann told broadcaster Sky ahead of Tuesday's trip to France. "We're still focusing on that but we're now also creating a lot of chances from our own spells of possession.”
It's a slight tactical tweak which doesn't just conserve players' energy; it also makes RB less predictable. And it's certainly serving them well in the Bundesliga this season.
"We place great importance on the lads knowing which areas of the pitch we should be playing balls into and against which teams,” Nagelsmann added. "There is always a detailed plan and then it's up to the players to want to implement it, to listen and to improve.”
Both RB Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann have benefitted hugely from the influence of Ralf Rangnick in their development up until this point. But the very nature of their football has arguably held them back in Europe. With an ingrained willingness to listen, improve and implement, this could be the season in which that changes for both parties.