RB Leipzig have a first major trophy in their sights as they prepare for a German Cup quarterfinal in Augsburg. The transformed Red Bulls have been in impressive form, despite Timo Werner's struggles in front of goal.
When RB Leipzig burst on to the Bundesliga stage two seasons ago it was the pace, vibrancy and energy of the newcomers that unsettled those around them, with Timo Werner the spearhead of Ralph Hasenhüttl's young side.
Werner scored 21 goals in 32 games that season, more than twice the total of Leipzig's next highest contributor, and would soon become Germany's number nine and one of the hottest properties in the Bundesliga. Back then, the odds on any man but Werner scoring the club's first top-flight hat trick would have been long. But that's exactly what happened on Saturday when Yussuf Poulsens' brilliant chip on the run completed his treble as Leipzig hammered Hertha Berlin 5-0.
Werner, though he provided two assists, failed to add to his tally of one goal for Leipzig in 2019. Even the first of those assists told the story of a striker struggling as Werner dallied on the ball when clean through, before eventually poking through for Poulsen to score his 15th league goal, the most prolific season of his career.
Where Poulsen's finishing, the attribute that's long let the Danish forward down, has improved immeasurably this year, Werner has regressed somewhat. The 23-year-old lost his Germany spot after 1 goal in 10 games for his country and has often looked weighed down by speculation over a move to Bayern Munich or Liverpool, with the forward stalling on signing a new contract at Red Bull Arena.
The former Stuttgart striker still has 12 goals in 24 league games this term, despite only finding the net in seven matches. But after a difficult start under interim boss Ralf Rangnick, Leipzig have become a very different side, adding real solidity and organization to their existing qualities of intense pressing, pace and energy. They are no longer so reliant on their high-profile center forward.
Defensive numbers adding up
Rangnick's men have kept the most clean sheets in the Bundesliga (14), haven't conceded a goal for 428 minutes, have conceded the fewest goals in the league and didn't even allow Hertha a shot on target in Saturday's win.
Full backs Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann have both been rewarded for their form with Germany call ups, captain Willi Orban has led from the back and young French duo Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano continue to develop.
"We played insanely (well) today, scoring five incredible goals. It's a very confident start to the tough week that lies ahead of us," said goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, another impressive performer this term.
"We were brilliant defensively until the 88th minute, when we almost conceded. Still, we've now kept 14 clean sheets. That's the foundation we're built on, and it gives us the courage to play the attacking football we displayed today."
Rangnick, who agreed to step back into the head coach position while the club await the arrival of Julian Nagelsmann, was equally glowing: "It was a top-class performance today, and I'm very pleased overall. We played a relatively attacking team, but still kept a clean sheet. I have very little to criticise," said the 60-year-old.
The emergence of young American midfielder Tyler Adams and the return to form and fitness of Emil Forsberg have also contributed to the unbeaten run of 10 games that's secured Leipzig a five-point cushion to fifth ahead of their trip to Augsburg.
Both league meetings between the sides have finished goalless this year but Augsburg's poor display in their 3-0 defeat to lowly Nuremberg on Saturday has kept them very much in the relegation picture.
"We have to forget about this game quickly and improve for the cup game on Tuesday,” said left back Philipp Max.
Despite the contrasting moods between the sides, Rangnick placed the emphasis firmly on solidity in his prematch press conference on Monday.
"I think that Augsburg will play similarly to how they played in our last two meetings. We need to defend in the same way we have recently," he said.
Neither side has ever won the German Cup but with at least one second-division side certain to be in the semifinals and Bayern Munich drawn in to their first real title fight for years, opportunity is knocking. As it stands, the new iteration of RB Leipzig looks well equipped to answer.