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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Why the Premier League’s next big signing already plays for RB Leipzig

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The last time Josko Gvardiol played in a Champions League game, the spectacular scoreline did not act as a deterrent to Pep Guardiola. Manchester City 7 RB Leipzig 0 contained five goals for Erling Haaland but, after Gvardiol was arguably the outstanding centre-back in the World Cup, it did not afford him the same status in the Champions League.

During summer negotiations, Leipzig nevertheless asked for €100m, a fee that would have made him the most expensive defender ever. City instead sealed a deal for €90m, around £77m, meaning that title still belongs to Harry Maguire, who almost certainly does not want it. But Gvardiol’s Champions League bow for City could come in the familiar surroundings of Leipzig, where he scored in a 1-1 draw against Guardiola’s side last season: for obvious reasons, the second leg, and Haaland’s five goals, is remembered rather more.

Gvardiol is not the only notable departure from the Red Bull Arena, nor the most recent. On Friday, the sporting director Max Eberl was removed from his position with immediate effect, citing his apparent failure to commit to the club. A former Bayern Munich player has been touted for a return to his former employers. If so, he would be reunited with Konrad Laimer, who Bayern acquired on a free transfer this summer.

Perhaps Bayern concluded that, if you can’t beat them, hire them: their season began with a 3-0 Super Cup defeat to Leipzig. They drew 2-2 with Marco Rose’s side on Saturday. There are reasons to believe Leipzig are the favourites to finish second in the Bundesliga: they are fifth now, but have already faced the current top three. They won 16 of their last 23 games last season.

Since then, however, they have lost arguably their four best players. Three went to the Premier League, for the best part of £200m, in Gvardiol, Dominik Szoboszlai and Christopher Nkunku. Leipzig are shaping up as perhaps the most successful identifiers and developers of talent around right now.

Their goals against Bayern this weekend came from Lois Openda, the 21-year-old forward who was Nkunku’s replacement, and Castello Lukeba, the 20-year-old defender bought to take over from Gvardiol. Perhaps they were symbolic scorers in that respect.

Certainly there are reasons for the scouts to converge on the Red Bull Arena. The most exciting prospect of all may be the one Leipzig don’t own: the precocious Xavi Simons, borrowed from Paris Saint-Germain, has four assists, the joint most in the Bundesliga, and three goals already. It may prove a canny choice by PSG: Leipzig have had a habit of polishing up talents. So Eberl could leave a legacy, though Leipzig’s expertise in the transfer market predates him.

Xavi Simons has shone for Leipzig on loan from PSG

(Getty Images)

Benjamin Sesko has earned early comparisons with Erling Haaland

(Getty Images)

There has been a pathway from the old East Germany to some of the western European superpowers. In recent years, Bayern have swooped for Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer, Liverpool for Ibrahima Konate and Naby Keita, each with mixed returns. Chelsea bought Timo Werner, and Leipzig bought him back for the half the price.

The tale cannot be told without their sister club: Szoboszlai is not alone in joining Leipzig from RB Salzburg. Laimer did, too, while Benjamin Sesko, the Slovenian striker who could yet provide a sizeable boost to Leipzig’s bank balance in the future, joined in the summer and has more goals than starts for his new club. Maybe Dani Olmo, the scorer of the Super Cup hat-trick who has been touted as a possible recruit for City, will be the next sale, though the injured Spaniard will not face them.

Leipzig seem to offer an enticing combination to buyers: youth, a pressing philosophy and attacking football, experience of one of the major European leagues as well as the Champions League. In particular, they look a pathway from French and central European clubs to the elite. It looks a triumph of intelligent recruitment, albeit lacking the romance of Union Berlin or Borussia Dortmund.

And yet they have regressed on the continental stage, with sales preventing them from realising their potential. Their last three Champions League campaigns have brought two exits in the last 16 and one in the group stages. They have beaten Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Real Madrid at home: away, however, they have conceded five to United and six and seven to City.

Julian Nagelsmann steered them to the semi-finals in 2020 but the manager and three of his players later decamped to Bayern. That Leipzig, a somewhat artificial construct with billionaire backers, found a limit to their ambitions may not elicit sympathy. Many can lament that Ajax and Benfica can’t win the Champions League anymore; there is no such nostalgia about Leipzig. But perhaps they have found a profitable way to exist, among the second bracket of continental clubs. They are the deluxe feeder club.

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