With Christopher Nkunku, Konrad Laimer and Dominik Szoboszlai gone, and Josko Gvardiol possibly to follow, how are RB Leipzig ensuring they stay competitive?
Every club has their own transfer approach. In Germany, for example, Bayern Munich usually only move on ageing and/or superfluous players and can often replace them with world-class stars, while Borussia Dortmund try to limit their outgoings to one big name in order to fund their incomings, such as Jude Bellingham’s exit to Real Madrid earlier this summer.
Then you have RB Leipzig, who appear to take it to the next level, usually selling a few key players before attempting to replace them with smart, young investments. All this while trying to stay competitive with Bayern and Dortmund. Few will have sympathy for them in Germany given the way a certain energy drink company ‘gave them wings’ to reach the Bundesliga, but it is still an interesting approach to see unfold.
For example, in the summer of 2021, Leipzig sold Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté and Marcel Sabitzer, but replaced them with Josko Gvardiol, Mohamed Simakan and Ilaix Moriba. The former Barcelona youngster was more of an investment for the future, but Gvardiol and Simakan were more than capable acquisitions at the back, with Leipzig securing a top-four finish and winning the DFB-Pokal.
The following summer, they sold Tyler Adams, Hwang Hee-chan and Nordi Mukiele among others, but acquired David Raum, Xaver Schlager and Timo Werner, as well as bringing in Abdou Diallo on loan. They went on to finish third in the Bundesliga and retained the DFB-Pokal.
This summer feels like the biggest overhaul yet, though. Four of Leipzig’s most important players might have gone by the end of this transfer window. Three are already out the door in the form of Christopher Nkunku (Chelsea), Konrad Laimer (Bayern) and Dominik Szoboszlai (Liverpool), while Gvardiol is being strongly linked with a move to Manchester City. Reinforcements have arrived, but is it possible to stay competitive with this kind of turnover in key areas of your team on an annual basis? Up until now, the answer has been pretty much yes, at least in terms of regular Champions League qualification and cup success.
Will this year be too much for even them to overcome, though? We’ve looked at what the East German side will be losing against what they will be gaining.
What Are They Losing?
Nkunku has been one of the most potent attacking players in the Bundesliga in recent years, which takes some doing considering he has been sharing a league with the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland.
After arriving from PSG in 2019, the France international went on to score 70 goals and assist a further 45 in 172 games for Leipzig. It was the 2021-22 season when he really exploded though, with 58 of those 70 goals coming in his 88 appearances since the start of that campaign.
In fact, since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, Nkunku has scored more goals (36) and has had more goal involvements (53 – 36 goals, 17 assists) than any player in the Bundesliga, albeit helped significantly by Lewandowski and Haaland both leaving Germany last summer.
His move to Chelsea was in the works for several months, so Leipzig had plenty of time to plan ahead, which was also true of the exit of Laimer. The more annoying thing for his now former club is that the central midfielder left for Bayern on a free transfer, and they are losing plenty of legs as a result. Well, just the two legs really, but they moved around a lot.
In the below touch map from Leipzig’s final Bundesliga game of last season against Schalke – in which Laimer played for an hour and scored the opener after 10 minutes – you can see how varied the areas of his 47 touches were, to the point where you would do well to determine what position he was supposed to be playing in that day.
In the 2022-23 Bundesliga season, Laimer contested (13.9) and won (7.2) more duels per 90 minutes than any other player for RB Leipzig (min. 500 minutes played), and his all-action performances will be missed in a team where his combative nature shone.
Like with Nkunku, Leipzig were powerless to stop Szoboszlai’s departure to Liverpool as the Premier League club triggered his release clause, and his exit will mean even more creativity has disappeared. Set-pieces played a big part in his team-high 161 chances created for teammates overall since the start of the 2021-22 season, though 99 of those did come from open play, behind only Nkunku (132).
The Hungarian midfielder offered a goalscoring threat as well. Only Bayern’s Leroy Sané (37) had more shots from outside the box than Szoboszlai’s 36 in the Bundesliga last season. He was also one of only 14 players to create at least 100 chances since the start of 2021-22 in the German top flight, but had the fifth highest per-90 average (2.5) of those players. Last season also saw Szoboszlai rank fourth overall in the Bundesliga for total involvements in shot-ending sequences in open play (163).
Should his reported move to Man City go through though, Gvardiol might be the biggest loss of them all. There aren’t too many top-class centre-backs around, and the Croatian has been sensational since arriving from Dinamo Zagreb as a replacement for Upamecano two years ago.
The player with a mooted asking price of €100million is one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the world. He averaged more touches last season (100 per 90), more successful passes (79.2 per 90) and at a higher accuracy (89.3%) than any other Leipzig player. Gvardiol also made 4.4 progressive passes per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga last season, the fourth highest rate among centre-halves.
His ability to turn defence into attack from the back is one of the main reasons why Europe’s top clubs have been sniffing around him pretty much since he arrived in Germany, and why the current UEFA Champions League holders are apparently willing to spend so much to land him.
Can Leipzig replace him as well as they did Upamecano, and will their newest signings be able to fill those significant voids?
What Are They Gaining?
Although they have lost a lot of goals in Nkunku, they will hope to have replaced some of them with the signing of Benjamin Sesko from Salzburg. Many players have trodden the well-worn path from Austrian second-tier side FC Liefering to Salzburg and then Leipzig along the obvious energy drink-based link, with striker Sesko and midfielder Nicolas Seiwald both heading to Germany from Austria this summer.
Sesko is a particularly intriguing one given his previous links with a move to Manchester United. At the age of just 18 years and 106 days, he became the youngest player to start for Salzburg in the Champions League during the 1-1 group stage draw at Sevilla in September 2021.
A return of 11 goals in 37 games (14 starts) showed promise in his first campaign, and he followed that up with 18 in 41 (29 starts) last season. At well over six foot tall, Sesko is an imposing figure, but he is an all-round striker capable of using close control and invention to work chances. Only three players scored more goals than Sesko in the Austrian Bundesliga last season, and all are at least five years older than him.
Having only turned 20 in late May, it feels like the right time for Sesko to make that next step, as it does with 22-year-old Seiwald. If Sesko is the hope to eventually replace Nkunku’s goals, then Seiwald looks ready-made to replace Laimer’s midfield presence.
The Austria international became a key part of Salzburg’s team in 2021-22, learning the fundamentals of playing in a pressing-focused midfield – as Laimer did at the same club before heading to Leipzig.
Austria national team manager Ralf Rangnick said of Seiwald last year: “I’ve known the boy for three or four years, and it was really obvious he will play abroad. He is an extraordinary player for his age.”
He has already produced in big games as well. In last season’s Champions League group stage, only Sporting CP’s Manuel Ugarte and Maccabi Haifa’s Neta Lavi (both 17) won more tackles than Seiwald’s 14.
As for replacing Szoboszlai’s creativity from midfield, manager Marco Rose arguably has two options to now choose from. Fabio Carvalho has arrived on loan from Liverpool for the season having struggled to secure a regular place in the first team at Anfield.
The 20-year-old scored three goals in 20 appearances (eight starts) in all competitions in 2022-23 but previously showed at Fulham that he can be a threat in an attacking midfield role, where he predominantly played as a number 10 behind Aleksandar Mitrovic. Only 16 players bettered his 18 goal involvements (10 goals, eight assists) in the Championship in 2021-22, and with a year of being coached by Jürgen Klopp under his belt, he should be able to handle Leipzig’s pressing demands.
Christoph Baumgartner appears to be a more readymade option, though. Like Szoboszlai, he can play pretty much anywhere in midfield and attack, and chips in with his share of goals. He scored seven in the league last season, made more impressive considering Hoffenheim only managed 48 in total in the Bundesliga. No player who predominantly played in midfield in Germany’s top flight took more than his 48 shots inside the opposition box, while only Jude Bellingham (67) attempted more than his 66 total shots at goal (Szoboszlai – 59).
Leipzig sporting director Max Eberl recently said that Baumgartner “was one of our absolute priority targets. He’s a very versatile player who can play centrally, on both wings, as an inside forward or a central striker, and can also play in central midfield. Christoph is quick, possesses a threat on goal and is a very intelligent player. He can play with both feet and has an incredible shot. His skills and abilities lend another aspect to our game. Baumi is also a good guy: down-to-earth, eager to learn and ambitious.”
That pretty much sounds like a description of Szoboszlai, which is interesting given Baumgartner’s signing was confirmed weeks before the Hungary captain left for Liverpool. Funnily enough, Baumgartner has a brother called Dominik who plays as a defender for Wolfsberger in Austria, but whether he can replace the other Dominik in Leipzig remains to be seen.
Should Gvardiol leave, Leipzig could look to revive reported previous interest in Croatia teammate Josip Sutalo seeing as he was also Gvardiol’s replacement at Dinamo Zagreb. According to our player radars though, Bayer Leverkusen’s Piero Hincapié or Lens’ Facundo Medina could be suitable alternative options as the two players who profile closest to Gvardiol in Europe’s top-five leagues.
With André Silva also being linked with a move out of Leipzig, the club are reportedly close to committing what would be a club-record fee to sign Lens forward Loïs Openda. The 23-year-old scored 21 goals in Ligue 1 last season, with only Kylian Mbappé (29), Alexandre Lacazette (27) and Jonathan David (24) hitting more. Only Mbappé (0.71) had a higher non-penalty expected goals (xG) value per 90 than Openda (0.63) of players with 1,000+ minutes in France’s top flight.
He also notably scored the fastest hat-trick in the last 50 years in Ligue 1 with a four minute and 30 second treble against Clermont Foot in March. If Leipzig do secure a deal for Openda, that should take immediate pressure off the shoulders of Sesko to make up for the loss of Nkunku’s goals.
In theory, five of Rose’s front six in his 4-2-2-2 system could be brand new players at the start of the 2023-24 campaign. That may not be ideal in terms of continuity, but with a likely nine-figure profit from their summer business should Gvardiol leave, Leipzig would surely see another top-four finish as extremely positive considering the upheaval that has largely been forced upon them.
Their energy drink owners may well “give you wings”, but Leipzig will be hoping that eventually, their best players stop flying away.