Marco Rose has impressed as head coach of RB Leipzig since arriving a year ago, but can he take them to the next step and truly challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title?
The Bundesliga campaign is well and truly underway, with a host of sides aiming to keep in touch with 32-time record champions Bayern Munich at the top of the table.
One of the challengers hot on their heels is Marco Rose’s vibrant RB Leipzig. The East German side have been transformed under Rose in the last 12 months, winning a second consecutive DFB-Pokal title before defeating Bayern 3-0 at the Allianz Arena in the curtain-raising DFL-Supercup at the start of the season.
So how have Leipzig flourished into title challengers during Rose’s short time at the club?
Rose was appointed as manager of his hometown club last September following a dreadful start to the campaign for Leipzig under Domenico Tedesco. Die Roten Bullen had won just one of their opening five league games and sat 11th in the Bundesliga at the time, with Tedesco dismissed following a 4-1 home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Champions League.
The Red Bull hierarchy turned to Leipzig-born Rose, with some in Germany accusing the manager of licking his wounds after lasting just 12 months in the post as Borussia Dortmund boss the previous season. But what better way to prove a point than a grudge match with his former employers a mere 72 hours after being appointed. The Leipzig players duly obliged – defeating BVB 3-0 in Rose’s first game at the helm. In fact, it was the only game across the 2022-23 season in which Dortmund failed to register a single shot on target.
Rose knew the Red Bull system well having spent two fruitful seasons at Red Bull Salzburg, winning back-to-back league titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He had even led the Austrian side into the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history. The high spirits did not last for long at Leipzig, though. Back-to-back defeats at Real Madrid and another of Rose’s former clubs, Borussia Mönchengladbach, subsequently followed. There would be no immediate sunshine and roses at the Red Bull Arena.
The ensuing international break allowed Rose vital time to put his imprint on the team, and things quickly clicked into gear. Leipzigembarked on an 18-game unbeaten streak in all competitions – their joint-longest such run since promotion to the Bundesliga in 2016. This included a dramatic 3-2 triumph against Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage, winning four consecutive games in the competition for the very first time and sealing their place in the knockout rounds.
Leipzig had soared into the upper echelons of the Bundesliga table, with Rose completely changing the course of their season. A stick often used to beat the 47-year-old during his spell at Borussia Dortmund was his side’s lack of defensive stability – shipping 52 goals in 34 league games. Yet those question marks had vanished in Saxony. From Rose’s first game in charge, Leipzig conceded the fewest goals (32) and boasted the lowest expected goals (xG) against tally in the German top-flight last term (31.19). Leipzig conceded an average of 1.8 goals per game in their opening five league matches, with that median tumbling to just 1.1 per game after Rose’s arrival.
Rose ironed out some concerning defensive frailties at the Red Bull Arena, installing a well-structured back-line. Leipzig began to force opponents out wide by making the central areas crowded and compact. As a result, this limited clear-cut opportunities on goal for the opposition. They faced the fewest shots (260) and the fewest shots on target (85) in the Bundesliga after Rose’s appointment. Opponents also had the fewest touches in Leipzig’s box during this timeframe (510).
Leipzig seek to be as proactive as possible under Rose, with relentless pressing and decisive counter-attacking football. Only Bayern (9.8) had a lower PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) than them in the Bundesliga last term (11). Once the Saxony side regain possession, they look to swiftly advance the ball upfield. Leipzig played 99 through balls across the Bundesliga 2022-23, which was the outright most in the competition. By advancing the ball vertically, it allows them to play through the opposition’s press and break numerous defensive lines. They attempted 41 fast breaks, scoring six goals from fast breaks under Rose in the Bundesliga last season – more than any other side in the division. They had gone back to their roots, and it was paying off.
After climbing into third spot in the league following the winter break, Leipzig were drawn against eventual-winners Manchester City in the Champions League last 16. However, after an impressive showing in the 1-1 first leg in Germany, they were thrashed 7-0 in the second leg by Pep Guardiola’s side, with Erling Haaland scoring five. It was a result that looked to have huge implications on their season. They proceeded to suffer consecutive league defeats to Bochum and Mainz – relinquishing their place in the top four.
But Leipzig had generally become a well-oiled machine under Rose, shaking the inconsistency previously displayed under Tedesco. They won six of their final seven league games of 2022-23, including an upset at champions Bayern Munich for the first time. Leipzig ended the campaign in third place, earning Champions League football for the fifth consecutive season. They won 61 points under Rose, more than any other side since his appointment – one ahead of Bayern and two more than Dortmund.
Leipzig also reached their third consecutive DFB-Pokal final following a 5-1 drubbing of fellow European challengers Freiburg in the semi-final. They beat Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 in the showpiece final in Berlin to claim the trophy for the second year in a row, also marking Rose’s first major silverware in German football.
Leipzig had 18 different goalscorers in the German top-flight last year – the most in the Bundesliga. But their forward line was undoubtedly spearheaded by France international Christopher Nkunku. The former Paris Saint-Germain attacker finished the season as the division’s joint top scorer with 16 goals – sharing the Torjägerkanone with Werder Bremen’s Niclas Füllkrug (now of Dortmund). Nkunku was one of several key departures from the Red Bull Arena during the summer, alongside Dominik Szoboszlai, Joško Gvardiol and Konrad Laimer. Yet any signs of a potential transitional period in Saxony this season have been completely dismissed. Leipzig eased past Bayern 3-0 at the Allianz Arena to win their first ever DFL-Supercup – laying down a huge marker ahead of the campaign.
Rose’s side have continued into the season in similar fashion, winning four of their opening five league games. They have also kept three clean sheets – the most of any team in the division.
Leipzig made a plethora of exciting additions during the summer, but perhaps none have made quite as big an impact as attacking midfielder Xavi Simons, who arrived on loan from PSG. The young Dutchman has adopted the role of conductor in attack, boasting three goals and four assists in just five league appearances. Simons has taken to the Bundesliga like a duck to water with promise of even more to come. Fellow new recruits, Benjamin Šeško and Loïs Openda have also displayed their attacking talents in glimpses so far this season, with the Leipzig forward line set to be a tantalising prospect.
Leipzig beat Wehen Wiesbaden 3-2 on Wednesday in the DFB-Pokal to continue their good form, and currently occupy fourth spot in the league table, just one point behind leaders Bayern. They will be hoping to leapfrog the Bavarians this weekend as they face off in a huge clash at the Red Bull Arena. A third consecutive victory in this fixture would undoubtedly certify Leipzig’s title challenger credentials in their aim to become the first title winner outside of Bayern or Borussia Dortmund since Wolfsburg in 2008-09. It is already testament to the terrific work carried out by Rose that they are firmly in such conversations.
RB Leipzig have truly blossomed into title contenders under the tenure of Marco Rose.