We cannot discuss the rise of RB Leipzig and its avant-garde approach to the transfer market without first talking about its rapid rise to success.
Red Bull GmbH, the popular energy drink manufacturer, is not only a big fish in the food industry, but also owns several sports teams. Red Bull Racing (which won the 2022 F1 World Championship), F1’s AlphaTauri, and esports team OG are all controlled by Red Bull. Its crown jewel in sporting investments may be the intricate Red Bull soccer scouting network that’s taken over Germany and Europe.
Red Bull started its dominance by purchasing SV Austria Salzburg and renaming it to RB Salzburg. FC Liefering quickly turned from a contending second-tier team into a feeder side. Pricey purchases of New York Red Bulls, formerly the NY/NJ MetroStars, in MLS and introductions of Red Bull Brasil and now-defunct Red Bull Ghana followed.
The Red Bull formula
Finally, in 2010, Red Bull bought out fifth-tier side SSV Markranstädt and rebranded it RB Leipzig. Leipzig was able to skirt Germany’s 50+1 rule (the clubs members must control 50% and an additional one share in a club), by making the path to own a share of Leipzig very hard.
There are only 17 members of the club, all of which are employees of the brand. It’s very expensive (around $1100 dollars to hold a supporting role compared to Dortmund’s $67), and applications to hold a Leipzig share can be struck down without any reason. Although unpopular and controversial, Red Bull’s immorality strengthened their grip on the club, and helped to set up a single, unified vision for it.
With ties across the world and a healthy injection of cash from the affluent Red Bull owners, Leipzig quickly progressed through the German football pyramid, earning four promotions in just seven years to achieve its goal of playing in the Bundesliga by ten years.
It has not grown complacent. In its first year in the Bundesliga, it challenged with Bayern for the title, earning second in the season. Since then, Leipzig won the DFB-Pokal, became Europa League semifinalists, and Champions League semifinalists.
Leipzig followed the approach of the City Football Group by creating a worldwide product. Today, Red Bull owns Leipzig, Salzburg, Liefering (as a feeder team), New York Red Bulls, Bragantino, and Red Bull Brasil (as a feeder team to Brasil). It’s not only gained them a big base of fans across the globe but a big scouting base as well.
Their roots in America helped them unearth talents such as Caden Clark, Brenden Aaronson, and Tyler Adams. Bragantino and Red Bull Brasil have churned out talents such as Zenit’s Claudinho and Fiorentina’s Igor. The Salzburg-to-Leipzig pipeline is legendary, with Naby Keïta, Dayot Upamecano, Dominik Szoboszlai, and Amadou Haidara all profiting from the two clubs’ close relationship.
How Leipzig replaces players
It’s easy to point to the network of clubs Leipzig associates with when explaining its success. But you must give credit to their shrewd transfer strategy that helps them replace players while laying the groundwork for a new generation.
First off, you will notice Leipzig is frugal with the money it splashes on a player. Its most expensive signing was for Naby Keïta, signed from Salzburg for $32 million. This season already, other Bundesliga teams completed four transfers that were more expensive than that deal: Sadio Mane, Mathijs de Ligt, Sébastien Haller, Karim Adeyemi.
At the same time, RB Leipzig continues to be focused on keeping debt down, so the team finds itself unable to want to compete for top-level talents.
Secondly, Leipzig exclusively spends their cash on promising talents, not proven names. Leipzig’s priciest signing on a player older than 27 years old was Marvin Compper, who joined Leipzig from Fiorentina for a figure around $600,000 in 2014. They prioritize younger players rather than bona-fide stars, as Leipzig’s recent major signings of 24-year-old David Raum, 24-year-old Xaver Schlager, and 26-year-old Timo Werner show.
Those two ideals help them get big profits. When Liverpool bought Keta from RB Leipzig for a transfer fee of £52.75 million, that Keita deal netted Leipzig a profit of around $33 million. Leipzig had a net gain of $26 million from selling Upamecano to Bayern, and they made $18 million off of selling Brian Brobbey to Ajax after signing him on a free.
Sooner or later, Leipzig’s consistent profits from transfer sales will morph into a financial dominance where they can poach players from struggling Bundesliga teams while wooing over more known players from the Premier League, much like Bayern and Dortmund. They’ve shown hints off doing that in the recent transfer windows.
Leipzig bought David Raum, who had three goals and eleven assists in the Bundesliga with mid-table side Hoffenheim. He attracted attention from Dortmund and Bayern, but ended up inking a five-year contract with Die Roten Bullen. It was not cheap either, as they shelled out $28 million on the fullback. Leipzig know that Raum is a player whose value will skyrocket in the next few years, and with hopes of squeezing some good years out of him, took the risk and went all in.
Leipzig also shelled out $13 million on Wolfsburg box-to-box midfielder Xaver Schlager, who was also linked with Dortmund. Although it is not as costly as Raum, Schlager has grown into a very important piece of Leipzig’s midfield.
Leipzig also bought Timo Werner, out-of-favor at a struggling Chelsea side that could not produce goals. Along with a loan deal for PSG’s Abdou Diallo, the two represent players who Leipzig feel will either bring results to the table or will provide valuable depth. In the case of Werner, his effect on the squad has been immediate, as he has knocked in nine goals and four assists in 17 games. Diallo has played eleven games since joining Leipzig in September, but he has provided consistency off the bench.
Future deals for young Salzburg talent Benjamin Sesko in summer 2023 ($26.10 million) and Genk keeper Maarten Vandevoordt ($10.8 million, but set to join in 2024) all show the club’s emphasis on building youth before making big signings. Sesko, an exciting forward drawing comparisons to Haaland, is yet another example of the Red Bull pipeline in its element. Vandevoordt should tke over aging keeper Peter Gulacsi’s post when he retires or leaves.
A slow progression to the top
Thanks to their shrewd transfer business and slow ascension to the pinnacle of the Bundesliga, Leipzig is having a great season. They just earned a hard-fought draw against Bayern. Defender Marcel Hastenberg, who joined Leipzig in 2015 as a 23-year-old, scored the equalizing goal.
Leipzig sit in sixth in the Bundesliga, but they are just six points off of Bayern in the table, and one point off second-place Frankfurt. Leipzig also did well in the Champions League, getting twelve points in six group stage games to set up a marquee matchup with Manchester City in the round of 16.
One of their success on the field has been thanks to previous Dortmund manager Marco Rose, who took over the Leipzig post after Domenico Tedesco’s 4-1 loss to Shakhtar. Rose made the team play with four-at-the-back instead of Tedesco’s preferred three-at-the-back formations.
On the ball, Leipzig is a very aggressive, attack-minded team. They have the third most total touches, the third-most shots, and the third-most goals scored. His side are proficient at breaking down midfields with short, quick passes and getting into the box; as they should. With superstars like Christopher Nkunku, Werner, Szoboszlai on the ball, it would be easy to cobble together a productive offense. The magic in Rose’s work has been in the defense.
Although Leipzig still press like animals and are very intense without the ball as their predecessors recommended(Ralf Rangnick, Julian Nagelsmann, Jesse Marsch), they have taken a more complex approach to preserving clean sheets. Wingers like Nkunku and Emil Forsberg drop deep and lead counter-attacks, midfielders play towards the center, and we do not see the common high press that has plagued European defenses for two decades or so. That conservative approach has helped them; they have not given up 1 xG or more for six games straight.
Recipe for success
Every part of Leipzig is not just rapidly growing and adapting, but it’s actually succeeding. Leipzig has prime opportunities to level up in the Bundesliga.
On the pitch, form is on their side (Leipzig has not lost a competitive game since September), and they have some of the best players plying their trade in Europe. The skilled front office is quietly making some of the continent’s best transfers and assembling a super team to take the nation by storm. Everything is clicking as Leipzig keep on winning.
Photo: IMAGO / Nordphoto
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