Manchester United successfully navigated the first hurdle of their hazardous Champions League group by defeating Paris Saint-Germain in France last week.
But the second test against Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig at Old Trafford on Wednesday night could be equally as hazardous for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Leipzig were hugely unpopular in Germany when they were bought by drinks company Red Bull in 2009 as part of a franchise that includes teams in Salzburg and New York.
Top of the German league and off the mark in the Champions League, Leipzig mean business
Nonetheless, there is little doubt the upstarts look here to stay and last season’s run to the Champions League semi-finals – beating Tottenham and Atletico Madrid along the way – was another important step in their development.
Their 33-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann is considered a future managerial great and on Manchester City’s shortlist should Pep Guardiola leave in the summer.
Though they sold Timo Werner to Chelsea in the summer, they still have goals in Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg and continued their policy in investing in youth by signing Norway international Alexander Sorloth from Crystal Palace and Patrick Kluivert’s son Justin, on loan from Roma.
Yussuf Poulsen (right) and Emil Forsberg (left) are scoring the goals to keep Leipzig on top
‘We are a young team but we play without feeling nervous,’ says Nagelsmann. ‘We focus on the Leipzig style and it’s important that doesn’t change. It is important to play your way.’
Manchester United, beware!
TOP OF THE LEAGUE
Given that the mighty European champions Bayern Munich are among their rivals, it’s impressive that Leipzig are on top of the Bundesliga after five matches – winning four and drawing away to Bayer Leverkusen.
They’ve made an excellent start in the Champions League as well, defeating Istanbul Basaksehir 2-0 with a brace from Angelino, the 23-year-old left back on loan from Manchester City.
Leipzig have started the season in hot form and remain undefeated in the Bundesliga so far
Leipzig have finished third in the Bundesliga in each of the last two seasons, confirming their status as the biggest threat to the Bayern-Borussia Dortmund duopoly.
It’ll take a big step forward to move to the next level and end Bayern’s run of eight championships in a row but Nagelsmann is building a post-Timo Werner team that retains the traditional Leipzig pace and energy but without relying on one star.
THE NAGELSMANN EFFECT
The first remarkable thing about the Leipzig manager is his age. The 33-year-old is five months younger than Manchester United’s new signing Edinson Cavani and he’s already been a manager for five years, first with Hoffenheim and now, since the summer of 2019, Leipzig.
For a comparison, Solskjaer was playing up front for United alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Giuseppe Rossi at the same age.
Tactically, Nagelsmann is similar to Jurgen Klopp in his fondness for a relentless press, one of the reasons young players are suited to Leipzig’s high-octane style.
Julian Nagelsmann is building a stellar reputation and is compared tactically to Jurgen Klopp
His sides take risks in possession, they are relatively direct in their play and don’t keep the ball safely for the sake of boosting their statistics. Their intention is to hurt the opposition.
One day, Nagelsmann is expected to grace a Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or possibly Manchester City.
Nagelsmann already speaks excellent English, is in tune with the latest technology – he’s studied business and sports science – but you can also see from the touchline that he’s not afraid to show his emotion the old-fashioned way.
Pep Guardiola is currently the youngest coach to win the Champions League – he was 38 when Barcelona lifted the trophy in 2009. Nagelsmann has plenty of time to eclipse that.
‘He is a very confident young man and a sensational manager,’ says Klopp.
Nagelsmann, whose own playing career as a centre back was cut short by a knee injury, is clearly a good communicator with Leipzig able to player either a flat back four or use wing backs.
Nagelsmann brought in Angelino on loan, who scored twice in the recent European victory
For a potentially difficult away match at Old Trafford, Leipzig may opt for two holding midfielders, though one will be given license to break forward at times.
A benefit for Leipzig is that Europe’s finest young players want to work for Nagelsmann. It didn’t work out for Ademola Lookman, who left to join Fulham on loan this season, but the winger still looks a better player now than when he went to Germany.
Chelsea’s Ethan Ampadu was barely used on loan at Leipzig last season but has made a good start to latest loan spell at Sheffield United.
Leipzig haven’t tried to replace Timo Werner like-for-like. He scored 34 times last season before joining Chelsea so Nagelsmann has decided it’s better to share around the responsibility for goals.
So far, so good. No Leipzig player has scored more than twice in the league this season (Poulsen and Forsberg) but it hasn’t stopped the team winning, with new arrivals Sorloth and Kluivert both expected to contribute greatly over the coming months.
Timo Werner’s absence has hardly been felt, and the German is not yet on fire at Chelsea
The German national team has taken a look at the players being developed at Leipzig. Defender Lukas Klostermann has won 10 caps for his country with former under-21s coach Horst Hrubesch expressing: ‘He’s not just quick – he’s turbocharged.’
He is a right back who can also play in a back three if requested by Nagelsmann. The same applies on the left to Marcel Halstenberg – who has also featured for Germany this season – which allows Angelino to bomb forward as a wing back in that system.
The traditional stopper is 22-year-old Dayot Upamecano, who has been linked with Manchester United in the past and been mentioned as one of the few players in world football who could replace Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool until the Dutchman is fit again.
The speed and swagger of Leipzig’s defenders gives space to the more creative players ahead of them. Christopher Nkunku, who played for PSG as a teenager, has excelled in Leipzig.
Leipzig’s form has coincided with the imperious rise of young centre half Dayot Upamecano
Austrian midfielder Marcel Sabitzer has a goal in him, or two as Tottenham found out after his brace against them last season. Danish international forward Poulsen is entering his peak years at 26.
His dipping volley against Augsburg earlier this month was compared to the legendary Marco van Basten strike for Holland in the final of Euro ‘88.
Sorloth couldn’t score for Crystal Palace, couldn’t stop scoring in Turkey, and opted to join Leipzig ahead of Fiorentina and Lyon, who were also in for him this summer.
Another European crusade?
Group H always looked the toughest of the Champions League sections and United’s impressive 2-1 win away to PSG has really thrown the cat amongst the pigeons regarding qualification.
Leipzig’s form will concern Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, especially after his side won out in Paris
It would be foolish to write off any team that includes Kylian Mbappe and Neymar – two seasons ago PSG lost their opening fixture to Liverpool and still qualified – so the double-header between United and Leipzig could still be critical.
Leipzig will fancy their chances despite the form of Marcus Rashford in Paris.
In last season’s Champions League group stage they picked up seven points from a possible nine away to Benfica, Zenit and Lyon.
And without crowds, there is even less advantage to being at home.
Leipzig very nearly powered their way to the Champions League final last season