When RB Leipzig arrived in the Bundesliga this season, they flew straight to the top. As Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich struggled to get going under the new coach and Borussia Dortmund started sluggishly, the newcomers stunned one of Europe’s strongest leagues and showed that this is a club with real promise in the long term.
A 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, just their second league loss of the season, was all that separated the two at the top of the table at the end of 2016. RB looked like genuine title contenders.
Thrilling to watch, their intense pressing, sharp passing and quick attacks left opponents trapped and completely exposed as Leipzig continuously worked the ball into the box. Even when they were not dominating teams, their targeting of dangerous areas saw their efficiency make the difference.
Yet it was clear the true test was yet to come, and the early months of 2017 have exposed the limits of the high-flyers.
They are still beating good sides – their wins this year have come against then-fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim in third. However, the response of the struggling sides has caught the Saxons by surprise.
After Dortmund completely dominated them during a 1-0 win at Signal Iduna Park, relegation candidates Ingolstadt, Hamburg and, most recently, Wolfsburg have beaten Leipzig, while Augsburg picked up a 2-2 draw. If RB lose to Werder Bremen, currently 15th, on Saturday, it will spark great concerns for the rest of the season.
There was always a danger of the newly-promoted side slipping away. Not only is the squad the youngest in the league, alongside Bayern’s it is the smallest. They will always exceed pre-campaign expectations but if they are to truly shake things up and finish second, they must vary their approach.
Other sides are wise to them and are happy to let them have the ball knowing Leipzig work better without it. Last week, Wolfsburg struck early through Mario Gomez and allowed their opponents to have 60 per cent possession in the first half.
"We knew in detail how Leipzig plays,” Gomez admitted afterwards. “I think we all know now that they try to press and work passes through the centre.”
Wolfsburg’s new coach Andries Jonkers also explained the strategy: "We tried to press early to keep the lines between the defence and the midfield compact, so players like Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg can’t get between the lines."
The targeting of Forsberg and Keita is key. The former is one of the most creative players in the league and has seven goals to add to his 10 assists, while Keita has four and seven, respectively.
Ralph Hasenhuttl has made good use of them to dig the side out of trouble before, ensuring the left winger is not restricted and can move across the park to add to quick moves through the middle with Keita and star striker Timo Werner. By focusing on those two, Wolfsburg made things a lot easier and hit them on the counter.
The issues have not evaded those at the Red Bull Arena, of course, and Hasenhuttle says solutions are in the works.
"We've tried a few things during the week,” he said. “We have to adjust to our opponents. Bremen have become much more stable. We have to make a few plans.”
Yussuf Poulsen’s absence through injury in recent weeks has hit Leipzig hard. He has just one goal and one assist, but is an active presence in the box and presses defenders too.
The loss of Keita, kept in hospital when he collapsed after the Wolfsburg game, will give Hasenhuttl a chance to surprise Bremen. The midfielder’s form has dropped a bit, but the options are thin. Rani Khedira and Dominik Kaiser are available but have not been impressive and will likely flatten the midfield.
Bremen themselves rarely dominate possession, so Leipzig could be forced to hold onto the ball and their favoured area of the centre of the box will likely be well guarded again. Bremen are a defensively weak team who give away chances, though, so the effectiveness of Werner and Fosberg could see them seize opportunities.
Otherwise, Hasenhuttl’s new plans will have to be employed as the pressure is on them to dictate play. Spreading things out and working their way in through the wings could open up the space they need.
That Bremen are unbeaten in four games means a tough game awaits, but anything other than a win will put Leipzig in a risky position before they take on bottom side Darmstadt the following week.
Dortmund are looking strong and just six points behind with Hoffenheim a further three adrift, so RB could see their dreams of Champions League football next season fade.
However, given Leipzig play just one team currently in the top half until they take on Hertha, Bayern and Eintracht Frankfurt in the last three weeks of the campaign, there are opportunities for Hasenhuttl to experiment with this squad and arrest the decline.
Whichever way the season ends, it will have been a stupendous one for a team who have unsettled the top flight in their first year. But if their hopes of becoming a giant to be feared in Germany are to be realised, a great deal of depth and tactical variance must be brought into the squad over the summer.
Before they can take that step, they must work out how to once again suss those who have sussed them.