RB Leipzig are the story of the Bundesliga season, known as much for their record start to a debut campaign as for their status as a vilified corporate club breaking with German soccer tradition. But Leipzig’s success isn’t simply a product of Red Bull’s deep coffers – though they certainly helped – but rather a tremendously coached and smartly constructed ensemble of talented, young players. None of them are household names now, but you should get to know them before they will be.
Emil Forsberg, 25, MID/FWD
Forsberg has been Leipzig’s (and arguably the entire Bundesliga’s) best player thus far. He’s been directly involved in 42% of the Red Bulls’ goals, leading the league with 8 assists and scoring 5 himself, good for second-most on the team. Forsberg has looked like a complete No. 10 and could fill (or at least attempt to fill) the giant hole left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the face of Sweden’s national team.
Leipzig bought Sweden’s reigning Midfielder of the Year two winters ago for just €3.7 million from Malmo, with whom he won two league titles. Forsberg was also last season’s Bundesliga 2 Player of the Year in helping Leipzig earn promotion.
Timo Werner, 20, FWD
Werner leads Leipzig’s high-powered offense with 9 goals, good for 4th in the Bundesliga. That’s already a great return for the €10 million Leipzig paid the relegated club Stuttgart for the speedy striker this summer. Though only 20 years old, Werner already has the most Bundesliga experience on the team and is just starting to tap his potential after going through some growing pains in three years at Stuttgart. If Werner continues to improve and play at this level, he’ll be building a case to be the German national team’s No. 9 of the future.
Naby Keita, 21, MID
Keita is Leipzig’s most talented and important player, a star in the making. The dynamic box-to-box midfielder has already drawn comparisons to N’golo Kante for his direct and tireless two-way play. Impossible to separate from the ball, Keita ranks second in the Bundesliga in successful dribbles per game, creating space for his teammates whenever he isn’t terrorizing defenses all on his own.
The Guinea international turned down a personal phone call from Arsene Wenger this summer, among others, to sign with Leipzig for a club record €15 million, deeming himself still one step away from joining one of Europe’s elite clubs. He'll get there sooner than later.
Marcel Sabitzer, 22, MID/FWD
Forsberg, Werner and Keita have hogged most of the headlines for Leipzig’s ascent this season, and for good reason, but Sabitzer has quietly been just as valuable. The Austria international provides a constant threat down the right wing, taking advantage of defenses focusing on Leipzig’s stars. As a result, Sabitzer already has 4 goals and 3 assists on the season and consistently ranks among the team’s top performers.
Leipzig plucked Sabitzer from Rapid Vienna in 2014 for the measly price of €2 million, loaned him out to sister club Red Bull Salzburg for a year, and are now happily watching another budding star grow right before their eyes.
Dominik Kaiser, 28, MID
Leipzig’s captain is their longest-tenured and, at 28, second-oldest outfield player. Kaiser has been with the Red Bulls since 2012, the club’s final season in the fourth division, featuring in 140 out of a possible 158 games. Kaiser isn't the flashiest of midfielders, but he's the glue holding Leipzig together and good for several key passes per match.
Sporting director Ralf Rangnick made Kaiser one of his very first transfers, purchasing him for €100K from Hoffenheim, where Rangnick previously coached him. So to recap: Kaiser went from a Bundesliga team to the fourth division and now captains the top flight’s hottest team. Wild.
Willi Orban, 24, DEF
Leipzig have been mostly lauded for their powerful offense, but they also own the Bundesliga’s third-best defense, of which Orban is the unquestioned leader. Leipzig’s vice captain has been nearly flawless in the back. He’s Leipzig's only outfield player to play every single minute, and renowned magazine Kicker has given Orban the second-highest average grade among Bundesliga defenders this season. He can make the difference in other ways too; Orban scored the winner in Leipzig’s wild comeback at Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 11.
Leipzig acquired Orban from Kaiserslautern for only €2 million in the 2015 summer window.
Oliver Burke, 19, FWD
Most followers of the English game probably didn’t even have Leipzig on their radar until the Red Bulls plucked Burke from Nottingham Forest for €15 million this summer, making the 19-year-old the most expensive Scottish player of all time. Bayern, Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham were all said to be interested in Burke, whose powerful, pacey technique have earned him comparisons to Gareth Bale. He’s far from the finished product, but Burke has already shown flashes of his potential in a reserve role for Leipzig this season. He’s an ideal fit for the club’s system and ambitions, and figures to be an integral part of their future.
Diego Demme, 25, MID
Demme embodies RB Leipzig’s philosophy perfectly – hyper-aggressive without the ball, and quick and direct with it. The stats speak for themselves: Demme ranks in 7th in the Bundesliga with 3.5 interceptions per game, and he has three assists on the season. That’s quality for a defensive midfielder.
Demme is also another great example of Leipzig’s focus on finding talented young players and grooming them into top performers: Leipzig paid Paderborn just €750K for the German-Italian in the 2014 January window.
Yussuf Poulsen, 22, FWD
Poulsen provides a physical presence and aerial threat up top with his 6’4” frame, proving to be good complement to the nimble Timo Werner. But Poulsen is also very fast and technical for his size, and though he hasn’t shown up much on the score sheet this season (just one goal), his high work rate has been paramount to Leipzig’s successful, constant press.
Leipzig scooped up the young Denmark international for $1.3 million from Danish side Lyngby (who?) in 2013, tallying 18 goals and 8 assists for the Red Bulls over the past two seasons in Bundesliga 2.
Ralph Hasenhüttl, Manager
Hasenhüttl has proven to be the ideal manager for Leipzig, his extreme high-pressing style and Jurgen Klopp-like energy a perfect fit for a roster full of young, hungry and hard-running players. According to Hasenhüttl, the team’s “star is the system” – but it’s his system. Hasenhüttl has already been linked to Arsenal as a potential successor to Arsene Wenger, and Bayern, being Bayern, have also thrown his name about as a potential future candidate.
Sporting Director Ralf Rangnick had recruited Hasenhüttl for over a year. He helped unfancied Ingolstadt break into the Bundesliga for the first time and achieve a remarkable mid-table finish last season. Without him, Ingolstadt are relegation favorites this year.
Ralf Rangnick, Sporting Director
Rangnick is the genius behind the entire RB Leipzig project. The former Schalke and Stuttgart manager took up the role in 2012– holding the same position simultaneously at sister club Red Bull Salzburg until last season – and essentially built this squad from the ground up. Rangnick almost exclusively invests in players younger than 24 who fit his clear philosophy, convincing highly touted talents like Keita and Burke to choose Leipzig over bigger clubs. He also deserves full credit for unearthing and buying stars like Forsberg and Sabitzer for a fraction of their current market value.
And then there’s this: Rangnick is no stranger to miracle-working. In just three years, he coached Hoffenheim - who were just as despised as Leipzig for being bankrolled by an investor, SAP's CEO Dietmar Hopp - from the third division to the Bundesliga summit by the 2008/09 winter break. With a win at Bayern on Wednesday, it would be déjà vu all over again.