RB Leipzig and the curious purgatory they find themselves in

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<span>Photograph: Jan Woitas/AP</span>
Photograph: Jan Woitas/AP

It was a win, and a comfortable one. Yet rarely can a one-way second half have felt less instructive as it did for RB Leipzig. Points are points, but successive home victories over Bochum and Greuther Fürth offer little in the way of clues as to how Jesse Marsch’s debut season at the helm in the Bundesliga might ultimately turn out.

It had been a frustrating week, with Leipzig’s slim Champions League hopes dealt a probably fatal blow with defeat at Paris Saint-Germain, a result which may yet contribute to a new year without any European involvement at all. “The boys stuck to the plan, had confidence and played very well,” Marsch reflected before Saturday’s game. “With a bit more luck and a little more maturity in a couple of situations we could have won the game.”

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The coach was not exaggerating. Overcoming an early Kylian Mbappé goal, they led by a pair of goals from André Silva and Nordi Mukiele that represented Leipzig at their best: economical and incisive, and both crafted by Angeliño, who is recovering well from a dip in form. They attacked smartly but didn’t take their chances against a PSG they managed to make look very ordinary, and a couple of defensive mistakes saw them go home with nothing, to Marsch’s very evident frustration on the touchline.

By Saturday it was Greuther Fürth putting in the yards. “They did what Leipzig did in Paris,” wrote Antje Henselin-Rudolph of Leipziger Volkzeitung. “Running, digging in, fighting, and doing it well.” Branimir Hrgota’s surprise penalty opener was the least that the still-winless visitors deserved, and it could have been more for a side that dared – as Leipzig had in France.

“We really were very bad,” Marsch told Sky about those first 45 minutes. “Thank God we had Yussuf Poulsen in the second half. He turned the game almost on his own.” The changes that brought order to proceedings underlined the comparative luxuries at Marsch’s disposal after the midweek in which PSG’s elite stars had snatched undeserved reward. Poulsen entered the field after half-time – within 52 seconds he had equalised. Soon after, he won a penalty which Emil Forsberg scored on the occasion of his 30th birthday. Another substitute, Dominik Szoboszlai, later scored one and made one.

Yussuf Poulsen celebrates after scoring Leipzig&#x002019;s equaliser.
Yussuf Poulsen celebrates after scoring Leipzig’s equaliser. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

It was all very indicative of the unusual purgatory that Leipzig – and Marsch – find themselves in. They are excellent and have options, so much so that they have players such as Poulsen and Szoboszlai in reserve, and young talent like Brian Brobbey and Ilaix Moriba waiting to make an impact. Benjamin Henrichs complained about his role during the week.

Yet they don’t currently have the elite quality – or experience – to break into the next level of consistent Champions League latter stages and trophies. The direction in which they’re going won’t alter. In case that was in any doubt the debut cameo for teenage Spanish striker Hugo Novoa, given his first five minutes in the Bundesliga at the end of this game and using them to score a first goal from Szoboszlai’s pass, a reminder that Leipzig’s model of bringing young and developing is not for turning.

For Marsch it is a puzzle as he rebuilds a post-Dayot Upamecano defence and a midfield that no longer has Marcel Sabitzer, and juggles a squad of rich talent. He has expectations to meet in terms of Champions League qualification, which is not easy, but it feels as if there is an element of supervising things ticking over before the club and team work out what they want to be next. So a man who is not just a fine coach but an understander of the club model is likely to get time to supervise the overhaul. It’s just that Leipzig’s ability to make the top four or not might depend on the shortcomings of their rivals as much as it does their own strengths.

Talking points

• Bayern completed their rampant week with a 4-0 victory over Hoffenheim. Visiting coach Sebastian Hoeness chided his players for being “hesitant” in the first half, but it’s hard to imagine what would have made the difference given Bayern’s current mood, with a fresh-looking Serge Gnabry opening the scoring after his match-turning cameo at Benfica. The biggest issue for Dino Toppmöller, standing in for Julian Nagelsmann as the coach recovers from Covid, was facing questions on Joshua Kimmich’s post-match admission that he has not yet joined the estimated 85% of Bundesliga players to have had the vaccine.

• Borussia Dortmund stayed within a point of the leaders (which seems remarkable, and not only because of their midweek Champions League thrashing at Ajax) with a 3-1 victory at Arminia Bielefeld, which was garlanded by outstanding goals from Mats Hummels and Jude Bellingham. Arguably the performances of BVB’s senior men was the most important riposte after Amsterdam, with Emre Can – whose penalty opened the scoring in Bielefeld – and Hummels much criticised for their role in the loss, but most joined Marco Rose in purring over Bellingham. “I haven’t scored a goal like that since I was 11,” the Englishman grinned.

• An action-packed Rhine derby ended with Bayer Leverkusen feeling glum for the second successive week. They had looked well on course to banish the blues from last week’s pummelling from Bayern when they swept into a 2-0 lead at Köln. This was despite a hot reception for Florian Wirtz in the teenager’s first return to the club whose fingers he slipped through (“the most expensive mistake in club history,” as Martin Zengen wrote in Express). Yet a double from the resurgent Anthony Modeste salvaged a point for the hosts after Steffen Baum Hart’s half-time address. “I just asked them to have courage and not to piss their pants,” he said.

• We have a first coaching casualty of the season. Wolfsburg fired Mark van Bommel on Sunday afternoon after they were beaten again, at home to Freiburg, on Saturday. Tim Lüddecke of Kicker had noted the first “Van Bommel out” chants from the Kurve at the game and the board responded, just as they had done the last time Die Wölfe lost four in a row, when they sacked Felix Magath in October 2012. “If you have shit on your shoe, you have shit on your shoe,” Van Bommel had reflected after a series of missed chances against Freiburg, and clearly the belief that he could turn things around after anaemic performances in Europe as well as domestically had dwindled.

Mainz 4-1 Augsburg, Hertha Berlin 1-0 Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg 0-2 Freiburg, Leipzig 4-1 Greuther Furth, Bayern Munich 4-0 Hoffenheim, Arminia Bielefeld 1-3 Borussia Dortmund, Bochum 2-0 Eintracht Frankfurt, Stuttgart 1-1 Union Berlin, Cologne 2-2 Bayer Leverkusen

• Van Bommel’s immediate predecessor, Oliver Glasner, is having his share of troubles too. His Eintracht Frankfurt are just above the drop zone after falling to defeat at Bochum, a second successive win for Thomas Reis’ team which saw them leapfrog the visitors. Eintracht started with the same lineup that beat Olympiakos in the Europa League and began the game as if they were still celebrating, conceding a third-minute goal to former player Danny Blum before Gonçalo Paciência missed a chance to level from the penalty spot. Sebastian Polter’s stoppage-time goal left Glasner lamenting his side’s relative timidity. “If you only win 40% of your duels,” he said, “it’s a problem.”

Pos

Team

P

GD

Pts

1

Bayern Munich

9

25

22

2

Borussia Dortmund

9

10

21

3

Freiburg

9

8

19

4

Bayer Leverkusen

9

9

17

5

Union Berlin

9

3

16

6

RB Leipzig

9

11

14

7

Mainz

9

3

13

8

Cologne

9

-1

13

9

Wolfsburg

9

-3

13

10

Hertha Berlin

9

-10

12

11

Hoffenheim

9

2

11

12

Borussia M'gladbach

9

-2

11

13

Stuttgart

9

-1

10

14

VfL Bochum

9

-9

10

15

Eintracht Frankfurt

9

-5

8

16

Augsburg

9

-13

6

17

Arminia Bielefeld

9

-9

5

18

Greuther Furth

9

-18

1

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