As the Bundesliga becomes the pioneer for the return of elite level football in a COVID-19 world, it’s only right that we looked back upon a modern-day classic from the top-flight.
RB Leipzig had surprised everybody in their maiden Bundesliga campaign with their fierce intensity, dynamic positional play and potent counter-attacks to end the season in second only behind monopolisers Bayern Munich, who had strolled to another Meisterschale under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti.
And despite little to nowt riding on the encounter, when Die Roten rocked up to the Red Bull Arena on the penultimate weekend of the 2016/17 campaign, Germany’s top two played out the division’s game of the season.
It took just 65 seconds for the game to kick into gear, as Leipzig’s two creative hubs, Emil Forsberg and Marcel Sabitzer, combined to give the hosts the lead before Robert Lewandowski levelled things up from the spot following Bernardo’s handball.
Forsberg proved instrumental once more as he was brought down in the penalty area by Xabi Alonso after a determined and crafty surge. The spot-kick was thumped home by Timo Werner just before the half-hour mark.
Yussuf Poulsen then gave Die Roten Bullen a two-goal advantage 20 minutes after the restart before Thiago halved the deficit with a close-range header.
Werner, however, swiftly extended the hosts’ lead once more as he capitalised on an uncharacteristic Philipp Lahm error before beating Jerome Boateng one-v-one and slotting the ball through the legs of an onrushing Tom Starke from an acute angle for his 21st goal of the season.
Lewandowski poached himself his second just six minutes from time to make the score 4-3, but that was just the start of the drama. David Alaba levelled things up in the first minute of stoppage time with a splendid free-kick from a central area before Arjen Robben dinked Die Roten to victory with all but the last kick of the game.
Key Talking Point
While the contest meant very little, it was still bitterly disappointing to see the new kids on the Bundesliga block crumble in that fashion in their final home game of the campaign.
And after almost an hour of tormenting Bayern’s makeshift backline through rapid transitional play and exploiting the void left behind a persistently surging Juan Bernat, Hasenhuttl went a little too conservative with his second half substitutions.
Stand-out performers Sabitzer and Werner were replaced by the defensive-minded Benno Schmitz and defensive midfielder Rani Khedira respectively with the score at 4-2. The absence of this pair removed the thrust from Leipzig’s counters and gave the Die Roten backline a chance to breathe a little, allowing them to play a higher line and assert authority in the closing stages.
While Hasenhuttl’s conservative approach was understandable, it undoubtedly cost the hosts late on, while the absence of leader Willi Orban was certainly felt when defending the penalty area.
RB Leipzig Player Ratings
Starting XI: Gulacsi (5); Ilsanker (6), Upamecano (7), Compper (5), Bernardo (4); Keita (8), Demme (7); Sabitzer (8), Forsberg (9); Werner (9), Poulsen (8)
Substitutes: Schmitz (5), Selke (5), Khedira (5)
Amid an imperious season as Leipzig’s chief creator, Forsberg put in a masterful display in the opening period as his side raced into the lead.
Deployed out on the left in a 4-4-2, Forsberg and Sabitzer would often drift inside to occupy the space between the lines so Leipzig’s shape would often look like a 4-2-2-2, with the creative pair’s ability to occupy and penetrate the half-spaces so crucial to Leipzig’s success.
The Swede set up his partner in crime for the game’s opener after just 65 seconds as he broke in behind Lahm down the left before deftly crossing for the Austrian to head home at the back post. He then completely outfoxed Alonso with a swift burst of acceleration to win his side a penalty with the score at 1-1.
While his influence dwindled after playing a role in his side’s third, Forsberg’s complete first half display was worthy of a special mention.
Key Talking Point
How ’bout that comeback!
With the title wrapped up and the Leipzig crowd rocking in their final home game, they could’ve easily succumbed to a heavier defeat when Werner put the hosts 4-2 up with 25 minutes to go.
Not on Don Carlo’s watch.
As Die Roten Bullen went conservative and their intensity out of possession started to wane, Bayern’s technically proficient defenders started to dominate in the first phase and they were able to progress play with ease in the closing stages.
The midfield three of Joshua Kimmich, Alonso and the more advanced Thiago, meanwhile, began to overwhelm Leipzig’s pairing of Diego Demme and Naby Keita as their numerical superiority became more obvious.
Their improvement in the first two phases set the precedent for an astonishing comeback, as two individual moments of brilliance in stoppage time gifted the visitors a 5-4 victory.
Bayern Player Ratings
Starting XI: Starke (5); Lahm (5), Boateng (5), Alaba (7), Bernat (5); Kimmich (6), Alonso (5); Robben (9), Thiago (8), Ribery (6); Lewandowski (8)
Substitutes: Costa (7), Vidal (6), Muller (6)
Thank God the Dutchman’s footballing ability didn’t age like his hairline because this man was still a pleasure to watch during the twilight of his career.
In tandem with an overlapping Lahm, Robben simply tore apart Bernardo – a right-footer who Hasenhuttl had purposely played on the left in a bid to shut down Robben’s jinks infield – down the right.
And after playing a hand in some way or another in three of his side’s first four goals, it was only fitting that he rounded off a majestic performance with a spellbinding winner. After collecting the ball down the right midway through Leipzig’s half, Robben broke past Bernardo with a crafty outside of the boot touch before outpacing and outmuscling Stefan Ilsanker to beat him on the outside and leave him one-on-one with Peter Gulacsi.
A nonchalant chip later, and the ball was in the back of the net with Bayern stealing an unthinkable victory.
What Aged the Worst?
Now, this isn’t to say Forsberg has mutated into a woeful footballer, far from it, but he’s yet to replicate form anywhere close to his 2016/17 pomp which saw him register 20 (!) Bundesliga assists and score a further eight.
He could only muster four goal contributions the season after as Leipzig demised to sixth before a groin strain hampered a fairly productive 2018/19 campaign under Ralf Rangnick.
The Swede enjoyed a promising start with Julian Nagelsmann at the helm this term, as he notched 11 goal contributions in the first half of the season in all competitions. The emergence of Christopher Nkunku, however, has seen his minutes dwindle since the turn of the new year and he’s returned just two goals in that time.
What Aged the Best?
David Alaba at centre-back.
Injuries to Mats Hummels and Javi Martinez forced Ancelotti into deploying Alaba at the heart of defence, a role he’d played in Bayern’s 1-0 defeat at Atletico in the Champions League semi-finals a season prior under Pep Guardiola.
And while his oh so satisfying free-kick to equalise late on masked a tough afternoon defensively, there’s no doubting how much he’s improved at this position this term under Hansi Flick, where he’s been a ball-progression machine and key in sniffing out opposing counter-attacks with astute awareness and positioning.
Oh, and I heard this Dayot Upamecano – summat like that – fella has done pretty well from himself, right? The then 18-year-old Frenchman made his Leipzig debut in this one and performed admirably after signing from Salzburg in January.
Players You Never Knew Existed
While back-up shot-stopper Starke is the only unfamiliar name amid Bayern’s team of superstars, the Leipzig side was packed with obscurities.
Marvin Compper was a long-time Hoffenheim defender before making the switch to Leipzig via Fiorentina in 2014. He spent three years at the club, racking up 77 league appearances in the process.
Substitutes Rani Khedira and Benno Schmitz were talented youngsters at the time, but they’re currently plying their trades at Augsburg and FC Koln respectively – with neither player cementing themselves as regular starters.
What Happened Next?
Bayern were dominated by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals as Los Blancos went on to win back-to-back Champions League titles
Not a whole lot, to be honest.
Bayern had already been crowned champions in April and the victory at Leipzig enhanced their lead at the summit to 13 points with one game to go. Leipzig, meanwhile, were uncatchable in second as they held a five-point lead over Borussia Dortmund heading into the final day.
Ancelotti’s side had earlier been dismantled 6-2 on aggregate by eventual winners Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League which meant their season was up after they beat Freiburg 4-1 on the final day.