Bundesliga: Will Underdog RB Leipzig Catch Bayern Munich Off Guard?
This Sunday could be RB Leipzig’s last stand. In the Bundesliga’s crowded race for the Champions League spots, Leipzig currently sits sixth, four points outside of the top four, but only six behind Schalke for second place. Only eight matches remain in the season. (The Bundesliga’s top four teams automatically qualify for the Champions League’s group stage.)
This week, RB Leipzig hosts first-place Bayern Munich (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET). Bayern, which has won the last five Bundesliga titles, ended this year’s race early, and with extreme prejudice. It is now 20 points clear of the field.
It’s been a disappointing year for Leipzig. After a surprising runner-up finish in 2016-2017, its first season in Germany’s top flight, Leipzig has taken a step backward this campaign. Leipzig failed to progress from the Champions League group stage, dropping down into the Europa League, and instead of consolidating its position near the top of the Bundesliga, it remains in a dogfight for a top-four spot. This happened even though Leipzig didn’t sell any major players. In fact, the side solidified its depth by adding Kevin Kampl in midfield and Bruma on the wing.
Somewhat paradoxically, part of Leipzig’s struggles this year come from having the ball more. It has the third-most possession in the Bundesliga at 54.4%. Last year, Leipzig had the ball only 51.9% of the time, the sixth-most in the league. Despite that uptick in possession, Leipzig’s scoring is going in the wrong direction. It has dropped from 1.82 goals per game to 1.46, and Leipzig’s expected goals (which are determined by weighing several factors, including shot quality and quantity) have declined from 1.63 to 1.46.
Leipzig’s problem is that while its increased possession is leading to more shots, it’s also leading to lower-percentage shots. The team has gone from taking 13 shots per game to taking 14.6. But its shots in the box have actually decreased slightly, from 8.1 to 7.9 per game. More alarming is that their shots from counterattacks have dropped from a league-leading 1.4 per game to 0.5, fewer than all but four Bundesliga teams. Put it all together and you’ve got a team that simply isn’t benefiting from having the ball more.
The good news for Leipzig (+400) is that it isn’t likely to have that problem on Sunday. The bad news is that’s because Bayern (-160) is a dominant, possession-hoarding monster of a team. Bayern possesses the ball 62% of the time, 4% than any other team in Germany. Bayern completes 87.5% of its passes; no other side completes more than 83%. Bayern turns all that possession into 18.7 shots per game, while nobody else takes more than 15. It also averages 10.3 shots in the box, nearly two more per game than any other Bundesliga team. Basically, Bayern just does everything better than any other team in the league, which isn’t surprising for a side that is 20 points clear of the pack.
The best-case scenario for Leipzig is that it ends up squaring up against a complacent Bayern team, and that while the favorites dominate the ball, Leipzig gets a few counterattacking opportunities and sneaks out a victory. The hope is that Bayern’s ball dominance wakes up the version of Leipzig that was so surprisingly competitive last season, while at the same time the heavy favorites don’t bring their A-game so their ball dominance doesn’t turn into actual dominance.
The problem is that Bayern doesn’t really get complacent. Since the Bundesliga’s winter break ended in January, the league leaders have dropped a grand total of two points in nine games, thanks to a surprise 0-0 draw against mid-table Hertha Berlin. That’s also the only match in which Bayern has been held under two goals. Over those nine games it has scored four or more goals four times.
Despite strolling to the league title, Bayern has been far from complacent. It has been absolutely running wild.
Even if this weekend’s matchup might help Leipzig get back to the style it plays best, Bayern is simply too good. And that means that Leipzig’s chances of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League are going to be on life support. Come Monday, last season’s upstarts will likely be in the unenviable position of having to win the Europa League if they want back into the Champions League in 2018-19.
All odds current as of Friday evening.
Photo: RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano in action against Bayern Munich