The Red Bull network of clubs have a widely renowned reputation of being some of the leading and most innovative when it comes to nurturing talent into highly coveted players. RB Leipzig is viewed as the pinnacle of the hierarchy, but despite the club’s resounding success since its inception in 2009, rising from the Oberliga Süd to become Champions League quarter-finalists, it ranks last when it comes to promoting academy players to the first team.
In recent years, Red Bull Salzburg have had the likes of Martin Hinteregger, Valentino Lazaro, Stefan Lainer, Konrad Laimer, and Xaver Schlager progress through the Under-15s to become integral first team players. In New York, Tyler Adams and Matt Miazga have emerged from the Red Bulls Academy to become important cogs in the United States national team, while Sean Davis was named New York Red Bulls’ first-ever homegrown captain in 2020. And in São Paulo, André Ramalho and Igor Julio spent time with Red Bull Brasil Under-20s before moving to Salzburg.
It has been a long-term criticism from various personnel within the club that youth players aren’t making the breakthrough into the first team and the approximate €12 million invested into the academy per annum is not reaping rewards. This article will explore the multiple factors behind why the club’s production line is a failure in comparison to its sister clubs and what Die Roten Bullen has planned to put these issues to an end.
Once described as the ‘most modern and most beautiful in Europe’ by former academy director, Frieder Schrof, RB Leipzig’s €30 million training complex in Cottaweg is situated within a stone’s throw of the Red Bull Arena. Across the Elsterbecken river, the stadium can be seen glistening in the distance, almost as a motivational reminder for the academy players of what awaits them upon securing a professional contract with the club.
When Ralf Rangnick appointed Schrof and the late Thomas Albeck to take charge of Leipzig’s academy in January 2013, the club was leading the way at the top of the Regionalliga Nordost table and on course to achieve an unprecedented unbeaten season. It was a move that showcased the east German club’s lofty ambitions as the duo were renowned for identifying the likes of Timo Werner, Kevin Kuranyi, Mario Gomez, Joshua Kimmich, Bernd Leno, Sami Khedira, and Serge Gnabry for Stuttgart’s academy during a 28-year stay at the club.
At the time of their arrival, the academy teams at Leipzig were competing in the lower leagues of the youth pyramid, therefore the first objective was to get each team into the highest league in their respective age groups as quick as possible, while searching for the right playing and coaching personnel to implement the club’s new philosophy, and to meet the certification requirements of the DFB. Nowadays, the academy is one of the most impressive in the country.
Leipzig has scouts keeping tabs of talent across the globe. As confirmed in 2019, the club scouts in the Leipzig region up to under-12, up to under-14 for talent within a 300 kilometre radius, under-15 across Germany, and begin to scope foreign talent at under-16 level, as the club aims to attract the most exciting prospects that boast a great strength in character and mentality, as well as the cognitive skills to play in a Red Bull team.
With one in three players coming in from outside of the region, Cottaweg has the largest boarding school in the Bundesliga as it has the capacity to house 80 players. As there is no guarantee that the players will make it into professional football, the club puts a great emphasis on education and has in-house specialists to prepare players for a life outside of the game.
“Due to the sometimes considerable absences of our junior players at school, caused by the selections, away games and training measures, missed learning content must be reworked. In this way, we also want to ensure that school is taken just as seriously as football for us.”Frieder Schrof on placing an equal importance on education as football.
The fall back on education has been required far too often in the past and for the players that have succeeded in securing a professional contract, a career at the club has been unsustainable. Despite the club’s reputation for an excellent recruitment policy and player development, why did it take until the final game of the 2019/20 season for an academy player to feature in the Bundesliga?
Both Ralf Rangnick and Schrof have claimed that one of the key factors for this is the club’s rapid ascendancy has made it difficult for the academy to keep up. Between 2012 and 2017, the club’s scouting criteria had to change drastically because the club went from scouting potential Regionalliga standard talent to scouting future Bundesliga and Champions League stars. Due to this instability, the club possibly was unable to be as extensive as desired, which Rangnick alluded to in February 2018:
“Here we have to be self-critical, we may not have paid enough attention to the really important things. Total dedication, mentality and professionalism.”
A few days prior, Rangnick was heavily critical of the club’s Under-19s and labelled them as the worst in six years as he couldn’t rely on them to replace Marcel Halstenberg and Emil Forsberg, who had been sidelined with long-term injuries, and the team placed below Osnabrück in the under-19 table, despite the club’s first team being in the bottom four of the 3. Liga at the time. “The truth is that we have the worst U19 team in six years and none of the players were even close enough to replace Forsberg or Halstenberg.”
A huge reason for not having players of standard to promote is because the gap between the Under-19s and the first team is too large. This is due to the deregistration of RB Leipzig II from the Regionalliga Nordost in 2017 as it was deemed that “the expenditure was no longer in line with the gains” and the intent was to invest the available funds to enhance the Under-17s and Under-19s.
As former Under-19s head coach, Robert Klauß, said in 2018 in Red Bull’s ‘Signed or Released’ documentary series, which followed his team’s last five matches of the 2017/18 season as the players aimed to secure a professional contract at the club or elsewhere, “the gap between us and the first team is too big”. This has resulted in the likes of Niclas Stierlin, Naod Mekonnen, Erik Majetschak, Nicolas-Gerrit Kühn, Elias Abouchabaka, and Kilian Ludewig, who were highly rated by the club, to slip through the gap and be required to move elsewhere.
RB Leipzig CEO, Oliver Mintzlaff, and Rangnick have been campaigning for a reform of the academy from as early as December 2016 when the latter demanded that more players are promoted to the first team. But while there hasn’t been much success to date, with 186 minutes played between seven players in competitive matches since then, there is a gradual progress being made, and the club is looking on course to meet its target of having academy players part of the first team by the summer of 2021.
Firstly, the club’s focus on discovering homegrown talent has shifted in recent years as Leipzig have expanded their scouting scope and grasped a better understanding of the foreign market, signing the likes of Noah Ohio (Manchester City), Matthew Bondswell (Nottingham Forest), Laurenzo Coco (Red Bull Salzburg), Gustav Grubbe (Copenhagen), Hugo Novoa (Deportivo La Coruña), and Solomon Bonnah (Ajax) in recent years with the hope of becoming more competitive in domestic competitions and in the UEFA Youth League.
Secondly, following the departure of Rangnick as club sporting director and Schrof’s retired in June 2019, the academy reform has begun to take a more vivid shape. Markus Krösche replaced Rangnick while Christian Streit (head of academy and organisation for youth talent) and Sebastian Kegel (head of youth talent) took on the joint role of academy director. The trio have been in close communication with one another and Krösche has been receiving advice from academies in Holland, Spain, France, and England.
In an interview with Bild in April 2020, Krösche unveiled a five-point plan to be introduced in the 2020/21 season to help facilitate more players steps into the first team squad:
- Philosophy – maintaining the basic principles of quick switches of play, creativity, and courageousness, the club wants to promote more player creativity and independent in-game thinking instead of being micromanaged by the coaches.
- Squad guarantee – three places in the first team squad will be made exclusively available for academy players to train with the professionals, gain experience, and potentially impress.
- Coaching – coaches will be required to focus on player development instead of results.
- Expert training – additional seminars and training will be made available for coaches to enhance their skills. “If we want to train very good players, we must also develop our coaches to the highest level,” stated Krösche.
- Detachment from results – coaches are encouraged to experiment in matches and focus on individual player development during the week rather than match preparation. This particularly applies to the Under-13s to Under-16s; Under-17s upwards there will be more impetus on tactics and results.
Lastly, in order to bridge the aforementioned gap that separates the academy from the first team, the club has reportedly been exploring the idea of entering a cooperation with a club in a neighbouring country that has Red Bull connections. Aarhus, Oostende, St. Gallen, and Vitesse Arnhem have been mentioned, but the latter two have denied the reports.
Oostende CEO, Gauthier Ganaye, told Sport/Voetbalmagazine in June that a direct collaboration between the two clubs is not in discussion, however, he doesn’t exclude signing players due to the appointment of former Leipzig youth coach, Alexander Blessin, as the club’s new head coach. So far, Frederik Jäkel has followed Blessin to the Belgian coast on a two-year loan after signing a long-term contract, and it has been reported that Tom Krauß will follow.
If the club can effectively utilise the loan system, it will provide a strong platform for the players to gain first team experience at a decent level and potentially set up a successful career at RB Leipzig. The upcoming seasons will be a strong indicator of which direction the academy is headed, as Schrof expects the 2000 and younger groups to be a success at the club, and stated in March 2019:
“I think it could and should happen when our 2001 age-group comes out. In this age-group there are certainly several players who have what it takes to knock on our door to the pros. That’s in the summer of 2020.”Frieder Schrof on which generation he expects to make the breakthrough at RB Leipzig.
While no player has the Elsterbecken river with success as of yet, if the likes of Jäkel, Krauß, Fabrice Hartmann, and Tim Schreiber can live up to expectations, the club could soon be able to rely on its own resources for the next Konrad Laimer, Dayot Upamecano, or Tyler Adams instead of fishing in Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls’ ponds.