Contrary to reports, RB Leipzig will have 11 players on the pitch when they face Atlético Madrid in the last eight of the Champions League on Thursday. They were not a one-man band before Timo Werner’s departure last month and Julian Nagelsmann’s side have not travelled to Lisbon to make up the numbers. But it is going to be tough.
Give Nagelsmann the choice and there is no doubt he would rather be able to use Werner against Atlético’s stingy defence. Any manager would want a striker capable of coming up with 34 goals and 13 assists in a single season. But Werner is in London, getting himself into shape before starting life at Chelsea, and Leipzig will have to find a way of operating without him in order to reach the semi-finals at Atlético’s expense.
There is a gaping hole in attack for Leipzig, who experienced a bittersweet tinge when they finished their Bundesliga campaign with a 2-1 win against Augsburg on 27 June. Werner did what he does best, securing third place for Leipzig with two snappy finishes, but the 24-year-old officially became a Chelsea player four days later.
It was a premature farewell given that Leipzig, who had never reached the Champions League knockout stages before beating Tottenham 4-0 on aggregate in the last 16 during March, still had so much left to achieve. Yet the train had left the station. Werner, who completed a deal to join Chelsea on 18 June, had already chosen to forgo the chance to compete in the latter stages of the Champions League and Leipzig were forced to accept his wishes not to join them for the rest of the competition.
It was a controversial move from Werner, who is already looking lively in training for Chelsea. There was criticism from the former Bayern Munich midfielder Stefan Effenberg, who accused Werner of letting down his Leipzig teammates. The player’s agent saw it differently. “It would have been anything but a good start for Timo at his new club if he had returned to Leipzig after his holidays to prepare for the restart of the Champions League,” Karlheinz Förster said last month. “All involved parties decided that he will move to Chelsea on 1 July and not in mid or late August.”
Leipzig might have £47.5m in the bank but they also have a weaker attack. Werner, who had a fine understanding with Patrick Schick, was their star. He scored the only goal when Leipzig won the first leg against Tottenham and he ripped them apart in the return, tormenting José Mourinho’s side with his speed, skill and movement. Losing him now is like telling Barcelona they cannot pick Lionel Messi against Bayern Munich on Friday.
Nobody else in the Leipzig team scored at the same rate as Werner. Emil Forsberg, who could replace him against Atlético, has scored 10 goals. Schick, a clever targetman, also has 10. Christopher Nkunku and Yussuf Poulsen both have five. The onus is on the remaining cast to raise their game, especially against opponents who love nothing more than defending for their lives.
Atlético’s European knowhow far outweighs Leipzig’s and the Spanish club, who finished third in La Liga, are favourites. They stunned Liverpool in the last 16, withstanding a storm in the second leg at Anfield to beat the European champions in extra time, and are supremely well drilled by Diego Simeone. Two Atlético players, Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko, have tested positive for Covid-19 and are self-isolating but for Nagelsmann this is going to be a test of patience, character and tactical acumen.
But do not count Leipzig out. The 33-year-old Nagelsmann is regarded as the brightest young manager in the game. Leipzig press well, are smart on the ball and overwhelmed Tottenham with their rotational movement in attack. Their defence is marshalled by the excellent Dayot Upamecano. Angeliño and Nordi Mukiele are dangerous wing-backs. Marcel Sabitzer, who has broken from midfield to score 16 goals this season, has a solid partnership with Konrad Laimer.
Nagelsmann also hopes Leipzig will be fresher after the break. They were top of the Bundesliga at the start of the year but could not hold off Bayern Munich. Inconsistency and fatigue undermined their title challenge and they struggled after returning from lockdown in May, winning four of their nine games. They have had time to recharge.
Even so the suspicion remains that Leipzig, inexperienced at this level, will not have enough to outlast Atlético. This is Nagelsmann’s biggest test yet and he goes into it without his most effective weapon.