There weren’t many in England who congratulated Oliver Burke back at the end of August. It was then that the 19-year-old midfielder moved from Nottingham Forest to newly-promoted RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga – a transfer that caused some consternation, especially when Burke had been tracked by Premier League clubs.
“The Premier League is the place to be,” said John Hartson at the time. “I thought that was the next step for him. He’s gone to Leipzig, but what about a Burnley or a Sunderland or a West Brom?”
Jermaine Jenas was also hesitant about Burke’s decision, commenting that “it reeks of a young player being taken advantage of for financial gain”.
Yet if you had been at a rain-swept BayArena in Leverkusen on Friday at the end of a thrilling contest, you would have seen Burke and his Leipzig team-mates celebrating wildly in front of the away end.
“Spitzenreiter, Spitzenreiter, hey, hey!” sang the travelling supporters. That’s the way German fans traditionally proclaim their team is top of the league, which Leipzig have achieved thanks to their exhilarating 3-2 win at one of the strongest teams in the division. The club was only formed seven years ago.
Burke looked content with life as he walked through the mixed zone afterwards. At first glance you might have put that down to the chocolate brownie he was clutching, but that wasn’t the only thing keeping him happy.
When The Set Pieces asked Burke if he felt Leipzig’s position in the table proved he had made the right move, the young midfielder didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, of course,” said Burke. “It’s obviously proved everybody wrong and now I’ve really shown that I’ve come to a fantastic club. I don’t really need to say much really – look at where we are.”
Things do indeed look rosy for Leipzig, who are now the first promoted team to remain unbeaten in their opening 11 Bundesliga matches. Still, Burke will be itching to be more involved in the team’s success. So far he has played only 193 minutes, making just one start. All considered, he’s used his time extremely effectively.
Burke set up the winning goal on his debut against Borussia Dortmund, while his only start saw him score his first Bundesliga goal at high-flying Cologne. You can add to that another assist that helped Leipzig clinch a precious win at Darmstadt at the end of October.
In Friday’s victory against Bayer Leverkusen, Burke was thrown on with his team trailing 2-1 and had a hand in the equaliser. In truth, you would have expected Bernd Leno to save Emil Forserg’s effort, but Burke still created the space for his Swedish team-mate to exploit.
The club’s joint record-signing is upbeat about his time with Leipzig so far. “It’s been very positive. Every day I’m learning something new and I can only get better at this club,” said Burke. “I have the right people around me and [I am] still at a young age.
“It’s all about learning now and becoming a better player. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.”
One of those important people around him, coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, said earlier this season that Burke had “an empty hard drive” when referring to his tactical awareness. As proven on a recent episode of Germany’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, the 49-year-old Austrian boss isn’t exactly a household name just yet.
For €4,000, all contestant Iordanis Deligiannis had to do was name which coach, with a name relating to an animal, took over at a Bundesliga club this summer. Hasenhüttl literally translates as ‘rabbit hutches’, but Deligiannis, faced with the correct answer and three fake names to pick from, went for Sepp Hundehuus (‘Sepp Dog House’).
Given Leipzig’s lofty position, Hasenhüttl, who was on trial at Chelsea in the late nineties, should soon receive the recognition he deserves. Talk to him away from the pitch and you’ll find a passionate but calm figure who, among other things, likes to switch off by playing the piano. His presence on the touchline is altogether more animated but very much in tune with the high-pressing game over which he presides.
This style of play worked for Hasenhüttl at Ingolstadt too, where he achieved promotion in 2015 before keeping the club in the Bundesliga with some ease in their maiden campaign last season. Given Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick’s fondness for an assertive, high-tempo style, the swoop for Hasenhüttl in the summer made perfect sense.
The coach is now working with a bigger budget than ever before thanks to Red Bull’s backing, which saw only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund spend more than the Bundesliga newbies in the transfer window. Despite that, the youngest squad in the division still weren’t expected to challenge at the top of the table.
Their success hasn’t been met with admiration from everyone, however. For many German football fans, the policy of recruiting and promoting young players like Burke has done little to deter the opinion that Leipzig are nothing more than a marketing venture. Protests against the club this season have ranged from a march in Hamburg to having a bull’s head chucked from the stands away at Dresden.
Friday brought another controversy as a group of masked Leverkusen supporters lobbed paint at the Leipzig bus as it pulled into the BayArena. One of them managed to miss, with Hasenhüttl later suggesting with a wry smile that the offender should work on his aim.
The whole thing though seemed to pass Burke by. “To be honest I had my headphones in,” he said. “So I wasn’t quite aware of everything that went on but it obviously didn’t affect us.”
He may not have a starring role for Leipzig yet, but that isn’t how it works at the club anyway. As Hasenhüttl put it: “Our star is the system.”
For now, Burke will have to stay patient. When he can convince Hasenhüttl there’s a little more on his hard drive, his chances to start will come. The way things are going, the Scotland international could even find himself playing in the Champions League next season, such is Leipzig’s remarkable rise.
Following a 1-0 win over Bayern Munich on Saturday, which helped Leipzig to the top of the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Bürki told The Set Pieces that their newly-promoted rivals could even win the league in their debut campaign.
Perhaps that might convince a few more in England that Oliver Burke made the right step in moving to Germany.
Dortmund’s narrow victory lifted them to within three points of Bayern, with Bürki in fine form. It’s a shame he will now be sidelined until the new year with a hand injury sustained during the win.
For Dortmund supporters, one of the most satisfying aspects of the victory was seeing Mario Götze nutmeg former captain Mats Hummels – who left for Bayern in the summer – in the build up to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s winning goal. Yet Bürki wasn’t too bothered about schadenfreude.
“He helped me a lot when I came in my first days here in Dortmund,” said the Swiss international, who swapped shirts with Hummels after the game.