Leipzig’s involvement with Red Bull has meant they’re not to everybody’s taste in Germany. Yet manager Ralph Hasenhüttl is very much the flavour of the month.
Hasenhüttl has guided unbeaten Leipzig to the top of the Bundesliga table, where they hold a three-point lead over Bayern Munich. Last week he confirmed that there may be a kernel of truth in reports suggesting he’s on Arsenal’s shortlist to replace Arsène Wenger.
But back in the summer of 2013, Hasenhüttl was out of a job. He had quit VfR Aalen, believing he had taken the club as far as he could, leading them from the lower reaches of Germany’s third tier to mid-table in the second division.
After leaving his post in June, Hasenhüttl spent July mountain biking in the Alps. Equipped with a pair of binoculars, he surreptitiously spied on Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s training camps to watch how Jürgen Klopp and Lucien Favre prepared for the season ahead.
Hasenhüttl enjoyed being able to learn in peace. “It’s better to be incognito because otherwise everyone is talking to you because they know you – and you can’t concentrate on the training because everyone is talking to you,” he told me last year.
“I was also in Italy when Germany were preparing for the World Cup because it was interesting for me. I’m maybe in this way a little bit crazy but it made me a better coach.”
A few months later, and a little further north of the Alps, that personal improvement was put to the test when Hasenhüttl was appointed by FC Ingolstadt with the club bottom of the Bundesliga 2 in October 2013. The first time I spoke to him, in May 2015, he was basking in the glow of having just engineered the Audi-backed club’s maiden promotion to the Bundesliga on one of the division’s smaller budgets.
With quiet authority, he revealed his philosophy: “To be respectful to the players. I love them, really. I have a very close connection to them.”
As he discussed communicating his ideas to the players, Hasenhüttl added: “I try to be relaxed every time but I don’t know if I can do it every time. Sometimes you are angry if he doesn’t run as much you want.”
Although his standards are high, he understands if an opportunity goes to waste. Hasenhüttl was a striker himself, spending most of his career in the Austrian Bundesliga, but played for 1. FC Köln in the German second division and Bayern Munich’s B team in his twilight years.
He isn’t afraid to admit that he “missed many chances” but he is less tolerant of other things as Swedish international Emil Forsberg discovered this season at Leipzig. “Emil didn’t have a good start with me because he had fitness problems after the Euros,” said Hasenhüttl earlier this month.
It meant Forsberg started only one of Leipzig’s first five games despite being rated by kicker magazine as the best player in the Bundesliga 2 last season. But the Swede has since kicked on. For the second year running, Forsberg has again been regarded as the division’s best player by kicker – except this time it’s in the Bundesliga.
The playing style which Forsberg and Co are currently thriving in at Leipzig is very much in line with Hasenhüttl’s achievements at Ingolstadt. As he explained it to me, the idea is for “everyone working against the ball, trying to get the ball and then quick change in the offensive and try to score.”
The style of pressing deployed by the Austrian – along with his touchline demeanour – has led to comparisons with Jürgen Klopp. “The comparison annoys me,” Hasenhüttl told BILD in 2014. Even though he has drawn inspiration from the Liverpool manager, he wants to be known as “Hasenhüttl, not Klopp.”
Whisper it quietly then, but Hasenhüttl has certainly enjoyed some Klopp-esque celebrations. You can place his 50-yard sprint down the touchline to celebrate Leipzig’s 89th minute winner against Dortmund in that category.
Throughout last season, Hasenhüttl even expressed his immense joy at merely getting a point on the road to Ingolstadt’s survival. Except it wasn’t ‘merely’ in Hasenhüttl’s view, who could be seen springing onto the pitch at full time pumping his fists. A goalless draw at Gladbach was one of several occasions where this occurred, but sometimes it all got a bit too much for the burly Austrian.
In September, Ingolstadt won an injury time penalty away at Werder Bremen. On the cusp of their third Bundesliga victory, Hasenhüttl quite literally couldn’t watch. He hid behind the bench, waiting to hear what turned out to be a positive outcome as Ingolstadt scored the spot-kick to win 1-0.
The Bundesliga minnows couldn’t achieve a similar result when they visited Bayern Munich in December, but they ran them close. “Today we encountered the best team we’ve been up against so far this season,” said Pep Guardiola after beating Hasenhüttl’s side 2-0 at the Allianz Arena.
By the time the reverse fixture rolled around, it was the penultimate game of the campaign and Ingolstadt had already secured their place in the division. A 2-1 win for Bayern saw Guardiola clinch the Bundesliga title once again, but Hasenhüttl broke down in tears at the post-match press conference. It was his final home game in charge of Ingolstadt after it had been confirmed he would join promoted RB Leipzig in the summer.
The 49-year-old has been back since to Ingolstadt to watch his son Patrick play for the club’s second team, but this weekend marks his first return as a coach, with his former side propping up the table.
Everything looks a lot rosier up in Leipzig. The city is buzzing over the team’s success – just ask Hasenhüttl. In November, he took a trip to the city’s Christmas markets but, just as he did when he spied on Dortmund and Gladbach four summers ago, he went incognito. You suspect that Hasenhüttl’s ongoing success will soon preclude his ability to slip under the radar.
When we spoke in May 2015, Hasenhüttl joked that were he ever to come to England, he would need to improve his English. His only time of note there previously was two weeks spent on trial at Chelsea under Glenn Hoddle in the mid-90s. “I didn’t really believe that I could sign there but it was fantastic inspiration for my career that I could train there for two weeks.”
It shouldn’t be assumed that he is desperate to come to the Premier League, but don’t be surprised if Hasenhüttl one day returns to England for a little longer than a fortnight.
Quotes from Ralph Hasenhüttl’s interview at Ingolstadt in May 2015 originally made to BT Sport’s European Football Show. Pic credit: BT Sport.