For 65 minutes of Saturday’s clash with Champions League rivals Schalke 04, RB Leipzig struggled to find their rhythm in much the same way as they have all season.
Their build up play was ponderous, and they struggled to get to grips with their visitors in midfield – sitting off a little deeper than we were used to seeing last term, unable to regularly win the ball in the kind of areas that saw them hurt so many opponents in their debut season in the Bundesliga.
In fairness, the absence through injury of playmaker Emil Forsberg was a handicap when they did get hold of the ball.
Ralph Hassenhuttl’s decision to play Liverpool-bound Naby Keita higher up the pitch to help fill the void seemed to discommode the Guinean midfielder, who looked less comfortable on the half turn and with his back to goal than he does when driving through midfield from deep with the game opening up in front of him.
The coach’s decision to bench his first choice strike force of Timo Werner and Yusuff Poulsen – possibly making clear his displeasure at the club’s dreadful December – didn’t help either.
Game as stand-in striker Jean-Kevin Augustin may have been, he was unable to hold possession consistently and allow his colleagues advance as a unit.
Schalke, who started the game in second place, looked the better side for much of the first half. And they’ll have felt somewhat aggrieved to have gone in at half time a goal down, after Keita’s deflected strike on 41 minutes gave the home side a scarcely deserved lead.
The goal was Keita’s main intervention in that first half, showing that even when below his best, he can leave an impression. But at times, the game seemed to be passing him by. Gradually his frustration grew, and he was booked on 53 mins for a rash challenge on Allesandro Schopf.
It was Keita’s fifth yellow in a season where his temperament has been questioned and will result in a one match suspension.
To add insult to injury, the unmarked Naldo headed in Schalke’s equaliser from the resulting free kick.
It’s been a difficult season for Keita. There’s little doubt the Liverpool deal has had an impact. And at 22 and in just his fourth season as a professional, he could be forgiven for losing focus.
But like many of his team mates, the loss of the element of surprise that helped the midfielder and Leipzig cut a swathe through much of the Bundesliga last season has been keenly felt.
Keita is a marked man now. He’s closed down much more quickly and is one of the most fouled players in the league. Opponents are testing his mettle and feel that he can be got at.
The accumulation of yellows, plus the three red cards he’s received for club and country this season suggest that they may be on to something.
In fairness to Keita, he has coped better with the closer attention as the season has progressed, going nine games without a card after his sending off against Bayern Munich in the cup back in October.
However, on Saturday, Hassenhuttl hooked him soon after Schalke’s equaliser as an early bath was looking increasingly likely.
Interestingly, it was only after Keita left the field of play and Werner and Poulsen entered the fray that Leipzig began to play the kind of football that served them so well last term.
Prompted by man of the match Marcel Sabitzer and the improving Kevin Kampl, they began move the ball much more quickly and press their opponents higher.
Two goals in two minutes from the excellent Werner and the promising Bruma ultimately handed the visitor’s their first reverse since late September.
And it ended a run of five games without a victory for die Roten Bullen, and saw them jump from fifth to third in the race for the coveted Champions League places.
For Hassenhuttl, the last 25 minutes of Saturday’s game surely point the way for RB Leipzig in the second half of the season.
Trusting in the effectiveness of the brave high intensity football of last term is their best hope of a return to the Champions League next season. Keeping Naby Keita until the summer will also help.
But Leipzig fans should not fear his departure, as the closing stages against Schalke underlined.