“He’s gone to Leipzig, but what about a Burnley or a Sunderland or a West Brom.”
After starting RB Leipzig’s final game of the Bundesliga season against Eintracht Frankfurt, Oliver Burke may be overcome with regret. He passed up the opportunity to finish in mid-table obscurity in the self-appointed greatest league in the world. If only he had listened to the wise sage John Hartson.
He’s simply had to make do with a runners-up spot in his and his club’s maiden season in the top-flight. The award for finishing best of the rest behind Bayern Munich – and in front of the much vaunted Borussia Dortmund – is qualification for the Champions League.
Moving on from such a facetious stance, on a collective level Burke’s season has been an overwhelming success. The club, through their substantial links with Red Bull, are not so much maligned as openly despised. The Scotsman’s new team have been met with abusive banners, a paint attack on their bus and even a severed bull’s head. Such is the culture in Germany, the way the club are financed and structured has provoked significant contempt. Yet, despite all the criticism from traditionalists, the ethos of the club is one which should be admired and one which attracted Burke in the first place. RB – which stands for RasenBallsport to circumvent German rules which prevent clubs being named after their sponsors – target promising players to develop.
The club saw this promise in the Scottish international when they signed the Kirkcaldy-born winger from Nottingham Forest for £12.75million. Burke wasn’t acquired to be an instant hit. Instead he was seen as a “project” according to Derek Rae, Bundesliga commentator for BT Sport, a malleable player who could be moulded, developed and improved.
“They knew they were getting somebody with raw talent,” Rae explained, “at the same time a player who hadn’t properly been developed I think they felt that there was almost no coaching had really been done on him. A big upside for Leipzig was the fact that the raw materials were there, it was just a matter of fine tuning. And they’ve given him the time to look, to feel, to learn.”
It seemed the 20-year-old would need no such time. Coming off the bench to make his debut at home to Dortmund, he needed only 20 minutes to set up the winning goal. Awarded with his first start the following month, he capped it with his first goal. Yet, that initial spark has not progressed into a consistent flame. What has transpired is 25 Bundesliga appearances but only 617 minutes of football – 19 appearances lasting less than 30 minutes.
There are two reasons for such a paucity in game time, competition and game intelligence. Leipzig’s attacking arsenal includes Austrian international Marcel Sabitzer, 21-goal forward Timo Werner and Swedish sensation Emil Forsberg.
While much has been made of the winger’s defensive “hard drive” being empty, it has been a learning curve for Burke, unable to just rely on his raw ability.
Rae said: “Leipzig are the second best team in Germany this season and you don’t easily get into a team like that. He hasn’t always done himself favours playing from the start, he’s looked a little ill at ease.
“Listen to Ralph Hasenhüttl, the coach, and Ralf Rangnick, the sporting director, they both say that what they had to work on from the start was his work without the ball, which is very important when you analyse how Leipzig play. They are the masters of pressing and counter-attacking so the work without the ball is really quite typical to how they play.”
During the nascent stages, Burke spoke of learning everyday. With a change in style and culture, patience has been the keyword for all involved.
Leipzig were frustrated when Burke was called up for international duty but not used, sitting on the bench as Scotland lost 3-0 to England. The month before he was left out when Gordon Strachan’s men slumped in Slovakia. He has not been selected for the England clash, having to make do with a place in Scot Gemmill’s under-20 squad for the Toulon Tournament.
Leipzig felt that the time during the season would’ve been better spent in Germany, benefitting the player and, in the long-run, Scotland.
Slowly but surely Burke has developed a better understanding of what is expected of him. Almost by osmosis, being around team-mates, learning from the sidelines, training every day.
The next step is to become a regular, something which is a “big challenge”, depending on the club’s recruitment. It could work one of two ways: he falls down the pecking order or is afforded more game time as the club rotate. It may result in a loan move, even if the club want to be in control of his development.
“Things can change in a hurry and everyone reassesses players,” explained Rae. “But it should be a valid question, should he be sent out on loan; is that the next part of his development?
“If he is to be sent out on loan I wouldn’t think there is any logic in Leipzig sending him on loan to someone in the UK because there aren’t many teams in the UK who play the way they do.
“It is important for him to have a good summer and to be doing the right things, on and off the ball.”
This season may have been more about learning, but the environment is one which will be of long-term benefit, producing a more rounded player. Perhaps, more than it would have in England.
“I think he was clocked as the fastest in the league at one point,” said Rae. “He has tremendous physical strength and with the right coaching he is someone who could, genuinely, go to the very top. But steps will need to be taken to work on a side of his game which had been neglected. And that’s a criticism of the British game that not enough two-way players are produced.
“I still think it was a very good move, a bold move, but the right move to try something new and different. And he clearly has that as part of his make-up that he wants to get better. He’s in very good hands with a view to making that happen.”