Sports Editor Adam Robertson tells us what to expect when the Bundesliga returns to action on Saturday.
Before all this, say to any football fan that, “it’s only a game” and you would likely have been met with a face of anger, grief and all-round disappointment. In the past couple of months though, that statement could never have felt more relevant. Or, at least, the football itself is of little importance in these ever-changing times. The future of ordinary staff and community-run football clubs remains under threat amidst a period of such uncertainty.
It is pointless to speculate on the future of every league. Regardless of people’s trust issues with football’s governing bodies, it is now up to them to make decisions on the challenging questions which have arisen. Across Europe, the Ligue 1 title has already been awarded to PSG. In Holland, the Eredivisie, to some anger, has been cancelled completely. The Premier League, where Liverpool remain twenty-five points clear at the top of the league, has been given the go-ahead to return on 1 June at the earliest. In Scotland, again amidst much controversy, three of the four top leagues have been finished, with champions and those destined for relegation decided.
Regardless of any outcome, the fallout will likely be huge. Amiens FC have already started legal proceedings after their “unjust” relegation from France’s top tier. Until such a time though that the relevant authorities make the decisions they have to, we can only respond to what is happening and not what might or could happen.
Luckily, the Bundesliga provides an exciting opportunity to do this. Across Europe, many of the top leagues had a sense of inevitability about them. As it stands the difference between Bayern Munich in 1st and Borussia Monchengladbach in 4th sits at just six points.
German football has been in a strange place for the past few years. The beginning of the 2010s saw great success at both club and international level. Having reached the 2010 and 2012 Champions League final, Bayern eventually saw success in an all-German final of 2013 against fellow German side Borussia Dortmund.
A semi-final at the 2010 World Cup was topped by winning the competition in 2014. Joachim Low’s exciting counter-attacking side were responsible for one of the biggest World-Cup shocks when they dispatched hosts Brazil 7-1 – a game which saw them 5-0 up within thirty minutes. However, a semi-final at Euro 2016 was then followed by a catastrophic exit at the group stages of the 2018 world cup. So, what lies ahead for the rest of the league season and what is the situation at the top clubs?
The strange position of German football, the powerhouse of the early 2010s, is best epitomised by their league’s serial winners, Bayern Munich. Not since the tenure of Pep Guardiola have Bayern really been stable. His initial successor, Carlo Ancelotti, only lasted one full season, eventually being sacked in September of 2017. The following manager, Niko Kovac, in spite of his domestic double in the 2018-19 season, also only lasted until November of last year.
Part of the reason for this was likely his performance in the 2018-19 Champions League. After a 0-0 draw at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool comfortably dispatched Bayern 3-1 on their own patch, tactically outclassing them from start to finish. When domestic success becomes commonplace, standards become higher and, at a club this size, not meeting them is often not met with second chances. It says a lot that consistent domestic success is still not considered good enough.
Despite being top now, Bayern got off to a very poor start to the season, winning just seven of their first fourteen league games. It became clear that Kovac had lost the dressing room and change was needed and in-stepped Hans-Dieter Flick. The German initially rose to prominence whilst assistant to Joachim Low during the nation’s world cup triumph.
Since his arrival, he has brought stability back to Bayern, settling on a 4-2-3-1 formation. In particular, the holding midfield play of Joshua Kimmich and Thiago gave Bayern the stability they needed to return to the top. Frank Lampard’s youthful and inexperienced Chelsea side this discovered this the hard way as they were comfortably beaten 3-0 at Stamford Bridge in the 1stleg of the Champions League last sixteen.
Robert Lewandowski, already on thirty-nine goals for the season is also in fine form and Thomas Muller has stepped into the leadership role vacated by the old guard of Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben. Since their last loss on the 7 December, Bayern have won 10 of their 11 games, drawing the remaining one. As ever, they are the favourites to clinch the title.
A much-loved club across Europe owing to their incredible stadium and even more incredible support, Dortmund find themselves in a strong position. They sit second in the table, just four points behind Bayern Munich and still to play their bitter rivals at home. Sadly, the word “home” will have taken on a whole new meaning and the usual intimidation of the “yellow wall” will no longer be present.
Much like Bayern, Dortmund’s strongest days came at the start of the 2010s, where Jurgen Klopp led them to successive titles in 2010-11 and 11-12, including a domestic double in the latter as well as a Champions League final in 2013.
Going forward, Peter Bosz’s side are amongst the most exciting in the league. Much attention has been given to twenty-year-old Englishman Jadon Sancho, who currently sits as the clubs top scorer with seventeen goals. Crucially, what Dortmund possess is depth with the likes of Thorgan Hazard, younger brother of Eden, performing well.
Questions were raised though over Bayern’s defence. It’s one of football’s oldest clichés that, “attack wins games; defences win titles.” In spite of their attacking prowess, Dortmund have conceded 33 goals – the worst of the top four. However, a strong January transfer window has helped to fix this problem in many ways. Most of the attention has gone to the heavily sought after Erling Braut Haland. After securing his services, the 19-year-old has scored twelve goals in eleven games, including a wonderful brace against PSG in the Champions League.
However, the loan of holding midfielder Emre Can from Juventus has brought some much-needed security in the midfield. For some time now, Dortmund have always been playing the plucky underdogs to the financial powerhouse that is Bayern Munich. It’s a far more difficult model to sustain too, especially considering when any player performs, they more often than not leave. Sancho has already been linked to the Premier League and it seems only a matter of time before Haland himself will move on.
With nine games left to play though, including the potentially crucial tie against Bayern Munich, Dortmund have the chance again to once again upset the odds.
Easily the most controversial club in Germany, Leipzig too have been performing exceptionally well. It was around eleven years ago now that Red Bull, already the owner of a team in Austria as well as a Formula 1 racing team, delved into the German fifth division and took control of SSV Markranstadt. After a bit of rebranding, in what can only be described as a journey straight out of Football Manager, the club has grown to become amongst the most exciting in the German league in spite of the dislike from many German fans.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding such a heavily commercialised business model, Red Bull have seen success and helped to develop some of the game’s best talents. Arguably Liverpool’s best player this season, Sadio Mane spent time at their club in Austria as did midfielder Naby Keita. It’s also where Erling Haland started learning his trade before his move to the Bundesliga.
Their most exciting player is Timo Werner who starts up front for Leipzig, who already has twenty-seven goals this season. Particularly impressive was the team’s 4-0 aggregate defeat of Tottenham Hotspur. More than the players though, the Leipzig manager, Julien Nagelsman, at just 32 years old is one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting prospects and seems destined for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. A dynamic manager, Nagelsman has his side able to tactically adapt to any situation. Initially, having Hoffenheim punch way above their weight, the young German joined Leipzig at the beginning of this season. Sitting five points behind Bayern, they too remain well in the running to pull off a major shock.
In spite of everybody’s ever-growing list of things to do in lockdown, I myself sadly do not have the time to give the ins and outs of every Bundesliga club. One player to watch out for though is Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz. An attacking midfielder, many clubs already seemed prepared to pay the 100 million Euro valuation Leverkusen have placed on the midfielder.
If nothing else, the Bundesliga will provide the return of professional football and give us an initial insight into how football is going to work, if at all, for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, it can also provide a good bit of entertainment and distraction along the way.