5. Bayern München
The defending champions stumbled through the start of the season but have picked up their form and have gradually climbed their way back up the table. Bayern had their worst start to a Bundesliga campaign since the disastrous 91/92 season in which they finished tenth. Contrary to their sluggish domestic start, Bayern did have their best ever Champions League group stage finish. A combination of injuries, poor form and tactical changes were responsible for their slow start but since mid October, Louis Van Gaal’s team has come around and steadily climbed the table losing only twice in 16 matches in all competitions.
Bayern’s defensive shortcomings have been their biggest weakness so far. Van Buyten and Demichelis have been in poor form leading to their eventual exclusion from the squad towards the end of the Hinrunde. They have yet to find a consistent left back and have had to use a makeshift defense consisting of midfielder Tymoshchuk and the young Brazilian Breno. Moreover, the absence of midfielder enforcer and captain Van Bommel initially left the defense more vulnerable and it took time and Van Gaal adjusting tactically to get the team back on track.
The most glaring change was Van Gaal’s decision to switch formations to accommodate the absences and personnel available. Without Robben and Olic, Bayern were unable to continue with the 4-4-2/4-2-4 that worked so well last season. Instead, Van Gaal switched to the widely used 4-2-3-1 to get the best out of target man Mario Gomez. Gomez has scored 20 goals in 26 games in all competitions so far and has had the best Hinrunde of his career. In addition, Van Gaal pushed up Schweinsteiger into a more attacking role to make up for the lack of creativity caused by Robben and Ribery’s injuries. Both changes have worked admirably and Bayern have scored 46 goals in all competitions since their turnaround in October.
Best performer:Bastian Schweinsteiger. 2010 has been a marquee year for Bastian, the year where he came into his own as a player and personality. Germany’s most prominent football publication, Kicker, just named Schweinsteiger their “man of the year” and rightfully so. After years of stagnant development and unfulfilled promise, Schweinsteiger finally reached his full potential and turned into a world-class player that many touted him years ago. Jose Mourinho himself voted Schweinsteiger as his best player of the year and praise has come from all corners including Spain’s World Cup winning coach Vincente Del Bosque to name just a few. This season Schweinsteiger has taken the reigns of his club into his own hands and stepped up as the team’s symbolic and on field leader in the absence of Van Bommel and Robben.
Biggest disappointment: Daniel Van Buyten. Despite his intimidating build and rough nickname, Daniel “The Belgian Bull” Van Buyten is one of the more likable personalities in the league and a real gentle giant on and off the pitch. Unfortunately personalities are not deciders of performance and Van Buyten has been Bayern’s weak spot for a while now. His lack of pace and poor positioning have cost Bayern on numerous occasions, most notably in the Champions League final when Diego Milito skipped past him twice to score the deciding goals. That form carried on and worsened this season eventually leaving Van Gaal no choice but to bench what was up to this point a perceived favorite of his. Van Gaal and Van Buyten themselves made no qualms about his poor form this season and it is slowly becoming more evident that his future at the club is coming to a close.
Question – Can Bayern sustain their level of competitiveness in all competitions? Dortmund’s lead has historically sufficed in ensuring the title and in that sense Bayern are almost guaranteed to lose their defense of the Bundesliga title, something that Van Gaal and president Uli Hoeness have both admitted. Bayern’s slow start may have cost them the league but they still need to ensure a top 3 finish to qualify for the Champions League. Next year’s final will be held in Munich and Hoeness made it clear that Bayern have to be there. In addition, Bayern’s injuries so far have also made squad depth an issue and competing on three fonts requires a sizable and functional squad, something that has been a point of contention and might spur some action in the January transfer window. It will be hard to live up to last season’s success but Bayern have made their ambitions and standards clear last season with their Champions League run so the bulk of the work is still ahead of them.
6. SC Freiburg
At this point the “surprise package” label has turned into an inevitable cliché but Freiburg is another team that has exceeded expectations in the Hinrunde. A proverbial shoe-in as a pre-season relegation candidate, Freiburg always seem to have a mountain to climb when the league kicks off in August but they have exceeded all expectations and scaled it admirably so far. Robin Dutt’s team have recorded impressive wins against Mainz, Hoffenheim and Hamburg and have managed to score in every game bar one.
Freiburg’s biggest gripe so far has been their inconsistency. Since September, they have not been able to go more than two games without losing. Three times already Freiburg have won two or more games in succession only to fail to improve on those results and lose right after. In hindsight, this is not a big problem for a team whose realistic ambitions were initially to avoid relegation but from a greater perspective, it is what has prevented them from being even higher up in the table. Dutt sends his team out to win games. Freiburg’s gung ho attitude is admirable from an idealistic perspective but it can be detrimental when it hits the wall against the “bigger teams” in the league. So far, they have recorded only one draw, which is representative of their “black and white” form this season.
Best performer: Papiss Demba Cisse. The 25-year-old Senegalese striker has lit the league up with his 13 goals in just16 games. Cisse has the best goals per game ratio in the league, making him the most lethal finisher of the Hinrunde. Cisse already more than doubled last season’s tally and is on course for his best ever professional season. Simply put, when Cisse fails to score, Freiburg loses. That has been true every single time except once this season. His importance to this Freiburg team cannot be emphasized enough. Cisse is also starting to make an impression for the Senegalese national team, scoring 4 times in 3 appearances this year.
Biggest disappointment: Omer Toprak. The 21-year-old German-Turk defender is Freiburg’s second most valuable player and has been touted by many in Germany as a future international. In June of last year Toprak was involved in an accident that put his career in serious peril and ruled him out of action for almost half a year but has made a miraculous recovery and comeback in 2010. Freiburg’s defense has at times been quite admirable, keeping 5 clean sheets and appropriately enough having the league’s 6th best defense, but considering Toprak’s billing and ability there is room for improvement. He is still only 21 years old however and the potential peaks through quite often so this should be looked at more as constructive criticism and words of encouragement rather than a direct indictment.
Question – Can Freiburg continue to support Cisse and remain in the top half of the table?Most clubs would be delighted with the type of form Cisse has displayed so far this season. On one hand it is almost invaluable to have a player who can score consistently and when needed. On the other, it can have a crippling effect on the team. It can create a dependency that transforms strength into a major weakness. Would Freiburg be able to replace Cisse were he to be injured? More importantly, would they be able to maintain an acceptable level of performance? Cisse is responsible for half of Freiburg’s goals. Without him they would be hovering above the relegation zone so Freiburg’s biggest task is to continue to get the best out of Cisse without making them too reliable on his goals and form.
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