For English language followers of the Bundesliga, Raphael Honigstein is basically the one-stop solution for all German football needs. The Bavarian native is a regular columnist for the UK-based Guardian writing mostly on affairs in the Bundesliga. He also contributes on the same to the US-based Sports Illustrated and is often heard regaling listeners with his dry humour on the Guardian’s brilliant Football Weekly and the UK radio show talkSPORT. Back home, he writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, mostly on issues of English football. Predictably then, he is the author of the fascinating book Englischer Fussball, which you might have seen by its alternate title of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.
But even with so much going on, Raphael still found time to consent to and respond (in record time, no less) to an interview request by the Bundesliga Fanatic. In this first segment, Raphael discussed the current Bundesliga season; the league’s standing in Europe, the best players in the league and the worst (!). Oh! And there is discourse on tactical trends as well, for those of that inclination.
Bundesliga Fanatic (BF): Who do you think has been the most impressive player this season? And just so you have no easy ones (!), do name one from Dortmund and one from the rest of the league.
Raphael Honigstein (RH): Actually not that easy to pick a Dortmund player, because they’re so good collectively. I’d probably go for Nuri Sahin. As for the others, Papiss Demba Cisse of SC Freiburg has been pretty spectacular.
BF: What do you think is the biggest surprise at this mid-point of the season? Is it Frankfurt, Hanover or Freiburg? Or is it the absolutely atrocious form of Werder Bremen?
RH: We’re used to it by now, but Dortmund have been sensational, and the same goes for Mainz. Freiburg, Frankfurt
and Hannover are making the most of their squad, unlike all the big guns. And in a negative sense: Bremen really are shocking. They can actually go down… really poor. And I don’t have much confidence in Thomas Schaaf’s capabilities, to be honest.
BF: On the topic of Bremen, what is wrong at the Weserstadion? Allofs and Schaaf have long formed a formidable duo, but everything they have worked for seems to be unravelling by the minute.
RH: Their genius has been buying players with tremendous attacking potential who could counter the systematic weakness at the back. This year, there is simply no balance anymore. The midfield – Torsten Frings in particular – can’t protect the back four.
BF: And sticking with poorly performing teams, why do you think Bayern have struggled this season. Is it World Cup fatigue? Injuries to ‘Robbery’, or the constant bickering between Uli Hoeness and Louis van Gaal?
RH: Van Gaal v Hoeness is mostly a function of bad results, not a cause. The other reasons are all valid. I would add that not buying anyone in the summer has really back-fired. And that’s van Gaal’s fault. He vetoed a potential move for
[Sami] Khedira, for example.
BF: Do you think that after such a bright start, Mainz will do a Hoffenheim and finish below the European spots? They do seem to have lost a lot of impetus and a lot of it seems to have coincided with the loss of form of Lewis Holtby.
RH: There is a danger of that. Their game relies very heavily on fitness and it’s impossible to know whether they can keep running the whole season. I still see them finishing fifth with a bit of luck though.
BF: And what exactly went wrong in Hoffenheim? Ralf Ragnick could not just have been so upset at the sale of Luis Gustavo. It looked as if Hopp and he were building a strong team from the bottom up.
RH: The manner of the sale did really annoy him but the bigger problem was them not agreeing about the long-term aims. Hopp wants the club to stay small while Rangnick wanted the Champions League.
BF: Mario Gomez, Papiss Demba Cisse, Ya Konan or Theofanis Gekas. Who is the most dangerous striker in the Bundesliga now that Edin Dzeko has headed for Manchester Dhabi (oops!) City?
RH: Mario Gomez for me.
BF: Shinji Kagawa – the signing of the season?
RH: Without a doubt. 350 000 Euros is two weeks of pay for most Man City players.
BF: Daniel van Buyten – the worst player in the league?
RH: A bit harsh. There’s Petri Pasanen at Werder, for starters.
BF: Matthias Sammer to Hamburg – what went wrong there?
RH: Everything. But in the end, he simply lost his nerve.
BF: Your pick for the title? And for relegation? This season of course.
RH: Dortmund. Gladbach and St. Pauli to go down.
BF: Rank according to degree of watchability (in your opinion): Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1, Premier League, La Liga
RH: Difficult to rank outright. Watching Real Madrid and Barca every week compares of course favourably with Blackburn v WBA. I wouldn’t dream of watching Cesena v Catania but like Serie A, generally speaking. If you define the leagues by their top four, five teams, you could argue that the Premiership has the most depth at the very top. Ligue 1 does nothing for me.
In terms of my actual time spent watching games from the various leagues, it’s
3. Serie A
4. La Liga
5. Ligue 1
But that’s more a reflection of personal preference/ work related and not necessarily about watchability.
BF: But in terms of pure football quality, where do you think the Bundesliga ranks in that list. Do you think it has surpassed the Serie A?
RH: It seems that way. But things will only change in earnest once the fourth spot in the Champions Legaue goes from Italy to Germany in 12/13.
BF: Tactically speaking, the Bundesliga is probably not as interesting as the Serie A. But which side in the league, do you think, Zonal Marking would go ga-ga about?
RH: I don’t agree. There are number of teams doing interesting things, from Bayern and Dortmund down to Freiburg. By the way, I think there’s a danger of over-interpreting formations and patterns of play. If you talk to players you’ll find that quite a few managers are still very simplistic when it comes to setting up their teams. Changes and nuances are often random, not by design.
BF: Tomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp and even Mirko Slomka (!), this seems to be the season for German coaches. Is there something in the water? Aside from them do you have any insight or opinions about some of the tactical developments taking place in German football, particularly that of Tuchel, Klopp and Van Gaal.
RH: It’s a new generation of coaches who value hard-work and technical know-how. No wonder they’re successful. The real question is why it has taken so long for all the blaggers and reactionists to disappear.
Tune in next week for the second part of Raphael Honigstein’s interview, where we discuss the Germany National Team and reveal which team he actually supports (well sort of!)
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