Many people who don’t watch the Bundesliga always ask the same question: why do you watch the Bundesliga when you could watch the great football played in La Liga or the exciting football of the Premier League? Of course, it’s a matter of tastes. Yes, perhaps the players in the Bundesliga aren’t as technical and skilled in general as the ones in Spain and yes, perhaps the Bundesliga isn’t as vertical as the Premier League can be but there’s one very important element that neither of those two leagues has: surprise.
Every year, there’s a surprise package in the Bundesliga, a team that against all odds is battling it out at the top of the table with the big guns, sometimes even a team that has just been promoted. In Spain and England, particularly in the former, it’s already known that the league will be a matter of which one out two teams will win it and most promoted clubs tend to struggle at the end of the season. The financial structure of the Bundesliga allows for smaller clubs to be able to have a better fighting chance against the supposedly bigger teams, and this leads to many pleasant surprises as the season goes on.
Here are the recaps of five of the most famous surprise packages of the Hinrunde of the last 15 years and how they fared when the season ended.
5. EINTRACHT FRANKFURT 2012/2013
After finishing second in the 2.Bundesliga last year, Eintracht have definitely been the surprise package of this Bundesliga. Managed by the shrewd former Stuttgart and Hamburg manager Armin Veh, the team have not found the transition from the second division to the first a big one, having played in the top flight two years ago. Having started the season perfectly winning their first four games and not losing until Matchday 7 with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Borussia Mönchengladbach, Eintracht’s success is no mirage.
Impressive wins against HSV and Bayer Leverkusen paired with the impressive comeback against champions Borussia Dortmund (from 0-2 and 2-3 down to draw the match) have meant that Eintracht has been in the news every Monday morning.
However, a recent defeat against Stuttgart, albeit a late one with an 85th minute winner for the Swabians, have meant that Eintracht have fallen down to their lowest position of the season so far, third, one point behind Schalke 04 and five behind Bayern München who just lost their first league match of the campaign. Also, they are four points ahead of the team behind them, no other than Borussia Dortmund.
Veh’s approach has been to field an injury-permitting fixed XI that’s not shy of attack (20 goals in 9 games) but that doesn’t have the most consistent of defences (13 conceded). Whether fielding the same team every week will take its toll at the end of the season remains to be seen but, at the minute, Eintracht remain very much on course for European football in the next campaign.
Where did they finish?: Obviously, it’s still unknown but what cannot be taken from them is that they have been a welcome surprise to this exciting Bundesliga season already and one that no one expected.
4. 1. FSV MAINZ 05 2010/2011
After earning a respectable 9th place in their first season back in the Bundesliga since their relegation two years before, Mainz’s 10/11 season was to be a much more eventful one. With new young and exciting players in the squad, namely Christian Fuchs and Lewis Holtby on loan from Schalke 04, Marcel Risse from Bayer Leverkusen and Sami Allagui from Greuther Fürth, they were to compliment well Andreas Ivanschitz still on loan from Panathinaikos and the up and coming André Schürrle.
As good as season starts come, only Bayern München this year have had a better one than Mainz did that season, winning their first SEVEN matches, including a thrilling 4-3 late win at Wolfsburg and a majestic victory 2-1 at the Allianz Arena against der Rekordmeister. Their first defeat came at home against Hamburg and after that, they descended into a spiral of 4 wins and 6 losses that saw them end the Hinrunde in a surprising second place, 10 points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund. With goals mostly from Schürrle, Adam Szálai and Sami Allagui and the skillful contribution of Holtby and Ivanschitz as well as their relatively impressive defensive record (19 goals conceded in 17 matches, second lowest in the league), Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz were a hard team to beat and teams had to come at them to get anything from it, risking defensive vulnerability and making their matches very attractive to watch.
Where did they finish?: Mainz’s Rückrunde wasn’t as spectacular, as they accumulated 7 wins, 4 draws and 6 losses in 17 games. Also, André Schürrle agreed to sign for Bayer Leverkusen at the end of the season. Mainz, however, finished in a respectable fifth place in the league with 58 points, 7 behind the last Champions League spot and 9 ahead of next-placed Nürnberg, earning them a Europa League spot.
3. BORUSSIA MÖNCHENGLADBACH 2011/2012
Yet another season and yet another surprise. This time it was Borussia Mönchengladbach, a team that had just narrowly won the relegation playoff against VfL Bochum with two late goals in each tie. Having finished the previous season in 16th place, changes had to be made and Swiss coach Lucien Favre was not afraid of doing so. He gave the starting goalkeeping spot to young Marc-André ter Stegen and also a regular place to Tony Jantschke at right full back. A notable new addition was Havard Nordtveit from Arsenal after he had spent the previous season at Nürnberg. However, the star of the team was up-and-coming Marco Reus, an exciting winger/striker who had been signed from Rot-Weiß Ahlen two season before and who was beginning to bloom into a star player.
The season could not have started better for them, as they surprised champions Bayern München at the Allianz Arena after a mistake by new goalkeeper Manuel Neuer allowed Igor de Camargo to head in for the only goal in their 0-1 victory. Ter Stegen was also the star of that game, pulling of a brilliant performance that was definitely a sign of things to come later that season.
This was not a matter of stringing many wins in a row and then managing a damage limitation situation but quite a regular season all in all. Out of the 17 matches played, Gladbach only lost four, all of which were 1-0 defeats away from home (Schalke, Freiburg, Hoffenheim and Augsburg). Three draws came at the hands of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Stuttgart, and 10 wins allowed them to enjoy Christmas sitting in a comfortable fourth in the table, one point behind third place Schalke and only four behind league-leaders Bayern München.
Gladbach’s style of play was based on a reliable defence marshalled by Dante and an effective attack led by Reus and Mike Hanke, providing the poacher and target man roles respectively that worked so well for them. In the 17 matches, 25 goals were scored and only 11 conceded, also thanks to the excellent performances of goalkeeper ter Stegen.
Where did they finish?: Most surprise packages tend to falter in the Rückrunde, but this wasn’t the case of Gladbach. Admittedly, they weren’t as prolific as they were in the Hinrunde but 7 wins, 6 draws and 4 defeats saw them finish fourth in the table, six points ahead of fifth place Leverkusen, and therefore qualifying for the Champions League qualifying round. Also, their players didn’t go unnoticed as Roman Neustädter signed a pre-contract with Schalke in the Winterpause and, in the summer, Marco Reus moved to Borussia Dortmund for a record fee of 17m€ and Dante to Bayern München for 5m€. However, the club were able to retain other starlets such as Marc-André ter Stegen and Patrick Herrmann thanks to the prospects of Champions League football for a team that twelve months earlier nearly got relegated.
2. TSG 1899 HOFFENHEIM 2008/2009
Hoffenheim’s story is a unique one. A team that was languishing in the Verbandsliga just over a decade ago saw investment by local businessman Dietmar Hopp, owner of SAP Software Corporation, catapult them from the nothingness of fifth division football in the year 2000 to the Bundesliga in just eight years.
The acquisition of players such as Vedad Ibišević, Chinedu Obasi, Demba Ba, Luis Gustavo, Sejad Salihović and Carlos Eduardo among others in recent years had meant that Hoffenheim enjoyed two consecutive promotions from the Regionalliga Süd to the Bundesliga. Led by manager Ralf Rangnick, Hoffenheim deployed an all out attack style that few teams could cope with.
Hoffenheim started the season brightly, with seven wins and one draw in the first ten matches and four wins in their next five. Their star man up front was Ibišević, who notched a total of 18 goals in 17 matches, as the team rallied to a tally of 42 in the same number of matches, winning eleven of them and drawing only two. With Gustavo, Salihović and Eduardo pulling the strings behind Ibišević, Ba and Obasi, Hoffenheim had six attacking players who could cause a lot of havoc to opposition defences.
They finished the Hinrunde top of the league with 35 points, equal with Bayern München, although with a +19 goal difference.
It was looking like a fairytale story for Hoffenheim. With nobody leaving the club in the Winterpause, another five frantic months of exciting football awaited the fans at the brand-new 30,000-capacity Rhein-Neckar Arena, introduced at the start of the Rückrunde. However, things went terribly wrong.
Where did they finish?: Ibišević injured himself in a training match against HSV, rupturing his cruciate ligaments and being ruled out for the rest of the campaign. The effect of this injury seemed to have a huge impact on the team. Despite the arrival of former Stuttgart goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand in the winter, Hoffenheim went on a 12-match winless streak that saw them drop out of the top 5 partly due to injuries to other key players. Despite a slight recovery at the end of the season, Hoffenheim finished the season in 9th place, asking themselves what could have been had it not been for the injury to their Bosnian star striker.
1. 1.FC KAISERSLAUTERN 1997/1998
Few stories like this one will you see in any other league in Europe, perhaps the world, if any at all.
1.FC Kaiserslautern had just been promoted back to the Bundesliga after a year in die Zweite. The team had stuck with legendary manager Otto Rehhagel and had managed to re-sign Swiss midfielder Ciriaco Sforza from Inter Milan and Andreas Buck from Stuttgart. Added to the good players in the squad that they already had, with names such as Andreas Brehme (despite him providing mostly covering for the defence at the end of his career), Olaf Marschall and Jürgen Rische and even a young Michael Ballack, Kaiserslautern were determined not to go down again… although they might have overdone it.
The first match of the campaign was the toughest one possible, away to champions Bayern München. Once again, Bayern were the surprise scalps and Kaiserslautern came away 0-1 winners with a late goal by Danish defender Martin Schjönberg. At the end of Matchday 4, Kaiserslautern were sitting at the top with 3 victories, and they weren’t going to let that spot go for a very long time.
Olaf Marschall was banging the goals in and Sforza was running the midfield along with Andreas Buck and Brazilian Ratinho. At the end of the Hinrunde, Rehhagel’s men were sitting pretty at the top of the Bundesliga with 39 points and 12 victories out of 17 matches, having scored an impressive tally of 37 goals and being four points ahead of chasers Bayern.
Where did they finish?: Unlike all of the other surprise teams, Kaiserslautern carried on their form into the Rückrunde. Despite only notching 7 victories out of 17, the most important one came against Bayern München at home winning 2-0, a match that was to provide crucial as Kaiserslautern won the Bundesliga two points ahead of the Bavarians. No other team in the Bundesliga had ever been promoted from the second division and gone on to win the Bundesliga in its first year back, and none has done since.
This was another great achievement for Rehhagel who was still to achieve great things with underdog teams in football in years to come. He had achieved the unachievable and had made a fortress out of the Fritz-Walter Stadion, with 13 wins and 2 draws out of 17.
Despite their decline in later years, Kaiserslautern’s title-winning season will never be forgotten because of the manner in which it came, the ultimate fairytale story of the Bundesliga. That is one of the reasons why this league has so many fans from outside Germany today, because stories like this one can only happen in the German league, and that’s why many consider it the best league in the world.