All four Bundesliga sides advanced to the Champions League knockout stages. Again! Yay! Right?
It seems this news was greeted with the mildest pride and joy from Bundesliga lovers like ourselves. This more muted response contrasts with the louder joy from a season ago. And for good reason: this time around, we know better than to blindly take pride and joy in four Bundesliga clubs advancing to the UCL knockout stages.
A season ago, the achievement of the same four Bundesliga clubs advancing was celebrated with gusto. Judging from the chatter on Twitter, Facebook memes, shoutouts on various podcasts, and write ups on various football sites, Bundesliga lovers, like ourselves, rejoiced – and rejoiced loudly. Und warum nicht? One quarter of UCL knockout clubs were from Deutschland. Of course, we all know how this adventure ended: in cruel succession, Real Madrid crushed Schalke, Dortmund, and most surprisingly, Bayern by the combined score of 17-4. Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, Leverkusen was crushed 1-6 by PSG in humiliating fashion. An inauspicious end to a promising beginning.
Of course, tangible benefits are won when all four Bundesliga clubs advance to the knockouts. Namely, the benefits take the form of UEFA coefficient points, in particular 4 points for advancing. Indeed, Bayern (#3), Dortmund (#11), Schalke (#7), and Leverkusen (#15) all rank in UEFA’s top 15 clubs. Schalke, especially, has benefited from the UEFA point system, thanks to a longer run of deep UCL runs than BVB. Anyone remember the 2010-11 and 2011-12 UCL seasons?
While these UEFA baubles are great for access to the TV money that the UCL provides, they certainly don’t “mean” anything about the state of the one league’s superiority over others in Europe. For example, after Leverkusen, Hannover 96 (!) is the next highest Bundesliga club at #46 on the UEFA list. A wider spectrum of German clubs just haven’t succeeded across Europe in the last five seasons, especially contrasted with, say, Spain’s La Liga, who has eight clubs in EUFA’s top 50. So even by EUFA coefficient points alone, the Bundesliga doesn’t come out terribly great, unlike the Premier League or La Liga.
Although coefficient points are nice for Bayern, Dortmund, Schalke, and Leverkusen, I’d wager that there’s still leftover trauma from the fate of these four clubs last season. In particular, Leverkusen has exited the UCL in continually humiliating fashion. Barcelona, Manchester United, and PSG have absolutely crushed die Werkself in successive seasons. As for Schalke, Real Madrid made the club look like second class footballing citizens last season, while Chelsea has already drubbed S04 twice this season. And who can forget the jaw-dropping 0-4 home whooping Bayern suffered at the hands of Real Madrid last season? The effects linger.
Perhaps there’s no reason to believe similar results won’t also happen this season. Danger lurks ahead for at least three of the Bundesliga clubs in the UCL knockouts:
- Schalke 04 vs. Real Madrid: are you kidding me? The scene of last year’s crime is being revisited. S04 is already whimpering and hiding in a dark closet. And get this: the 2014-15 incarnation of Real Madrid is even better than last season’s title-winning version. Not that it matters, but Schalke host the first leg. Given recent matches, di Matteo will probably trot out something with 7-8 players box-clogging in defense. Pity Schalke.
- Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atlético Madrid: don’t be fooled. Leverkusen face a monumental task. For 2.5 seasons running, Atléti has emerged as one of Europe’s top 10 clubs. The defending La Liga champs are reloaded after selling off talent following last season’s run to the UCL final. After a shocking 2-3 loss to Olympiacos, Atléti reeled off a run of wins and one draw to win their group with a +11 GD. I suspect that viewers might be lulled into a false sense of danger with Atléti. The “alt Madrid” club doesn’t score loads of goals, like Real Madrid, but Simeone’s outfit is incredibly balanced, defensively solid, inventive, and hard-bitten. Leverkusen are probably in trouble.
- Borussia Dortmund vs. Juventus: mouth-watering stuff. Probably the most equal match up involving a Bundesliga club, but what do I know? If BVB play a bit of a possession-conceding strategy (like they have in the past two UCL campaigns), their counter-attack could be activated, thanks to Juventus’ relative immobility. And yet. We all know how well Dortmund finishes its chances on goal this season. I have no idea how this series will turn out. But isn’t this mystery fun?
As for Bayern, I can’t imagine homeless Shakhtar really challenging them. Why? Well, Shakhtar’s high-flying attack will probably run aground, like a beached fish, for lack of opportunities against Bayern’s smothering possession. Anyhow, there’s a decent shot that only one Bundesliga side survives the first knockout round.
However, predicting UCL results is pretty futile, given the two-leg, small sample size, and random craziness that is possible in these scenarios. So what’s more interesting to me, in light of all four Bundesliga clubs advancing to the knockout rounds, is the seeming maturity by which Bundesliga partisans – and dare I say, the wider football punditry – have responded to all four Bundesliga clubs advancing this time around.
The more muted response is a good thing. Here’s why. To me, it signals a progressing set of expectations concerning Bundesliga clubs. No longer is it good enough for all four clubs to advance to the knockouts. Think about it: taking a large of measure of pride in all four clubs advancing perhaps underlies something like an inferiority complex framing how Bundesliga lovers conceive of our beloved league. Last season taught me, at least, that advancing to knockout stages really means nothing, especially after such humiliating beat downs end last season’s run. Each of the four UCL Bundesliga clubs were left with a fat helping of disappointment. So perhaps our narrative arcs have adjusted.
Anyhow, in an epistemological sense, all four clubs advancing literally means nothing. The line of success in this case is arbitrary, given how disproportionately a role good / bad luck play in tournaments. For example, Schalke with its -5 GD needed a small miracle to advance in beating Maribor and seeing Chelsea decide to play real football and win 3-1 over Sporting. In each UCL match, Schalke never quite looked settled or strategy, instead playing the role of a hot mess.
Leverkusen fared little better. In what was perhaps the easiest UCL group, B04 struggled to score goals, yet shockingly led (!) its group with 7 goals. (Yes, Group C was that challenged, people.) In a parallel universe, Leverkusen wins this group easily with two matches to spare. And yet. I’m not trying to play cause-and-effect games here, but Leverkusen failed to create many shots inside the box (one of the tournament’s lowest rates), while taking many outside the box shots (one of the tournament’s highest rates). Shockingly, B04 had the 2nd worst pass completion rate in the tournament – god only know what/if anything this means. Defensively, Leverkusen seemingly played a high risk (or poor marking!) strategy of tackling and fouling opponents (highest rates in the tournament).
So yay for all four Bundesliga clubs advancing!
On the other hand, Bayern and Dortmund punctuated the small sample size of UCL group play with attractive numbers, both finishing inside the top five for shots and shots on target per match. Oddly, both clubs also scored about two-thirds of their goals in the penalty area, rather than from outside the box, or other situations. Finally, both clubs were in the top five for total chances created, and, strikingly Dortmund (along with Chelsea) created the most chances through long distance situations (16). Perhaps UCL clubs still have no club how to handle BVB’s now somewhat stale (at least in the Bundesliga) gegen-pressing / counter-attacking game?
Anyhow, at this moment just before the winter break, four Bundesliga remain in the Champions League. However, let’s keep remembering that this fact is simply a piece of information: a piece of information about which cause-and-effect evaluations and, certainly, broader narratives cannot be extracted. Four advanced. So what? Two of them played (sometimes) like crap and the other two were mostly dominant.
Soon, we will avert our eyes, roll our dice, or muse wishfully as the road to Berlin’s Olympiastadion clarifies itself for May’s final. I’m just excited that sniping with “so what?” is relevant right now.
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