The 2016/2017 Bundesliga season kicks off in just over two weeks, when champions Bayern Munich host Werder Bremen at the Allianz on Friday, August 26. I just hope I can wait that long.
Because…. the upcoming Bundesliga season has so many interesting narratives and questions to be answered concerning each of its 18 clubs. This has been a summer abundant with fascinating football, served up at Copa America, the Euros and thus far in the Rio Olympics. Domestic leagues are underway on every continent, too, so there has been plenty of footy to satisfy our hunger. And for fans of German football in particular, Bundesliga 2 and 3. Liga have already kicked off, and we have the DFL SuperCup on Sunday and the DFB Pokal first round the next week to help fill any remaining void.
But for all that, I think that I’m far from being the only one who is antsy for the weekend of August 26 to roll around. Germany’s top division starts a bit later than normal because of the Euros, and that’s part of the itchiness, but at least for me, the anticipation to see what happens on the pitch is difficult to tolerate. I want to know if Bayern will be as effective, or even more so, with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm and Mats Hummels paired with Jerome Boateng in front of Manuel Neuer — how will opponents even score, much less win against Bayern? Borussia Dortmund have undergone a boatload of change — will the changes keep BvB nipping at Bayern’s heels or will it take awhile for the club to coalesce?
Bayer Leverkusen looks very strong, particularly in attack, but their defense is solid also, allowing only 42 goals in 34 league matches last season, with only Bayern and Dortmund being stingier. Borussia Mönchengladbach will be looking to qualify for Champions League with a strong roster. Schalke have a new management team in Sporting Director Christian Heidel and Coach Markus Weinzierl, both successful at clubs with far less budget than the Royal Blues. And then there are the exciting transfers at the two big north German sides, Hamburger SV and Werder Bremen. Both clubs have been down on their luck in recent years, but their summer moves have invested supporters with new hopes for success.
Mainz 05 are in the Europa League group stage and continue to exhibit their ambition, while FC Augsburg, FC Ingolstadt and SV Darmstadt head into the season without the coaches who were so intrinsic in their rise to first-division football in Germany. Wolfsburg are in the midst of tremendous roster overhaul after falling from contender (sort of) to pretender last season, and Hertha Berlin have stood pat after a surprisingly successful 2015/2016 campaign under Pal Dardai. The Billy Goats of Koln have found stability with Peter Stöger– now can they take the next step forward, while Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim are trying to find that kind of stability with the coaches who performed fireman heroics after being appointed late last season. The bounceback promotion of SC Freiburg brings always-interesting Coach Christian Streich back to the microphones at the mainstage, and perhaps the most intriguing story of the new campaign will be that involving promoted RB Leipzig, that most controversial of all German clubs.
FC Bayern Munich – Not many clubs could replace a departing coaching legend with another legend, but the Bavarians did so when they brought in Carlo Ancelotti to continue the winning ways of Pep Guardiola. The 57 year-old Italian has been a bigtime winner as both a player, and as a manager in Italy, Spain, England and France. The fact that his appointment was announced last December has allowed plenty of time for the Bayern staff and players to get accustomed to the new coach, and from all reports his hiring has been a very popular move.
Winner of a record four consecutive Bundesliga titles, there’s no reason to think that Bayern can’t win a fifth this year. The Bavarians have added to the roster’s strength by signing former Bayern youth player Mats Hummels from Dortmund, giving them perhaps the best central defensive pairing in the world, and bringing in an exciting new talent in Renato Sanches (currently sidelined with injury). The players who’ve departed in the offseason (most notably Mario Götze, Sebastian Rode, Mehdi Benatia) did not play integral roles at the club. Ancelotti has also promoted three promising youth players in Fabian Benko, Julian Green and Niklas Dorsch who will be pushing Ancelotti’s veterans hard to earn minutes on the pitch, a safeguard against any complacency.
Ancelotti is a proven winner, and there is a strong argument to be made that he is more adaptable, more tactically flexible, than some of the other top coaches currently in the game, including Pep and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp. One thinks that the Bavarians will face tougher domestic competition than they have in the last few years, but they still remain the favorite to win the league again and retain the potential to do the treble.
Borussia Dortmund – The transfer departures of elite talents such as Hummels, İlkay Gündoğan and Henrikh Mkhitarayan from Dortmund this summer would seem to doom any club, and we recall a similar mass exodus at Borussia Mönchengladbach (Marco Reus, Dante, Roman Neustädter) in the summer of 2012 that pushed the Foals downwards from fourth to eighth spot in the table and out of European contention in 2012/2013. But Dortmund have immediately spent the transfer fees to return the afore-mentioned Götze back, bring in veterans Rode and André Schürrle, and sign a handful of young talents headed thus far in training and friendlies by 19 year-old French youth international Ousmane Dembele, a forward from Stade Rennes. If anything, Dortmund management have handed Coach Thomas Tuchel an even deeper squad to compete with, although perhaps one less experienced.
Most don’t think that Dortmund will fall the way Gladbach did, but it may take a bit for the new players to integrate into the squad, and Tuchel will be challenged to find adequate playing time for a big, talented squad, to find his best rotation and keep the squad content. Nevertheless, the BvB coach will have so much talent to choose from, a luxury most of his fellow Bundesliga coaches can only dream of.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen – Could this finally be the year for Die Werkself? It may be imagined that many Leverkusen supporters are quietly hoping that this is their year to win a trophy or two, with rivals Munich undergoing a coaching change (and with many of their players perhaps having tired legs after playing in the Euros/Copa America) and Dortmund’s heavy roster turnover. To further those hopes, Leverkusen have lost little from last year (midfielder Christoph Kramer) while adding defensive midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger, attacker Kevin Volland, up and coming fullback Danny Da Costa (injured in training camp), a fine backup goalkeeper to Bernd Leno in Ramazan Özcan and getting back Levin Oztunalı following his loan spell at Werder Bremen.
Coach Roger Schmidt has a loaded roster in both attack and defense, and even team legend Stefan Kießling, who had been feeling so much pain that he’d contemplated retiring, is feeling much better according to the most recent reports and may be able to play shortly after the season opener. While Kießling’s role has been reduced, his willingness to fight hard for possession is a fundamental example to Schmidt’s squad, which depends so much in winning the ball back immediately after a turnover in the opponent’s third of the field. It’s going to be exciting in Leverkusen this year, but we’ll just say so very quietly…and hope.
Borussia Mönchengladbach – The Foals have made a few big changes during the summer transfer window, adding Kramer from Leverkusen (he was successful the year prior while on loan at Gladbach) and towering central defender Jannik Vestergaard from Werder Bremen, a player who at age 24 already has close to 120 Bundesliga matches under his belt. They’ve also added teenager Mamadou Doucoure from PSG, but have lost star midfielder Granit Xhaka, along with another Borussia veteran midfielder, Havard Nordviet. It is hoped that the acquisition of Kramer will help cover for Xhaka’s departure.
Gladbach had a roller-coaster experience last season, losing their first five league matches and seeing Coach Lucien Favre depart, to be replaced by Andre Schubert. The interim coach did so well that his appointment was made permanent just a few months after taking over the Foals’ coaching reins as he coaxed a huge season from Raffael and other Gladbach players. Only the club’s losses to Wolfsburg, Schalke, Ingolstadt and Hannover in March and April prevented the club from an automatic Champions League position — instead they must win a playin series against Swiss side Young Boys (the first leg is away on August 16) to reach the CL group stage. And while very few tout the Foals as a favorite to win the Bundesliga this season, stranger things have happened, especially when a club is so capable as Schubert’s squad.
FC Schalke 04 – The Royal Blues have lost some huge talents in the offseason, especially Leroy Sané, who showed inconsistency last season but still has a huge upside at the age of just 20 years old. Gone too is central defender and Schalke vet Joel Matip and Dynamo Kiev loanee Younes Belhanda. But the biggest offseason moves for Schalke occurred off the field, as the club installed a dynamic management duo of Sporting Director Christian Heidel and Coach Markus Weinzierl.
Schalke have been inconsistent and underachieving over the last seasons, but the addition of Heidel and Weinzierl should help stabilize the club. Both were longtime servants of smaller clubs that overachieved and surpassed much more established German clubs such as Werder Bremen, Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart. Heidel at Mainz 05, and Weinzierl at FC Augsburg, showed the ability to do more with less, and also demonstrated unquestioned loyalty to their employers, traits that should serve Schalke very well in the future.
It’s always a leap for management types from a smaller, low-budget club to a huge club like Schalke (don’t forget that the Royal Blues have a very large number of fan club members) — the stakes and expectations are different, and one deals with higher-profile players, who may be less easy to manage due to their past accomplishments and contracts. But one feels that with the two working in tandem, Schalke will attract better players while keeping more from their productive youth system. Heidel has already added defender Naldo to replace Matip, and brought in much-sought youngster Breel Embolo from the Swiss Super League, along with picking up explosive left back Rahmann Baba on loan from Chelsea. This may not be the Royal Blues’ best year, but it’s could well be the turning point that changes a good but inconsistent side to a consistent winner.
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