Depressingly, Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern has refused to provide us even the pleasure of seeing them lose meaningless late season matches for our Schadenfreude kicks. For us non-Bayern partisans, it’s been a long winter and spring of Rot-Weiß influenza. But only, as I argued in a previous article, if your sole source of Bundesliga pleasure comes from seeing who wins the Meisterschale.
To repeat the point I made in my previous article, the Bundesliga is fascinating, surprising, and compelling—aside from Bayern. I know this “aside” isn’t trivial, and that asking Bundesliga followers to just sorta forget about Bayern is partially ridiculous; however, I just don’t know of another way to appreciate what the Bundesliga has to offer during this Bayern Reign of Terror. Because the Bundesliga does have so much to offer still.
You just have to do the bracketing-away-Bayern trick to see the good stuff. I know this from personal viewing experience. Whenever I waste my time watching Bayern during the Bundesliga matchday, I quickly turn dark, feel demotivated about following the Bundesliga, and just flat out pissed at Bayern. However, as soon as I switch back to watching the non-Bayern matches, my viewing faith is restored. Call it confirmation bias, but ignoring the Hannover-Bayern match in favor of the gripping Hamburg-Freiburg match was the best decision I made this past weekend.
Table-wise, the Bayern-less Bundesliga is still fascinating with its uncertainty, surprises, and congestion:
Start with Champions League spots 2-4: only five points separate Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund, and Bayer Leverskusen. In a Bayern-less world, of course, the Bundesliga would be having a hell of a title race right now. In terms of competition and drama, this tranche below Bayern is thoroughly exciting and itself worth the price of admission.
Moreover, a consistent theme this season has been that no one single club has emerged as the clear #2 side in Germany (a role occupied by BVB in previous seasons, once by VfB Wolfsburg, and last season by RB Leipzig). Schalke supporters will be throwing objects at their screens right now, screaming that S04 has been the clear #2 side. But I beg to differ, given Schalke’s recent loss to a desperate HSV, a home loss to Werder in February, and their home loss in the Pokal semi-final to Eintracht last week. Additionally, I’m just not convinced by a side that, although conceding the 4th fewest shots per match (however, BVB and Leverkusen concede even fewer), only creates the 11th most shots per match, yet the 6th most shots on target per match. This discrepancy between shots and shots on target points to a strategy built on shot scarcity in the name of quality, or a run of good luck offensively. Indeed, understat.com‘s Expected Goals model supports this claim. Schalke’s 49 goals is 7 goals beyond what’s statistically expected from S04, meaning that, according to understat.com’s model, Schalke has earned an extra 9 table points (i.e. without overperforming on ExGs, Schalke could’ve been a mid-table side this season is an argument one could make).
(Schalke supporters, you have permission to flame me in the comments section below!)
In other words, not exactly the markings of a dominant side.
But this is a good thing. I love the fact that, on a given matchday, S04, BVB, or Leverkusen can be virtually equivalent. The Bundesliga needs these three particular European-seasoned sides to be leading the rest of the domestic pack, boosting the Bundesliga’s UEFA coefficient chances, thanks to their European experience. However, it bear emphasizing that Schalke’s play has been remarkable this season. After last season’s 10th place finish, this 2nd place push was badly needed. Badly. Schalke hasn’t finished this high in the table since its 2nd place finish in 2009-10. A healthy Schalke makes for a healthy Bundesliga.
Speaking of Leverkusen, B04 (51 points) clings precariously to the 4th Champions League spot with Hoffenheim (49 points), RB Leipzig (47 points), and Eintracht Frankfurt (46 points) all within theoretical striking distance of the Champions League play-off. Pity poor Leverkusen: their ExG goals conceded is 34.55, while their actual goals conceded is 41, which is definitely the difference between winning/drawing or drawing/losing a handful of matches. However, after Leverkusen’s abyssal 2016-17 season and sluggish start to this season, a 4th place table slot is astonishing stuff. Again, a healthy Leverkusen makes for a healthy Bundesliga.
Then there’s Hoffenheim, the 2017-18 Bundesliga’s soap opera side. After last season’s triumphant 4th place finish, Hoffenheim was bled by Bayern for its top talent (bye-bye Niklas Süle, Sebastian Rudy, and Sandro Wagner!), never made the Champions League group stage, and started the 2017-18 season slowly. (As recently as March 1st, Hoffenheim was 9th.) Bayern loanee Serge Gnabry looked lost. The defense conceded as many goals as the offense scored. And Julian Nagelsmann no longer seemed like the darling superstar coach. Suddenly, two months later, Hoffenheim are sniffing hard at 4th place, scoring 22 goals and only shipping 6 during this period. Only Bayern has a better record and GD during this stretch (Hoffenheim’s GD is +16 since March 1). Granted, Hoffenheim is overachieving its ExG by 6 goals since March 1, but come on, you know you needed the return of Nagelsnator and his minions, a bit o’luck be damned.
If we’re talking about compelling, well, another compelling narrative has been the evolving identity of Borussia Dortmund, who’ve truly entered uncharted waters this season, finally beyond the ghost of the Jürgen Klopp years and confusion of the two Thomas Tuchel years. BVB is no longer even living on the fumes of the influence of these two coaches. This season, BVB has simply become a collection of mostly good football players, getting by on talent alone. At least, this is the big takeaway. Dortmund plays without philosophy or vision right now, instead looking for skilled players to break open scoring chances. The results are mixed. The methods (probably) irresponsible. But the results? Well, you never know what you’re gonna get from BVB.
At least this is how I would define “Stögerball.” On one hand, I get frustrated seeing BVB merely drift through matches (whether the club wins or loses) as a fan accustomed to stylized play from my favorite side. On the other hand, I’m actually incredibly excited about BVB, given that surprise awaits everyone after this season. I mean, who know which coach, playing philosophy, and new players will be installed next season. Right now, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about suspense. And suspense is exciting, even if BVB immolate next season, burdened by a slew of bad decisions.
In other words, my last paragraph implies that BVB is no longer Germany’s #2 — a status the club has “enjoyed” since day 1 of Pep Guardiola’s former tenure at Bayern. Sure, VfB Wolfsburg and RB Leipzig seemed to briefly usurp BVB as Germany’s #2 team, but these events were one-offs, the underlying belief always being that Dortmund really was Germany’s #2, and would probably would be the very next season.
Although with the way Leverkusen and RB Leipzig seem hold consistency at arm’s length, it’s not hard to imagine BVB returning as Germany’s #2 next season. Or, for that matter, finishing 2nd place this season, despite the various “crises” the club suffered. Which is another way of saying, isn’t this tier of clubs below Bayern fascinating? The pecking order is absolutely unclear and will be for the foreseeable future. Now, if only we could exile Bayern away to a European Super League …
Just this tier of four or so clubs (S04, BVB, B04, and RBL) make the Bundesliga compelling in its own right. However, throw in the roles played by Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt, and the top half of the table is positively bustling with competition, aside, ahem, from Bayern. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the table fluidity of these six clubs over the top six in any league not named the (English) Premier League.
Lest I’m accused of ignoring the Bundesliga uglies, let’s talk about them. Arguably, the Bundesliga has the strongest bottom half table in Europe. Or at worst, the second strongest after the Premier League. At this desperate point of the season, clubs like Hamburg and 1.FC Köln are ferociously fighting for their pride, and possibly top flight safety in HSV’s case. Meanwhile, Freiburg yo-yos from tasting Europe to another possible relegation, which has become the club’s recent pattern under Christian Streich. Then you have genuinely quality sides like FC Augsburg and Werder Bremen leading the table’s bottom half. What I’m trying to say is that, relative to elsewhere in Europe, the Bundesliga’s bottom half is surprisingly strong. In fact, the Bundesliga arguably contains the most evenly distributed range in talent of Europe’s top five leagues from table top to bottom, although France’s Ligue 1 could also make a case for this distinction. Look, I’m not trying to argue that the Bundesliga is Europe’s “best” league (whatever that means); rather, I’m drawing attention to the league’s parity, which makes basically all non-Bayern matches little firecrackers of excitement. This trait is why you’ll find me happily tuning into, say, VfB Stuttgart vs. Hannover 96 or SC Freiburg vs. Hertha Berlin over whatever Premier League match NBC Sports is carrying, or the Bayern match over on FS1, for example.
The Bundesliga’s parity below Bayern is precisely the thing I’ve come to appreciate this season. In some sense, the Bundesliga is the “NFL of European Soccer” in which fortunes fluctuate yearly. When I think about this characteristic, I close my eyes, imagine a league with no Bayern, then smile at the rollicking fantasy.