Here we are on the verge of the 2018-19 Bundesliga season, and it’s hard to not look backwards.
Four years ago, those of us who have been avid followers of German football were feeling pretty good about our entry into “what’s the best league in the world?” Twitter battles. Not only was Germany coming off becoming the first Europeans to win a World Cup staged in the Americas, but the league itself had hogged one of the game’s biggest spotlights at the club level when both FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund fought their way to the final match of the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League. Additionally, the league had developed a reputation for high-scoring matches. Pundits, particularly those defensive of the assumed predominance of the English league, decried the Bundesliga for being light on defending, while others chose to embrace the “Fun-desliga” for what it was: a pleasure to watch.
The scene painted for us Bundesliga boosters by the reality of 2018 leaves us much less about which to brag.
Since the high-flying 2013-14 season, in which teams delivered 3.16 goals per match, the league has gone relatively cold. The four seasons since then all rank among the 15 lowest-scoring seasons in the league’s 55-year history. 2017-18’s average of 2.79 ranks as it’s eighth-lowest goal output.
The offensive stagnation was punctuated by a series of flops in UEFA competitions. In the Champions League, TSG Hoffenheim was denied a group-stage spot in the play-off round, albeit by eventual finalist Liverpool FC. Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig finished third in their respective groups, with Dortmund failing to win any of their six group-stage matches. Despite finishing second to Paris Saint-Germain in Group B, Bayern managed another semi final appearance, falling to Real Madrid after largely outplaying the eventual champion, perhaps a respectable result for most clubs, but undoubtedly a disappointment for Bayern, who had been eyeballing another treble under Jupp Heynckes.
The Europa League was slightly more-welcoming to the failed Champions League participants. Dortmund survived a Round of 32 fixture with Atlanata of Italy, to give them their first European victory of the season. Leipzig got to the quarter finals before being dispatched by Olympique Marseille. Those meager gains, however, will hardly be enough to offset the failures on the larger stage, much less those of Europa League group stage entrants Hoffenheim, Hertha BSC, and 1. FC Köln, all of whom failed to survive into the knockouts, winning just four of the 18 matches between them. Germany’s performance saw the Bundesliga’s ranking coefficient dip significantly, putting the league in danger of losing bids to the UEFA competitions.
“Perhaps we have rested on our laurels a bit,” says Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “We have four participants in the Champions League, but if we continue the way we have we will be on the verge of falling from four to just two.”
And, of course, the most-searing indictment of the condition of the German game, as far as the outside world sees it, has to be die Mannschaft‘s first-ever failure to advance from the group stage at a World Cup, falling to both Mexico and South Korea en route to an abbreviated trip to Russia. If nothing that had happened on the club side of the equation had triggered concern, the performance of Jogi Löw’s squad certainly served as a wake-up call.
Wow. When you put it all together like that, it’s a bit grim, isn’t it? Wasn’t I trying to get to the part where we should all be excited that the Bundesliga is starting again? Let me try to drive us back there before Bayern pumps Hoffenheim for a half-dozen.
Speaking of which . . .
We all know that the first criticism leveled at the Bundesliga is “more like Bayern-liga, you mean!” Even before Bayern’s current run of six consecutive titles, it was fairly well-established that it was rare anyone provided the record champion with much of a challenge, much less actually beat them to the title. Pre-season predictions are almost unanimous in believing Bayern will increase their streak to seven, with the lone exceptions coming from those who feel there is more to gain by dissenting than by picking the most-predictable champion in big-time football.
Yet, if there were a season set-up for a twist ending, this might be the one. In addition to a new coach and new style of play, Bayern is dealing with some turnover in the roster. Arturo Vidal has been shipped to FC Barcelona after three productive years in the Bavarians’ midfield. When talking about Jerome Boateng, you hear more about Paris Saint-Germain and his future as a magazine publisher than you do about his importance to the Bayern back line.
On the flip side . . . well, it’s Bayern. They have Serge Gnabry and Renato Sanches (okay, they’d probably give him away, but still . . .) returning from loans and scored Leon Goretzka on a free transfer from FC Schalke, Bayern’s closest competition last season. Add to all of this the diminishing returns of Thomas Müller and the fact that the Robben-Ribery show is in its twilight stages, it would seem that maybe there is an opening for a true “Bayern hunter” that there hasn’t really been since Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back titles that preceded the Bayern streak.
Funny enough, the last time Germany failed to defend their World Cup title, it was Borussia Dortmund taking the lead in the Bundesliga season that followed.
After winning the tournament they hosted in 1990, Germany was bounced from the 1994 World Cup in East Rutherford, New Jersey in the quarterfinal round when Bulgaria scored twice in three minutes late in the match to turn a one-goal deficit into a 2:1 win.
The following season, Borussia Dortmund won their first Bundesliga title, with just three points separating them from fourth place. Meanwhile, both Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen reached the semifinal stage of the UEFA Cup, both falling to Italian clubs, incidentally.
Defending Bundesliga champion Bayern finished six points off the mark in sixth place, though it must be pointed out they have not finished outside the top four since that season.
And I wouldn’t count on that changing in 2018-19.
Even so, a tighter title race would not be “nothing” to Bundesliga fans. And if one happens this year, it might be a host of contenders slugging it out to the late stages, rather than just one upstart giving making a show of things. All five of the clubs qualifying for Europe behind Bayern last season look like they could again provide a highly competitive battle for the Champions League and Europa League spots. Bringing that battle closer to Bayern’s high-flying territory would make things all the more exciting.
FC Schalke lost a few key pieces, but people in Gelsenkirchen believe in Domenico Tedesco. He arrived on the scene and turned what had been an inconsistent mess over preceding seasons into a legitimate vice-champion.
Under Heiko Herrlich, Bayer Leverkusen looked at times to be returning to their Champions League form, stringing together a 12-match unbeaten run into the winter break. A few late-season stumbles saw them drop from third to fifth, leaving their UEFA return for the Europa League, but with a fairly intact roster. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno went to Arsenal, but Lukas Hradecky should be a solid replacement. Meanwhile, Rudi Völler has added Brazilian winger Paulinho and right back Mitchell Weiser to a roster already boasting talents like Leon Bailey, Lucas Alario, Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt, and Kevin Volland.
And don’t forget Borussia Dortmund. In addition to the aforementioned bit of history, the BVB have been hard at work to get back into title contention with a return of eye-appeal to their play. New trainer Lucien Favre will benefit from defensive midfield arrivals Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel to complement the array of attacking talents, including Marco Reus, Mario Götze, and Christian Pulisic. Despite the embarrassment of riches in midfield, Favre does not have a proven, dedicated striker on whom to call, but how much that will deter Dortmund from scoring remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, we can all reliably await one of the greatest joys of Bundesliga football: the annual emergence of young talent.
The financial structures among German clubs tends to provide place for younger players to get playing time, rather than having to always wait behind high-priced talent, especially as English clubs have become more aggressive in plucking them away with increasingly insane offers (Sidebar: We can all stop whining about the English money & how it’s ruining everything right about now.) The benefit to fans of the German league is obvious every season when some young unknown becomes the talk of Bundesliga Twitter.
Last season, Schalke’s Amine Harit was recognized as the league’s “Rookie of the Year” for his smooth dribbling and darting runs through the midfield. The 21-year-old caused defenders fits, leading to his being fouled a league-high 94 times. Bundesliga fans also got to know Benjamin Pavard before he became one of France’s World Cup heroes this summer. English talent Jadon Sancho made just 12 appearances as a 17-year-old for Dortmund last season, but his talent left an indelible mark on everyone who saw him play, leaving everyone excited for more.
Who will be the next to burst onto the scene? You have to watch to find out!
There will be plenty of excitement on the other end of the table, too, I am certain, but let’s not relegate anyone to that battle just yet. Everyone is level on zero points today and rightfully should be dreaming of a sensational season, potentially ending as high as a European spot. Just as predictable as Bayern being terrific is that the rest of the table will be full of battles with surprises occurring regularly.
The recent trend may certainly seem negative, but tradition and maybe history point to a terrific 2018-19 Bundesliga season, potentially serving as a catalyst for the next era of German football dominance.
But I don’t have to tell you that, do I?