One of the fascinating aspects of the new Bundesliga season will be learning which clubs move up the table and which slide down. The league has a strong middle-class of clubs, mostly well-run, generally not peopled with superstars but with good players, often developed by the clubs or purchased at bargain prices. These are the clubs that may be battling for the last Champions League spot, or more likely, a Europa League berth, while for the most part, based on the clubs’ rosters and management, not be subject to relegation. I emphasize the phrase “for the most part..” as a cautionary one.
1.FSV Mainz 05 – Last season Mainz finished sixth, with wins over Bayern, Leverkusen, Schalke and Gladbach, finishing five points out of a CL berth, following a four-game stretch in April when the 05ers could only gain two points from consecutive matches with Wolfsburg, Köln, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburg. Early in this offseason, the club lost two of its brightest lights, goalkeeper Loris Karius and defensive midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger, to transfers.
Nevertheless, the club has ambition, quite a bit, in fact. They made their first trip to the US in July,training in Colorado Springs, and scheduled some big clubs in their preseason friendlies, including Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Europa League champions Sevilla. The transition in the sporting director’s seat from longtime 05er Christian Heidel to Rouven Schröder has went well, with Schroder looking quite able to perform the bargain buy transfer moves that Heidel specialized in, bringing in some interesting types such as Gerritt Holtmann (Bochum), Jose Rodriguez (Galatasaray), Jean-Philippe Gbamin (RC Lens) along with Guingamp goalkeeper Jonas Lössl to replace Karius. With a quality leader on the sidelines in Martin Schmidt and one of the best youth academies in Germany, Mainz should have another strong season, even while competing in the Europa League. Getting out of the EL group stage would be a major step forward for Mainz, who will most likely get a tough draw.
Hertha Berlin BSC – Pal Dardai’s side always seemed to do just enough to hang in there, and they held onto a CL berth for quite a while last season before slipping to seventh place at season’s end. Dardai has the ability to improve player’s performances, helping them focus, and sharpening the focus of veterans, as even Salomon Kalou testified. Kalou had 14 goals in league play last season, and fellow graybeard Vedad Ibisevic knocked in ten, combining for 57% of BSC’s output.
The club has done little in the summer transfer window, signing Legia Warsaw midfielder Ondrej Duda, inking Ibisevic to a permanent deal and getting promising 19 year-old Allan on loan from Liverpool. The club lost little in transfers, though, but the lack of incoming players seems more troubling after the Berliners were knocked out of a chance at Europa League group play by Teemu Pukki and his Brøndby IF mates after Hertha won the home leg of the series. BSC must rely on continued improvement from central defender John Brooks, who was a rock for the USMNT this summer at Copa America, continued good goalkeeping and for the Kalou/Ibesivic duo to keep on keeping on. The club will be hard pressed to repeat last season’s success, given that they were dead even in goal differential and the lack of incoming talent, but stranger things have happened and Dardai seems to have some magic up his sleeve, as he’d proven earlier with the Hungarian national team.
VfL Wolfsburg – VfL are currently the most puzzling team in the Bundesliga. Are they the club that had such a great season two years ago, or the club that spiraled down to an eighth place finish last season? Two seasons back, VfL had Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings at a world-class level and were galvanized in the Ruckrunde by the winter break death of teammate Junior Malanda. Last season De Bruyne left, Julian Draxler came in from Schalke, but the club was inconsistent, making it out of a fairly tough Champions League group, beating KAA Gent in the knockout rounds (probably the weakest team in the CL knockout phase) and then downing Real Madrid 2-0 in the VW City before losing 3-0 in Madrid to end the Wolves’ CL hopes.
Going into this season, Max Kruse, Naldo and Andre Schurrle are gone and Draxler apparently desires departure, but the club has brought in help in Daniel Didavi, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Yannick Gerhardt, Jeffrey Bruma, Josip Brekalo and Real Madrid loanee Borja Mayoral. How quickly they can integrate into the club, and how far last season’s off-field problems (Kruse, Lord Bendtner) are in the rearview mirror, will say a lot about Wolfsburg’s fortunes. Questions also requiring a positive answer include Draxler’s future, Vierinha’s injury (out at least six weeks), and where doth Dost rank — is Bas Dost an elite striker (2015/2016) or just barely an average one (last season). Stay tuned for an interesting Wolves’ campaign, as a possible move for Juventus striker Simone Zaza, 25, is in the works. Zaza scored five goals for Juve last year in 19 league matches, but his price tag is a hefty 25 million euros.
1.FC Köln – One of these days, we’re going to see the Billy Goats in the Europa League. Under the management team of Athletic Director Jörg Schmadtke and Coach Peter Stöger a stable environment for the players since both joined the club in 2013. Hard to believe, but Koln played in Bundesliga 2 just three seasons ago, but the club now are a solid middle-table first-division club. Proof? They were able to keep both of their ‘star’ players this summer, German international Jonas Hector and well-regarded goalkeeper Timo Horn, who is in Brazil tending goal for the German Olympic squad, despite rumors that both would be gone. The club has a solid, enthusiastic fanbase, although oddly enough the Billy Goats did slighter better as road warriors last season (23 pts) than they did at home (20 pts).
And there it is. If the club can improve their home form to a more palatable point total, a realistic goal, they are on the brink of European qualification. The good news for Koln fans….. only three Bundesliga clubs allowed less goals last season. The bad news….. only three Bundesliga clubs scored less than the 38 goals netted by the Billy Goats last season. Anthony Modeste scored 15 goals himself, but only Simon Zoller (six goals) scored more than three on last year’s squad. The club brought in veteran Arjoms Rudnevs, whose scored 19 goals in 90 Bundesliga matches, and 20 year-old French youth international Sehrou Guirassy to provide some options — last season Guirassy netted eight times in 16 matches while loaned to Auxerre in France’s 2nd division. Not big signings, but if one works out, that will be real help. The club also brought in veterans Konstantin Rausch and Marco Höger while only losing Yannick Gerhardt and Kevin Vogt to summer transfers. The squad is pretty well intact, and one would expect Köln to continue to climb up the table and vie for a EL spot.
Hamburger SV – After being on the relegation the previous two seasons, barely winning the promotion/relegation playoff over Bundesliga 2 clubs both times, HSV had a relatively good 2015/2016, finishing in 11th place. Under Coach Bruno Labbadia, who has become a hero in Hamburg in his second stint leading the club, HSV fans now feel not only a degree of certainty going into the new season, but some excitement, too.
That excitement is a result of HSV”s summer signings. They’ve brought in American international Bobby Wood, who netted 17 times for Union Berlin last season and has scored internationally against France, Germany and Mexico. Stuttgart’s Filip Kostic will also boost HSV’s attack — he can be a very effective player, and had a strong second half with VfB last season. HSV have also signed two exciting 20 year-olds — Alen Halilović is an attacking midfielder from the Barcelona organization who already has experience with Dinamo Zagreb and Sporting Gijon, while Luca Waldschmidt is a promising young forward who has a dozen caps with German national youth squads. HSV cleared out some dead wood from last season without losing much quality, and are turning around what looked to be a clown show the last few seasons, with their stadium giant clock (dating the time they’ve been in the Bundesliga — HSV are the only club to have been in the Bundesliga since it was formed) almost taunting the club’s inept play on the pitch and decision-making in the boardroom. For supporters of the red-shorts, it can be hoped that clown show days are strictly a thing of the past.
SV Werder Bremen – Like their fellow north Germans in Hamburg, things are looking up after some depressing seasons. Frank Baumann has replaced Thomas Eichen as manager, and Baumann retained Coach Victor Skripnik and his staff. Baumann, Skripnik and assistant Torsten Frings were all Werder Bremen players of the same successful era, leading to a feeling of family among the club’s decision makers.
The green-whites had a nice year two seasons back, led by the exciting goalscoring pair of Davie Selke and Franco Di Santo, but both departed last summer, and Werder’s attack looked more ragged with the exception of returning club hero, the ever-young Claudio Pizarro, who led the club with 14 goals, helping to stave off relegation. This summer, the club has lost a number of key players, including Anthony Ujah, Jannick Vestergaard and returning loanees Papy Djilobodji and Levin Öztunalı, but they have made some interesting signings that promise hope for the club. They’ve brought in attacking help in Max Kruse, Justin Eilers, Lennart Thy and Florian Kainz while striker Aron Johannsson, injured for the last ten months, took the field for the first again in a recent friendly. Baumann hasn’t forgotten defensive responsibilities either, with veterans Thanos Petsos, Niklas Moisander, Lamine Sane, Luca Caldirola, Fallou Diagne and goalkeeper Jaroslav Drobny coming in. There is an upbeat attitude in Bremen now, and if the club’s family attitude is successful, there will be many smiles in the north German city.
1899 Hoffenheim – It may seem a bit of a stretch to list Hoffenheim as a middle class Bundesliga club after they spent so much time last season looking like dead men walking, but the change in the club’s dynamics was incredible after Julian Nagelsmann took over the coaching reins from an ill Huub Stevens with ten matches remaining in the season. Nagelsmann, at 28 years old the youngest Bundesliga coach ever, turned the club around, fashioning a 6-2-2 record with a squad that looked absolutely clueless at times earlier in the season. The summer of 2015 saw a huge turnover at the club, as longtime Hoffe starters such as Roberto Firmino and Andreas Beck left to be replaced by younger players (with the exception of former top Bundesliga striker Kevin Kuranyi). Kuranyi had little left and the new additions couldn’t get untracked under Stevens’ tutelage, but Nagelsmann made the proper changes, instilled some attitude adjustment and Hoffe were suddenly not only winning but playing interesting football along the way.
Gone from last season’s squad is one high-profile player, German international Kevin Volland. But the incoming crop of players looks to lift the village team even further up the table. Benjamin Hübner is a solid defender, as is Kevin Vogt, while Lukas Rupp played well for Stuttgart last year and striker Sandro Wagner had the best season of his career with SV Darmstadt. Also important is the permanent signing of loanee Andrej Kramarić from Leicester City this summer. Along with Copa America champion Eduardo Vargas, Wagner, Mark Uth and youngster Philipp Ochs, Hoffenheim should return to being a high-octane scoring club once again, and if Nagelsmann can continue to instill the type of confidence he did last season, even after the inevitable bad run of results that every team but Bayern Munich experience, Hoffenheim may challenge for their first-ever European berth in 2016/2017.