July 28, 2017

Bundesliga in Europe, 2016-17 Report Card: A Season to Forget

For the first time in over a decade (since 2005), the Bundesliga will not be represented in any European semifinal this season. Bayern Munich’s five year streak of consecutive Champions League (UCL) semifinals also came to an end. Moreover, 2016/17 was yet another season where German clubs were blown out by La Liga sides. Bundesliga teams have now come up short against Spanish clubs in twelve of the last twelve occasions. That aside, Bundesliga clubs (2nd) have at least outperformed their Serie A (4th), Premier League (3rd) and Ligue A (5th) counterparts on UEFA’s Five Year Coefficent Ranking (http://www.uefa.com/memberassociations/uefarankings/country/ ).

To be fair, Juventus, Man United, Lyon and Monaco are still alive, but the coefficient picture won’t change dramatically with just ten games left to play. Bundesliga fans can relax, there is no danger whatsoever that the Bundesliga will lose UCL and EL spots. While the gap between La Liga and the Bundesliga is widening (24 Coefficient points), the latter’s lead over England (4), Italy (7) and France (23) stays intact.

Let’s take a look how each German club did this year in Europe and come up with a overall grade. Each club’s (realistic) pre season expectations, spending power and European pedigree will be taken into account.

Borussia Dortmund

 

UEFA Club Coefficient Rank (http://www.uefa.com/memberassociations/uefarankings/club/): 7th

Preseason expectations: Round of 16

Last season, Borussia was forced to play in the second tier Europa League (EL) for a change and was kicked out by Jürgen Klopp of all people.

This season, Dortmund was back at big boy table and Tuchel’s young squad proved that they belong there from the very beginning. Borussia went unbeaten in two outings against title holder Real Madrid, broke the group stage scoring record (21 goals in six matches) and won the group ahead of Real. Next up was a gritty Benfica Lisbon side (UEFA Club rank: 9th) who stole the first leg (0:1) thanks to countless missed BVB chances. But Dortmund’s dominance finally payed off in the second leg, where Benfica was handled with ease and the Portuguese were lucky to only concede four. In the quarterfinal, Dortmund avoided the “Big Three” and drew a beatable opponent in AS Monaco (ranked 29th). Die Schwarzgelben had a realistic shot at the semifinals and a chance to salvage an otherwise frustrating 2016/17 campaign. We all know what happened next. Three Bombs, intended to kill Borussia’s players, detonated close to the team bus and football wasn’t relevant anymore.

No Grade

We will never know how the Monaco tie would have played out under normal circumstances. After all, Dortmund’s players and staff almost got killed on Tuesday evening and had to take the field on Wednesday night. Not to take anything away from Monaco, who arguably would have won the tie either way, but this wasn’t a fair fight and should therefore be disregarded.

Hertha BSC Berlin

Europa League, 3. Qualifikationsrunde (Hinspiel), Hertha BSC – Bröndby IF, 28.07. 2016.

 UEFA Team Coefficient Rank: 114

Preseason Expectations: Advance to group stage

The last time Hertha played in a UEFA competition was a while back in 2012. Hertha supporters were ready to go on exciting trips all over Europe again, but in the end fans only got to visit Copenhagen. Hertha managed to lose the EL Qualification Playoff against Bröndby in truly horrific fashion. Berlin looked shaky in their 1:0 home win and started poorly in the second leg. Bröndby went ahead early until a Vedad Ibisevic equalizer put Hertha in full control of the tie. Somehow Hertha’s defense managed to gift Bröndby two easy goals down the stretch while Ibisevic and Salomon Kalou missed one sitter after another.

Grade F

When a team valued at 86 million Euros plays a team worth 18 million, there are no excuses. Whether Hertha lacked international experience or players weren’t at one hundred percent is completely irrelevant. Berlin’s 2017 Euro campaign deserves the lowest possible grade, because it isn’t possible do worse than Hertha did in Europe this year.

FC Schalke 04

UEFA Team Coefficient Rank: 14

Preseason Expectations: Reach final

Die Knappen are ranked 14th overall and ahead of Atletico Madrid on the Forbes soccer club valuation list. S04 also has the 7th highest attendance in world football. For a club as massive as FC Schalke 04, it was pretty embarrassing to play in Europe’s second tier tournament for the second year in a row. That’s why sporting director Horst Heldt was shown the door this summer despite his decent body of work. During Heldt’s seven years at Schalke, the club always qualified for Europe and even reached the CL in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. But at Schalke it’s all about “what have you done for me lately?”, so a new sporting director (Christian Heidel; Mainz 05) and coach (Markus Weinzierl; FC Augsburg) were brought in to get Schalke back to the Top Four and make some noise the the EL.

Grade D+

Schalke was superb in the group stage and won the “inner German” Round of 16 tie against Gladbach on goal difference. Schalke being Schalke, supporters got (over)excited and “Eurofighter” scarves popped up in the stands.

Schalke’s legendary 1997 UEFA Cup winning squad was nicknamed “Die Eurofighter”, which is also the name of the German Army’s fighting jets.

Quarterfinal opponent Ajax Amsterdam is one of the most iconic clubs in football, but the Dutch lack financial firepower (squad valued at 104 million € by transfermarkt) and haven’t appeared in a UEFA quarterfinal since 2002/03. By contrast, Schalke has more money (team valued 216 million €;), a much better track record in recent seasons, so this was clearly Schalke’s tie to lose.

The embarrassing 0:2 upset at the Amsterdam Arena was quite a shock, but Schalke bounced back in the second leg and forced extra time. Those extra 30 minutes were going to make or break Schalke’s 2017 season. An inconsistent Bundesliga campaign meant winning the EL title was Schalke’s only hope to make the CL. Ajax was down to ten men and looked like dead meat when Daniel Caligiuri scored the 3:0. Die Knappen were nine minutes from the semifinal, but the Dutch put the dagger in Schalke’s back out of nowhere. Game over.

It took just one short sequence of clumsy defending for Ajax to ruin Schalke’s season. Schalke’s higher ups needed that win badly to create some momentum and gloss over a disappointing Bundesliga season. Heidel & Weinzierl are off to a terrible start now and Schalke is in danger of missing out on Europe altogether this season.

Mainz 05

UEFA Team Coefficient Rank: 86

Preseason Expectations: Compete for second place in group

Mainz 05 crashed out of the EL Qualifiers twice in recent years. In 2011/12 Romanian side Gaz Metan Medias denied the Nullfünfer. In 2014/15 Asteras Tripolis (Greece) proved too strong. This time around Mainz got to skip the Qualifiers thanks to a sixth place Bundesliga finish. In the group stage RSC Anderlecht, St.Etienne and FK Galaba were the opponents.

Grade C

All in all, Mainz conceded just one loss (1:6 at Anderlecht) and earned a very respectable nine points overall. St. Etienne (ranked 58th) and Anderlecht (32nd) had more European experience, so Mainz’ performance was totally in line with preseason expectations.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen

UEFA Team Coefficient Rank: 15

Preseason Expectations: Round of 16

Leverkusen has qualified for the CL in five of the last six Bundesliga seasons. Sadly though, Bayer hasn’t done anything memorable in this competition since Michael Ballack, Lucio & Co. reached the final in 2002. Recent Bayer campaigns always seem to shake out the same way. Bayer advances from the group in second pace, draws a strong Round of 16 opponent and gets eliminated. That’s how Leverkusen’s CL seasons ended in 2012 vs Barca, 2014 vs PSG and in 2015 vs Atletico.

Grade C

There were realistic hopes that 2017 was going to be different. For once, Bayer was able to hold on to their star players and Rudi Völler was able spend 57 million Euros on new signings. Given those circumstances, it will always be a mystery why Leverkusen’s Bundesliga season turned out the way it did. By contrast, Die Werkself did as expected in Europe. An impressive win at Wembley against Tottenham was arguably the high note of Bayer’s forgettable season and won them a Round of 16 berth. Leverkusen then faced Atletico Madrid team at a time when the club was in relegation trouble. Roger Schmidt was let go and during the winter break Leverkusen lost Hakan Calhanoglu for the season due to a FIFA transfer violation. Back in 2015, Leverkusen took the colchoneros to penalties. This year, Leverkusen had no business being on the same pitch as Atletico. The Spaniard’s basically killed off the tie in the first leg with a 4:2 away win. This sequence from the second leg is emblematic for Bayer’s 2016/17 season:

Borussia Mönchengladbach

UEFA Team Coefficient Rank: 36

Preseason Expectations: 3rd place group finish

For the second year in a row Die Fohlen entered the CL and were out of it before the first game kicked off. Last year Gladbach faced Juve, Man City and Sevilla, this season they drew another “group of death” with Barcelona, Celtic and Man City. The only realistic goal was to qualify for the EL in third place and Gladbach did just that. The Foals then faced Fiorentina in the EL. The Italians gained the upper hand thanks to a 1:0 away win and were leading 2:0 in Florence:

It was game over for Gladbach until the (criminally underrated) Lars Stindl said “Hold on, I got this!” and turned the tie on it’s head by scoring three goals within 11 minutes. Fun fact, while Stindl scored an “English hat trick” in Florence, he failed to meet the requirements for a “German Hattrick”. In Germany all three goals must be scored in one half, without the other team scoring in between. In the end, the Foals won 4:2 and were up against Schalke in next round.

Grade B-

Gladbach earned a 1:1 draw at Schalke and took complete control over tie in the home leg. Gladbach held a 2:0 lead and were cruising until a harmless Leon Goretzka shot bounced off a grassy knoll on the pitch and went in. A few minutes later Schalke was awarded a questionable penalty and stole the tie on away goals. All in all, Die Fohlen played Barca (1:2) and City (1:1) tough and that epic comeback win in Florence was the biggest European achievements in recent club history. It would be very too harsh to give BMG less than a B.

FC Bayern München

UEFA Team Coefficient Rank: 2

Preseason Expectations: Challenge for the title

Just four years ago, Bayern finally won Europe’s crown after a twelve year drought. Not only was Bayern the best team in football back then, incoming “coaching messiah” Pep Guardiola and “German Messi” Mario Götze were expected to make Bayern even better. Well, 2013 feels like ages ago now, doesn’t it?

Bayern’s CL campaigns in the “Guardiola era” can be summed up like this: Sleepwalk through group stage, beat Arsenal, get knocked out by La Liga side, repeat.

Guardiola won five out of six possible domestic titles but many Bayern fans were happy to see the Catalan coach leave this summer. Carlo Ancelotti, a pragmatic coach known for putting results over philosophy was brought in and Mats Hummels was added to an already superb Bayern defense in pre season. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery aren’t getting any younger, while Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm both announced their end of season retirements, so Bayern had to make the 2017 CL season count.

Grade B

Bayern finished the group stage in second place and had a rocky start in the Bundesliga. In spring Bayern looked like Bayern again. They dominated the Bundesliga as usual and handed Arsenal London a historic 2:10 loss on aggregate. Bayern looked ready to finally slay one of the “Spanish beats” and they got a shot at Real Madrid, the only club in the world Bayern looks up to, in the Quarterfinals. The 2017 Classico de Europa was an “instant classic” and it was sad that referee Viktor Kassai had such a starring role in the tie. By now everybody has seen the replays of Vidal’s sendoff and Cristiano Ronaldo’s offside goals. It can’t be denied that Bayern got unlucky. That being said, Bayern was awarded two penalties that would have caused a similar controversy in Spain had Bayern won. To be frank, Bayern created zero goals from open play in 210 minutes and managed just two shots on goal at the Bernabeu. Moreover, if it wasn’t for Manuel Neuer’s superhero performance and that Sergio Ramos own goal, none of Kassai’s calls wouldn’t have mattered. Injuries to Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels also played a role in Bayern’s defeat, but at this problem wasn’t exclusive to Bayern (Pepe and Gareth Bale) at all. Bayern fans won’t like to hear it, but Real won the tie fair and square.

Bernd Schuster thinks Bayern got complacent, while Real keeps pushing every year to get better.

Of course, on paper that quarterfinal exit looks like a step in the wrong direction for Bayern, yet there were also plenty of positives signs. Die Roten controlled the tie when both teams played with eleven men and had Madrid on the brink of elimination despite all those bad breaks. Former Real coach and Germany legend Bernd Schuster made a great point when he argued that Bayern has gotten a little complacent. Schuster criticized that Bayern’s “let’s try again next year, we’ll be fine” mentality in recent seasons is the root all evils. To be fair though, it’s hard to justify big money signings and roster changes for a club that is going to win domestic silverware anyways. There wasn’t no sense of urgency in Munich to improve the squad, because nobody is challenging Bayern in Germany right now.

Bayern’s CL title in 2001 happened in parts, because Borussia Dortmund won back to back Bundesliga titles (1995,1996) and became the first Bundesliga club to win the Champions League in 1997. Munich’s #1 status in Germany was in serious danger, so Uli Hoeness got to work. Giovane Elber, Stefan Effenberg and Ottmar Hitzfeld were brought in and led Bayern to two CL finals in four seasons. Bayern’s 2013 CL title run was fueled by Klopp’s dominant BVB teams. Barca and Real are pushing each other to improve year over year, while Bayern wins Bundesliga titles on auto pilot. That’s why Bayern is in a weird place right now. They’re “too big too fail” domestically and handle “mid major” Euro clubs like Benfica or Arsenal with ease. On the other hand they haven’t knocked out a Spanish side in years. Maybe that a CL quarterfinal exit and the DFB Pokal upset against Dortmund was exactly the “wake up call” Bayern needed.

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