Willkommen zurück! Six ‘Torr’iffic Reasons To Be Excited About The Bundesliga This Year
1. Play it Again, Carlo: More of the same at Bayern?
Might as well get it out the way quickly; Bayern will in all probability win the Bundesliga again this year. Nominally, they’ve once again consolidated their position as the best team in the country through marginal improvements to squad depth. They’ve bought sparingly, but well. The acquisition of Mats Hummels from Dortmund — who’s pejoratively Judas Mk. III (despite being a Bayern academy graduate) after Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski made the same journey — strengthens an already robust defence, while Renato Sanches’s kinetic performances in Euro 2016 vindicated his healthy pricetag, and he certainly looks one of the most exciting pups in Europe.
The promotion of their own youth players, such as Julian Green and Niklas Dorsch, will also reduce the burden on the aging Franck Ribéry and Xabi Alonso. It remains unclear how radically the football under Ancelotti will change Post-Pep, though the DFL Supercup win against Dortmund suggested a more direct, compact approach as Bayern appeared content with Dortmund controlling possession. While it’ll be intriguing to see how Bayern’s stylistic identity under Ancelotti mutates over the course of the season, this year’s most interesting narratives lie outside the Allianz Arena.
2. Modern Football’s Frankenstein: RB Leipzig
RB are the proverbial elephant in the room of the Bundesliga 16/17, and while Bayern are almost universally disliked outside of Bavaria, to the average German fan RB represent Satan’s XI. Their existence is widely considered a symbolic move away from community ownership, as they’ve foregone the traditional 50+1 principle. 50+1 decrees that for a club to obtain a license to play in the Bundesliga, 50% plus one share cannot be traded in the market; therefore, 50% plus one share must be owned by club members, and consequently clubs are administered by local fans absent from overriding corporate lobbying. A member’s fee at Dortmund for example is trivial, 62 euros.
However, the notion that RB are pioneering this capitalist injunction is disingenuous. Both Leverkusen and Wolfsburg — although established decades ago before fan proprietorship became such a principled issue — are owned by industry colossi Bayer and Volkswagen. More recently Hoffenheim’s success has been engineered by the entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp, who increased his stake in the club from the federation approved 49% to a majority stake last year.
However, RB’s situation is drastic, and suggestive of comprehensive, permanent change. When Red Bull purchased SSV Makranstadt in 2009, they were in the fifth tier. Red Bull skirted the law preventing a club being named after a sponsor by titling their new commodity RasenBallsport Leipzig. Theoretically they uphold the 50+1 principle; except that the majority of club members are Red Bull employees, and the member’s fee is an alienating 800 euros annually. Moreover, unlike Bayer and Volkswagen who are German companies, Red Bull is Austria based. The financial power of Red Bull, valued at 7.9 billion euros by Forbes, will theoretically establish them as a future Bundesliga giant, eventually if not soon. Last weekend — during a DFB Cup match with Dynamo Dresden — the opposition fans threw severed bulls’ heads onto the pitch, a mendacious gesture aimed squarely at RB’s political fabric. This isn’t going away any time soon.
But how will they fare outside politics? Beguilingly, their humble set-up is at odds with the conventional idea of a newly minted minnow. Indeed, they share another parallel with Hoffenheim, Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick, now RB’s Sporting Director, managed Hoffenheim to their promotion in 2008, and is valued by many in German football as one of the primary advocates of the country’s sport science infrastructure. He has run the club frugally and patiently since taking over in 2012, without splashing superfluous investment. Furthermore new coach Ralph Hasenhüttl has firsthand experience in helping a newly promoted team survive their first season at the top, having accomplished that very feat with Ingolstadt last season. They possess a gifted if relatively modest squad, with the most curious figure arguably being new addition Timo Werner who, if he adds consistency to his undoubted talent, can fire RB to safety. The politics will dominate RB’s season, but they’ll be a compelling side to watch on the pitch as well.
3. The Prodigal Son: What are the Implications of Götze’s Homecoming?
When Mario Götze left to join Bayern in April 2013, the outrage that erupted across Westphalia echoed across Europe. After Dortmund’s consecutive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012, Bayern responded by reclaiming their crown as German champions with six games to spare (and would beat Dortmund in May’s Champions’ League Final), a demonstration of unequivocal supremacy they’ve only reinforced since; and Götze, enchanted by the prospect of working under Guardiola, told Dortmund of his intention to leave that Spring. It’s safe to say that, despite his World Cup Final winning goal, he’s not quite lived up to his potential in the three years since his move, and has operated mostly on the periphery of Guardiola’s plans.
Now he’s returned to the Westfalenstadion, Götze should be commended for his bravery in doing so. Rather than moving abroad to relative comfort and ambiguity, he’s confronting the skeletons in his closet, challenging himself to crush the low expectations placed on him, and win back the fans who used to worship him. Dortmund have been excellent in the transfer market, bringing in Marc Bartra, Raphaël Guerreiro, Ousmane Dembélé, and Götze’s ex-Bayern teammate Sebastian Rode; but it’ll be Götze’s performances that’ll inevitably dominate the discussion around Dortmund’s early season. André Schürrle is an entirely different kettle of fish…
4. Wolves (and Foals) at the Door: The Top Four Race
With the Bundesliga creeping ever closer to supplanting the Premier League’s runners’ up position in UEFA’s coefficient table, those coveted Champions League positions are more deliciously lucrative than ever. While it’s fair to suppose that Bayern and Dortmund will fill two of the four places, the duels over the remaining slots promise to be enthralling. Wolfsburg are esoteric, their deterioration from the world-beaters of 14/15 to the circus that was last season was remarkable. Obviously there are tangible reasons; Julian Draxler’s inadequacy in replacing Kevin De Bruyne as a creative and goalscoring force of nature, and too many key players transformed into non-entities, particularly Bas Dost, Ricardo Rodriguez and Luiz Gustavo. Dieter Hecking has dramatically shaken up the squad, shifting on André Schürrle, Naldo, Max Kruse, and imminently Draxler you’d presume, opting for solid, experienced Bundesliga players as replacements, exemplified by Daniel Didavi, Jakub Błaszczykowski, and one of the coups of the Summer in Mario Gómez. Whether these changes integrate quickly and effectually enough to renovate Wolfsburg into a team to be reckoned with will be a major talking point this year.
Schalke, inversely, have the potential to be exhilarating. Although losing both Leroy Sane and Joel Matip to England, they’ve bought nearly as well as their Revierderby counterparts Dortmund; Wolfsburg’s Naldo, Sevilla’s Coke (who has unfortunately just been sidelined with injury) and the sought after Breel Embolo from Basel. The biggest change has been in management, installing a duopoly of Head Coach Markus Weinzierl and Sporting Director Christian Heidel. Both characters have a history of impressive overachievement with their respective provincial clubs FC Augsburg and Mainz 05, and are highly regarded for their loyalty, fierce intellect of the game, and prudence with limited resources. After recent years of underachievement, the question is whether Schalke can finally come good, and whether Heidel and Weinzerl can cope with the task of working on a significantly larger project than they’re used to.
Borussia Monchengladbach experienced a whirlwind season last year, losing their first five league games under club legend Lucien Favre before his tragic departure. His replacement, André Schubert, tenaciously reinvigorated them to a 4th placed finish. Schubert's team is frighteningly quick, compensating for their lack of tactical flexibility by being unflappably clinical in counter-attacks. The core of Patrick Hermann, Lars Stindl and Raffael are both rapid and dependably deadly in front of goal. The monster seasons of Fabian Johnson, and more noticeably Mahmoud Dahoud, signify the depth of quality they possess. The losses of Granit Xhaka and Håvard Nordtveit are big blows to their midfield’s grit however, although this should be alleviated by the addition of Christoph Kramer, who excelled for Gladbach in a loan spell during 14/15. Gladbach looked like the best side in Germany at times last season, but they need to stabilise and improve upon that inconsistency.
However, there’s one Champions League quality team I’ve omitted to mention so far…
5. The Shadow in a ‘Two Horse Race’: Are Leverkusen The “Team To Watch” This Season?
Leverkusen’s reputation is that of the perpetual nearly men: even with their great Brazilian-and-Ballack inspired team around the turn of the century, and their enduring reputation as a Bundesliga titan, they’ve, incredibly, never actually won the title. Could this be about to change? It’s universally agreed that Roger Schmidt’s side feature some of the most technically auspicious and ambitious young players in Europe. What’s important to note that this is not a group with tentative potential, at least not anymore, but a group that’s progressed to that next significant level, teetering on the border of a genuinely world class collective. They are experienced, composed, and intelligent, individually and as a team. This is embodied in their three most imposing signings this Summer: Kevin Volland, Julian Baumgartlinger, and Aleksandar Dragović, who independently indicate an officious spine as a striker, midfielder and defender. They possess years of being established starters, were renowned leaders at their previous clubs (Hoffenheim, Mainz and Dynamo Kiev), and are talented enough to supplement the side without subverting its uniformity.
Leverkusen have indubitably and emphatically strengthened. Correspondingly, Dortmund could suffer from their squad overhaul while Bayern might experience a Guardiola-coloured hangover, leaving a tempting gap for an alternative champion. As exciting as they promise to be, surely the Bundesliga itself will remain a step too far? Only time, and serious quality, will tell. Though considering my history with bold predictions, it’s fair to assume Leverkusen will finish sturdily mid-table.
6. Stirring in the North: New Era Werder & Hamburg Inspire Anticipation
While Stuttgart suffered an ignominious collapse into the 2. Bundesliga, their big-clubs-in-crisis colleagues Werder Bremen and Hamburg settled for further soul-searching. Before last season’s respectable 11th placed finish, Hamburg had narrowly avoided the unthinkable through marginal wins in two consecutive season’s worth of relegation playoffs. But they’ve looked a shadow of that great mid-noughties side — Van Der Vaart, Nigel de Jong, Ivica Olić — for a while now. Last season offered avenues of optimism however, and Bruno Labaddia, now in his second stint with the club, personifies an avatar of safety, even certainty. Having cleared out the deadwood, they’ve brought in Bobby Wood; the US international who scored a reasonable 17 goals for Union Berlin in the division below last year, as well as two gifted 20 year old forwards; Luca Waldschmidt and Alen Halilović, who you may know as that-Croatian-kid-Barca-signed-three-years-ago. With a less bloated squad, and a coherent vision under Labaddia, it’ll be interesting to see what waves Hamburg can make this season.
With Frank Baumann supplanting Thomas Eichen as Manager in Bremen this Summer, the head staff now comprises a stately triumvirate of Baumann, Head Coach Viktor Skrypnyk, and club hero Torsten Frings as Skrypnyk’s assistant. This purveys a fragrance of nostalgia tothe Northern city, as Baumann captained Bremen to their Bundesliga title in 2004 with Skrypnyk as a useful utility defender in that same team. Frings’s eleven years over two spells for Bremen and 79 caps for Germany speaks for itself. There’s very much a sense of the band getting back together, especially with the evergreen also-legend Claudio Pizarro aiming to replicate if not improve upon his 14 goals from last season. The pool of expectation immersing the club and its support has even fanned off the concerns inherent in losing two of their better players, Anthony Ujah and Jannick Vestergaard. Their transfer dealings have been titillating if uninspiring; saving Max Kruse from Wolfsburg; obtaining the enigmatic Justin Eilers, who ostensibly represents Germany’s Vardy/Lambert/Gray; and procuring Finland captain and ex-Ajax defender Niklas Moisander from Sampdoria after a calamitous first season in Italy. The band’s reunited, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be as triumphant as LCD Soundsystem, or as disastrous as Guns N Roses.