These are lean years for the Bundesliga.
Bayern Munich have taken their domination of the league to new heights. They are now six-time defending champions.
Last season they won the league by a remarkable 21 points despite firing manager Carlo Ancelotti at the end of September.
Bayern had a disastrous first month to the season, and still had the league more or less wrapped up by Christmas. It’s no wonder that this year they’re -650 to win the league.
There was a time when the rest of the Bundesliga, even if those teams weren’t competitive, were at least fun. A high-octane style of pressing in midfield, high lines, made play interesting, if not for the faint of heart. An ethos of “win the ball in midfield, and if that fails, clear it off the goal line” isn’t for everybody, but it’s great for neutrals.
Sadly, those days are gone. The managers who instituted that style, guys such as Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Roger Schmidt, are all off plying their trade elsewhere.
Now the prevailing tendency is for teams to muddy up the midfield at all costs, slow the game down and prevent opponents from wreaking the kind of havoc that once reigned. It’s just less fun.
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The Presumptive Favorite
Bayern are under new management. After Ancelotti’s ouster, old managerial standby Jupp Heynckes took over on an interim basis, but with the job done, he returned to a life of happy retirement.
Bayern then brought in Niko Kovac to take the reins on a permanent basis. Kovac comes from Eintracht Frankfurt, where after taking over in March of 2015, he helped the team narrowly avoid relegation before leading them to 11th- and eighth-place finishes in his two seasons in charge.
His major accomplishment was leading Frankfurt to victory in Germany’s domestic cup last season, where he beat Bayern in the finals.
There’s nothing particularly special about Kovac’s resume. Frankfurt were a very average squad last season, with a flat goal differential of 45 goals for and 45 goals against, which was slightly displaced from their xG of 41 expected goals scored and 41 expected goals conceded, but ended up at the same place.
Then again, Bayern don’t need anything spectacular in a manager — they just need somebody who won’t mess up the overwhelming talent they have at their disposal.
The team is more or less exactly the same as last year’s squad with the only major departure being Arturo Vidal to Barcelona; Leon Goretzka arrives from Schalke to take his place.
It’s incredible that a player of Vidal’s caliber can leave and it doesn’t matter that much, but with Thiago, James Rodriguez, Corentin Tolisso and Sebastian Rudy remaining (not to mention Thomas Muller and Javi Martinez, who will both at least play some midfield minutes) Bayern are well and truly stacked.
There are of course some possible concerns, mainly that Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are 35 and 34, respectively. They’ve mostly staved off Father Time by playing fewer and fewer minutes as the years go by — both because of injury and because Bayern keep destroying the league, which allows them to be heavily rotated.
In the extremely unlikely circumstance Bayern are challenged in the league, their respective ages would all of a sudden loom a lot larger.
And, of course, it’s not just their midfield. Robert Lewandowski is an elite striker, Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba are elite fullbacks, and their center-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Niklas Sule means that even if superstar Jerome Boateng leaves, the team won’t have a problem at the back. Oh, and Manuel Neuer is one of the best two or three goalkeepers in the world.
This team is a machine. Sure, it’s a big jump for a new manager, but mostly he needs to just stay out of the way.
Everything about this team is simply better than everybody else. They scored 92 goals; nobody else scored more than 66. They conceded 28; the second-best defense conceded 36.
Their xG of just over 76 was 10 ahead of everybody else’s, and their xG conceded of just under 31 was six better than any other team’s. No part of their game is a weakness. It’s Bayern’s league, and everybody else is just along for the ride.
The Race for Top Four
Beyond Bayern, there is a group of five teams competing for the coveted Champions League qualification spots.
They’re all going through some degree of upheaval. Schalke (+100 for Top Four) finished second last year. They were a revelation under new manager Domenico Tedesco. Stylistically they were brutal, but efficient.
They combined a fairly aggressive press with an extremely conservative attack. Their passes allowed per defensive action in their opponents’ half (a stat that can effectively measure pressing) was 8.99, the fifth-lowest in the Bundesliga.
But, they didn’t turn that pressure into attacking impetus of their own. Their 150 deep completions (passes completed within 20 yards of goal excluding crosses) was the fifth-lowest in the league. They were the only team in the top six not to break 200.
They strangle opponents and then play cautiously themselves, creating just enough in attack to get the job done. They’ll have to manage without Goretzka this season (along with Max Meyer, who was frozen out as his contract ran down) and hope that Suat Serdar, the 21-year-old midfielder from Mainz, can fill his shoes.
Hoffenheim (+275 for Top Four) were the surprise of the Bundesliga over the last two seasons, finishing fourth and third largely thanks to manager Nagelsmann.
He was appointed in February of 2016 at the tender young age of 28, dug the squad out of a relegation battle, and then sent them zooming to the Champions League places the next two seasons.
He’s also a lame duck. He’s already agreed to join RB Leipzig after this season ends. How that affects this team is anybody’s guess, but statistically Hoffenheim look like a team unlikely to repeat last season’s feats regardless of the state of mind of their manager.
The team scored 66 goals, 15 more than expected goals predicted. Two of the main overperformers are now gone, with Serge Gnabry’s loan spell over and Mark Uth moving to Schalke, but they also haven’t been replaced in a meaningful way. Hoffenheim are a great story but one that seems unlikely to have another happy chapter.
Last year’s fourth-place team, Borussia Dortmund (-400 for Top Four), are the perennial Bundesliga bridesmaids.
But, they’re also going through something of a fallow period. Their new manager Lucien Favre is accomplished, but his approach is the antithesis of the fun possession style of attack that Dortmund have deployed over the years.
Favre — both at Nice, and before that at Borussia Monchengladbach — favored a conservative style that kept wingers behind the ball and depended on the passing abilities of attacking players to create chances while outnumbered.
Over the last several seasons, Dortmund have lost dynamic attacking stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ousmane Dembele and Ilkay Gundogan much faster than they could find replacements for them, so it’s understandable that they might want to try to be more conservative. It might even work, but it’s going to be much less fun to watch.
If Dortmund don’t get their act together, Bayer Leverkusen (-138 for Top Four) might be the best of the chasing pack.
They finished fifth mostly thanks to a bizarre defensive record that saw them concede 44 goals despite xG predicting only 37. The only major transfer loss they’ve suffered this summer is Bernd Leno, and his goalkeeping ability was frequently suspect anyway.
Meanwhile, they’ve added a talented teenage Brazilian winger in Paulinho and a solid right-back in Mitchell Weiser. Manager Heiko Herrlich ran a steady ship last year, and if he can just run it back again, Leverkusen should be even stronger.
Finally RB Leipzig (-138 for Top Four) are in transition. Next season Nagelsmann takes over, but until then Ralf Rangnick, the team’s sporting director, is in charge, just like he took charge during the 2015-16 season.
After bursting onto the scene two years ago and qualifying for the Champions League immediately after promotion, RB struggled to maintain their form in their second Bundesliga season.
Now, they’ll have to find a way to replace Naby Keita’s midfield production in the wake of the star leaving for Liverpool. The team is still young and talented and have managed to hang onto all their non-Keita stars such as striker Timo Werner and winger Emil Forsberg, and they should be competitive for the top four spots.
But, with manager Nagelsmann on the horizon and no strong replacement for Keita, this season is likely to be one of transition, not a marked step forward.