2020 Ballon D’or Winner? My Bundesliga Team of the Season 19/20

The Bundesliga was the first league to finish. German football looked its best for the first time since the fierce rivalries of Klopp’s Dortmund and Heynckes Bayern. Not only were Bayern and Dortmund facing each other neck and neck for the title, but RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach also remained on their tails for large parts of the season. The season did end with Bayern comfortably winning the title as expected, but for the first six months of the season, it felt like it was anyone’s for the taking. With that said, let’s look at some of the players who have stood out throughout the season. It’s very top five heavy team, but that’s expected considering the gulf in quality between them and the rest of the league.

GK — Yann Sommer

Not even a debate for who finds themselves in goal. Sommer once again proved why he is one of the best. Not only was the Swiss international fantastic in terms of shot-stopping (he stopped 7.3 post xG last season, by far the biggest overperformance in the league), but his ability on the ball really showed. Sommer never looked out of place when receiving a pass from a teammate, and gave Gladbach a massive aid in build-up play. Gladbach’s defence was league average on the whole, but Sommer singlehandedly made Gladbach look like one of the best defences in the league. 

My honourable mention goes to Manuel Neuer, who recovered from his awful 18/19 season by looking a lot more like himself. Nubel might find very hard to displace in the World Cup winner from the starting eleven. 

RB — Achraf Hakimi

It’s hard to call Hakimi’s two years in Dortmund anything more than a success. The Moroccan might play as a full-back, but his incredible attacking output makes him a perfect wing-back, which explains why Inter Milan spent over £30 million on the defender. Hakimi was a real driving force on the right side. While he had a habit of making the occasional poor decision in the penalty area, his speed alone made those famous diagonal runs into the box so dangerous. Full-backs and centre-backs just couldn’t contain him and became one of Dortmund’s best attacking threats. Hakimi was everywhere on the pitch. At one moment he’d be playing a vital pass to one of his attackers, and at the next sprinting back to help his defence. He ended the season with double figures in assists, and was a key contributor in final third passes, pressures, passes into the penalty area and ball carries. I have no idea how Dortmund will replace Hakimi’s incredible output. Meunier is a decent attacking contributor but doesn’t have the bags of energy and speed as the now Inter Milan defender. 

Honourable mention here goes to Nordi Mukiele, who for a player playing out of position, looked very comfortable at right-back. The Frenchman keeps getting better each year.

RCB — Mats Hummels

I made it clear I was never a fan of Dortmund selling young French defender Abdou Diallo and buying ex-captain Mats Hummels for £30 million. I did understand their thinking. Dortmund’s big issue in 18/19 was their collapse in the second half of the season, so having a player of Hummels’ experience to help guide the younger players through the challenges of a title race was a good idea. I still like Hummels, but it was the price that troubled me the most, considering they won’t get their money back unless a title comes their way. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny Hummels has been excellent in his first season back playing in the Westfalenstadion. Dortmund seemed to improve massively on set pieces since Hummels was again commanding the team’s shape (an xG per shot against in 18/19 of 0.13 from set-pieces went to 0.08 last season). He topped the team for passes into the final third, showing how his ability on the ball is yet to diminish. My worry for Hummels is how long he’ll be at his best. Last season, Hummels’ tackle success rate against dribbles was at a pretty poor 43%; the worst out of the players to play at centre-back for Dortmund. Teams are really taking advantage of his lack of speed, and I worry for that as he approaches his twilight years.

Honourable mention goes to Dayot Upamecano. He would have easily started here had he played more. Upamecano has all the attributes to play at the highest level. He just needs to have a full season without suffering any serious injuries before making that huge step up.

LCB — David Alaba

Bayern’s mister reliable once again showed why he’s great to have in the squad. Due to injuries to Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez, Alaba was forced to play at centre-back for a majority of the season. This isn’t the first time Alaba has had to move positions. Under Pep, Alaba was regularly deployed at centre-back due to injuries to Boateng and Benatia. While I do like Alaba as a left-back, he looks so good in the centre of defence. Having played so far up the pitch for most of his career, he’s used to receiving the ball under pressure. Bayern plays an incredibly high-line to help dominate games and press effectively. Alaba looks so reassured when receiving the ball in dangerous areas and is one of Bayern’s best players for progressing the ball. The Austrian international topped not only his team and league for passes into the final third, but the whole of Europe. Any team would love to have a player of Alaba’s versatility, experience, intelligence and passing ability in their side. 

Honourable mention goes to Nico Elvedi, who fitted in seamlessly into Marco Rose’s defence. Credit has to be given to a young defender for not looking out of place in a very difficult defensive system to play in. 

LB — Alphonso Davies

The Bundesliga’s breakout star had a fantastic debut season in Bavaria. Davies hasn’t looked out of place since starting at left-back to facilitate David Alaba at centre-back. Davies has looked confident on the ball and isn’t too reckless in possession. He tops the team for successful dribbles per 90 with 3.63 and tackles with 3.00. Davies has struggled during defensive transitions, but that’s expected from a young player who isn’t playing in his favoured position. He’s been an absolute joy to watch whenever he’s on the pitch and goes down as one of Bayern’s smartest acquisitions in recent memory. 

Honourable mention goes to Raphael Guerreiro. The Portuguese international was by far the biggest beneficiary from the change in formation, allowing him to push forward and contribute a lot more in goals and assists. 

RDM — Joshua Kimmich

One of Thiago or Kimmich was going to be here. Kimmich beats out his teammate due to game time and output. I love Thiago and feel he’s been one of the most underappreciated Bundesliga players since his arrival, but Kimmich has just had a better season. The German international’s success in midfield this season goes down to Bayern signing Benjamin Pavard to play at right-back. The Frenchman isn’t a superstar or anything, but his arrival has allowed Kimmich to play in his favoured position and has had his best season for Bayern. Kimmich is an excellent option alongside Thiago. Both are great progressors of the ball, but Kimmich offers that grit, work-rate and energy that Thiago simply can’t provide. Kimmich playing centrally has allowed him to take up more positions outside the opposition penalty area without sacrificing the team’s width. After years of struggling to find the right midfield balance, it seems Bayern have finally found one that works. 

Honourable mention goes to Thiago Alcantara, who’s progressive passing, intelligence and silky movements with the ball are one of the highlights of watching Bayern under Flick. 

LDM — Konrad Laimer

I’ve already gone into great detail and why Laimer was so great last season. But to summarise, Laimer somehow managed to help facilitate the immense attacking talent of RB Leipzig, while being a good progressor and attacking contributor himself. It took a while, but Laimer has finally cemented himself as a starter instead of a role-player to help cover for other guys in the squad.

Honourable mention goes to Denis Zakaria. The Swiss international has had his best season to date, becoming a dominating figure on the ball and hardworking without it. 

RM — Jadon Sancho 

There just seems to be no ceiling for Sancho. The former Manchester City youth player took a step up from his incredible 18/19 season, contributing to 17 goals and 16 assists for his side. Sancho continues to show astonishing maturity and decision making in the final third, while also being an excellent finisher in himself. Sancho is one big reason to why Dortmund have been such a threat on the counter-attack. He’s able to break through defences on his own, with so many opponents yet to figure out how to silence the England winger. Sancho is the best young talent Dortmund have had since Mario Gotze was in his prime. Sancho’s future is still up in the air, but what’s been made clear is that he doesn’t mind staying at Dortmund for another year. It’s a win-win scenario. If they sell, they have plenty of money to find an adequate replacement. But if he stays, it gives them another chance to challenge Bayern at the top. 

Honourable mention goes to Filip Kostic. The Serbian attacker took on a lot of responsibility after the departures of Haller, Jovic and Rebic. Kostic brings that quality to a side that struggled in attack for a large part of the season. 

AM — Thomas Muller

It seems no one is talking about the incredible season Muller has had. After Kovac’s sacking, Flick put Muller straight back into the starting XI, and Muller repaid that faith with his best season to date. Muller’s 21 assists now mean he holds the record for the most in a single season. It’s more in a season than anyone in the Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A. I’m not saying that Muller is a better player than Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi, but this is a crazy achievement for the World Cup winner. I’m not Muller’s biggest fan as a personality, but it’s hard to deny how good he is for Bayern.

Honourable mention goes to Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old was exceptional yet again for Leverkusen and continues to be their driving force in attack. Let’s hope for the rest of the league that he stays and continues to be a joy to watch.

LM — Timo Werner

Werner’s decision to stay another year in Leipzig turned out to be the best for both parties. Leipzig managed to get a massive fee for the German international, while Werner went on to further prove himself as one of Europe’s finest attackers. While he is seen as a striker, I’ve placed him on the left because he flourishes as a second striker, with someone beside him to help open up space. Werner 28 goals and 8 assists gave him his best tally in his career so far. Not only was his finishing excellent as ever, but managed to create a lot for the players around him. Werner was awarded the man of the match 10 times, more than any other player in the league. It helps solidify Werner’s importance to the club that helped push him to the next level. 

Honourable mention goes to Marcus Thuram. Borussia Monchengladbach’s player of the season arrived in Germany with a bang. Not only is he improving with the enormous minutes he’s getting but is helping Gladbach get back to the top of the Bundesliga

ST — Robert Lewandowski

Lewandowski seems to just get better with age. Poland’s top goal scorer had his best season to date, scoring a ridiculous 34 goals. The way he manages to not only find space for himself but opens the game up for others is a sign of a real world-class striker. No striker in the past five years comes close to matching Lewandowski’s goals, creativity and link-up play. He should be the front runner for the Balon d’Or this year. While Messi, De Bruyne and Benzema are others who’ve had incredible seasons, Lewandowski has played a substantial part in winning his side games and trophies and doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. 

Honourable mention goes to Erling Haaland. While the Norwegian did arrive halfway through the season, his immediate impact on Dortmund cannot be underestimated. Just like Lewandowski, Dortmund has another superstar leading the line, and are likely to sell him on for a considerable profit.

FC Barcelona: Europe’s Cavaliers

While being a huge fan of European football, I’m also an avid viewer of the NBA. And something that’s becoming clear is the mismanagement of some organisations in both sports and their similarities. In this case, we’ll be looking at the LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and how their stories will potentially intertwine. 

We’ll start with the Cavs. After leaving his hometown team in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, LeBron James went on to win two rings in South Beach and cemented himself as the league’s best player. But the possibility of James returning to Cleveland remained in the air, and in 2014, King James came home, with the sole drive of finally winning Cleveland their first championship in 52 years. 

LeBron couldn’t do this on his own, so Cleveland paired him alongside Kyrie Irving, who had been the Cavs’ best player since being drafted first overall in 2011, and Kevin Love. The Cavs traded their number one pick in 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) and Anthony Bennett (the worst number one pick in the history of the league) for Love. This gave the Cavs their best chance of winning the championship in their history.

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The set-ups do differ in specific ways. Messi had never left Barcelona and won plenty of trophies for his team. However, in 13/14 can easily be seen as their worst. The team looked stale and ended the season with zero silverware. Tata Martino was replaced with Luis Enrique, who carried their important (yet incredibly pretentious) Barca DNA. Not only were the main core from their 2011 double success still there, but they also had Neymar alongside new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Claudio Bravo and Andre Ter-Stegen. A majority of these players were ready to go now and didn’t need any time to develop. This was the first time Barcelona began stockpiling their team with older guys. During Pep Guardiola’s reign and even under Tito, Barcelona would have their experienced, elite talent in the first team (Henry, Eto, Xavi, Puyol for example). Yet, would have a combination of cheaper, versatile players and some La Masia graduates. It’s what made them pretty likeable at the start of the 2010s. However, innovators have the potential to become imitators. 

Neymar was the first colossal money signing, but his ceiling was huge and even looking back now, was worth the massive fee. Luis Suarez was arguably the best striker in the world when the club signed him and gave them a similar rawness and aggression I hadn’t seen in a Barca forward since Stoichkov. The issue with Barcelona since 2014 is their lack of patience. They do not want to give up their place at the top of Spanish football, even if it jeopardises the future of the first-team. 

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The Cavs ended up reaching the finals in LeBron’s first season back but were comfortably beaten by the Golden State Warriors, mainly down to injuries suffered to Irving and Love. It was the following season where they finally won the championship that had eluded LeBron and his legacy. Irving and Love were both healthy and, Irving especially played a huge part in their famous comeback. The Cavs were 3–1 down but managed to bring it back and win the series 4–3. LeBron was in tears, finally doing his hometown proud and fulfilling his promise. 

While Barcelona’s treble win in 2015 wasn’t as dramatic, it was one of the most dominant knockout round runs in Champions League history. Pellegrini’s Manchester City, Laurent Blanc star-studded Paris Saint-Germain and Pep’s Bayern were all champions in their respective leagues, yet Barcelona managed to outclass them with ease. Juventus were their final opponents, who just didn’t have enough to beat Barcelona and their superstar forward line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (MSN as they were later nicknamed).

Both teams won the big prizes in different seasons, but their collapsed happened simultaneously. The Cavs were beaten yet again by the Warriors in the 2017 finals. This defeat resulted in Kyrie Irving demanding a trade away from the Cavaliers. Irving was tired of being second fiddle to LeBron James and wanted to be the main man in a title-winning team. Sound familiar? Well, it should because it’s what happened with Neymar and Barcelona. The Brazilian thought the best way to win the Balon d’Or and cement himself as the best player on the planet was to step away from Messi’s shadow and be the best player on another team. Messi was left with an ageing Luis Suarez, while James was left with Kevin Love, who was also on the decline. 

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The power that both players had at their respective teams was being to show itself. James embodied the Cavs and all of their decision making. The team would consistently make decisions to please his ego. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith were given big contracts because LeBron liked them. Tyronn Lue, an average coach at best, was there for so long because LeBron was friends with him. The Cavs’ team had zero squad cohesion. The team was incredibly old and couldn’t play defence, relying heavily upon LeBron to bail them out of every bad situation they found themselves in. 

Messi might not be as vocal of a figure as James, but his grip at the club remains as firm. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived for an insane fee in 2009, but only lasted a season, with one of the reasons being that Messi felt like he wasn’t the main man anymore. Enrique was close to facing the sack after nearly falling out with Messi, and Valverde only remained at the club for as long as he did because Messi liked him. One anecdote that helped me understand Messi a lot more recently featured in The Athleticwhere Messi apparently wasn’t fond of Guardiola’s obsession with tactics, and just wanted to see the best players on the pitch. This might sound small, but it explains a lot on why Barcelona’s team is all over the place. Busquets still plays nearly every game, even when he’s physically falling off a cliff. Suarez plays every game even when he doesn’t have the same speed and bite from 2015. Realistically, the club should bring in players who could help Barcelona on the defensive side. They might not be as talented, but they could offer something different to help balance out the squad. Yet, that just isn’t going to happen. I’ve said on numerous occasions that Griezmann’s signing made zero sense, and the idea of Neymar returning to the club is a disaster waiting to happen. Messi seems to have zero consideration for the future of the club, only looking at the here and now. If selling Ansu Fati, their most talented young player I’ve seen in years would help bring Neymar back to the club, they wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Messi putting his ego aside and showing more of a consideration for what the team needs would be hugely beneficial.

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In summer 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time to join the LA Lakers; due to the team failing to provide him with adequate support and to follow his dreams of making movies. The Cavs have since gone back to being one of the worst teams in the whole NBA. Messi’s future could have similar, if not as extreme, consequences for Barcelona. They can give Messi what he wants now and overpay for older players on the possibility of winning the Champions League or actually start to plan for life without the Argentine. Messi is everything for that club. But he’s 33 and the club’s desperation to please him in every department could result in the team potentially falling far behind their rivals, domestically and on the continental stage. 

Grading the Top Four Bundesliga Team’s Seasons

This is actually the first time I’ve closely paid attention to the Bundesliga from the start to the end. While I plan to pay more attention to teams outside of the title race in the future, let’s focus on that for now. From comparing today’s table to the ones of previous seasons, this was easily the most thrilling title race in years. Just going back to the start of February, only three points were separating first and fourth. The season did eventually end with Bayern Munich winning comfortably. But it gives me hope that this league can remain competitive in the future, and if it can remain entertaining with multiple teams fighting for the Meisterschale, it could attract even more fans to German football. But instead of looking at the future, let’s look back on the season that’s just finished, and grade each team that finished in the top four.

Bayern Munich — A

I mean the winners can’t get anything less than the highest mark right? Bayern did have a shaky start under Nico Kovac, with the champions struggling to find their feet for the first few months of the season. Kovac was never going to last in charge. The Croatian never really fit the profile for a Bayern Munich manager, with his style of play leaning more on the defensive side. This was never going to work with a group of players still accustomed to the style of Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. 

Kovac isn’t the only culprit to Bayern’s poor start. The club spent the whole summer looking for replacements for Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben; two players who defined Bayern Munich in the 2010s. After looking at Timo Werner, Ousmane Dembele and Leroy Sane, they ended up settling with Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic on loan for the season. Both were talented players, and alongside Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and youngster Alphonso Davies still left Bayern with a formidable selection of wide talent. The problem is the board knew this moment was coming. Robben and Ribery had been struggling with injuries for years and needed long term successors ready for the day they left. I like both Coman and Gnabry, but with Coman’s injuries and Gnabry unlikely to reach that world-class level, it instantly left Bayern lighter on the attacking end. 

Bayern’s Hinrunde is defined by Kovac’s sacking and the appointment of former national team assistant coach; Hansi Flick. As soon as Flick was appointed, the Bayern team looked transformed. Flick’s first game saw his team deliver their usual humiliation to arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, with a comfortable 4–0 win at home. From here on, Bayern was playing their best football since Heynckes and only went on to lose two games. Those defeats were definitely anomalies. Bayer Leverkusen managed to beat the champions through some fantastic counter-attacking and resolute defending. While Borussia Monchengladbach did so through some massive luck. Both losses came in November, and from then on, Bayern only dropped points on one occasion. Super Bayern returned with a bang and managed to make the most exciting Bundesliga title race end with their usual comfortable lead at the top. 

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When excluding Lewandowski (we’ll get to him in the future), no other player looked better for Bayern than Thomas Muller. The World Cup winner fell out of favour with Kovac last season, struggling for consistent minutes. This wasn’t only due to their toxic relationship, but down to the form of Coutinho, who looked absolutely fantastic under Kovac. However, when Flick was appointed and seemed to get Bayern playing as they did under Heynckes, it meant Muller had to start. Coutinho definitely has that x-factor that Muller has never possessed in his career. However, Muller is still one of the best for chance creation and finding space, as well as maintaining the superior defensive work-rate. This is the happiest Muller has looked playing for his club in years, and his relationship with Lewandowski is still telepathic. In the 23 games Muller played under Flick, the German forward contributed to 24 goals. Muller has proved once again why he is indispensable to Bayern Munich. 

If we were just looking at Bayern under Flick, they’d get an A++, but we can’t ignore those first 10 games under Kovac. Bayern could indeed continue their stranglehold over the rest of the league if they adequately rebuild this team. Lewandowski, Muller, Neuer, Boateng and Martinez are all over 30, and there’s a chance Thiago could leave in the summer. They still need to sign additional wide players and hope Hernandez and Sule come back from their injuries without a drop-off. Bayern has to ensure they have a plan in place to continue their dominance in the league; otherwise, their competition could overtake them. 

RB Leipzig — B

Julian Nagelsmann couldn’t have had a better first season for his new club. RB Leipzig has taken a step forward in terms of their play on the pitch. Before Nagelsmann’s arrival, the East German club was known as a counter-pressing side, able to hurt teams quickly with their youthful and athletic attackers. While Leipzig still excels in this area, they’ve changed their style to be a lot more effective in possession. They averaged 54.1% possession, a 4.6% increase to 18/19’s average. Their shots per game have slightly increased, as well as their pass accuracy. This change in approach did make Leipzig easily the second best-attacking team in the league. They still remained as direct and vertical as seen by previous Leipzig teams but are now taking advantage of the great ball players the team possesses. Leipzig has one of the most promising groups of defenders in Europe, with players who’ve been with the team since their promotion and some up and coming talent that has the potential to become the best in their position. Nagelsmann has enabled his centre-backs to have more of an involvement in possession. Take Dayot Upamecano has a prime example. In 18/19, the young Frenchman was averaging 41.8 passes per 90. Last season that went up to 67.4. When you discount Bayern Munich players, no one has made more passes into the final third than Upamecano. Nagelsmann is taking advantage of the talent at his disposal. We already knew all of Leipzig’s defenders were comfortable on the ball, but now we know they can aid in transition, as well as in defence. 

Until Flick arrived and changed Bayern for the better, it was becoming difficult to argue against Leipzig being the best-attacking team in the league. Nagelsmann has always enhanced every attacker he’s worked with. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann deployed such an attacking system to help the rather average forwards he had to work with at times. In 18/19, his Hoffenheim team were second in the league for shots per game with 18 but were quite unlucky when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net. The 32-year-old is now working with some of the best-attacking talents in Europe, which included Timo Werner. Werner’s final season in Germany turned out to be his best. His coolness in front of goal and creativity made him one of the deadliest forwards in the world. Christopher Nkunku had a real breakout season, assisting the most goals in the team and excels at finding space between the lines. Even Patrick Schick, a player who’s struggled for form since leaving Sampdoria, had his most productive season to date and became Werner’s preferred strike partner. 

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Nagelsmann having the number of talented defenders to choose from alongside one of the best holding midfielders in the league in Konrad Laimer, allowed him to play an extra attacker in midfield. Marcel Sabitzer has been outstanding in midfield. His physicality, drive on the ball and creativity gave the team an extra boost when playing against those deep blocks, while also having the work-rate to help his team when needed. Sabitzer has gone back to being a real goal threat too, scoring 9 and assisting 7. He might not make the headlines like some of his teammates, but his importance cannot be underestimated.

I’ve talked highly of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, so why are they only getting a B? I guess it goes down to my own expectations. I wasn’t expecting them to win the Bundesliga, but I was at least hoping for Leipzig to stay on Bayern’s tail for a lot longer than they did. The problem seems to be how vulnerable they can leave themselves at times. There have been multiple occasions where Leipzig deservedly drop points. A four-game stretch which included defeats to Freiburg and Schalke, where Leipzig was beaten in the quality of chances created by two teams who don’t possess the same elite attackers. The way Leipzig overload the opposition with players pushing forward can leave them vulnerable to teams who can counter them through fast, vertical balls ahead. Their young crop of defenders doesn’t yet possess the in-game intelligence as some older defenders, which will come as they develop.

Next season will be huge for Leipzig. It’ll be their first season in the Bundesliga without Werner leading the line, and it puts a lot more pressure on the other players to deliver the goals. I fully expect Leipzig to spend that money as wisely as ever, but an apparent drop-off is expected when you lose a player of Werner’s ability. Nagelsmann is used to losing his best players, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Leipzig does remain as competitive as they were last season. 

Borussia Dortmund — D

Borussia Dortmund’s window for winning a title is becoming even smaller. BVB have spent a lot of money on players who will help right now as well as the future. Mats Hummels returned to the club, adding some needed experience to a backline which collapsed when facing an immense amount of pressure. Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt arrived for decent fees to give Reus and Sancho even more support in the final third. There were of course questions in how you fit all of these players together, but the number of options Dortmund had at their disposal instantly made them title challengers again. Sancho was only going to get better, Hakimi was still there for another year, and Reus just came off his most productive season in years. Bayern was at their weakest, and no other team possessed the same level of talent as Dortmund. 

It made my expectations of Dortmund a lot higher. They’re getting desperate, and it’s showing. Anything below a title challenge or a cup final should automatically mean the season is a failure. Still, their performances in the second half of the season do offer some encouragement, especially with how inconsistent they were during the hinrunde. Dortmund stuck with their 4–2–3–1, but looked so slow and were lacking that speed which made them surprise challengers in 18/19. Brandt wasn’t starting enough, and the number nine position still seemed so uncertain, with Paco Alcacer looking better off the bench. Dortmund wasn’t winning against teams they usually steamroll. Paderborn, Werder Bremen, Freiburg and Union Berlin all managed to stop Dortmund picking up three points. 

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January was the big turning point for Dortmund, and not all of it is down to Erling Halaand’s arrival. Lucien Favre opted to change from the shaky 4–2–3–1 to 3–4–3. The system benefitted a lot of players in the team. The full-backs, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi turned into deadly attacking options. Hakimi was back playing on the right, and became a driving force with his incredible speed and dribbling to breeze past opposition defenders. Guerreiro became an excellent goal threat, ending the season with an impressive 8 goals and 2 assists. The centre-backs also benefitted from this change in formation. Dortmund usually uses their centre-backs to play line-breaking passes through midfield. Issues began arising when these passes were being intercepted, leaving Dortmund very vulnerable. Having someone of Piszczek’s experience in the backline really helped, especially when Akanji was as bad as he was at times. The attack, of course, benefitted from with an extra man in defence. It allowed Sancho and Hazard to play more like second strikers than typical wingers, and Brandt was given the freedom to move all over the pitch to find pockets of space to exploit. 

Halaand was a massive difference-maker in the number nine position. Not only due to his age, but how good he is right now. Halaand, similar to Zion Williamson in the NBA, looks as if he was born in a laboratory. The former Salzburg forward is fast, strong, incredible in the air and can score all types of goals. It makes him the perfect number nine right now, with the only major drawback being his lack of defensive work rate and chance creation. But the system seems to be built for their new superstar. Dortmund isn’t a team that defends through pressing from the front (they’re 9th in the league for passes allowed per defensive action with 11.70). BVB primarily win the ball back through counter-pressing in midfield and quickly playing it to their talented attackers. Halaand is also surrounded by some of the best creators in Europe. Sancho, Hazard and Hakimi all reached double figures for assists, allowing Halaand to play more as a poacher. 

If you just look at their results from the new year onwards, Dortmund would be second, but the season still resulted in zero silverware and more question marks on where Dortmund are actually going. Dortmund has spent a lot of money on players to help the team win now. Axel Witzel, Matts Hummels, Thomas Delaney, Thorgan Hazard and Emre Can alongside some of the veterans already in the side, meaning they have to make the most of the talent they currently have. I’m more optimistic about Leipzig’s future than I am Dortmund’s. Leipzig has a young and innovative manager with a group of young players who still have room for improvement. Dortmund’s team right now doesn’t look like it’ll be together for much longer. Hakimi’s loan has expired, Sancho is likely to move on, and I have no idea if Hummels can remain a starter for another season, with his physical abilities declining. Massive question marks loom over the manager. Lucien Favre has done a lot better than I ever expected of him, but next season could be his last. This is their last chance to win the title again before the team completely collapsed either through sales or age. 

Borussia Monchengladbach — A

When Marco Rose was announced as Gladbach’s new coach after the departure of Dieter Hecking, it was hard for me to contain my excitement. Gladbach had come off another season where they failed to show consistency from beginning to end, looking certain for top four in December but dropping down the table as the season progressed. Rose’s arrival felt like a real sign of intent, even when last summer included the sales of Thorgan Hazard and Michael Cuisance. The former being the team’s best scorer and creator while the latter a potential star in the making, leaving the club to join arch-rivals Bayern Munich. 

Gladbach spent the money from these sales wisely, while taking some risks in young attacking players. Ramy Bensebaini and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose at Salzburg) added some much-needed creativity and drive from full-back. Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo arrived to effectively replace Thorgan Hazard’s output. Both were gambles in different ways. Thuram had only played for one of the worst sides in Ligue 1, so transitioning to a bigger and better team could have been a challenge. Embolo had already played in the Bundesliga since 2016 for Schalke. However, the Swiss attacker has struggled for form and injuries. A change of scenery could have helped Embolo, but he’s a player you don’t want to rely on throughout the season. Both have had great seasons. Thuram contributed to 18 goals in his debut season in Germany while Embolo contributed to 13 and played over 1500 minutes, the first time he’s done that in his career. 

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Last season was the most consistent Gladbach have looked for a long time, and a lot of that goes down to how Marco Rose has improved the players and the style. What made Rose at Gladbach so enticing was the number of talented players he was working with. You have some of the younger talents in Denis Zakaria, Florian Neuhaus, Laszlo Benes and the previously mentioned Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo. All have either been highly touted for years or have shown glimpses of brilliance. The squad also contains some older talents. Patrick Herrmann, Lars Stindl, Yann Sommer and Christoph Kramer were there to help give the side some needed experience and leadership. Rose managed to get incredible output out of many of these players. Denis Zakaria finally started to look like the elite talent we all knew he could be. Patrick Herrmann contributed to 12 goals, the most he’s provided since the 14/15 season. What was most impressive was the way the team still managed to remain consistent even when missing key players. For the last few games of the season, Zakaria, Thuram and Plea were all unavailable, meaning Rose had to deploy a front line including Jonas Hoffman, Breel Embolo, Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann. A lineup which would’ve been scrutinised had it been under any other manager. 

Rose’s Gladbach is actually pretty similar to Nagelsmann’s teams in a sense. Both focus on transitioning the ball as quickly as possible. The Foals do it through the full-backs, especially Lainer. The Austrian defender plays more akin to a winger than a defender, topping the team for shot assists, passes into the penalty area, successful crosses and progressive passes. Lainer has been a creative hub for the team, and while I have my issues with him regarding speed and defensive effort, it’s hard to deny he has been a success. Thuram is the other significant addition who gave Gladbach another dimension. The team went from averaging 13.2 aerial duels per game in 18/19 to 16.7 last season. Thuram is a very unique winger. He has the acceleration to flourish against full-backs while having the size and strength to cause matchup problems. The team loved sending those long diagonal balls straight to Thuram. The Frenchman is a very efficient attacker and formed a deadly partnership with Alassane Plea. Gladbach didn’t score the same crazy amount of goals as Leipzig, Bayern and Dortmund. Still, considering the difference in talent, credit has to be given the coach and players for being able to keep up with such fierce competition. 

The only area where I worry for Rose’s team is defence. Monchengladbach faced 13.7 shots per game, putting them at about league average. They had the 3rd best defensive record in the league, conceding 40 and only bettered by Leipzig and Bayern. However, when you look at the post-shot xG, Gladbach starts to come off as very fortunate. They should have conceded around 47 goals based on the chances they were giving away, which is extremely rare. This miraculous record can all be credited to Yann Sommer being the best keeper in Europe. When ranking goalkeeper seasons in the last decade, David De Gea (17/18), Lucasz Fabianski (18/19) and Alisson Becker (17/18) all spring to mind as some of the best goalkeeper seasons in recent history. Yann Sommer is another to add to that list. If it weren’t for some of his heroic performances, I doubt Gladbach would be playing in Europe’s elite competition next season. 

Gladbach is the team I’m the most optimistic for next season. The team was gradually improving throughout the season, so I expect Rose and his players to match the big three throughout the rest of next season. The younger players are only going to improve, and the more experienced guys are still at an age where they aren’t on the decline. There’s the possibility of Zakaria or Thuram being moved on for massive profits, which wouldn’t be the worst idea if a suitable replacement is already brought in.