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. 

The Next Mbappe? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group E

Red Bull Salzburg 

Let’s start in Austria, where Salzburg are back in the Champions League, after being stuck in the Europa League for the last 5 years. The Bundesliga champions have been one of the most exciting sides during the past decade, with their focus on hiring innovative, young coaches to guide their usual crop of young talent. Adi Hutter, Roger Schmidt and Marco Rose all moved to a bigger league, and it shows just how good of an eye Salzburg have for spotting elite coaches. 

Salzburg’s team under Rose was uniquely entertaining. The German tactician formed a side which was aggressive, forward-thinking and very flexible. Full-backs bombing forward, midfielders overloading the centre, strikers splitting wide, it was a side that was genuinely unpredictable in how they attacked. They reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017/18 and went unbeaten in the group stages in the following season, a group containing RB Leipzig and Celtic. Their quality of manager and talent allowed them to perform far better than expected and helped highlight the young talent playing in some of the weaker leagues across Europe. 

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By far their biggest threat is young superstar forward Erling Haaland. The 19-year-old has recently had the spotlight shining brightly onto him after breaking the record for most goals in a U20 World Cup game, scoring nine against Honduras (yes, nine). In 2018, Dortmund, Juventus and Manchester United were all showing massive interest in the striker, but Haaland chose to join Salzburg, a sensible move if one is searching for guaranteed first-team minutes. He didn’t play much in his first season, with the Austrian club preferring to let him settle first before throwing him into the deep end, but now with Dabbur gone, Haaland looks ready to tear Europe apart. While I haven’t had a chance to watch Haaland, a look at his numbers and goals show a player who could become one of the world’s best. If I had to compare him to any great forward in terms of skillset, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Sebastien Haller is the first to come to mind. As the pair, Haaland is absolutely massive, being 6.2 while having the muscle of someone much older. His size and strength are reasons why he’s been able to start regularly at such a young age, but there is more to him than just physicality. Haaland is a fantastic dribbler, as well as being a very creative forward. For Salzburg this season, the Norwegian has been completing over 2 dribbles per 90, and his xA is currently around 0.30, more than Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah. He’s a clinical finisher who could similarly break onto the scene to Mbappe even if he might struggle in this group. Just remember Erling Haaland, because he is a potential superstar.

Do I think Salzburg have a chance to reach the round of 16? Not likely, but they could still cause a few surprises. Napoli look surprisingly vulnerable in Serie A, and Liverpool failed to win an away game in their group last season. While they aren’t one of the favourites to finish in the top two spots, they are likely to return to the Europa League once again. 

KRC Genk 

Genk play in the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12, when Kevin De Bruyne was still playing for the club. The group stages have come at the wrong time for Genk. After winning the league last season, they lost some of their best players. Alejandro Pozuelo left in January to join Toronto for £8 million, while Leandro Toussard departed the club in the summer, joining Brighton for £18 million. The pair were essential members of the team, especially Toussard, who was fantastic for Genk last season. Their departures have coincided with a poor start to the season, with De Smurfen sitting in 9th.

While the losses of two of their most important players were problematic, their replacements haven’t settled as of yet. Theo Bongonda, formerly of Celta Vigo, arrived from Zulte Waregem for £6.30 million. He was pretty bad when the 23-year-old was playing in Spain, only managing 4 goal contributions in his final season. He has since found form but hasn’t made an impression at his new club yet. 

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If Genk want to finish in the top two, they’ll have to hope Samatta can bring his form into Europe’s premium competition. The Tanzanian striker has been a constant goal threat since arriving at his new team, scoring 41 goals in 86 games since signing from TP Mazembe. He’s a classic goal poacher with the added benefit of pace, being able to play on the last man find the right areas in the box. He has so far scored 5 goals this season and is arguably Genk’s best chance of getting any good results in this competition.

Unsurprisingly, Genk are my favourites to finish bottom of the group. Before even looking at their summer business, the other sides in this group were of a higher quality. Not only are they the worst side here, but they’ve started the season poorly, and it’s hard to see Genk standing a chance, based on their competition. 

Liverpool 

Onto the current holders of the competition. Not only are Liverpool the favourites for this year’s Champions League, but they’re most likely going to top this group. However, this isn’t to say there aren’t holes in this squad. Liverpool still has a few key areas that needed addressing, yet didn’t. It could be down to spending so much on players in 2018, with Van Dijk, Fabinho, Keita, Shaqiri and Allison arriving for a lot of money. Klopp was clearly happy with his squad, but I worry if Liverpool does suffer from some severe injuries. Centre-back depth is still a problem, especially if Van Dijk suffers any kind of injury. The Dutchman transformed Liverpool from a fun, attacking side to arguably the second-best team in Europe. If he is out for any period, It will make Liverpool extremely vulnerable, even though Van Dijk isn’t the sole reason why they improved at the back. There still isn’t depth at left-back now with Moreno released, and Origi just isn’t good enough at all to be covering on the left if Mane suffers an injury. Liverpool have a fantastic team, but they were very fortunate in the fact that all of their key players didn’t experience any long term injuries last season. 

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Nevertheless, the Reds still have plenty of threats in attack. Mane, Firmino and Salah always turn up on European nights, with the three forwards scoring a combined 43 goals in the Champions League since 2017. Yet, they are not who I will be highlighting today, instead the full-backs, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold. Beginning with Robertson, who has been one of the best signings in recent memory. The Scottish captain doesn’t possess the same talent as the likes of Marcelo or Alba but just does everything so well in terms of passing, dribbling and defensive actions, that it makes him one of the best in Europe. The difference between him and Trent is that extra bit of quality. Robertson is a terrific passer, but there aren’t many full-backs in Europe that can boast a spectacular passing range similar to the Liverpool right-back. His vision and ability to pick out his teammates from set-piece situations or from open play make him one of Liverpool’s best attacking threats. 

There aren’t many issues regarding Liverpool’s team. They did struggle away in the group stages last season, failing to win any of their away games. However, while Napoli is a challenging game, they shouldn’t have much of an issue with the others. Liverpool are favourites for the top spot, and only fatigue could stop them from reaching the round of 16. 

Napoli

Switching from Sarri to Ancelotti might not seem like a drastic change, but it’s had a clear impact on the team. Partly due to the sale of Jorginho, Napoli switched from a possession-based brand of football to a more quick and direct style, getting the best out of the talent there. Fabian Ruiz had a fantastic debut season, Mertens and Milik were goal machines, and Zielinski was finally given substantial minutes. With Jorginho gone, Napoli didn’t need to build up play as patiently, instead opting for long balls into the channels to quickly transition the ball. Napoli did at times lack inventiveness in the final third without Sarri, but there was still room for this current group of Napoli players to improve. 

Mertens, Insigne and Callejon, while reaching the twilight years of their careers, are still one of the best front three’s in Europe, but one of their new arrivals has to be the player to watch. After leaving Mexico and joining PSV, Hirving Lozano finally earned his move to one of Europe’s elite, moving to Naples for £36 million, a fair price for a player clearly too good for the Dutch top-flight. Lozano is everything you want from a winger. Able to play on both wings, the Mexican international can create, dribble and score plenty of goals. What makes Lozano so unique is just how raw, yet clinical he is. He runs at defenders with drive yet is so composed in possession. If anyone is going to replace the insane output that their front three have been producing, Lozano is the beginning of that move forward.

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While Napoli’s attack remains exciting, their weaknesses in defence have been well-known by this point. The loss of Raul Albiol must have had an effect on the side. The Spaniard remained fantastic even in his early thirties, and replacing him with Manolas was rather strange. The Greek defender isn’t necessarily bad, but his overreliance on pace to recovery from his own mistakes is not good when said player is reaching a point where his pace may start to decline. Spending over £30 million on a 28-year-old defender was insane to me. I’m not also unsure if Di Lorenzo is even good enough for Champions League football, and it’s made Napoli look somewhat vulnerable, and I can see their visit to Anfield being an ugly one. Nevertheless, they should qualify for the round of 16, if Salzburg doesn’t reach the level they could.