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. 

Just How Good are Borussia Monchengladbach?

The Bundesliga table is a mess, to put it bluntly. RB Leipzig, Schalke and Dortmund have all had relatively good starts to the season, yet find themselves outside of the top 4. The teams ahead of them, excluding Bayern Munich, are quite surprising, but at the same time fully deserve to be there. Freiburg are arguably the biggest surprise, with Christian Streich’s side having a strong, yet very fortunate start to the season. I doubt they’ll be able to keep it up and will eventually drop out of the Champions League places. Wolfsburg are a more exciting team. Oliver Glasner only arrived in the summer and has already turned a very ropey team into a solid one, only conceding 4 goals this season. However, the attack has been super reliant on Wout Weghorst, who has been sensational this season. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform once facing the likes of Bayern and Dortmund. Speaking of Bayern, the champions have been their usual fantastic selves, and I fully expect them to get back to that top spot.

Now let’s start about Marco Rose and Borussia Monchengladbach. There isn’t much I can say regarding Wolfsburg and Freiburg because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch them, but I have seen quite a bit from Gladbach, and they’ve been fantastic. Do they deserve to be top of the table, not quite, but definitely deserve their place in the top 4.

I have spoken about them before, but a lot has changed at Gladbach since the first couple of games. Rose has been experimenting with his players and still looking to find his best XI. In their first game against Schalke, Rose lined up his side in a 4-3-1-2 with this team:

Gladbach 1

Gladbach weren’t necessarily bad when sticking with Rose’s preferred formation, but it wasn’t getting the best out of his players. His full-backs were offering a majority of the width, and while Lainer did excel at doing this at Salzburg under Rose, it made Gladbach a lot more predictable. Neuhaus was the other problem. He is clearly a talented player, but he just wasn’t pushing up far enough to support his forwards.

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Neuheus (32) close to Zakaria, the deepest midfielder

When playing in centrally-dominant formation, your midfielders have to do a lot in the final third, either making those late runs into the box or pushing wide to offer width. Beres had the right idea here, moving close to Lainer and trying to provide support.

The forward three were the other problem, more specifically, Marcus Thuram. I like Thuram, and while there is a lot of rough edges around his game, he clearly works better starting on the left side. His strengths are his dribbling and using his size to his advantage. He will consistently outmuscle opposition full-backs and keeping him on the left side, will give Gladbach such a threat. He is still very young and could turn into a number 9, but his tireless work rate and confidence on the ball currently make him more of an asset on the wing. Schalke were playing quite a compact defence, and needed players to help stretch them open. Gladbach managed 16 shots in this game, yet only 4 were on target.

After some mixed results in this 4-3-1-2, with an embarrassing defeat to Wolfsberger in the Europa League showing there is still plenty of work needed to turn Gladbach into a consistent Champions League team. Rose actually changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1 against Leipzig, with Johnson coming in for Benes. This didn’t work, with Leipzig truly showing their quality and creating some high-quality chances and exposing Gladbach’s somewhat immobile centre-backs. What was more worrying was how often Leipzig were attacking down Wendt’s side. It was something I had my reservations on, being the amount of game time the now 33-year-old would get this season.

Yet, Rose has addressed most of my early criticisms of his team already. Their hugely impressive 5-1 win over Augsburg was their best performance of the season and saw some of their players have their best games. After an excellent 0-3 away result against Hoffenheim, Rose made some significant changes, with Neuhaus, Wendt, Elvedi and Embolo all dropping to the bench, being replaced by Benes, Bensebaini, Jantschke and Herrmann respectively:

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Rose went back to the 4-2-3-1, to take advantage of Augsburg defensively-poor full-backs of Max and Lichtsteiner. The former Arsenal defender had such a bad time against Thuram that he was replaced at half-time. The first two goals were largely down to Thuram beating Lichtsteiner with speed and power, and merely playing a ball across the box, first to Zakaria, and then to Herrmann. Rose made the right changes for this game, and the versatility both he and the players possess is starting to become quite prominent.

Having players start in wide areas not only exposed Augsburg but kept Gladbach organised defensively. It meant Lainer didn’t need to be the sole provider for width, and it allowed Bensebaini to focus on what he does best; defending. The former Rennes defender has never put up high dribble or chance creation numbers but has consistently shown himself to be a great ball winner. Playing him here, when the player in front of him not only works hard for the team but offers so much in attack, is perfect.

However, this huge win is not a reason to completely discard Rose’s preferred formation. The 4-3-1-2 has its place against teams with a weak midfield, where extra runners would cause a lot of problems. Gladbach have already shown themselves to be versatile and Rose to be as adaptable as I expected him to be.

The midfield has also seen much improvement since the start of the season. Zakaria is no longer the most defensive out of the midfielders and uses his fantastic dribbling to advance the ball and push forward. After a couple of years of looking like he could become elite, Zakaria has been absolutely fantastic. No other midfielder in the country has been as incredible as the Swiss international, with only Joshua Kimmich coming close. Christoph Kramer has taken the selfless task in protecting the back four and allowing Zakaria to contribute in attack. While he isn’t as active defensively as he was in 2014, it’s what he does for the rest of the team that is key, in allowing them to express themselves. Florian Neuhaus is a player who is yet to impress me this season, but is clearly talented. He actually possesses a similar skillset to Zakaria, being a great dribbler and actually can take set pieces, but Zakaria has that added benefit of size and power. It’s difficult to see how Benes, Zakaria and Neuhaus can all play together in the same midfield, considering they all don’t want to be the deepest midfielder, but all are young, and one of them could turn into that role.

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Lazslo Benes is a player who has intrigued me throughout the first couple of months of the season. He is clearly a talented player, able to effectively find space to receive a pass, while also putting in his fair share of defensive work. Benes can play as either an 8 or a 10. His stats have looked very good, but he has been Gladbach’s leading set-piece taker, meaning a majority of his key passes and shots have come from a dead ball situation. Yet, when you watch him play, you notice how he is a very positive player, always looking to move the ball forward and play some one-twos. He offers something different to Breel Embolo. The former Schalke forward is definitely more of a goalscorer than a natural number 10. Embolo’s strengths are in dribbling and goals. Benes offers an entirely different skillset in that position. The Slovakian midfielder is currently 22, so I hope this season becomes the year in which he turns into a top player. Rose has stressed before that Benes is a crucial player for him.

So I have been very impressed with Rose’s debut season as of yet, but I have my reservations, primarily the opponents they’ve faced. Schalke and Leipzig are probably the best opposition they’ve faced, who they failed to beat. Their first game after the international break is Borussia Dortmund, a team who could either walk all over them or not turn up. It’s their second big test to see if Gladbach can compete against the top sides. I still expect them to remain fighting for the Champions League places, but by May, it could be close.

The Promising Signs from Marco Rose’s Borussia Monchengladbach

I failed to hide my excitement for Borussia Monchengladbach appointing young German coach Marco Rose. The 43-year-old built a fantastic side at Salzburg, adding so much versatility in attack and emphasised the growing influence Austrian football was having on the rest of Europe. This was most prominent in Germany. With the arrivals of both Oliver Glasner and Marco Rose, it signals the innovation that the Austrian Bundesliga is adding to European football. Both Gladbach and Wolfsburg are clubs that sit right outside of the top 4. They have the resources to back their new managers while not being in a position where instant success is required. It gives their new managers a chance to get their messages across to their respective squads.

Monchengladbach have been a very frustrating team over the past couple of years. Last season, they started the season in incredible form, sitting in third and only 3 points behind champions Bayern Munich. It’s been a consistent pattern for Die Fohlen. They start seasons strong but have consistently finished in poor form. They finished last season failing to win in their previous 8 home games. Dieter Hecking did add a good brand of football to the team, but the defensive frailties were becoming too apparent. With the departures of Hecking and Thorgan Hazard, it allowed Gladbach to start again, and who better to do it with than one of the best upcoming managers in Europe.

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Marco Rose’s impact at RB Salzburg was hard to ignore. Their dominance in the league was expected, but their performances in the Europa League garnered heaps of praise, from me, included. Their versatility in attack and aggressive press left a lasting impression during their run to the Europa League semi-finals back in 2018. It was a brand of football that so many club owners wanted to see. However, there was always the risk involved. Salzburg’s lack of competition in Austria did beg the question if Rose could teach his ideas in a better league with more varied opponents.

It’s what made Gladbach taking that risk so exciting. RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg all took huge steps forward last season. The danger of falling behind their closest competition is a worrying reality for a club that should be fighting for those Champions League spots every season. Rose is a forward-thinking coach who could help guide his new side back into the top four.

Their summer signings were exciting and showed the direction they were heading. Stefan Lainer was a sensible move. The defender played under Rose at Salzburg and having a player who knows what the coach wants to implement is vital considering the importance of the full-backs at his former club. While Lainer doesn’t possess the same physical traits as some of the best full-backs in Europe, his eye for a pass and match intelligence does make him perfect for Rose’s system.

With Oscar Wendt now 33, left-back was another position that needed addressing. Gladbach chose to bring in Ramy Bensebaini from Stade Rennes for £7.20 million. The Algerian, who recently won AFCON with his national team, arrives in Germany after having some stand out seasons with Rennes. While I haven’t watched much of the defender, I’m curious to see what they’ve seen in him. Bensebaini is fantastic in a defensive sense but hasn’t shown the same attacking output as Lainer before his move. I could be wrong in my early assessment, and Rose could turn the defender into someone capable of playing in his system.

Their attacking signings, however, were truly exciting. With the departure of Thorgan Hazard, it left a huge void to be filled. With Rose’s wanting to continue using his preferred 4-3-1-2 formation, attackers were a needed addition. Gladbach chose to bring in two very promising forwards in Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo, two players who have shown so much promise in the past. Thuram has recently come off a solid season for Guingamp, the worst side in Ligue 1 last season. He was their most crucial attacker, using his strength and height to give his former club a direct option. The Frenchman is also a good dribbler and displayed enough flexibility in attack to persuade Gladbach to sign him. While he is still very raw in parts of his game, there is no harm in spending £10 million on a young forward that could become a great player.

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Embolo has not had the best of times in the Bundesliga. Last season was the first time the Swiss forward started over 10 games in the league. His career so far has been plagued with injuries. His signing is far riskier than Thuram’s, but there is no harm in signing a young forward for a respectable £9 million. Maybe a fresh start is what Embolo needs, so let’s hope those injuries are finally behind him.

Rose now has enough talent to work with. The likes of Zakaria, Neuhaus, Elvedi, Ginter and Plea are good players, but like the team, have lacked consistency. If Rose can finally get these players heading on the right track and in a system that brings out their strengths, they could be a scary opposition to face in the league.

Their first game of the season, against David Wagner’s Schalke, was a chance to see the changes Marco Rose has already implemented. Let’s start with the positives, the first being the press. The first thing I noticed was just how aggressive Thuram, Plea and Embolo were in their attempts to close down their opponents, primarily Jonjoe Kenny. The young defender has recently arrived, and his ability on the ball has consistently left a lot to be desired. Gladbach’s forwards were always putting pressure on Kenny, making his Bundesliga debut a day to forget. It’s one of the best strengths of their attackers. The attackers have the physical ability to harass the opposition defenders and force errors continually. This worked well and made Rose’s team challenging to break down from the beginning. When Gladbach were in possession, the forwards, especially Plea, were exceptional in finding space in the wide areas. Thuram and Plea would consistently look to find space in the wide areas to receive the ball and allow quicker transitions. This became an effective method in breaking down Schalke’s deep defence.

The midfield also deserves plenty of praise for how they have adapted to their new manager’s style. Rose’s Salzburg team was insanely flexible in how they were able to attack their opposition. If the centre was overloaded, they could successfully exploit the wide areas through their full-backs bombing forward. If their opponents chose to stop Salzburg using the full size of the pitch, they would instead attack through the centre. Last season it was Amadou Haidara and Xaver Schlager, and now for Rose, it’s Neuhaus and Beres. The pair did show promise in fulfilling those important midfield roles, Beres especially. The Slovakian put in 3 tackles, had 3 shots and excelled in pushing forward and giving support to the forwards.

While Neuhaus and Beres put in good performances, it’s Zakaria that stood out in that midfield. The Swiss midfielder played the more defensive role in midfield, stopping attacks before they had a chance to materialise. During buildup play, he would also drop deep to give an option to his defenders, while the other players would push forward. Zakaria is another who at times showed the ability to play at the highest level but has struggled with form. This season could be his chance to finish the season as promising as he starts them.

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Gladbach were by far the better side in this game, but missing out on 3 points does transition nicely into the first big problem at the beginning of Rose’s reign, being finishing. This isn’t necessarily Rose’s fault, but looking at the chances that were created, this should not have finished goalless. The numbers highlight this, with understat showing Gladbach scored 1.43 xG while Schalke were on 0.76. This game would have been entirely different if Plea scored that chance in the 54th minute or if Thuram had a better connection with the ball when his header went over the bar.

However, this isn’t to say that Monchengladbach created a high volume of chances. Rose’s team struggled at times to support their forwards, especially on that left side. Wendt and Neuhaus weren’t supporting Thuram on enough occasions, and he was left isolated throughout the game. This should improve over time, but shows the work Rose has to do in turning this club into a top 4 side.

This is a side I will definitely revisit as the season progresses. While I’m not expecting Gladbach to challenge Bayern and Dortmund, I am hoping their general approach in games to improve. The midfielders will improve in giving numbers in attack and chance creation, in general, is the priority in terms of where this side needs to improve. I expect a coach as talented as Rose to find a way to get this squad to click, and bring back the glory they received so long ago.

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #1 – Lampard to Change Chelsea?

With the season returning in a month (it cannot come any quicker), there are already so many players, teams or managers who could do something special next season in taking their team to another level. These are twenty things you should be keeping your eye on next season. There isn’t a particular order, but it does include some teams I have discussed in the past. I thought I’d split them up into four parts so it wouldn’t be so overwhelming.

Atletico Madrid’s rebuild

After a hugely disappointing season in both La Liga and in the Champions League, this might be one of Atletico Madrid’s most important seasons to date. With the futures of Griezmann, Rodri, Partey, Oblak and Morata all in a cloud, and Hernandez already departing the club, this is arguably their most significant rebuild since the summer of 2015. An ageing defence, their best attacker leaving a potentially losing their whole midfield paints a picture of a team that needs a lot of reinforcements this summer.

It isn’t just signings, but the manager. I have a lot of respect for what Simeone has done with Atletico Madrid over the last 5 years, but his tactics seem to be showing their age. Their defence will always be reliable, but it is in attack where the problems have consistently been. Players have been brought in for a lot of money, talented ones that have shown a lot of promise at their previous clubs, but as soon as they arrived in Madrid, that form went out of the window. We’ve seen Lemar, Costa, Carrasco, Gaitan, Gameiro, Mandzukic all fail after succeeding at their previous clubs. Since their title win, they have continually sacrificed attacking output to ensure they have remained stable at the back. This isn’t a way to win a league title. Simeone seemingly forgot what won him the league back in 2014, which was a huge goal output from Diego Costa, who scored 27 goals. Griezmann managed 15 with Morata managing 6.

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The massive rebuild is a chance for Simeone to return to a more attacking style. With the arrival of Europe’s next big superstar in Joao Felix, this could be the perfect chance for Atleti to start looking like the title challengers we all want them to be. Madrid and Barcelona are both looking miles ahead of their competition in terms of talent, so this could be Simeone’s chance to surprise them once again.

Julien Nagelsmann’s Leipzig 

Without a doubt, the Bundesliga looks to be the most exciting league to watch next season. All of the top 6 in Germany have an exciting coach. Favre’s Dortmund defying xG as usual, and Adi Hutter getting the best out of a Frankfurt side with impressive attackers are 2 teams I haven’t put on this list, solely for not wanting to crowd this list with the Bundesliga.

We’ll start with by far the most talked about young manager in Europe and his arrival to arguably one of the best-run clubs in Europe. Nagelsmann did miracles at his former club, turning Hoffenheim from relegation candidates to Top 4 challengers with a squad full of mediocrity. His teams were fantastic at creating chances for the forwards and were so adaptable. It begged the question of what could he do with a talented team which has the best scouting network around. Leipzig have a fantastic young group of players and could see the best form out of the likes of Werner and Poulsen. If Nagelsmann managed to get over 10 goals out of average forwards like Mark Uth and Belfodil, it’s crazy to think what he could with some genuinely elite attackers.

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What I’m looking forward to seeing from Leipzig is the output from the midfield. While Nagelsmann did do wonders with his former club, he never indeed possessed any top-level midfielders. Florian Grillitsch is very good, but he had to rely on players like Sebastian Rudy because he lacked any elite defensive midfielders. He now has Amadou Haidara and Tyler Adams, the most promising midfielders in the Bundesliga, and both developing through the Red Bull machine, with the pair coming from RB Salzburg and NY Red Bulls respectively. Both are great box to box midfielders with massive defensive numbers. It’ll be interesting to see if Nagelsmann can form one of the best midfielders partnerships in Europe, and push Leipzig to be the Bundesliga title challengers they could so easily be.

Marco Rose in the Bundesliga 

Austria has become one of the leading innovators in Europe, as it was a century ago. They have had managers like Roger Schmidt and Ralph Hasenhüttl coach in their first division, with systems focussing on pressing, attacking football. The next in this line of up and coming managers is Marco Rose. While Nagelsmann is an exciting appointment, Borussia Monchengladbach bringing in Rose is arguably the most impressive managerial signing of the summer.

The Austrian built a fantastic team in Salzburg that focused on full backs pressing extraordinarily high and crowding the centre. On paper, they set up in a 4-3-1-2, but when watching them play, their midfield can adapt to match their opponents and the current circumstances. This is slightly dependent on having midfielders who are physically spectacular, with the likes of Haidara, Schlager and Samassekou putting in an insane amount of defensive work. It’s a system that requires players who are tactically flexible and can cover a lot of ground. It’s similar to pressing systems deployed by the likes of Pep and Klopp, but there is much more intensity, that it suffocates their opponents.

Most of my viewings of Rose’s Salzburg side all came in Europe, where they were excellent. They managed to win every game in their Europa League group containing Celtic and RB Leipzig. Rose’s side managed to beat talented opponents using a superior, more effective approach that stopped the opposition from playing their favoured way. They could outnumber you in the wide areas, press your centre back and block of the passing lanes. They were one of the best sides in the competition two seasons on the bounce.

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It’ll be fascinating to see what Rose will bring to the top flight in Germany. Monchengladbach have been underachieving for some time now and have needed an elite coach like Rose to push them closer to those Champions League spots finally. I think he will like a few of the players he will be working with, guys like Plea, Zakaria and Elvedi could be significant in what Rose will want to implement. Monchengladbach were quick in giving their manager the players to fit his system, with Breel Embolo coming in as a very athletic and versatile forward, and Stefan Lainer joining from Rose’s former club as a much-needed improvement over Lang. Monchengladbach are easily the team to watch next season.

Lille’s Young Side in Europe 

PSG have been the expected champions of Ligue 1 for years now, with Lyon or Monaco coming in second. This changed this year, with Lille finishing as the runners up in France. This came as a surprise considering they were close to relegation under Bielsa on numerous occasions. The arrival of French manager Christophe Galtier seems to have changed the way the club plays and operates. They are a defensively solid side with players who are so dangerous on the counter-attack and are very difficult to deal with. Only PSG managed more goals on the break than Lille’s 10. Galtier managed to get the best out of a messy situation and got them performing. Lille continued to sign young talent but weren’t spending nearly as much, with Bamba, arguably their best signing, arriving for nothing. Combine that with the free acquisitions of Jose Fonte and Rafael Leao, and you have a team taking astute, low-risk signings.

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It’s given them the platform to allow them to sign players for nothing and sell them when their stock increases. We’ve already seen this with the recent sales of Thiago Mendes, El Ghazi and Kone how they can turn a profit on their players. They’ve picked up a sensible model of how to operate in the transfer market, and with a rather pragmatic style of football, leaves it more comfortable for players to adapt to the system. Not only are they smart in selling players, but bringing in talent. The signing of Timothy Weah is a stroke of genius and another export from PSG’s academy, one that cannot stop producing talent. He could potentially be the striker I’ve previously mentioned they’ve poorly needed. They’re returning to Europe after a 5-year hiatus, and this could be the chance for Lille to show Europe how good they are when it comes to player recruitment.

Chelsea Under Lampard

This might be the most significant power move Abrahamovich has played since bringing Jose Mourinho back to the club. The arrival of Frank Lampard might seem premature, and its primary purpose seems to be to give Chelsea fans something to smile about since their transfer ban. From a non-football perspective, it makes sense. It is insanely unlikely the Chelsea fans will turn on their manager like they usually do when the manager is one of their greatest ever players. Lampard will not put up with some of the poorer attitudes witnessed in the Chelsea dressing room in recent years. The Blues are going to have a tough season, suffering from the same problems they have had for a long time. A squad full of talent in some areas but incredibly weak in others. The departure of Eden Hazard has left this team, and the Premier League, without their most talented player and the man who has dragged Chelsea in an attacking sense since his arrival, that it’ll be fascinating in what Lampard will do to get this attack working without the Belgian superstar.

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By far the most enticing prospect of having Lampard in charge is what he will do with the younger players. It’s been a desire from everyone to see this trophy winning youth side produce players who actually play for the Chelsea youth team. I’m not expecting 30 players to be handed debuts, but the most promising players to at least are given a chance. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Ethan Ampadu to be given an opportunity in the Premier League, to see if they can add something to a team that I criticised under Sarri for not having players who were willing to change the system. This could be Lampard’s chance to show everyone at Chelsea that the club can produce Champions League level talent who can start for Chelsea, instead of resorting to the transfer market for every issue.

3 Teams To Watch in the Europa League

With the round of 16 only drawn today, it’s now time to look at 3 teams to watch in this year’s competition. While the Champions League is far more popular, and for good reason, the Europa League does deserve some recognition. I wanted to wait for the round of 32 to finish, because the group stages contain a lot of poor opposition, so waiting for good teams to appear seemed like the right thing to do.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Let’s begin with a team that have been very good this season. Frankfurt currently sit 7th in the Bundesliga, only 7 points behind the Champions League places. After their DFB Pokal win over Bayern Munich, they lost their manager and replaced him with Adi Hutter. The Austrian had earned plenty of attention thanks to his success with Salzburg and then beating FC Basel to the League with Young Boys. It was seen as an incredible feet, and meant he was given the chance to manage at a club with promise. He has done an excellent job so far. Frankfurt play a 3-5-2, a formation that gives good width while still given the side plenty of numbers if possession is lost. Thanks to his attackers being so good, it has allowed Frankfurt to build their entire team around creating chances for them. Thanks to having a good distributor in Hasebe, it means they can counter attack very quickly, and it has made them so good to watch in that regard. Only Dortmund have scored more goals on the counter attack than Frankfurt’s 5. They also take 64% of their shots in the 18 yard box, the highest in the league. It’s proof that this is a team that knows how to create good chances, and are very difficult to stop. They’ve carried this form into this year’s Europa League compeition, scoring 13 goals in open play, the joint second in the competition. They’ve also scored the most goals from set pieces, just showing they take advantage of any chance to score a goal. It’s a reason why they are such a threat this year. This side are full of goals and not many defences could deal with them.

To look at their most important players starts and finishes with their attackers. Luka Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Let’s begin with by far their most notable player, Serbian forward Luka Jovic. The Benfica forward has been one of the breakout stars of the season, with Jovic already being linked a big move to Barcelona. There are justified reasons why. He has been a monster in front of of goal this season, scoring 14 goals in 15 starts in the Bundesliga this season. What is most impressive is where he’s shooting this season. Per 90, he’s been taking 3.6 shots a game, with 3.1 inside the box. They are numbers similar to Mauro Icardi, a man who lives in the 18 yard box. What is so great about him is just how good he is at scoring. A simple observation yes, but still very true, thanks to his strike partner being so good, it always leaves him with the chance at goal, and he just hits it with so much power. He’s fast, strong and good in the air, and it makes him one of the most wanted players around.

His strike partner, Sebastien Haller, has arguably been better in the Europa League this season than Jovic. The French man has been very good this season, but thanks to Jovic earning all the praise, it has let fly under the radar. Haller has scored 11 and assisted 8, putting him in the top 10 scorers and the top 5 assisters in the League. I mentioned that having him has made Jovic better, and it’s true. It’s similar to the relationship built between Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. One who is the goal scorer, and the other helps said goal scorer get the opportunities. It’s arguably the reason why Werner hasn’t succeeded at international level. He doesn’t have someone like Poulsen next to him, to allow him to find space as easily, and doesn’t allow him to play as more of a poacher. Haller has done exactly that. He is winning a crazy 7.7 aerial duels in the Bundesliga, the most in the league. His shot numbers aren’t exactly great, but that isn’t the point. His purpose is to allow Frankfurt to transition as quickly as possible, and for a side that isn’t exactly Champions League level, it works really well. He is an incredibly important player, and hopefully gets the credit he deserves.

Finally, let’s touch on Ante Rebic. The most experienced forward out of the trio (he’s only 25) has also been very good this season. While he has played as a winger for Croatia and has a forward for Frankfurt, he has been playing as a number 10 primarily this season, and has been a great addition to the strike force. Rebic is by far the best dribbler out of the trio, completing 2.6 dribbles per 90, comfortably the most for his side He is very importantly in driving the ball and adding an element of unpredictability to his side. It’s what makes him useful to have. Jovic is a great goalscorer and Haller is a great vocal point, and Rebic is great at driving at defences, with power and speed making him a handful for many defences.

This attack is what makes Frankfurt in my opinion, one of the favourites for the tournament. Their attack has the versatility to be able to deal with nearly any defence that comes their way. Their game against Inter Milan is a must watch, because it could truly be an upset and a showing from a side that has performed so well in the Bunesliga this season.

RB Salzburg

While I have definitely gone on way too much on Frankfurt, let’s look at the team that have scored more than one of the best attacks in the compeition, RB Salzburg. Salzburg were a team they I never used to think much of. I just presumed they were a feeder club for many clubs across Europe. They had an eye for talent, which saw players like Sadio Mane and Naby Keita go through their ranks, before moving on to bigger clubs in Europe. But that all changes last season. They were so good in the Europa League last season. They managed to finish above runners up Marseille in the group stages, going unbeaten. Their run in the competition was a difficult one, yet they still managed to reach the semi finals, where they couldn’t pull one over Marseille one last time. They beat Real Sociedad, Lazio and Borussia Dortmund in the competition. They have a talented squad, and most importantly, an amazing coach. Marco Rose has been seen as one of the most exciting young coaches in Europe. The German is another young German coach with a style and philosophy that is seen as the future of the game. After beating Man City, PSG, Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to win the UEFA Youth League with Salzburg’s youth side, he was given the job for the senior side. He has a win percentage of 70% for Salzburg, and is looking to win another Austrian Bundesliga . To describe him as a coach, his insperations seems to be Tuchel and Klopp. It’s understandable since he played under Klopp and has worked with Tuchel. If Klopp’s football is heavy metal, then Rose’s should be heavier metal. It takes pressing to another level. They primarily play a 4-3-1-2, but Rose is still very flexible depending on who he plays. Salzburg play directly to their forward Dabbur, thanks to Ramalho a very good passer, averaging 8.7 long balls in the Europa League. They attempt to then play the ball quickly in and around the final third, with Hannes Wolf and Minamino/Gulbrandsen trying to exploit the space that is made. Their full backs are the ones who give the side their width, with Laimer and Ulmer mostly playing as wingers. The first thought when seeing and describing this is usually the risk it involves, with so many players advancing forward. It is risky, but when your side counter presses as well as Rose’s does, it isn’t so bad. The main reason why they play such a narrow formation is for this reason. When they lose the ball, they will have so many numbers, that it makes retrieving the ball much easier. It makes them such a threat, that no wonder they reached the semi finals last season. They have been outstanding in the competition so far. They were in a relatively tough group, with Celtic and RB Leipzig. Yet they managed to win every game. Only previously mentioned Frankfurt and Salzburg managed to do this. It’s why I’ve mentioned first here, because they have been the best sides so far in the Europa League. Salzburg did carry this on into the round of 32, with a comfortable 5-2 aggregate final score against Brugge just showing why they are so high regarded.

The first player that has to be discussed is Munas Dabbur. The Israeli forward has been the stand out player of the tournament so far, scoring 7 and assisting 1 in all 8 games they’ve played. His importance to the side cannot be underestimated. While the striker playing beside him has been changed around, he has stayed an ever present. He takes a team high 3.8 shots per 90, and has created 1.7 chances. He is an all round forward who is able to not only score, but able to bring others into play very effectively. Salzburg will hope that he is able to bring this form into their game against Napoli, if they are to get anything out of that tough tie.

When bringing up the counter press in this side, Diade Samassekou has to be given plenty of praise. While he offers nearly nothing in attack, his defensive work is just out of this world. The Mali midfielder has been putting in 7 tackles and interceptions per game. I don’t think I have ever seen numbers like this on a player, when you realise that no other player in the competition has reached that number, it tells you just how good this guy is at recovering the ball. In a system where doing that is vital to not only keeping the ball, but helping with attacking the opposition.

Salzburg are such a threat because of the way they approach games. These players know the system and have the intelligence and energy to pull it off. Their aggressive and fast style of play makes them a difficult opposition for anyone.

Sevilla

Sevilla, who after having a relatively poor 2017/18 season, bounced back with a bang. While their form has dropped off since the new year, the fact they were top of the league as recent as November. We’ll start with the summer, which saw the arrival of their new coach, Pablo Machin. He did an excellent job at Girona. He ensured that a newly promoted side finished 10th in the league. While they didn’t score many goals from open play, they managed 19 goals from set pieces, with only Madrid scoring more from those situations. For a promoted side, taking advantage of opportunites like that is vital. You will not have much of the ball and need goals. It’s also easier to teach set pieces than it is to teach a different system. Machin did well and was given the chance at a team with more resourses and better players. He turned Sevilla into a counter attacking machine, a side that moved the ball quickly and created great chances for a group of forwards who have shown plenty of talent in their career. They’re also midfielders with an eye for a pass, with Banega and Sarabria both helping transition the ball further up the pitch, and Navas and Escudero giving good width for the side. They are so forward thinking in an attacking sense, that it makes them very vunerable defensively. While they have scored an impressive 40 goals, they have conceded 32, the most out of the top 10 in La Liga. Their approach is very much of Wenger’s Arsenal in its later years, if the opposition scores 2, we’ll score 3. They are a great side to watch, and while the form of some players have dropped (especially Andre Silva), they have had their best season since Sampoali’s top 4 finish.

They have been very good in the Europa League so far this season. They reached the round of 16 by winning 4 games and losing 2 in the group stages. They weren’t at their best in this period, but considering the group stages took place when Sevilla were doing well in La Liga, it makes sense why they didn’t do better. Their tie against Lazio in the round of 32 were Sevilla back at their best. Thanks to heroic performances from Banega and Kjaer, it gave Sevilla an away goal and a clean sheet, giving Sevilla the upper hand. They then went and beat the Italian side 2-0 in Spain to advance to the next round. Now that any hope of a title is out of the water, it leaves them with more focus on this compeition, making it a very important goal for the season.

To look at key players, one must begin with Ben Yedder. The frenchman is a very good forward and now under Machin, is getting the chances to show. He finds great positions in the box and is able get in between defenders, thanks to his small figure, makes him a stiker you have to keep your eye on . He has scored 6 goals in the competition, the most for his side, and is by far their most threatening forward. Another player who will shine in this competition, as he has done in the past, is Ever Banega. The Argentine had already won the competition during his last spell for Sevilla, and hopefully and help his side do the same. He’s been putting in 3 tackles and interceptions, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. He is so important for Sevilla when it comes to transition, with his calmness and experience key in helping move the ball higher up the pitch. He, like Sarabia, is also an excellent creator. It’s what makes their counter attacks so threatening. They are able to find their dynamic forward precise passes, and is why they are so dangerous in the break.

While question marks can be made on how they are defensively (mainly due to personel), they are still a side who are very dangerous. If you do not attack them enough, they will punish you for it.