The first European Top Five League has returned from hiatus, but why should you follow along? And where did we leave off?
German football has returned. After months of absence, we are finally about to welcome back one of the top five leagues from the pandemic-induced hiatus. This is a credit to the German government, healthcare system, and general society, who each played their roles to help the country deal with the virus.
But we are here to talk about the football. Fußball. Where did we leave off in the Bundesliga? What are the major stories that we need to follow? What players (and not just the obvious ones) should you look out for?
For those who were not following along earlier in the season, Germany was home to probably the most intense title race of the top five leagues. Borussia Mönchengladbach, RB Leipzig, and Bayern Munich all spent some time at the top, with Borussia Dortmund constantly in the mix as well. Bayern struggled to begin the season, with manager Niko Kovać resigning at the beginning of November. Gladbach, under new manager Marco Rose, started the season in sensational form, led by new boy striker Marcus Thuram, but they eventually faded and fell away from the title race. Leipzig took a few moments to fully find their wings under their new manager, ex-Hoffenheim man Julian Nagelsmann, but rocketed to the top of the league behind the sensational form of striker Timo Werner. Dortmund was inconsistent at the start of the season, and despite a strong start from the likes of Jadon Sancho and Marco Reus, it did seem that Lucien Favre would eventually run out of time in Westphalia. His fortunes would change with some action in January, but we will get to that later.
The outlook of the season changed massively in November with Kovać’s removal as Bayern manager. His replacement, former long-time Germany assistant Hansi Flick, reinvigorated the Bavarians. Playing a fast-paced, free-flowing style, Flick’s Bayern became a force to be reckoned with. It also lit a goalscoring spark under striker Robert Lewandowski, who was already having a great season, but kicked in a sixth gear that carried him to being probably the best striker in world football this season. Lewandowski was hardly the only player impressing for the reigning champions, as Thomas Müller, the league’s leading assister, seemed to be enjoying a renaissance. Young Canadian left back Alphonso Davies cemented himself in the first team, pushing long time left back David Alaba into an emergency center back role. Thiago, Joshua Kimmich, and Serge Gnabry also showed their quality, as Bayern soared to the top of the table and through the Champions League knockout stages. The talented-but-inexperienced Leipzig team, the Bavarians’ main rival for the title, hit a rough patch in January, which allowed Bayern to cement the four point lead at the top that they currently enjoy. The race for top scorer, and the wonderfully named Torjägerkanone, is a neck-and-neck duel between top table teams, with Bayern’s Lewandowski and Leipzig’s Werner at 25 and 21 goals, respectively.
January also saw a resurgence for Borussia Dortmund, who hit red-hot form behind the incredible goalscoring prowess of their new signing Erling Håland. They climbed into second, overtaking Leipzig but still four points off the top. Håland won player of the month in his first month in the league, cementing his reputation as one of the most promising young talents in world football. Bayer Leverkusen and their young talent began clicking under Peter Bosz, famously beating Dortmund in a 4-3 goalfest in early February. They join Gladbach and Schalke in occupying the final European places. Wolfsburg, Freiburg, Hoffenheim, Köln, and Union Berlin all remain within seven points of Schalke in the final European place.
The bottom of the league also contained some interesting races, as several prominent Bundesliga clubs are fighting for their survival. Four-time league champions Werder Bremen remain the club in crisis, still four points away from the relegation playoff spot and eight points from safety. Newly promoted Paderborn remain bottom, while Fortuna Düsseldorf occupy the relegation playoff place. Mainz, Hertha Berlin, Augsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, and Union Berlin all are still looking below them, as they are within nine points of the relegation playoff place.
Who are some players to keep an eye out for? For those who enjoy watching talent develop, or who may be eyeing up transfer ideas for their club or for their FIFA Career Mode saves, I will give you a few names of the best performing players in the league so far this season. Obviously, the likes of Lewandowski, Werner, Håland, Havertz, and Sancho all fall into this category, but we will be looking at others who may not be getting the respect they deserve. First is Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, who is the league’s third-top assister with 12, getting a third of them in the Red Bulls’ 5-0 demolition of Schalke in February. The Frenchman is enjoying his first season in Germany after moving from PSG, and he has become a key cog in the Leipzig attack. Another one of the league’s top assisters is Achraf Hakimi, the Real Madrid-loanee Dortmund fullback registering 10 assists this season. Should he return to Madrid, he would be an exciting new piece to Zidane’s team, but should he stay, he would be an excellent permanent addition to a dynamic Dortmund attack. At the other end of the table, you have Augsburg’s Florian Niederlechner and Mainz’s Robin Quaison, possibly the two best attacking players in the league outside of the top five places. Both play a key role in their teams, with Niederlechner being a more traditional target-man striker, while Quaison is a much more direct attacking forward. Augsburg’s Philipp Max, Köln’s Jhón Cordoba, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Filip Kostić, and Union Berlin’s Sebastian Andersson are also quietly having good seasons away from the top five. Defensively, Dan-Axel Zagadou has quietly had a breakthrough season with Dortmund, becoming the rock at the back that they have needed for years. Joining him on the list of the league’s young emerging talent is Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, Gladbach’s Marcus Thuram and Denis Zakaria, and Köln’s Ismail Jakobs.
So, what is going to happen? Quite frankly, I have no idea. Had none of this pandemic happened, I would have put my money on Bayern comfortably strolling their way to another title. Their current form, confidence, and the swagger imbued in the team by Hansi Flick was unmatched, and their key players were performing at their highest level. Leipzig stumbled, and while Dortmund did recover in form, they were still four points behind. Now that there has been a significant layoff, and there are question marks over the form and fitness of every player in the league, I am not so sure. With nine matches left, the first three match weeks are going to go a long way in determining how this season is going to end, despite, as we saw with the South Korean K-League’s restart, the first three weeks will be teams’ greatest struggles fitness-wise. The teams who start well will be at a significant advantage, especially given the crucial fixtures that teams at the top have in those first three weeks, namely Bayern’s trip to Westphalia to face Dortmund in the third match week. Is the title race over? Absolutely not! Is relegation decided? Well, maybe for Paderborn and Bremen but not for everyone else. And the European places definitely are not decided. Leipzig, currently in third and once top of the league, are only two points ahead of fifth place, which would see them out of the Champions League next season. The gap between sixth, and the final Europa League place, and ninth is only two points. There is so much left to be decided in these final nine matches.
It will not feel the same playing behind closed doors, as the many incredible atmospheres and general fan culture in Germany is one of the things that makes the Bundesliga great. However, it is a necessary precaution in order to keep people safe, while allowing German clubs to get access to necessary and sustaining TV revenue. Should you watch? Absolutely, the league is full of exciting players, there is still contest for every position in the league, and it should be an exciting finish to the season.