Another twist in the relegation race, plus much more…
Welcome to the Match Week Review, where we talk about the football we just watched. We will name our player of the match week, three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned from Match Week 31 in the Bundesliga.
So what happened this weekend? In case you missed it, here are the results:
Hoffenheim 0-2 RB Leipzig
Paderborn 1-5 Werder Bremen
Köln 1-2 Union Berlin
Wolfsburg 2-2 Freiburg
Hertha Berlin 1-4 Eintracht Frankfurt
Fortuna Düsseldorf 0-1 Borussia Dortmund
Bayern Munich 2-1 Borussia Mönchengladbach
Mainz 0-1 Augsburg
Schalke 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Player of the Match Week
Davy Klaassen, Werder Bremen (2 goals in Bremen’s 5-1 win over Paderborn)
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. In a match that Bremen had to win, their talisman, leader, and best player stepped up and delivered for them. Klaassen was the best player on the pitch by a mile, dictating play in the middle of the pitch, pulling the strings in attack, and even getting involved in the goalscoring himself. He contributed on the other end, did everything you could ask of a center midfielder, and basically ran himself ragged. Throw in a yellow card for good measure and he really did a bit of everything. The ex-Ajax captain had been Bremen’s best player this season, and he once again showed up to help dig them out of their predicament.
Honorable Mentions: André Silva (Eintracht Frankfurt), Wout Weghorst (Wolfsburg), Dani Olmo (RB Leipzig)
Winners of the Match Week
1.) Werder Bremen
Bremen absolutely, positively, 110% needed to win this match. There was no two ways about it. They had to beat Paderborn, and they did so convincingly. A comfortable 5-1 win, even against the last-placed team in the league, will do much to restore their confidence. But, when combined with results from elsewhere, it should ignite the fires for Florian Kohfeldt’s team, showing them that survival is not only possible, but the pathway to safety is much clearer than they, and I, once thought. At the end of the weekend, Bremen sit level on points with Fortuna, only staying in 17th on goal difference, and they are only three points behind Mainz, who are currently safe. Knowing they play Mainz in their penultimate match, Bremen have to believe that survival is now very possible. Their current situation even gives them some luxury going into this Bayern match this week, as Mainz face Dortmund and Fortuna face Leipzig in the same match week. Unless one of those teams pulls off a shocking result and nicks points off of one of the three best teams in the league, Bremen will be at least in this same situation with two matches remaining in the season. Kohfeldt has to focus his team on the ultimate goal: any result against Bayern will be taken graciously, but the priority is beating Mainz next weekend. They must win that game to stay up.
2.) RB Leipzig
Nagelsmann needed a reaction from his team following a very disappointing draw with Paderborn last week, and he definitely got it. It was not easy, Hoffenheim had their chances, but Leipzig overcame and ran out 2-0 winners, an important three points against a very good side. They showed off their strength in depth, with Dani Olmo shining in midfield in place of Christopher Nkunku, while the makeshift center back pairing of Marcel Halstenberg and Lukas Klostermann, playing without the suspended Dayot Upamecano, did enough to hold Hoffenheim at bay. Leverkusen’s draw to Schalke and Gladbach’s loss to Bayern is an added boost, putting the Red Bulls five points clear of the chasing pack, six points to the good in the top four. A win against Fortuna Düsseldorf, combined with Gladbach dropping points against Wolfsburg, would officially send Leipzig into the Champions League for next season, without needing to worry about getting a result against Dortmund. While it was not the season that Nagelsmann would have hoped for, securing Champions League football for next season would still be a success, so they cannot afford to blow it right at the home stretch.
3.) Union Berlin/FC Augsburg
Union and Augsburg both occupy the final spot for a similar reason. Union’s win over Köln and Augsburg’s win over Mainz lifted both of them away from the relegation fight, putting both teams four points ahead of Mainz and seven points ahead of Fortuna and Werder Bremen. Safety is not yet secured, but they seem to be in the clear. If Fortuna do lose to Leipzig this week, then any result for either of those teams, along with Köln, will see them safe in the top flight for next season. This would be a massive deal for Union Berlin, who were considered the favorites for relegation before the season started. Another year added to their top flight adventure would be historic for a storied club from a region of Germany, the former East Germany, that does not have much representation in the Bundesliga.
Losers of the Match Week
1.) Fortuna Düsseldorf
I do genuinely feel bad for Fortuna. They did everything right in their match against Dortmund for about 94 minutes and 15 seconds. They fought, they clawed, they scrapped, they had quite a few goalscoring chances of their own as well, they did enough to at least warrant a draw against Dortmund for 94 minutes and 15 seconds. The issue is that the five seconds after that saw a lofted-but-dangerous cross from Manuel Akanji find the forehead of Erling Håland, who thumped the ball into the back of the net. For 94 minutes and 15 seconds, Fortuna did enough to earn what would have been a massive point for them, and that was all undone in the final few seconds. A point would have been big, maybe not enough to fully keep them up, but enough to still have a point cushion over Werder Bremen. That gap would have been handy going into their match against Leipzig this week, knowing a loss would be fine if Bremen also lost to Bayern, but now goal difference has become a factor. Should they get a result against Leipzig, that would be massive, but if not, they must get a result, and probably win, their final two matches of the season in order to guarantee at least a relegation playoff. Knowing Bremen still play Mainz, wins in their final two matches could also see them secure automatic safety. Their fate is still in their hands, but it got a whole lot more difficult.
Suffering a similar fate to Fortuna but under different circumstances, Mainz’s 1-0 loss to Augsburg is an absolutely brutal blow to Rouven Schröder’s team. Mainz fell behind about 40 seconds into the match thanks to a (pretty lucky) poacher’s goal from Florian Niederlechner, and despite everything they did, they were not able to get a goal of their own. They were arguably the better side, and they definitely created more chances, but they were unable to break down Augsburg and suffered a gutting loss at an awful time. They now only sit three points ahead of Bremen and Fortuna, and knowing they must still play Bremen before the end of the season, it is clear that Mainz’s survival hopes are now in serious danger. Their match against Dortmund this week, like Bremen and Fortuna’s matches against top three sides, is more or less an added bonus match, not expecting a result but will take one if they can, but their match against Bremen this weekend is basically a relegation playoff of their own. Win, and die Nullfünfer would be safe from automatic relegation, only having to deal with a relegation playoff as a worst-case scenario. Lose, and, well, things would get quite scary.
3.) Bayer Leverkusen
We return to the race for the final two top four places to find our last loser. Leverkusen had the easiest match between them, Gladbach, and Leipzig, only having to beat struggling Schalke. They were able to field a pretty strong side, with Kai Havertz returning to the team after missing their loss to Bayern, but they struggled to break down the Schalke defense. They trailed early in the second half, after a very unfortunate (and probably harsh) handball decision against Edmond Tapsoba led to a penalty, converted by Schalke captain Daniel Caligiuri. Leverkusen fought back, eventually forcing a just-as-unfortunate own goal from Juan Miranda to level the match. Leverkusen definitely had more chances, but I will defend Schalke here. I used xG last week to show why Schalke did not deserve a point against Union Berlin, but the xG for this match was 1.47-0.89 in favor of Schalke. While the penalty decision was unfortunate, a draw was a fair result, and Leverkusen’s rather tepid performance did not really warrant all three points. This massive setback has opened up a five point gap between them and Leipzig, and with the Red Bulls able to clinch a Champions League place this mid week, the race for the Champions League might now just be down to Leverkusen and Gladbach.
What We Learned
1.) The Great Escape is alive and well
Werder Bremen can actually do it. They were the club in crisis all season. One of Germany’s institutional clubs looked destined for relegation, another one to follow in the footsteps of Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kaiserslautern, and others. But they can do it. They can survive, and the path to survival is clear. Yes, they will probably be thumped by Bayern this week, but as long as Fortuna and Mainz also lose, that is not an issue. Mainz and Werder Bremen next weekend is now, more or less, a relegation playoff before the relegation playoff. Bremen must win to keep the dream alive, and if they are able to hang on to some of the confidence they got from their 5-1 win over Paderborn, you would have to fancy them heading into that match. The relegation race may be decided by the team that does not get too carried away by a loss to one of the top three, assuming all three teams end up losing. If one of them takes points off of their top three opponent, then things change massively.
2.) European Dream over for Hertha
It was always going to be a bridge too far for Bruno Labbadia’s team, but they gave it a go. Back to back losses to Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt put them eight points off of sixth place, most definitely too steep of a hill to climb with only three matches remaining. Should things go their way, then seventh, and a Europa League qualifier spot, is still feasible, but it is very likely that the European Dream is over for Hertha. This does not take anything away from how great of a job Labbadia has done since taking over, especially given the mess he inherited. Hertha have a lot of good things in place, a manager and tactical system that gets the best out of their team, and some budding stars in Matheus Cunha and Jordan Torunarigha. Depending on who they lose and gain in the transfer window, whenever we actually have a transfer window, they could be in a very good position to challenge for Europe or make a cup run next season.
3.) But all still to play for for sixth place…
Sixth place is most definitely not decided yet. Wolfsburg currently occupy the place, but only four points separate them from eighth-placed Freiburg. Schalke could also be looped into this discussion, being only seven points out of sixth, but they would need quite a few things to go their way in order to get the final Europa League spot. The race for sixth is definitely between three teams: Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, and Freiburg. When looking at each teams final three matches, Hoffenheim seems to be a more clear favorite, seeing as they are the only one of those three teams that does not have to play the red-hot Bayern Munich, but they still have quite a difficult match against Dortmund on the last day of the season. Things will change over the last three matches of the season, so any of these teams could end up with the final Europa League place. Wolfsburg have their fate in their own hands, but remaining matches against Gladbach and Bayern make holding onto sixth a much more difficult task.
4.) And fourth…
I will go out on a limb and say the race for the Champions League is now down to two teams. Leipzig can seal a top four place as early as their Wednesday match against Fortuna Düsseldorf, and they hold a healthy six point lead over Gladbach in fifth. Leverkusen, however, are only safe in fourth by one point. They still have everything to play for. Champions League football would be a massive deal financially to both Gladbach and Leverkusen, especially given what the COVID pandemic has done to the economy of the sport, and while Leverkusen’s easier final three matches make them the favorite on paper, you can never really tell. Should they not improve from the performance they put out against Schalke, they will definitely drop points again. Interestingly, Hertha have the chance to be the kingmaker in this scenario, playing Leverkusen and Gladbach in the penultimate and final match of the season, respectively. An interesting wrinkle to this fantastic finish to the season.