Das Team of the Season…
Welcome back to our Team of the Season series, where we begin our third league of this series: the Bundesliga in Germany. While the perennial winners Bayern won again, there was a lot of interesting results throughout the league table, with many teams challenging the previous duopoly of Bayern-Dortmund.
We begin this Team of the Season, as we usually do, with the defense, which might have some surprising inclusions…
Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg)
Yes, this is not Manuel Neuer.
The Bundesliga features a similar debate that the Premier League had: who starts in goal? Leipzig’s Péter Gulácsi was phenomenal and leads the league in most defensive goalkeeping stats, like clean sheets and goals conceded, but when it comes to who is the best at playing the goalkeeper position instead of who has the best defense in front of him, it is hard to say no to Wolfsburg’s Belgian stopper.
Now yes, Wolfsburg have the second best defense in the league behind Leipzig, but it is the save statistics that greatly help Casteels in this debate. He does not have to make a lot of saves compared to other goalkeepers in the league, and neither does Gulácsi, but he makes those saves at a much higher rate than the Hungarian. Standing at a towering 6’5″, Casteels combines that height and wingspan with an incredible athleticism and cat-like reflexes, able to cover all areas of his goal with great efficiency. It really is a shame that Casteels happens to share the same nationality as Thibaut Courtois, because he will not have the chance to be Belgium’s number one despite his incredible talent due to the fact that he is behind one of the three or four best goalkeepers in the world.
Yes, Wolfsburg’s defense is very good. There are two other Wolfsburg players here. But Casteels is also very talented, as good as Gulácsi this season. It was a close call, but the Belgian gets the nod.
Ridle Baku (VfL Wolfsburg)
This is a little iffy, as Baku did play multiple positions for Wolfsburg this season, he did play more as a winger than a right back this season. But this is my team so he’s a right back here.
Ridle Baku was arguably the breakout star of the season in the Bundesliga. Arriving in Wolfsburg before this season after a promising two years in Mainz, Baku broke into the fold as a player who could cover the entire right side of the pitch. Starting as a winger, his energy and relentlessness combined very well with his ability on the ball, making him important in Wolfsburg’s attack. When injury took starting right back Kevin Mbabu out of the team, Baku stepped into the right back role and flourished. His never-ending motor allowed him to bomb up and down the pitch for 90 minutes, putting in strong tackles and crucial blocks (a stat he leads the Bundesliga in) while also being able to push forward, cross the ball well to Wolfsburg’s colossal tower of a striker, and even get on the score sheet himself. He was incredibly impressive, maybe genuinely one of the breakout stars of the season. He was a crucial part of a Wolfsburg defense that was arguably the best defense in the league this past season and could end up being in the Champions League next season.
Baku has been an interesting revelation of the Bundesliga season. In a world lacking top right back prospects, Baku’s stint replacing the injured Mbabu has suddenly made him one of the most valuable young prospects in the world, maybe not in monetary value but in what he brings. He becomes a valuable player for Wolfsburg in what could be a chance to become a consistent top four team, given the struggles at Leverkusen and Mönchengladbach. He also becomes a valuable prospect for Germany, a team lacking a top right back. Very interesting indeed.
Willi Orbán (RB Leipzig)
We take a slight break from Wolfsburg players to talk about a Leipzig center back.
No, not THAT Leipzig center back.
Here we have Willi Orbán, one of Leipzig’s longest-serving players, having joined the Red Bulls while they were still in the second division. At only 28 years of age, he might not be that old, but he is fairly older than most of his defensive teammates. And he has been phenomenal, even overshadowed by the hype surrounding his much-wanted teammate.
Now do not get me wrong, Upamecano is still a great player, much deserving of the big Bayern move he has earned. He does not feature in the starting team, but he is still very good. Orbán has been spectacular, though. As a player who is not necessarily too athletic or have the reputation as the modern “Rolls Royce” center back like Upamecano or even their teammate Ibrahima Konaté, but he still does both fairly well. In a team that plays a very methodical and possession-based style, much different from previous Leipzig teams, Orbán has become the focal point of that defense, able to bring the ball out and get attacks started while also marshaling the defense and midfield. He is not quick, but his strength and athleticism still allows him to be a force defensively and in the air, being one of the best in the league in aerial duels. That aerial prowess also allowed him to score four goals this season, which is among the highest totals among defenders in the Bundesliga this season.
After a very tough 2019/20 season where he missed 22 games, Orbán was a fixture for most of the season without any injury issues. And his presence makes things noticeably different. It is not just his athleticism or his ability in the tackle or on the ball, but his leadership, defensive IQ, and sheer tenacity and loyalty to Leipzig makes them much better. Center back is a very tough position to choose in this team, but it is very hard to keep Orbán out.
Maxence Lacroix (VfL Wolfsburg)
Now here is a controversial one. This is a French center back, but again, not THAT French center back.
I do not think there was a more influential signing in the Bundesliga this season than Wolfsburg’s Maxence Lacroix. Well, maybe one or two, but you can make a very strong argument in Lacroix’s favor. The Frenchman was brought to Wolfsburg from Ligue 2 side Sochaux before this season, and he has seemingly become a natural fit in this Wolfsburg defense in very little time. Wolfsburg’s defense was always solid, but it did not become what it is now until Lacroix stepped into the defense. The 21 year old demonstrated the composure and defensive IQ that some veteran players cannot even match, seemingly elevating his teammates around him and developing into an unstoppable force.
There is not much that statistically backs this, and while he is very comfortable on the ball (as most top young center back prospects are), his statistics in that category are not exactly eye-popping. But what he is very good at is tackling, interceptions, and clearances. The three tenets of defending, and he is very impressively good at them. Should Wolfsburg make the Champions League for next season, I expect that a whole lot more people are going to hear about him next season. He is a name to remember moving forward.
Raphaël Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund)
If there is an oxymoronic combination of things in the Bundesliga over the last few years, it is Dortmund and good defenders. It seems that Dortmund’s title hopes the last few years have collapsed in tremendous fashion due to the incredible ability for their defense to fall apart at a moment’s notice. But, like last season, we get to include a Dortmund fullback (or wingback, I guess) in a Team of the Season. Last season, it was Achraf Hakimi, and this season, it is Raphaël Guerreiro.
Guerreiro is the prototypical modern attacking fullback, yet he is one that often goes under the radar. He bombs forward very well, playing with plenty of energy and dynamism that allows him to be such a dynamic and threatening attacker. His 10 assists this season makes him among the most creative players in the league, and he is fairly well out in front of that stat among all Bundesliga defenders. And it is not just his crossing. He is generally an incredible passer of the ball, able to pick out a pass with his incredible left foot. He combines very well with Dortmund’s more advanced attacking players, specifically with the seemingly ageless Marco Reus. He is even able to find the occasional goal, again usually on his phenomenal left foot. Defensively, he is at least solid enough. He is not outstanding in any regard, but he is most definitely not the root cause of Dortmund’s defensive issues. His slightly-above-average defensive ability does not overshadow his phenomenal attacking output. He is easily the best attacking fullback in the Bundesliga, and you could argue that he is among the best attacking fullbacks in the world. Still quite underrated, Guerreiro is a set fixture in this team. It is hard to keep him out.
And there you have it, part one of our Team of the Season is done. Join us tomorrow for part two, where we name our three midfielders of the season. And I promise, it is not all three Bayern players.
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