Supposedly, it’s at this point of the season, that we congratulate the 2015-16 Bundesliga champions - Bayern Munich. That, of course, is facetious and simplistic, yet the permutations are simple - the other 17 clubs will need Bayern Munich to have a slightly weaker season in order for them to scale the heights of winning the title.
Championship races tend to appear out of nowhere. In the last decade, there’s been a resurgent Werder Bremen under Thomas Schaaf. Then there was the success of VfB Stuttgart on two occasions and thereafter Borussia Dortmund. The sheer consistency of last season’s runner-up and German Cup winners Wolfsburg was largely unforeseeable.
With four Champions’ League places up for grabs and an ever-growing nascent bank of clubs in Germany, competition has never been fiercer. Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke and Borussia Dortmund are assumed to be the five contenders for three other Champions League positions. Outside, Hamburg and Stuttgart are going through a rough patch.
Don’t forget Hoffenheim who have strengthened shrewdly since the departure of Roberto Firmino.
Of all keen to contest the status quo this season, Bayer Leverkusen shapes up as one of the strongest teams to challenge. But Roger Schmidt’s men are plagued by the same concerns - squad size, quality of backup players and finding a leading marksmen in attack who can play in the Champions League.
Christoph Kramer’s return from a highly-beneficial two-year loan-spell at Borussia Monchengladbach has bolstered midfield options in spite of Gonzalo Castro’s sale to Borussia Dortmund. Kramer’s burgeoning reputation has been to the complete gain of Leverkusen, an example of the 24-month loan system’s benefits that seems to reside on the continent than in the English game.
Given the fact Kramer has now played at a World Cup, and in Europe, his experience will be a timely addition, too. Schmidt says he expects a lot of the 24-year-old whose dynamic, grass-churning style is definitely suitable to Leverkusen’s quick transitional game.
Schmidt has swapped Josip Drmic for Admir Mehmedi, while Kyriakos Papadopolous has made his loan move permanent in a deal worth six million. Center-back Andre Ramalho has joined from RB Salzburg, the former club of Schmidt.
Unless there’s immediate quality added to the team, Leverkusen will likely struggle, as they have traditionally done in the winter. But an extra striker or full-back would bolster their squad on a par with Wolfsburg and give them the momentum to compete throughout the season.
Can Schalke or Dortmund break into top-four?
The unknown quantity of the chasing pack is Schalke who are beginning life under Andre Breitenreiter this summer.
Breitenreiter - in the words of goalie Ralf Fahrmann - has impressed already with his enthusiasm and desire to bring high-tempo football to the club. From the ashes of Roberto Di Matteo’s failed tenure at the club, something appears to be blossoming.
Johannes Geis’ arrival in a deal worth 10 million Euros was an exceptional piece of business from Horst Heldt in the hours before what was expected to be a stormy members meeting. Geis to Schalke shows there’s still something about the Royal Blues that can catch a player’s attention. Whether that can turn into success and pleasant football under Breitenreiter remains to be seen.
If any club had the foundations to be successful outside of Bayern Munich, Schalke are in good shape, just as long as they implode during the season.
Meanwhile, less than an hour up the road, Borussia Dortmund have opened a new chapter under Thomas Tuchel, the well-regarded successor of Jurgen Klopp who was the club’s longest-serving - and arguably most influential - head coach.
A 6-0 win over Kawasaki Frontale in Japan this week gave a rare glimpse into Tuchel’s vision for Dortmund next season - increased possession, fluid attacking combinations and improved defensive organization. The latter is still most certainly a work-in-progress.
The extension to Ilkay Gundogan’s contract offers reason to be optimistic, should he recover form of previous seasons amid criticism from his own supporters over his handling of this summer’s transfer speculation. Now that the midfielder has committed his future to the club - for at least 12 more months - the pair should cherish what’s possible before he goes.
Tuchel has a task elsewhere in resurrecting the performances of the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa and Kevin Kampl. This triumvirate in attack is immensely promising, but that needs to be channeled into displays next season.
At least on paper anyway, Germany’s main diet is as appetizing as it ever has been. Calls for maximizing revenue sources from the Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL) aren’t exactly ringing in the ears of club officials who are worried about a potential backlash from supporters - the move to Monday night fixtures will be a source of protestation next season.
But with quality draped throughout the championship, even if Bayern secure their 25th title in the Bundesliga era, there's enough to whet the appetite.SHOW MORE