“I said many times in recent years, but nobody wanted to believe me: it’s not this easy to be on the top of the table all the time and to confirm these achievements. It’s a difficult task – now we’ll see just how difficult,” was Bayern Munich captain Phillip Lahm’s response to his team’s defeat to Borussia Dortmund in a Bundesliga match recently.
Bundesliga, over the years, had been criticised for being uncompetitive. Bayern Munich completely dominated the League, with Dortmund providing some respectable challenge. However, the gap between Bayern and the other teams in the League had increased in the past few years.
If one were to look at the statistics, he would be convinced that the criticism was not totally unfounded. Bundesliga, indeed, had become a one-horse race. Bayern has won the last four championships and the team has been completely dominant while doing so. The gap between Bayern and the second-placed team was at least 10 points, sometimes going up to even 20, in the last four years.
However, this season, things seem to be changing. Recently, after Week 11 of the Bundesliga, Bayern lost its top spot for the first time in 14 months. Dortmund seemed to find its old stride, as manager Thomas Tuchel settled into the job following Jurgen Klopp’s move to Liverpool last season. The team has a strong core of players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. It would be further strengthened by the return of Marco Reus from a long injury layoff.
However, it is not Dortmund that currently tops the table; it is the little-known club, RB Leipzig, founded in 2009 and from an area that was originally a part of East Germany. Leipzig has been criticised for its policy of poaching young German talent, and many believe that the club’s values are diametrically opposite to the ideals of German football. But that is a debate for another day. Currently, the newly promoted club remains unbeaten and is on top of the Bundesliga table, three points ahead of Bayern.
Already many are referring to Leipzig, which has beaten Dortmund, as ‘the new Leicester City’. According to Tuchel, Leipzig could win the title this season. “Last year we had the phenomenon of Leicester City in England. Leipzig can do exactly the same thing. I’m convinced of that whenever I see them play,” said the Dortmund manager.
One big advantage Leipzig has is that it does not have European football to concentrate on. It faces Bayern Munich on December 21 and the match promises to be an exciting encounter.
Another team that has been quite impressive this season is Hoffenheim. The team has completely transformed from being a relegation-threatened side to a title contender in less than a year. The man behind Hoffenheim’s makeover is the team’s coach, Julian Nagelsmann. At 29, he is the youngest-ever to coach a Bundesliga side. He was appointed in February last when Hoffenheim was just five points off the relegation drop. Many termed it as a crazy idea, done just for the sake of publicity. But Nagelsmann not only saved the team from relegation but also completely transformed the side.
Hoffenheim is still unbeaten and is level on points with Dortmund. Nagelsmann is already being called ‘Baby Mourinho’, a name first given to him by former goalkeeper Tim Wiese. But he seems a lot more calmer than Mourinho, as was seen during his touchline tussle with Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt. Schmidt, who thought Nagelsmann was a bit too arrogant for his age, shouted, “What kind of nutcase are you? Do you think you invented football? Shut your mouth.” Nagelsmann, however, maintained his calm.
Hoffenheim has put up some strong performances this year, coming back from 4-1 down to level 4-4 against Mainz and then earning a draw against Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena. It might be a little too early to call Hoffenheim a title contender, but the team should challenge for the European spots. One must also keep an eye on Nagelsmann, as he looks set to manage a big club in the near future. Hoffenheim’s owner Dietmar Hopp himself said, “Hoffenheim will be too small for him (Nagelsmann) soon.”
Apart from these teams, sides like Hertha Berlin, FC Koln and Frankfurt are also putting up a strong show, making Bundesliga very competitive.
While Carlo Ancelotti, the new manager of Bayern Munich, needs time to transfer his ideas to the team, it will be foolhardy to say that the defending champion is no longer the powerhouse it once was, for the season is only 11 games old. Who knows, by the end of the season you might perhaps see the team lifting its fifth consecutive Bundesliga title. But one thing is for sure, it won’t be easy for Bayern as it was in the last four years.