The Bundesliga celebrated a banner year in its fiftieth season, culminating with the first ever all-German UEFA Champions League final. Will there be similar success for the league as it kicks off the next 50 years? Here are the key, burning questions for the upcoming season:
How will Bayern Munich adjust to Josep Guardiola’s rotation?
When Guardiola was first introduced at Bayern, the overwhelming question after a treble-winning season was: what could he even change?
Quite a lot, apparently.
In just a couple months, Guardiola has: gotten rid of Jupp Heynckes’ devastating 4-2-3-1 formation in favor of a 4-1-4-1; forced the purchase of favorite Barcelonaunderstudy Thiago Alcantara; moved Javi Martinez to center back; played the visibly flustered Mario Mandzukic out on the wing and – and here’s the kicker – deployed captain Philipp Lahm, perhaps the world’s best full back, in central midfield throughout the preseason.
Keep in mind that this is a team that just concluded what is arguably the single greatest Bundesliga season of all time. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the old saying goes, and some of the players have, albeit diplomatically, questioned the extent of Guardiola’s modifications. But could Guardiola’s schemes actually make Bayern scarier?
Thiago’s addition has certainly made them more flexible – something which Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern’s tireless engine, asked for – yet it further increases the pressure on Guardiola to find the right rotation and keep a long, luxurious bench happy. Flexibility breeds unpredictability, and rotation equals flexibility, but will the math add up for Pep? Time will tell.
Josep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich will seek their second consecutive Bundesliga title next season (Photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images).
So dominant was Bayern’s title run last year – which was sealed with a record-breaking six games to spare – that some pundits mocking the league’s lack of competition. (Unfortunately, many of these folks had previously argued the Bundesliga was pulling away as the world’s best. Oh, well) Even Dortmund were left in the dust with their pants down, 25 points off the pace.
Don’t expect that to happen again this year. Jurgen Klopp’s men thrive in the role of the underdog – he has already cast his team as “Robin Hood” in preseason – but their cover has been blown. Borussia rightly belong in Europe’s elite, and despite the loss of Mario Gotze, have further improved this summer. New boys Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should fit perfectly in Klopp’s run-and-gun philosophy, and the addition of Sokratis “Papa” Papastahopolous should solidify a defense that was a bit too leaky last year.
And guess what: BVB have already beat Guardiola’s “Uber-Bayern;” they won the German Super Cup 4-2. They’ve also proved they can stand toe-to-toe with them on even the biggest of stages last May. If Munich goes through some early growing pains, Dortmund could get an early jump on them this season, putting the pressure squarely back on Bayern while relishing in the role of “underdogs” — just as Klopp likes it.
There is widespread fear that the Bundesliga is quickly turning into La Liga – with two teams lording over a host of lesser sides. But Leverkusen and Schalke – last year’s third and fourth-place finishers – are eager to close the gap.
There’s no doubt Champions League playoffs-bound Schalke have improved this summer. Mainz import Adam Szalai (13 goals last season) will fix the team’s overreliance on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and 18-year-old Eugen Goretzka becomes the latest top under-20 talent to join a deep midfield. Just how close Schalke can get to the top will come down to how fast this young core grows up. Goretzka, Julian Draxler (19) and Max Meyer (17) might all be future superstars, but are they still just a bit too green to handle the massive expectations in Gelsenkirchen?
Over in Leverkusen, expectations are a bit murkier. The smart signings of Hamburg’s Heung-Min Son and elite Bayern prospect Emre Can should pay dividends, but falls short of replacing German international Andre Schurrle and all-league defender Dani Carvajal, whose buy-back option was exercised by Real Madrid. While the rest of the top four has clearly improved, Bayer seem to be treading water. That is never good, especially when returning to Champions League play.
Could Hamburg and Werder Bremen find themselves in the relegation battle?
The Bundesliga has seen a lot of change in fifty years, but there has been exactly one constant since 1963: Hamburg have always been in the league. Only one other team, Werder Bremen, have for all but one season (Bayern, for those asking, were only promoted in the Bundesliga’s third year of existence). However, both Northern giants are in decline and are staring possible relegation in the face.
Hamburg, the last remaining Bundesliga dinosaur, barely avoided relegation two years ago, and despite a deceptively comfortable seventh-place finish last year, problems amount once again for manager Thorsten Fink. After going winless in their last five preseason games, including an 0-4 debacle against second-division side Dynamo Dresden, Hamburg nearly made a mess of their German Cup tie against fifth-tier club SV SCHOTT Jena, needing 72 minutes to grab control with a few late goals. Fifth-tier, folks.
It’s easy to see the root of Hamburg’s problems. By selling Son– easily Hamburg’s best player last season – to Leverkusen, they now miss a speedy, creative winger who had a hand in a third of the team’s 42 goals last season, a meager output to begin with. They aren’t close to finding a replacement for him.
An hour southwest, things don’t look much better for Bremen, who avoided relegation by just three points last year. Werder are stumbling into its first season in 15 years under a manager not named Thomas Schaaf, winning just two of the seven preseason games played against non-amateur opponents. They also promptly crashed out of the first round of the German Cup, pretty much the fastest way for new manager Robin Dutt to enter a crisis. Werder have also done nothing to bolster a roster that lost its best defender (Papastathopoulos) and attacker (Kevin De Bruyne) this summer. With no stars, no depth, and no money to spend, Bremen must dig deep to avoid a shocking drop.
If the summer’s performances are any sort of indication, and no impact players are added before Sept. 1, it could be a long year for Hamburg and Bremen, or a really short one for their managers.