Bundesliga season review Part 1: Bayern & Leipzig

1. Bayern: Domestic Dominance – International Wait

Like it happens with big clubs there was a lot of talk about the transition from Pep Guardiola to Carlo Ancelotti and depending on recent results, the consensus swayed from one side to another. After they smashed Bremen 6-0 on the opening day some people talked about them “being freed from the shackles of Guardiola” but this overstates the actual point about as much as saying that Ancelotti is a bad manager because Bayern “only” won the league does.

All in all, it was a routine season for Bayern when it comes to the league if you can call winning it an act of routine. The record champions didn’t look convincing for spells throughout the season but they did the thing Bayern – especially so in the era before Guardiola – were known for: Being there exactly when it matters. After having reclaimed the place on top of the league on MD15 due to Leipzig’s first loss, they hosted the energy drink club a couple of days later and convincingly beat them 3-0. Best player on the pitch that night? Thiago.

After being hit by some pretty bad injuries in recent history, the Spaniard finally managed to find form and mesmerize Bayern fans and Neutrals with amazing Vision, Passing and One-Touch-Moves. I have seen some Best XIs of this season that don’t feature Thiago and these are just wrong. He is a wonderful player who is coming right into his prime at 26. Two players who should be past their prime considering their age but who just don’t seem to age are Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. Dubbed Robbery when they first arrived at the Säbener Straße, the duo managed to avoid injury woes this season and especially Robben dominated a couple of games, especially the 4-1 at home against Dortmund.

At this point in time, Bayern looked almost unstoppable and a lot of people had them down as favourites to win the Champions League. However, a mix of individual mistakes in the first leg and horrific refereeing in the second leg saw them crash out against a Spanish team for the 4th time since their triumph at Wembley in 2013. A week later, a 2-3 loss at home saw them crash out of the DFB-Pokal to competitive rivals Dortmund, meaning the season would only end with the 5th consecutive Bundesliga title. In general, that is fine but after how unstoppable they have looked, disappointment is understandable.

Dortmund had their transitional year this season and will attack again next season. Bayern might have a transitional year of sorts next season with Xabi Alonso and Lahm retiring and with Ribery, Robben and Rafinha approaching that retirement age. It’s going to be interesting to see how Bayern change their face in the next couple of years. Who is going to join Süle and Rudy in the list of new signings? Goretzka? Sanchez? Or someone else?

2. RB Leipzig: Pure Energy

Make no mistake, Leipzig are not your typical promoted side. In the last couple of years they spent money well beyond the means of most Bundesliga clubs. However, prior to this season no one thought they would be on for more than a finish in the top half. Well, they did get that and a lot more.

Lots of things about Leipzig invoked comparisons to 1899 Hoffenheim in 2008. Both are clubs backed by a rich owner, both got there with Ralf Rangnick, both went with a very young squad and both played very vertical football. However, they are some differences. Leipzig went into the season with a much deeper squad and they had a bigger emphasis on Pressing. Often, Leipzig just choked the life out of other teams and didn’t give them any space in midfield, similar to how Ingolstadt played under Hasenhüttl the year before.

Fittingly, their first loss of the season came against Hasenhüttl’s former club FC Ingolstadt and Ingolstadt played just like they had too. Not caring about the midfield at all and instead just lumping it up the pitch to Leckie and Lezcano. Add Pascal Groß (who has signed for Brighton now) and his set pieces and you have one way to beat Leipzig. Three days later they got undone by Bayern München and from that point on it was obvious that there is most likely not going to be a real title challenge.

They played a decent Rückrunde, collecting 28 points and clinching second in the end but there were some games that evoked the narrative of “Leipzig being found out”. That was the prevailing narrative back then with Hoffenheim too but it implies that prior to this time, teams just didn’t prepare properly which is most likely not the case. A lot of Leipzig’s losses were down to a drop in intensity meaning that other teams and especially their midfielders had an easy to time surpassing their press. Reasons behind this are often hard to explain and it even happened in the middle of some games e.g. against Schalke.

They have qualified for the Champions League, posing several questions: 1) Who are they going to sign? Do they just stay with their approach of signing semi-proven young players like Timo Werner and Naby Keita and sign someone like Armin Younes or are they going to sign a couple of older players to use the potential timeframe of Bayern being in  transitional period? 2) Will they be allowed to play in the Champions League? With both Salzburg and Leipzig qualifying for the biggest competition of European Football, UEFA has a decision to make. If both Leipzig and Salzburg are deemed to have the same owner, the club from Saxony won’t be able to compete in the Champions League.

Either way, the next few years are going to be interesting. Are Leipzig ever going to sell key players? Will key players want to stay? If key players leave, how will Rangnick replace them? Can they establish themselves as a force in German Football or was last season just a one-off?