5. Köln: Solidity pays off
After missing out on promotion to the Bundesliga in the 2012/13 season, Köln employed Peter Stöger – the man who is still the Head Coach today, and Jörg Schmadtke – the man who is still director of football. Together, the duo comfortably won promotion to the Bundesliga in the next season.
Since then it has been a slow and steady rise to where they are now. They have been steadily improving the team both in terms of squad quality – adding Key Players like Osako, Modeste, Heintz and Bittencourt for an added 10 Million – and in terms of playing style. In their first season back in Germany’s top flight, the Domstädter were known as a very defensively solid team often playing 0-0, and secured their survival quite early in the second half of the season.
The following season was obviously when things really kicked off, adding Modeste, Heintz and Bittencourt, finishing 9th in the end. Again, Köln were a team that was hard to break down for a mid-table side, conceding only 42. The problems were at the other end with 34 and 38 goals in these two seasons. In 2016/17, they scored 52 and half of them came from the one and only Anthony Modeste.
But reducing Köln’s season just to Modeste would be unfair because Stöger and his team provided much more than that. They usually didn’t play breathtaking football but the number of ways they could play helped them a lot. Thanks to a well-coached team and some very versatile players like Jonas Hector, Köln were always able to change their shape during a game and were able to adapt to their opposition. That and the fact that only 49 points were needed for a fifth place this season means a deserved return to European Football after 25 years of abstinence.
Instead of spending big money on new players, Köln try to keep their key players at the club, giving Hector, Bittencourt and Timo Horn lucrative new deals. If they can keep doing that and if Modeste stays I see no reason why Köln couldn’t be in a chasing pack for Europe again next season – even despite the extra games that teams with limited financial resources and thus the lack of ability to build a deep enough squad have often struggled with.
6. Hertha: A fortress slows down the collapse
If there has been a recurring theme in the latest Bundesliga seasons it is Hertha having a very good Hinrunde, setting them up for a finish in and around the Europa League or Champions League places just to throw it all away in the second half of the season, ending up in the bottom three of the Rückrunden table.
In 2013/14 they won 15 points more in the first half and in 2015/16 the difference was 14 points. This season they managed to close the gap between their halves at least a little bit and reduced it to 11 points. A big part in that was their form in the Olympiastadion, where they collected 37 of the 49 points that were enough for a 6th place finish this season. However, even the home form fits right into the theme of their season with three of the four losses coming after MD 26 including randomly conceding six against Leverkusen on the final day where they obviously still had Europe to play for.
In the end, they got there but they actually needed some help from Bayern to secure 6th and thus avoid the qualification rounds that saw them crash out to Brondby last season. When I talk about Köln being a solid team, this is an even better description of what Hertha stand for. If anyone wants to watch a team defend brilliantly (well, for the most part) in a 4-4-2 and shift across the pitch in the exact right moments, Hertha is a great team to watch because they do exactly this very well. You won’t find any stars that make you hold your breath in their team and this is something neutrals sometimes criticise, but this and the really good finishing ability of Vedad Ibisevic are the main reasons why Berlin are going back to Europe.
Looking forward, Berlin have a very good squad and they should be able to impress in Europe whilst also challenging for another European finish. Players like Maxi Mittelstädt and Mitchell Weiser still have their prime ahead of them and the only real concern is that Vedad Ibisevic isn’t getting any younger, but with how good their transfers have been in the last few seasons, Hertha should easily be able to replace him in the next couple of years.
7. Freiburg: The unnoticed fairytale
With the rapid rise of Leipzig, there wasn’t much space for the accomplishments of the other – less wealthy – promoted team that secured themselves a 7th place, and thanks to Dortmund beating Frankfurt in the cup final, now play in the Third Qualifying Round of the Europa League.
Christian Streich, who is probably the most popular manager across fans of all Bundesliga teams, is a very good example of a modern German Manager. He doesn’t like short term thinking, likes short-term transfers and always tries to build for the long term. So much so, that no one actually knows how long his current deal is running and that even if they would get relegated next season, there is no way Streich leaves. Just like a lot of German managers, he is also influenced by the likes of Rangnick and Klopp, meaning that he will always send his team out to press and to try and play football instead of just defending. If you do this with inferior players you’ll get thrashed from time to time and this is why their goal difference is so bad.
The only real difference between the team that won the 2. Bundesliga in 2016 and the team that finished 7th in 2017 is Florian Niederlechner, who proved to be an inspired signing, scoring 11 goals. Nils Petersen, top scorer of the 2. Bundesliga in 2016 started most games from the bench this season but that didn’t stop him from scoring 10 goals and now being on top of the all time “goals off the bench” charts.
However, Freiburg always had one problem. They’re by no means a rich club and have always taken pride in being one of the 25 best clubs in Germany, meaning that when a bigger club comes in with a bid for one of their players, the players often want to leave and Freiburg have to say yes. This summer, Vincenzo Grifo was the first player to leave Freiburg and Maximilian Philipp is likely to be one of the next. With them having to replace these players whilst dealing with European Football, next season could be tricky and they could end up in a relegation battle, but if there’s any club everyone wants to see in the Bundesliga, it’s the Schwarzwald boys.