With the title decided, it should have taken some creativity and skill to identify the most interesting things about the second half of the Bundesliga season. Fortunately for the creatively challenged among us, Borussia Dortmund is in the thick of one of the tightest, or at least largest, relegation races in Europe at the halfway mark in the campaign. With four points separating the bottom ten teams, it’s going to be another season where the relegation battle is the new title race.
It’s got to a point where every player in Bayern and Dortmund’s squads has been injured. Though fans of either team may not want to say it in earshot of anyone for fear of SpongeBob SquarePants-style retribution, it really does seem like it can’t get any worse for the players. Things are looking up on the health front for both as the winter break turns from holidays to training camps to friendlies, and for Bayern it simply may not matter who returns from injury, because, quite simply, they’ve gotten along this far just fine.
The vicious cycle in Dortmund
For Dortmund, plenty else has contributed to their winter break position of 17th, tied for last and looking like they will need all the help they can get. If that means a few more Christoph Kramer own goals from 40 yards away, so be it.
Injuries aside – and there have been plenty – Dortmund have had tactical problems that mostly stem from, in the view of many, being one-dimensional. That’s not simply the issue, though. For BVB, being one-dimensional is not the only cause of BVB’s problems, because the flat and barren tactical island they have beached their yacht upon is also the result of their transfer policy and possibly some short-sightedness from manager Jürgen Klopp and the board.
Though it’s treated like a new development sometimes, Dortmund were tactically one-dimensional a season or two ago too. This caused its own set of problems, but even to this day, in European play at least, you could get the impression that nothing much is wrong.
The story is considerably different in Bundesliga now that – not independent from Bayern being the best team in the world for most of this time – Dortmund has been losing title races by 20 points or so since 2012. Dortmund have looked beatable very often since they lost Mario Götze, and here is where the two ex-BVB stars and current Bayern players come in.
Before, when Dortmund would play poorly, they had Götze and Robert Lewandowski to bail them out with pure brilliance in front of goal, and a few overlapping seasons with Marco Reus helped to do much of the same. Now that they are down to one truly world-class attacking player in Reus, it’s obviously going to be and has been more difficult to come by goals.
In their last two seasons, BVB scored 80 and 81 goals, respectively. This season they are on pace for 36. They’re conceding more too, and the disparity is only slightly less concerning.
To more towards the consequences of being one-dimensional, BVB’s injury situation is a complete mess, and their high-energy pressing tactics rely on a stable rotation of players to remain effective. Though Bayern have fared worse on the injury table, they have a different set of players to deal with on top of a manager who keeps everyone guessing until the final whistle about the tactics employed in a given match.
It’s not fair to blame Klopp’s gegenpressing here, though, because it has taken Borussia Dortmund to incredible heights over the last half-decade. It’s not, though I’ve seen this suggested, even what is causing all of these injuries directly because of its intensity; Dortmund simply have a player problem.
Their roster did not have enough players to sustain a high level of play through a small cluster of injuries, let alone a tidal wave.
Dortmund’s transfer policy has been a tad suspect since the Mario Götze release clause ‘mini-scandal’ of 2013, and the replacements signed to take the positions left vacant by Götze and Lewandowski have not replicated the former duo’s prolific results. This is to be expected, because Götze and Lewandowski are incredible and impossible to quickly replace without a very large transfer budget, which Dortmund do not have relative to the big-spenders across Europe.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan couldn’t buy a goal right now, even if for some reason you were allowed to. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal production is down this season, Nuri Sahin has been injured, Shinji Kagawa has been a shell of his 2011 self, Marco Reus can only do so much on his own, and everyone else is injured and possibly getting treated in a warzone.
The unfortunate fact of the matter for Dortmund is that they need Bayern’s or Real Madrid’s roster to cope with their injury problems this season. Whether or not their table position is acceptable, this was never going to be a great season as soon as the injury crisis began.
Will they climb out of the relegation positions? It’s tempting to say yes, and that it’s only a matter of time, but that’s what we’ve been saying all along. They probably will, though, eventually. And it won’t be too late. They really don’t have to do that much to avoid relegation, just as long as BVB win or draw their home matches, there will be enough points at the end of the season to avoid disaster. As long as they hold serve at the Westfalenstadion, other clubs will mess up.
It may also be beneficial for the club, as lucrative as European success is, to lose in the Champions League and lose quickly. The European schedule has not been kind to them in their fight to remain healthy and fresh in domestic play. Maybe they shouldn’t try to lose per sé, but there is a very bright silver lining in doing so.
Bayern’s ethics become controversy and political fodder
After winter training camp in Qatar, Bayern played a friendly in Saudi Arabia against Al-Hilal, very close to the site where blogger Raif Badawi has been receiving lashings. This and other parts of law and society in Saudi Arabia, as well as labor conditions in Qatar, are viewed as possible human rights violations, and Bayern came under fire for not speaking out about these conditions while on the visits.
As politicians weighed in, much in the fashion (along party lines) they did during the Uli Hoeneß tax scandal, Bayern first tried to explain themselves in a letter from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (you can read it here in English). Some say that the letter reads oddly because Rummenigge mentions that clubs aren’t political entities, but then goes on to point out several times where the club helped advance certain progressive causes.
Someone within FCB then singled out former DFB President Theo Zwanziger in an anonymous blog post (in German) on the team’s website. Rummenigge insists the person writing the blog doesn’t represent the club, but it is after all on the website.
While in Saudi Arabia, Pep Guardiola, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung points out, stated that the club was “there for the people.” As FAZ also observes, women were not allowed into the stadium.
Rummenigge has since stated that the club should have said something while they were abroad. However, this will be in the German headlines until Bayern take the field on Friday.
The Top Four
The teams who play the most exciting matches are Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, and Leverkusen. If you’re looking for entertainment, those are the teams to watch.
Wolfsburg are currently in second place, not that they’re challenging for the title, but it will be interesting to see what they could do in the Champions League next season if they hold on to a top-four position. At the very least, they could be a nice breath of fresh air relative to the annual Schalke-and-Leverkusen-Round-of-16-meltdown.
VfL’s first match back will be on an emotionally-charged Friday evening against FC Bayern, as it is the first match after their player Junior Malanda tragically died in a car accident over the break.
Rhineland pals Cologne, Mainz, and Frankfurt are in the middle of the table and that’s all there is to say about them, most of their matches don’t exceed two goals in either direction. If you like Virginia Tech football games, you should consider becoming a fan of one of those teams.
Hertha, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Bremen, Dortmund, and Freiburg will all spend the Rückrunde being afraid of going down to the second league, but BVB, HSV, and Hertha will all likely find something in the coming months to avoid the drop. Stuttgart and Bremen have looked helpless at points this season, in fact at most points this season. SC Freiburg keep dropping points at the last moment, and in that there’s hope for them, but they’ll need to beat most of the teams they’re battling with.
Hamburg are one of the most interesting case studies in German soccer, given their size and history. Years of high wage bills and mediocrity on the pitch have landed the “Dinosaurs” in very deep debts. Current trainer Joe Zinnbauer, who was appointed this autumn after Mirko Slomka was sacked, has seen the same results but with a different approach.
Zinnbauer is the first manager to be promoted from within HSV in a very long time, and it will be fascinating to see if the board and fans let him play the young players down the stretch run of the season, even if it means risking relegation. The consensus is that HSV need to rebuild somehow, because their formula of aging players hasn’t worked for the better part of a decade. When you look at the players they have under contract, the whole appears to be less than the sum of its parts.
In the 2. Liga, the team I wrote about in my first piece for BPF, SV Darmstadt, are looking like candidates for back-to-back promotions, and I highly doubt anyone wants to play them in a Relegation Playoff, just ask Arminia Bielefeld . SVD are in third place right now, which would have them playing Werder Bremen if the season ended today.
Ingolstadt and Karlsruhe sit atop the table right now in the automatic promotion places, Ingolstadt being seven points clear of positions two and three.
Aalen, St. Pauli, and Ezrgebirge Aue are your relegation teams in descending order, and the 3. Liga’s top three clubs are Bielefeld, Preussen Münster, and Stuttgarter Kickers.