The autumn winds are beginning to blow through Germany. The first leaves are succumbing to jaundice, and the wasps are launching their final offensives before retreating for the winter. On Friday, Bayern Munich will take on VfL Wolfsburg to open the new Bundesliga season.
The World Cup afterglow has faded, replaced primarily by a now well established rivalry between Germany’s two biggest teams. The clearest sign of summer’s decline is the tacks currently being spat between Dortmund and Munich. Now more than ever, after Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge this month “revealed” details of Marco Reus’ release clause. With one comment, Rummenigge put Dortmund into full indignation mode, determined that, after Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski, they would not lose yet another star to their rivals.
It was pure provocation from Rummenigge, and the sort at which Bayern delight in. The Bayern boss even told Bild that he finds the little mind games “quite amusing”. It would be naïve, however, to have too much sympathy for Dortmund over Bayern’s aggression. Zorc and his chief executive Hans Joachim Watzke know full well that the very public spats are as good for Dortmund’s image as they are for Bayern’s. The club can continue to dominate headlines, with the added bonus of being able to play the injured party.
Besides, Dortmund have already got one up on Bayern on the eve of the Bundesliga season. Albeit the Supercup is hardly the most prestigious of trophies, Dortmund’s 2-0 victory over their rivals last week was still a hearty statement.
The real business begins this weekend, though, with the Bundesliga kick-off. Here, too, Dortmund have the chance to get off to a better start. Their opening three games against Leverkusen, Augsburg and Freiburg appear a touch more negotiable than Bayern’s fixtures against Wolfsburg, Schalke and Stuttgart.
Not only that, but Bayern currently find themselves engulfed in a post-World Cup crisis. If 1975, 2007 and 2011 are anything to go by, the club has a proud tradition of messing up Bundesliga campaigns directly after World Cups. As it stands, they are in grave danger of continuing the trend this year. Pep Guardiola has even warned that “we won’t reach top form until the second half of the season”.
Long term injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago and Javi Martinez will certainly set Bayern back a few months, particularly after the departure of Toni Kroos. As much as the club is keen to play up its perfect relationship with Guardiola, the truth remains that the Spaniard wanted to keep Kroos, and his absence will necessitate a serious tactical rethink in midfield. The injuries have only served to highlight the hole Germany’s pass master will leave.
Added strength, as always with Bayern, has come from a mixture of youth players and successful exploitation of the transfer market. Robert Lewandowski will be invaluable, while academy graduates Pierre-Emile Højberg and Gianluca Gaudino add some fresh talent to the midfield, likewise the new arrival from Valencia Juan Bernat.
Nonetheless, one cannot help but think that this Bayern side currently looks no stronger than it did last year. That is not the case for Dortmund. Despite Lewandowski’s exit, Jürgen Klopp’s side look distinctly better. Ciro Immobile is as talented as the departing Pole, if not yet as developed, while Matthias Ginter is a fine addition to defence. Last year’s signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, meanwhile, looks more comfortable in a BVB shirt with every second that passes.
It may not be enough to actually pip Bayern to the title, but it should certainly allow Dortmund to narrow the gap between them and the Munich giants. In the last two seasons, that gap has generally maintained the colossal size of about 20 points. A more exciting title race beckons this season.
As much as the Bundesliga’s detractors would have one believe, however, this is not a league limited to just two teams. Dortmund may wish to apply the pressure onto Bayern, but they also have other clubs breathing down their neck. Wolfsburg have transformed themselves into an alarmingly stable force under the guidance of Dieter Hecking and Klaus Allofs, while Bayer Leverkusen look considerably more powerful under new coach Roger Schmidt, and have extra creativity after signing Hakan Calhanoglu from Hamburg.
Most interesting among the chasing pack are Schalke. Having held onto young talents such as Julian Draxler, Sead Kolasinac and Max Meyer, and weathered the storm of media pressure over Jens Keller’s job as coach, Schalke looked well set to start building a true attack on Dortmund and Bayern this season. Their polemical chairman and buddy of Vladimir Putin Clemens Tönnies was even caught talking about the title this week.
Tönnies, though, is not famed for the softly softly approach to rhetoric, and Schalke’s pre-season was unconvincing. Last weekend, they were embarrassingly dumped out of the cup by third division side Dynamo Dresden, and within the squad, there are the faintest signs of an all too familiar mutiny. All eyes are on Kevin Prince Boateng, who has yet again been denied his wish to play as first choice number ten under Keller. While Lothar Matthäus has confidently predicted that Schalke could overtake Dortmund this year, others are simply waiting for the Royal Blues to implode.
Elsewhere the European spots should once again be contended by the likes of Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Therein lies the biggest danger for the Bundesliga in the near future. The expansion, the greater appeal for foreign talent, and the drastically increasing income for TV rights are all very well, but the German top flight is in danger of losing its most prized attribute: competitiveness.
Whereas in the last few years, smaller clubs such as Freiburg, Mainz, Augsburg and Hannover have all been able to challenge for European - even Champions League – positions, that appears to be less and less likely. For the second year in a row, the same four German teams will be playing the Champions League, while those who previously challenged them continue to endure setbacks.
Mainz, for example, will do well to recover from the departure of coach Thomas Tuchel. Tuchel led Mainz to first division stability, and is widely seen as a man destined for bigger better things. He felt the same himself, leaving Mainz unceremoniously after last season. The ensuing exodus of attacking players has left Tuchel’s successor Kasper Hjulmand in a burning building. Hjulmand is competent but unsexy, and has a relegation fight on his hands before the season has even started. Mainz are already out of the Europa League and the Cup.
Freiburg endured the same plummet from European candidates to endangered species during last season, and Augsburg will do well to avoid the same fate this year. As for the more famous clubs in the lower half of the table, the likes of Bremen, Hamburg and Stuttgart should be able to avoid a relegation fight, but are still a long way away from re-establishing themselves at the top of the table.
The rise of the Dortmund-Bayern duopoly led many in Germany to warn against “Spanish relations” a few years ago. The Bundesliga was keen to avoid becoming like La Liga, dominated only by two teams.
While La Liga has, at least temporarily, overcome that problem, the Bundesliga has a new one. “English relations” are arguably far more dangerous for this league: a system in which the top six remain the same, and the rest are immobile. To avoid that, Germany not only needs Dortmund to challenge Bayern, it needs Gladbach and Schalke to challenge Dortmund. It needs a Hannover or a Freiburg to challenge the top teams for Europe. Otherwise, its unique appeal of unpredictability could soon be lost.