The Fourth Reich

Bayern – The Behemoth

Although people argued that Pep’s Bayern might be a weaker team than the machine built by Jupp Heynckes – they’re still the side to beat. Especially now, when the Spaniard abandoned some of his tactical quirks and settled for Philipp Lahm and David Alaba as his go-to wing-backs. Utterly dominant in possession and thus not threatened by anything at the back, Bayern spent second half of last season experimenting with a remarkably offensive, 2-1-4-3 formation in which only their centre-backs and Manuel Neuer did not participate in the attacking play. The summer saw them exchanging Bastian Schweinsteiger for Arturo Vidal, likely leaving their midfield even stronger than before. At the same time, Douglas Costa brought to Munich from Shakhtar, immediately found himself on the top of his skill, adding lots and lots of dynamism to FCB’s play down the left-hand side.

At the moment, the team’s performance seem to only improve. They taught AC Milan a lesson in Audi Cup and then had a close, but marginally superior performance against Real Madrid. After that, the following wins scored in Bundesliga, DfB Pokal and a friendly were more or less cakewalks. Bayern scored 11 goals in them, conceded 2 and stamped their trademark domination sign on full 270 minutes of play. But it’s still hard to draw any definite conclusions from those games. 5th league team from Noettingen and 3rd league Dynamo Dresden were obviously ants on an elephants’ way and Hamburger SV, the first league test for the Bavarians, had a previous record of 8 defeats and 3 draws with the German champions in last 11 games against them. Most of those clashes involved 4, 5 or more goals for Pep’s team, so the 5-0 result this time hardly surprised anyone.

 

In view of this blistering start, one cannot shake off the impression that Guardiola has very little to gain and a lot to lose. Nobody will be impressed anymore if his team captures the league with several weeks to spare. Nobody will be satisfied with another UCL semifinal either. All that counts currently is winning the most precious continental trophy back – to cement the clubs’ status as legitimate top 3 team in the world. From that golden standard of quality measurement – the team still has holes in it. For instance, Mehdi Benatia – a centre-back who acquisition was suspected to be a marketing trick to attract more fans of Arabian origin. Recently, the Moroccan player only confirms that suspicion. Bayern also do lack a replacement striker for Lewandowski and their injury proneness is likely to be very high again this season. Is this a big enough chance for a new competitor to enter the ring?

If not – this will be the fourth straight title for FCB. But there are also four big contenders…

Wolfsburg – The Kryptonite

Beating Bayern 4-1 at home last season and finishing that campaign second is a good enough reason to consider Wolfsburg the most second most likely championship material this season. Three weeks ago, Wolves met their nemesis once again in a German Supercup final – and they’ve won again by scoring a late equalizer and carrying the game to penalties. For over an hour, that particular game was a question of whether Guardiola’s eleven can break VfL for the second time and end all resistance. At times, Wolfsburg did look like a team about to collapse under the pressure. If it wasn’t for Pep’s ‘Barcelonish’ philosophy of always passing the ball to a better positioned teammate, 2-0 (at least!) would’ve been unavoidable. However, at a critical moment, Douglas Costa gave the ball to Robert Lewandowski instead of shooting himself and the chance was wasted – after which Wolves have bounced back.

Are they an actual kryptonite, though? Well, at least Dieter Hecking taught them to perform well regardless of the type of a game Bayern are forcing them to play. In January, it was a superb counterattacking effort from the Volkswagen team, as they netted four goals despite having just 38% of possession. In that game, Maximilian Arnold has proven to be an effective anchorman, winning tackles and receiving passes on his own half only to spread chaos and terror by playing long balls deep into the opponent’s final third. On the other hand, in Supercup, Wolves played on roughly even terms with the champions, defending more sharply and winning possession higher up. That, paradoxically, led to fewer good chances for them, as Bayern, aware of their relative lack of control over the game, committed more players to safeguard their own goal. Alas, in both cases, VfL managed to come out on top.

It all would not be possible without quality players. Veteran centre-back Naldo has patched his defensive game and doesn’t make too many mistakes anymore. Left-back Ricardo Rodriguez remains an excellent set-piece taker and has been already linked with Liverpool and Manchester United. Arnold, alongside with Ivan Perišić, are the two midfield workhorses and the latter remains one of the main Inter targets. However, the key man to watch and admire is Kevin De Bruyne. Last season, the lad broke all records by providing 20 assists in Bundesliga alone; he also led the league’s charts in terms of creating goalscoring chances. Manchester City have recently pursued him, but a £57 million demand from Wolfsburg seemingly cooled down their interest. Fortunately for us all – without this red-headed genius, Wolfsburg’s ambitions would’ve surely been just wishful thinking.

Gladbach – The Climbers

BMG’s outstanding progress was one of the biggest positive surprises last season. They’ve scored 11 more points than in 2013-14 run, conceded 11 goals less and improved their final standings by 3 positions, meaning that they’ve earned a direct promotion to the Champions League’s group stages for the first time in their history. The team known in the 70’s as Die Fohlen (The Foals) and complimented for an all-out attacking style, this time was very different from their original offensive approach. Led by the Swiss manager Lucien Favre, Gladbach eleven preached the common-sense, safety-first, counterattacking football. For over four and a half years Favre spent at Borussia-Park, he transformed the team from a relegation material to regular top 3 contenders. And, that, let’s keep it in mind, all despite losing players like Dante, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Marco Reus or, recently, Max Kruse.

To Favre, this season is a test whether his team can prove itself as worthy of the splendours they grew into. His pass-and-move, fairly static style of play might be easy on players’ legs but also creates the danger against more dynamic and abrasive teams, who seek to disrupt the flow of the game. Couple days ago, this was exactly what Dortmund did to BMG – and the results were devastating. Granit Xhaka, the heart and brain of Gladbach’s midfield, the playmaker consistently boasting +90% pass accuracy and widely perceived as Bayern’s future employee – he was helpless against the dynamism of BvB’s midfielders. As Favre shortly summed up: “Their tempo was too high for us to handle.” He probably didn’t want to mention that his teams’ usual defensive heroes – right-back Tony Jantschke and goalkeeper Yann Sommer – both had a stinker of a game too.

 

 

That heavy defeat doesn’t mean that Foals are immediately doomed. Though their problem is now defending against pacey counterattacks, they will surely come up with solutions to it. After all, we’re talking about the team that conceded only 26 goals last season and was never on a receiving end of 4 strikes in a single game! With improvements at the back coming sooner or later, the important question will be: how Raffael and new signing Josip Drmić are going to cope with the need for goals? So far, the team has been just barely edging around the 50-goal per-season barrier. Kruse, now off to Wolfsburg, was responsible of 11 of those. Drmić, now aged 23 and following an unsuccessful spell in Leverkusen (only 6 goals in 25 Bundesliga matches) has been given the credit of trust there. And if him, Thorgan Hazard and Ibrahima Traoré team up well – lots of good things might still be possible…

Dortmund – The Inheritors

Jürgen Klopp is gone. For now, at least. The head coach who, by many, was already seen in Manchester City’s or even Real Madrid’s driver’s seat – he’s taking a break. After partially salvaging last, disastrous season for BvB, he rejected the offer from Olympique Marseille and will likely remain on a football-less holiday until summer 2016. He won’t be coming back to Die Schwarzgelben – and, with his departure, a whole era was supposed to end. It wasn’t just about the results; it wasn’t just about the fact that Dortmund players were the last to wrestle a league title from Bayern and the last non-Bayern German team to reach the Champions League final since 2002. It wasn’t even about Klopp’s unique ability to develop players into stars. No – the whole idea, whole concept of BvB as a relentlessly attacking, creative and aggressive team – that’s what many expected to end once it’s author is out of the room.

So far, it has not come to happen. Anyone who watched the clash between two Borussias last weekend saw that Klopp’s ideas aren’t being forgotten but rather are making a triumphant comeback. Thomas Tuchel, new commander-in-chief at Signal Iduna Park, is not in any hurry to introduce his own philosophy and prefers to feast on Klopp’s fruits of labour as long as they do the trick. Against Gladbach, Tuchel’s players paid a timely tribute to their former boss. From the start to finish, a swarm of yellow-and-black players besieged the visitors’ goal, reclaiming one ball after another on Gladbach’s half of the pitch and repeatedly pushing forward to score. Upon recovering from an injury, Marco Reus was again the force that broke the other teams’ resistance, registering a goal and an assist only to receive a shower of applause after getting subbed off in 78th minute.

 

As usual in Dortmund’s tactical puzzle, Reus was only a tip of the iceberg. With 70 touches, 53 passes made and 89% pass accuracy, Shinji Kagawa was back to his usual quiet, but influential presence in BMG’s final third. The layoff to Reus he made 15 minutes into the game marked his 20th Bundesliga assist in just 4th season spent on German pitches. And what players he is surrounded with! Formerly one-dimensional, pacey winger, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is developing in a fantastic, all-rounded forward, this time scoring a header and unselfishly squaring ball to a teammate in a one-on-one situation. After hitting a career-low last season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan repeatedly finds himself in great positions to finish off the attacks. And Hummels or Gündoğan? No trace left of their injuries anymore. Dortmund are back to their old selves. Consider this a warning, Kaiser Franz’s minions.

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