Monday , October 14 2019

Will we actually have an exciting Bundesliga title race this season

A tediously predictable one-horse race for the better part of the last decade, there appears to actually be a chance of an exciting Bundesliga title race this season.

Serial champions Bayern Munich are looking even more fallible than last season, when they were pushed hard by Borussia Dortmund.

But Dortmund and RB Leipzig, the other sides fancied to claim the Meisterschale before the season started, are also showing signs of weakness.

Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga title for the seventh consecutive season in 2018-19

Just four points separate the top eight in the Bundesliga following an exciting start

Just four points separate the top eight in the Bundesliga following an exciting start 

And that has allowed other sides to take the early initiative and we have the intriguing scenario of the top seven being separated by just two points after seven rounds of the season.

But what are the actual chances of an exciting title race developing? We assess the runners and riders.

1st BORUSSIA MONCHENGLADBACH

16 points

In scenes nobody saw coming, Borussia Monchengladbach moved clear at the top of the Bundesliga for the first time in 35 years with a 5-1 trouncing of Augsburg on Sunday afternoon.

They are clearly blooming under coach Marco Rose, who was appointed in the summer following considerable success in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg.

Rose has succeeded in getting all of his strikers firing: Frenchman Alassane Plea has picked up where he left off after scoring 15 times last season, while his compatriot Marcus Thuram – son of French legend Lilian – has scored three Bundesliga goals already.

Monchengladbach players celebrate Patrick Herrmann's goal in Sunday's 5-1 Augsburg win

Monchengladbach players celebrate Patrick Herrmann’s goal in Sunday’s 5-1 Augsburg win

Then there’s the Swiss Breel Embolo, who has a knack for scoring significant late goals – his last five in the Bundesliga have all come after the 79th minute.

Long-serving winger Patrick Herrmann is excelling as well, scoring twice in the space of five minutes on Sunday, while defensive midfielder Denis Zakaria has also been key.

Gladbach will enjoy their moment at the summit but the big question is whether they can sustain it. After all, their first match back after the international break is a trip to Dortmund.

Marco Rose has done an excellent job after arriving at Gladbach from Red Bull Salzburg

Marco Rose has done an excellent job after arriving at Gladbach from Red Bull Salzburg

There’s also the challenge of juggling domestic competition with the Europa League, where their start in Group J has been totally at odds with their league form.

They were thrashed 4-0 at home by Austrian club Wolfsberger on matchday one and required a stoppage time equaliser from Herrmann to collect a point away to Istanbul Basaksehir last week.

A tough double-header with Roma will now determine whether they advance in Europe but that could be worth sacrificing for an unobstructed push for Champions League football next season.

Title chances: Gladbach fans should enjoy the moment because nobody is expecting them to be there come May. Finishing in the top four and reaching the Champions League is a realistic proposition, however.   

Denis Zakaria (left) and Marcus Thuram (right) celebrate the opening goal against Augsburg

Denis Zakaria (left) and Marcus Thuram (right) celebrate the opening goal against Augsburg

2nd WOLFSBURG

15 points

There are plenty of parallels between the surprise leaders Gladbach and equally surprising team just a point behind them in second place.

Wolfsburg also recruited a new manager from Austria over the summer and have enjoyed the bounce Oliver Glasner, who was hired from LASK Linz, has given them.

And rather like Gladbach, they have enjoyed going under the radar, their hard-fought 1-0 home win over Union Berlin on Sunday elevating them to their unlikely second position.

Dutch striker Wout Weghorst is mobbed after scoring Wolfsburg's winner against Union Berlin

Dutch striker Wout Weghorst is mobbed after scoring Wolfsburg’s winner against Union Berlin

Wolfsburg seem to have ironed out many of the inconsistencies that were a feature of former manager Bruno Labbadia and they’re certainly harder to beat.

This is reflected by the fact that Wolfsburg are one of only five teams in the leading European leagues – the others being Liverpool, Juventus, Inter Milan and Real Madrid – to still be unbeaten this season.

One constant from last year has been the goals of their Dutch forward Wout Weghorst. He hit 17 last season and already has four this campaign, including the 69th-minute winner on Sunday.

Wolfsburg remain unbeaten this season under their new coach Oliver Glasner

Wolfsburg remain unbeaten this season under their new coach Oliver Glasner

It’s certainly a far cry from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons when two consecutive 16th-place finishes required them to survive relegation play-offs against Eintracht Braunschweig and Holstein Kiel.

Their resoluteness is based on Glasner’s favoured 3-4-3 system which allows Robin Knoche, Jeffrey Bruma and Marcel Tisserand to do their thing in defence.

And also like Gladbach they have the Europa League to contend with. Wolfsburg defeated Oleksandria 3-1 and then gained a creditable draw away to Saint-Etienne but again it could be more a hindrance than a help to top six ambitions.

Title chances: Though Wolfsburg’s unbeaten start is certainly impressive, they’re unlikely to mount a title challenge. A top six finish should be within their grasp.

Former Chelsea defender Jeffrey Bruma in action against Union Berlin at the weekend

Former Chelsea defender Jeffrey Bruma in action against Union Berlin at the weekend

3rd BAYERN MUNICH

14 points

Shock! Horror! Bayern Munich are not top of the Bundesliga.

Even seven games into the season, it’s some form of crisis if the 29-time champions aren’t leading the way and any form of defeat, such as Saturday’s 2-1 loss at home to Hoffenheim, leads to an inquest.

The reality is that Niko Kovac’s side have blown hot and cold in the early stages of the season in the way quite a few pundits expected them to following a turbulent summer by their standards.

Serge Gnabry can't quite believe it as Bayern Munich lose at home to Hoffenheim on Saturday

Serge Gnabry can’t quite believe it as Bayern Munich lose at home to Hoffenheim on Saturday

When the Bundesliga kicked off in August, quite a few believed this was the season the winners of the last seven titles relinquished their vice-like grip.

It followed continuing doubts about Kovac – after all, Bayern ‘only’ won the league by two points last season – wranglings in the club’s hierarchy and some unusually inefficient dealings in the transfer market.

When they get it right – most notably in their 3-0 win at Schalke or the 7-2 drubbing of Tottenham in the Champions League – Bayern still look sensational.

But when it goes wrong – such as on Saturday – everyone is quick to dissect their weaknesses. 

Question marks will remain about Niko Kovac and his methods while Bayern aren't top

Question marks will remain about Niko Kovac and his methods while Bayern aren’t top 

Some of their belief seems to have been corroded away, the balance looks wrong in midfield, there is a lack of creativity from wide areas and Jerome Boateng looks out-of-sorts at the back… to name just a few negatives.

But star striker Robert Lewandowski remains as prolific as ever – he has a remarkable 15 goals already this season – and Philippe Coutinho has settled in well, so it’s not all bad news.

Their next two games after the international break are against Augsburg and Union Berlin as well so we can fully expect Bayern to be back on their perch by the time they play Dortmund next month.

Title chances: Let’s not get too carried away by what is perceived as a ‘poor’ start by Bayern’s ridiculously high recent standards. They remain odds-on to win an eighth straight title and they probably will.

Robert Lewandowski is enjoying a superb season even by his ridiculously prolific standards

Robert Lewandowski is enjoying a superb season even by his ridiculously prolific standards

4th FREIBURG

14 points

The story of the season so far have undoubtedly been Freiburg who, after a couple of lower half finishes, have started brilliantly under long-serving coach Christian Streich.

This isn’t entirely without precedent – Freiburg finished fifth in the 2012-13 season, missing out on Champions League football by a whisker – but they’ve impressed nonetheless.

Their one defeat from the opening seven came against Cologne and Saturday’s spirited fightback to hold Borussia Dortmund showed their fighting qualities.

Luca Waldschmidt has enjoyed an outstanding start to the season as Freiburg sit fourth

Luca Waldschmidt has enjoyed an outstanding start to the season as Freiburg sit fourth

The club from the Black Forest have beaten Mainz, Paderborn, Hoffenheim and Fortuna Dusseldorf in what, admittedly, has been a gentle opening to the season.

Their star has been 23-year-old forward Luca Waldschmidt, whose five goals so far this season have just earned a second successive call-up to Joachim Low’s Germany squad.

Coach Christian Streich might be thinking of a repeat of their 2012-13 fifth place finish

Coach Christian Streich might be thinking of a repeat of their 2012-13 fifth place finish

He came off the bench to secure their 2-1 win at Fortuna Dusseldorf last week, earning a start against Dortmund that was vindicated with the first of Freiburg’s equalisers.

It ensured a haul of 14 points from their first seven games and a best-ever start to a Bundesliga season, so perhaps a repeat of their 2013 heroics isn’t totally out of the question.

Title chances: Freiburg have provided the league’s feel-good story of the season so far but it would be a miracle on a greater scale than Leicester’s Premier League triumph for them to lift the trophy.

Scenes of jubilation as Freiburg earn a point against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday

Scenes of jubilation as Freiburg earn a point against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday 

5th RB LEIPZIG

14 points

Tipped by a good few to be genuine title challengers this season, Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig have largely been as good as their word.

They started the season with four wins from five (including an impressive 3-1 win at Monchengladbach and a 1-1 draw with Bayern) but have come slightly unstuck in the past couple of weeks.

A surprise 3-1 home loss to a rejuvenated Schalke was followed by a 2-0 home Champions League defeat to Lyon and Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Bayer Leverkusen, in which they came from behind.

Christopher Nkunku celebrates his equaliser in RB Leipzig's weekend draw at Leverkusen

Christopher Nkunku celebrates his equaliser in RB Leipzig’s weekend draw at Leverkusen

It means that for the first time, Nagelsmann has a few issues to address as we enter the October international break, though their outlook is still largely positive.

Nagelsmann put the Schalke setback down to an experiment with a four-man defence (which he persisted with at Leverkusen), while the Lyon loss saw them squander plenty of chances and commit fatal mistakes.

There was a flash of frustration before Saturday’s game when Nagelsmann reacted to a journalist’s question about a ‘crisis of confidence’ with an answer loaded with disdain: ‘You’re a freelance journalist and you are free to write what you want.’

Julian Nagelsmann has been forced to answer tough questions for the first time at Leipzig

Julian Nagelsmann has been forced to answer tough questions for the first time at Leipzig 

They face high-flying Wolfsburg straight after the international break but the main issue is that the fixture is at home, where their form pales compared to results on the road.

Leipzig have won more points (32) and scored more goals (33) on the road this calendar year than any other Bundesliga team.

As usual, the bright spark is striker Timo Werner, who has scored seven goals so far this season to extend his overall Leipzig return to 55 in 100 league games.

But he’s not score in his last four matches, though, and that constitutes a drought. 

Title chances: Even if the past week has been disappointing, there’s no question Leipzig have the potential to mount a title bid. They will be right in the mix.

Timo Werner has seven goals so far this season - but hasn't scored in his last four games

Timo Werner has seven goals so far this season – but hasn’t scored in his last four games

6th SCHALKE

14 points

David Wagner looks as man transformed from when he left relegation-bound Huddersfield back in January and his Schalke team certainly look very different from the one that flirted with relegation last season.

Few could have expected how quickly Wagner has had a positive effect on the team, who have won four of their opening seven fixtures and lost just the once.

Even that came against a Bayern Munich team for whom Lewandowski was in irresistible form, scoring a hat-trick, so might be described as ‘mitigating circumstances’.

Schalke celebrate Suat Serdar's (left) opening goal in their match with Cologne on Saturday

Schalke celebrate Suat Serdar’s (left) opening goal in their match with Cologne on Saturday

Schalke responded with four consecutive league wins and that would have been five but for an agonising last-minute equaliser by Cologne on Saturday.

There have been plenty of fine performers – Moroccan midfielder Amine Harit is back to his best, while Everton loanee right-back Jonjoe Kenny has been outstanding.

And there was an encouraging return from injury for young Welsh winger Rabbi Matondo when he scored in their 3-1 win at Leipzig, the most eye-catching result so far.

David Wagner has already had a transformative effect on a team that struggled last season

David Wagner has already had a transformative effect on a team that struggled last season

Such was their lowly league position last season, you can easily forget that Schalke played in the Champions League having come second to Bayern the season before.

The players seem to have bought quickly into Wagner’s methods and there seems no reason why they can’t return to Europe’s elite competition with a top four finish.

Title chances: Schalke haven’t won the German championship since 1958 and unfortunately there is a very slim chance of that wait ending. However, their bright start will encourage all concerned that a top four finish is well within their capabilities.

Rabbi Matondo, the Wales international winger, scored for Schalke away to RB Leipzig

Rabbi Matondo, the Wales international winger, scored for Schalke away to RB Leipzig

7th BAYER LEVERKUSEN

14 points

Peter Bosz masterminded a late season revival to guide Bayer Leverkusen to a fourth place finish last season and their objective for the current campaign was to build on that.

The early season evidence is certainly encouraging and they’d be top of the table if not for Nkunku’s late equaliser for Leipzig on Saturday night.

Bosz targeted certain areas to strengthen in the summer transfer market and four wins from their opening seven games – plus only the one defeat – have suggested things are gelling quickly.

Bayer Leverkusen celebrate Kevin Volland's opening goal against RB Leipzig on Saturday

Bayer Leverkusen celebrate Kevin Volland’s opening goal against RB Leipzig on Saturday

That loss was a 4-0 defeat away to an inspired Borussia Dortmund and yet Leverkusen are still ahead of them in the table by two points.

The stars so far have been Kevin Volland, who has four Bundesliga goals, including against Union Berlin, Augsburg and RB Leipzig in his last three outings.

Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz is slowly but surely building an exciting team at the BayArena

Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz is slowly but surely building an exciting team at the BayArena 

Then there’s the young tyro Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old Germany international has shown his qualities this season already and bigger clubs will undoubtedly be sniffing around next summer.

With the blistering speed of Leon Bailey, Leverkusen are usually an exciting proposition, but their bright start domestically has been mirrored by two losses from two in the Champions League.

Title chances: Leverkusen are more than capable of replicating – or even improving on – their fourth place finish from last season, even if the title is realistically beyond them.

Leverkusen boast the exciting Germany international playmaker Kai Havertz in their ranks

Leverkusen boast the exciting Germany international playmaker Kai Havertz in their ranks

8TH BORUSSIA DORTMUND

12 points

This is meant to be the year that Borussia Dortmund end their agonising eight-year wait for the Bundesliga title.

But so far this season they haven’t inspired confidence they can producing the consistency of winning football necessary to usurp Bayern at the top.

Their last three results – all 2-2 draws – have seen them repeatedly chuck away leads and questions have been asked of their mental resilience once again.

Borussia Dortmund were floored by another late equaliser against Freiburg at the weekend

Borussia Dortmund were floored by another late equaliser against Freiburg at the weekend

This was the case at the tail end of last season when they surrendered a strong position in the title race and crumbled on the home stretch.

While accusations of mental weakness will irk the players and manager Lucien Favre, the evidence is mounting in that direction.

When at their brilliant best, such as against Augsburg on the opening day and Leverkusen, Dortmund are capable of producing spellbinding football.

Dortmund coach Lucien Favre celebrates on the sidelines but weaknesses remain apparent

Dortmund coach Lucien Favre celebrates on the sidelines but weaknesses remain apparent

Jadon Sancho – with three goals and six assists in the league – has been excellent, while Paco Alcacer was prolific before his Achilles problem.

But the concession of late goals to drop points is a real issue that needs to be addressed if they’re to properly challenge Bayern and the others.

However, they’re only four points off the lead with an awful long way to go so it would be exceedingly foolish to count them out.

Title chances: They’re still the second favourites to steal Bayern’s crowd and given the strength of their team, that’s very much justified.

England's Jadon Sancho has enjoyed a fine start to the season with Borussia Dortmund

England’s Jadon Sancho has enjoyed a fine start to the season with Borussia Dortmund