With the Bundesliga returning from its winter break this weekend, here is my take on the best performers of the first half of the season.
It seemed appropriate to utilise the 4-2-3-1 formation being employed by many managers in Germany’s top division (and indeed across Europe), but there were just too many outstanding players plying their trade across the country to fit into the first 11. That’s why I have also listed some other potential candidates for each position.
Of course, the topic is subjective and not everyone will share my opinions—so feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section!
The pressure on Manuel Neuer was extremely high after he finally made his much-discussed move from Schalke 04 to Bayern Munich in the summer.
A blunder on the first day of the season as his new club suffered a shock home defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach did not bode well, but since then the 25-year-old has consistently proved himself worthy of the hype that accompanied his free transfer.
An incredible record-breaking 1,147 minutes played in all competitions (770 in the league) without conceding followed that inauspicious league debut, and Neuer has been an integral part of Bayern’s return to the top of the Bundesliga table after last season’s disappointing third-place finish.
Honourable Mention: Marc-André ter Stegen, Borussia Mönchengladbach
The 19-year-old prodigy outperformed Neuer on the opening day of the season and has been equally impressive since, with just 11 goals conceded in 17 matches.
The inclusion of this 33-year-old Belgian is not just an attempt to deflect accusations of ageism. The experienced left-back has been one of Mönchengladbach’s most consistent performers as they have developed into genuine contenders for a Champions League place and perhaps even the Bundesliga title.
Daems is not just strong defensively—he has converted three out of three penalties in his 15 starts this season. How many more years he can play at the top remains to be seen, but for now he is in the form of his life.
Honourable Mention: Dennis Aogo, HSV
One of the few bright sparks in a disappointing start to the season for HSV has been the continuing development of the 25-year-old Aogo. He could yet play an important role for Germany at the Euros this summer.
A revelation in the Bundesliga’s best defence last season, 23-year-old Hummels has proved that 2010/2011 was no fluke this time around. In fact, he looks more assured by the week, his composure on the ball and perfect positioning providing the perfect accompaniment to his more physical defensive partner, Neven Subotić.
Hummels has won two-thirds of all his defensive challenges this season, and also enjoys the occasional burst forward. He is yet to score in the Bundesliga this season but remains a threat in the opposition area, particularly from set pieces. Part of the German u-19 side that became European champions in 2009, he will be just as important if the full side are to match that feat in six month's time.
Honourable Mention: Dante, Borussia Mönchengladbach
The 28-year-old Brazilian shaved off his beloved afro when Borussia avoided relegation last season, but has suffered no Samson syndrome, performing better than ever at the heart of the Bundesliga’s second-most miserly defence.
To be honest, Daniel van Buyten has probably been Bayern’s best performer at centre-back this season, but Badstuber has sneaked into this team ahead of him because of how much his game has improved.
The 22-year-old’s talent was already clear when he broke into the Munich first team back in 2009, but until recently he often looked only a moment away from a calamitous error.
This season, however, he has performed confidently throughout and has only missed four minutes of the team’s Bundesliga campaign. Though anything but short at 189 cm (6’2.5”), his main strengths have always been mobility and excellent passing (he has a 93.5% completion rate this season). This makes him the perfect modern defender and an integral part of Joachim Löw’s project.
The contrast in the performances of Badstuber and his more-experienced rival for a place in the national side, Per Mertesacker, could hardly have been starker so far this season.
A controversial figure having been involved in a match-fixing scandal in his native Poland in 2006, spellchecker’s nightmare Lukasz Piszczek is nevertheless a talented and versatile player. He was brought to Germany by Hertha Berlin, where he was initially used as a striker or left midfielder, but has since established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s best right backs.
Piszczek has shown the sporting intelligence needed to make the most of his experience in various positions, often cutting inside to exploit the space created by defenders following Mario Götze’s drifting runs. He has contributed two goals and two assists in this league campaign and has also improved defensively, winning the majority of challenges both in the air and on the ground.
With Poland having been drawn in a comparatively weak group for the European Championships, the 26-year-old will be hopeful that he can continue his good form through to the summer and help the team into the next round in his home country.
Honourable Mention: Philipp Lahm, Bayern Munich
Arguably the most consistently excellent full-back of his generation, Lahm has had another great year for Bayern. His 91.8% pass completion rate over 1,491 minutes played is the best in the league for his position.
The day after a 3-2 Champions League victory in Naples would normally have been a joyous occasion for Bayern Munich, but November 3, 2011 was described by striker Mario Gómez and club legend-director Karl-Heinz Rummenigge as “bitter” and “painful,” respectively.
Their midfield dynamo Bastian Schweinsteiger had broken his collarbone during the group match against Napoli and would be missing for several months.
Such was the quality of his performances until that point, however, that a place in this side is nevertheless deserved. In his 11 league starts, he averaged a successful pass every 80 seconds with an overall pass completion rate of 86.4 percent. He also wins more tackles than average and had contributed two goals and three assists before his season was interrupted by injury.
Now back in training, Schweinsteiger will be the key man if Bayern are to reclaim the Bundesliga title, and perhaps even win the Champions League in their own stadium.
Sven Bender was a hugely underrated part of Dortmund’s championship-winning side last season, with most of the plaudits going to his (admittedly brilliant) midfield partner Nuri Şahin.
It took some time for Jürgen Klopp’s side to adjust after Şahin moved on to the Bernabéu in the summer, but Bender has shown great versatility to suit the needs of the side. Previously very much the more defensive element in a nominal double pivot, this time around he has mostly been paired with either Sebastian Kehl or İlkay Gündoğan (who has failed to reproduce the performances that earned him a move from Nuremberg) and has adjusted his game accordingly.
While he has still been a useful shield for the Dortmund defence, darts forward have become a more frequent sight, and have reaped rewards—he has already topped his assists total from last season and got on the score sheet himself in the 5-1 thrashing of Wolfsburg in November.
Honourable Mention: William Kvist, VfB Stuttgart
The versatile Dane has been an ever present in central midfield since signing for Stuttgart in the summer, whether at the base of a diamond or as part of a Doppel-Sechs pair—as employed here—alongside Tamás Hajnal, Zdravko Kuzmanović or Timo Gebhart.
Like Miroslav Klose, Cologne’s Lukas Podolski had developed a reputation as a player who failed to recreate his impressive performances (and especially goalscoring record) at club level. He has silenced his critics this season, however, and attracted the attention of Liverpool and Arsenal in the process.
His 14 goals and four assists in 16 league games this season have been the difference between mid-table obscurity and a relegation battle for Ståle Solbaaken’s side, who have often looked utterly confused as to what the Norwegian coach expects of them on the field.
Podolski’s sheer determination to dig “his” club out of trouble has stood out on several occasions this season, and it is because of this diligence that I have placed him wide left in this team, where he has also often appeared for the German national side. Even though he has primarily played as a centre-forward for his club this season, his heat map from Cologne’s 4-0 win against Freiburg (when Podolski scored twice) shows the ground he covered in midfield, proving that he has not functioned as a mere goal poacher, but rather the Westphalian side’s driving force.
Honourable Mention: Franck Ribéry, Bayern Munich
Eight goals (four with his left foot, four with his right) in 16 league starts would be a good return for an out-and-out striker, but Ribéry has achieved that record from left midfield. Add to that six assists and it’s obvious why he is one of the most highly rated players in Europe.
As recently reported here by my Bleacher Report colleague Ross Dunbar, Toni Kroos has now established himself as an essential part of Bayern Munich’s talent-rich midfield.
Usually playing as I have positioned him here—as the central element of the three in Jupp Heynckes’ preferred 4-2-3-1 system at the Allianz Arena—Kroos has often been the standout performer going forward—no mean feat with the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry or Thomas Müller on either side of him. This is in part due to the versatility and consistency the 22-year-old has demonstrated this season.
He already has over 30 matches under his belt in this campaign and, just as capable in a deeper central-midfield role, Kroos has added real dynamism and tackling ability to the passing range that has helped him provide eight assists for teammates in all competitions so far this term.
I have picked out his heat map from the 3-0 win against Cologne where he played as a defensive midfielder, but nevertheless got on the score sheet. The orange areas on the right half of the pitch show how effectively he broke forward; the red in the middle his defensive work.
Competition for places is fierce in the Nationalmannschaft, but should he maintain his form into the second half of the season, Kroos could yet play a vital role as Germany looks to go all the way at Euro 2012.
Honourable Mention: Raúl, Schalke 04
Now 34, Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer has looked as fresh as ever this season, setting up four goals for others and getting into double figures himself.
His class was plain to see as coach Lucien Favre turned Borussia Mönchengladbach’s season around last term, but having earned a transfer to fellow title contenders Dortmund once this season ends, 2012 could be the year Marco Reus really makes his mark on European football.
With 10 Bundesliga goals so far this season, he has already matched his total from the last campaign, and the €17.5 million raised by his sale will have to be expertly reinvested by Favre if Gladbach are to even come close to replacing the 22-year-old. This improved scoring record is partly down to him increasingly being used as a striker rather than at right midfield, but also an indication of how quickly his talent is blooming.
Lightning pace and an ever-deadlier eye for goals have earned him the best average rating in the entire Bundesliga from respected sports newspaper Kicker, but such is the strength of Joachim Löw’s current crop that it remains to be seen how big a role Reus will play in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
Regardless, if he carries the form he has shown this season into the new year and those that come after it, team silverware and personal honours are sure to follow.
Honourable Mention: Mario Götze, Borussia Dortmund
Most of Europe’s top clubs have been keeping an eye on the 19-year-old genius this season, but he has shown no signs of feeling the pressure. He has the talent and the attitude to become a true great.
Honourable Mention: Gökhan Töre, HSV
The arrival of Frank Arnesen in Hamburg signalled an influx of manpower deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea. While Jeffrey Bruma and Michael Mancienne have largely failed to impress, Töre has probably been HSV’s best player in a troubled campaign, contributing six assists.
He is often criticised for lacking depth to his game, but Mario Gómez has mastered the art of the tap-in.
16 goals in 16 Bundesliga matches is enough to edge him ahead of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as the lone striker in this team, and if you take his six goals in five Champions League group stage appearances—which put him joint-top of that chart along with Lionel Messi but having played 62 minutes fewer—into consideration, he seems all the more worthy of inclusion.
Capable of finishing chances with both feet and a genuine aerial threat at 189 cm tall (6’2”), Gomez does in fact also score from outside the box (take a look at the 35 second mark of this video of Bayern's win against Hertha BSC).
After his prolific start to this campaign, he’ll be confident he can top last season’s total of 39 goals (28 Bundesliga), as well as leading the line for his country in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
When the tournament ends he will have just turned 27, and will be intent on playing a similarly important role at the World Cup in Brazil two years later.
Honourable Mention: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Schalke 04
After a disappointing 2010/2011 season, “The Hunter” has been back to his best this term with 15 goals in 16 appearances. That prolific record is enough to squeeze him onto the subs’ bench ahead of the likes of Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski, Claudio Pizarro of Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg forward Mario Mandžukić.
Only time will tell if any of them make it into the team of the season in May...