Picking a Bundesliga Best XI Without Bayern Munich and Dortmund Players
With the true extent of Bundesliga strength still firmly in the mind after last season's Champions League Final showdown between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the German top league has never basked so comfortably in the limelight of World football.
With goals, delightful youth prospects and some of the best coaches in the world, the Bundesliga can finally regard itself as one of the top dogs in European football. Yet, how far down does that success really go?
Amidst the praise that has justifiably fallen on the league, the one criticism that is often brought up surrounds just how much depth this division really has. Is it simply a two-horse race?
To tackle such accusations head on, we've put together a starting XI of formidable players throughout the German Bundesliga who don't ply their trade in the yellow of Dortmund or the dark red of Bayern.
Goalkeeper: Kevin Trapp
If there is one thing Germans are good at, it's producing goalkeepers. In a manner that would be considered entirely unprecedented in any other league across the continent, the Bundesliga is simply packed full of fantastic goalkeepers. Yet when we try to decipher just which one could be considered as the best at the moment, things do begin to get a little tricky.
Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich No. 1, is the first name on the team sheet for Bayern and Germany and as such holds a certain degree of quality over the rest of the league's shot-stopping talent. But there are others who are pushing for such a spot.
Rene Adler would strike most as the natural alternative, yet the Hamburg keeper had a very shaky second half to his season—precisely when he was reintroduced to the German national team—and actually finished the campaign as a shadow of the player who looked likely to conquer all before him in the opening weeks.
Similarly, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, the Gladbach wonderkid, would seem like the next-best option, yet he too simply hasn't maintained the form that brought such fame last season, and as such would have considered this season a little disappointing.
One player who has managed to outshine both is Eintracht Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. At the modest age of 22, the young German keeper was a vital part of his club's explosive start to the Bundesliga, with exquisite reflexes and a calmness that eludes so many at his age.
Oddly enough, it was an injury in March that ruled Trapp out of the remaining eight games of the season, cementing Trapp's importance to the side as Frankfurt dropped from a pivotal fourth place—and entry in to the Champions League playoff—to a disappointing sixth place.
Perhaps with a fully fit Trapp between the posts next season, Frankfurt can once again challenge, and even reach, that coveted Champions League spot.
Right-Back: Sebastian Jung
Another player from Eintracht Frankfurt, Sebastian Jung continues the proud representation of a side who truly thrived in the Bundesliga this season with a group of young and exciting players.
In Jung, Frankfurt have a young full-back who already offers defensive stability as well as an attacking and technical approach to the game that could theoretically allow the young, German player to play much further up the pitch later on in his career. Defensive midfield is a position that has been tested briefly in the past, but it is a possibility for a youngster who already thrives at full-back.
The Frankfurt player does benefit in this situation from the fact that Daniel Carvajal, the Bayer Leverkusen right-back who was arguably more impressive this season, has returned to Real Madrid. Yet Jung still stands a fair distance above the rest of what the Bundesliga has to offer in terms of Tony Jantschke from Gladbach and Atsuto Uchida of Schalke.
A U21 regular for Germany since 2010, the 23-year-old is very well regarded within the Bundesliga as an eventual replacement for Philipp Lahm in the German national team should the time eventually come for the Bayern captain to ever step down.
Yet for now Sebastian Jung will have to bide his time as an accomplished player at a very ambitious club.
Central Defender: Heiko Westermann
In what we might consider the weakest position in terms of genuine quality throughout the Bundesliga, the role of centre-back has few notable patrons outside of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
In keeping with the general tone of the league, German clubs have had no problem throwing young players into the position, such as England's own Michael Mancienne at Hamburg or Joel Matip at Schalke, yet unlike the position of striker or central midfielder, the development of a centre-back tends to take a little longer, leading to a lot of promising young defenders but very few good ones.
Yet one man who has stood out this season with a maturity that evades so many in the league is Hamburg's very own Heiko Westermann.
At a club that seems to define itself by tripping over its own two feet each season, Westermann has maintained a level of consistency for a side that still remain so incredibly inconsistent.
Aside from a certain 9-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich, the German defender has excelled at all the notable skills one would expect from a central defender. His 128 interceptions for the year overtake all but Oliver Sorg in the Bundesliga, with the next Bayern/Dortmund defender chasing with a mere 78 in the form of Mats Hummels.
Similarly, using the same table, the defender comes in around fourth in the league when it comes to the amount of blocked shots he has evaded over the course of the season and has managed to make more clearances than any other defender in the German top division. Westermann is a complete defender that Hamburg are happy to cherish.
Central Defender: Naldo
In keeping with the age-conscious prioritising of the Bundesliga's top central defenders, the next-best defender outside of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich has to be Naldo of Wolfsburg.
Similarly to the odd circumstances that surround Westermann's form at Hamburg, Naldo has flourished at Wolfsburg despite the strange season that the club have had to endure over the previous campaign.
Arriving under the regime of Felix Magath last summer, the defender was an immediate starter but came under harsh criticism from his own manager during a spell that saw the club pick up just five points in eight games. Yet a week later, Magath was gone and the Brazilian defender has flourished ever since.
The club would go on to lose just three games in the second half of the season under Dieter Hecking—who was hired in January to replace interim manager Lorenz-Günther Köstner—as they cemented mid-table safety after a winter of relegation battles; a turn in fortune that was due in no small part to the rise of Naldo.
Aside from fellow Brazilian Diego, no player at Wolfsburg picked up as many Man of the Match awards as the defender last season. With an average interception rate of 3.4 per game—the highest in the team by some distance—and six goals from set pieces, it should really come as no surprise.
The Wolfsburg defender has had an excellent season and should be considered as one of the Bundesliga's best.
Left Back: Bastian Oczipka
Making it three out of three for the Eagles, our next best of the rest in the Bundesliga is Frankfurt full-back Bastian Oczipka, who takes the role of left-back for our selected XI.
It should now come as no surprise that the success that Frankfurt enjoyed this season was largely built upon the foundations of a solid defensive unit. As such, Oczipka performed fantastically well in a position that tends to allude most sides—left-back—which helped to turn this back line from a good defensive unit into an excellent one.
Conceding just 46 goals over the course of the season, Frankfurt had one of the best records in the league with only four more conceded goals than second-placed Borussia Dortmund.
Despite falling a little short of Christian Fuchs, the Schalke left-back who would probably be considered a close second to Oczipka, in terms of tackles and interceptions per game, Oczipka does have more to his natural game as well as considerably more speed and stamina, just pipping him ahead of the Schalke defender.
Central Midfielder: Lars Bender
One would imagine life wouldn't be too fair for the twin brother of Borussia Dortmund's emerging midfielder Sven Bender, yet brother Lars of Bayer Leverkusen fame had an impressive season of his own, leading many to question just which of these two brothers is actually the better of the two.
In a season that saw Leverkusen push Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund over the course of the entire campaign, eventually settling for third as one of Germany's most exciting sides, Lars Bender found himself as one of the most important cogs in the mechanics of this factory squad.
Despite a record that bolstered no more than three goals and six assists over the course of last season, Bender's strengths were actually more in tune with that of a box-to-box midfielder and allowing the more technical members of his side to flourish.
As a player, those who can rank alongside the young German in terms of defensive abilities simply lack the attributes to also push forward and contribute up the pitch. This is why the lesser-known Bender brother is so well sought after and considered as such a complete player.
Central Midfielder: Hiroshi Kiyotake
With the recent success of Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund, the modern Bundesliga footballer has tended to look ever the more Japanese of late. With 10 internationals from the land of the rising sun currently plying their trade in the Bundesliga's top sides, the revolution is truly in full swing, and none more so than Hiroshi Kiyotake characterise that.
With 10 assists to his name for Nurnberg last season, the central midfielder finished third in the Bundesliga assists table, yet if we were to take all the Dortmund and Bayern players out of the list, he'd be No. 1. Not bad for the playmaker of a club who spent most of their season battling relegation.
In fact, what truly defines Kiyotake's claim as one of the best central defenders in the league is just how much he did for Nurnberg this season.
His 10 assists for the year made up 38 percent of all those created by the old club, while his addition four goals were only two short of Per Nilsson's club leading six. For a team like Nurnberg, goals are worth their weight in gold, making Kiyotake the most valuable player on the club's current roster and an excellent addition to our first XI.
Right-Winger: Heung-Min Son
In much the same manner as Kiyotake of Nurnberg, Hamburg's Heung-Min Son makes our side as the starting right-winger for the simple fact of just how much he has contributed for his side this season.
With 12 goals and two assists for the Hamburg side, the South Korean forward is the second player from the northern city to make it into our XI due to his ability to consistently perform in an inconsistent side.
His goals in particular are what underline Son's genuine quality. Whether it be from out wide or in front of goal, the young forward is fantastic with his back to goal or running at defenders, with a wealth of skills at his disposal to put the ball in the back of the net.
The goal tally that he curated during last season amounted to just under 30 percent of Hamburg's total goals for the season, making him not only a useful player for the Bundesliga club, but one they will gravely miss next season.
A recent move to Bayer Leverkusen to replace the departed Andre Schurrle is what Son got for hard work last season. A trophy or two may be next in line if he can keep up this form for the following season.
Left-Winger: Szabolcs Huszti
For the left-hand side of our Bundesliga XI attack, we've gone for Hannover 96’s 30-year-old Hungarian left-winger, Szabolcs Hustzi.
The most striking aspect of the season Hustzi had is just how prolific it has been for the left-winger. In 19 starts, the Hungarian scored nine goals and assisted a further nine, giving him a record of either scoring or creating a goal just over every ninety minutes.
With such a high affinity for ensuring goals are scored for his side, Hustzi has joined an exclusive club of Bundesliga players who have the ability to create and score goals in equal abundance. This past season, he rightfully stood alongside players such as Franck Ribery and Mario Gotze as one of the league's most complete forward players.
His nine assists for Hannover last season was the best at the club, while his nine goals scored were just three short of Mame Diouf's leading 12 for the season. Hustzi was simply vital to any success Hannover had last season, and that's why he's made our starting XI.
Attacking Central Midfielder: Diego
No Bundesliga XI side would be complete without a majestic trequartista, and in Wolfsburg's Diego, we may well have the perfect fit.
In much the same manner as Naldo, Diego only truly got going this season once Felix Magath departed from the club, and since then the player was able to thrive in this favoured No. 10 position for Wolfsburg.
The Brazilian midfielder was at his best last season for the Wolves with 10 goals and seven assists to his name in 32 appearances. Yet what truly stands Diego out from a whole host of alternatives is his ability to perform in the big games.
Whether it was the brace he picked up against high-flying Leverkusen last November, the winning goal against Dortmund in December or the solitary goal against Bayern Munich in the semifinal of the DFB-Pokal Cup, Diego tends to shine brightest when the limelight is truly fixed on him.
Like any great playmaker, Diego not only offers the skills to succeed in any game, but also the mental aptitude to maintain consistency despite the quality of opponent. This is what makes Diego the most important player at Wolfsburg, and one of the most coveted players in the Bundesliga.
Sometimes you just need a striker who can score goals. With that in mind, few players come close to Bayer Leverkusen forward Stefan Kiessling when it comes to simply putting the ball in the back of the net.
In terms of goalscorers in the Bundesliga, Kiessling surpasses them all, even those of Dortmund and Bayern colours, with 25 goals in 34 appearances for Leverkusen last season. Robert Lewandowski came close with 24 goals, but then it drops to Alexander Meier of Frankfurt with a lowly 16. A proven goalscorer is a hard thing to find in Germany, making Kiessling a very special player.
Despite the forward's inability to convince national team coach Joachim Low of his credentials for Germany, Kiessling was pivotal to Leverkusen's incredible success this season with the promise of Champions League football offering an interesting buzz around the club for the next campaign.
If the 29-year-old can promise a similar goal tally next season for the Factory Squad along with a strong Champions League campaign, we may well be seeing more of the forward in Brazil the following summer. As Joachim Low continues to struggle with his forward options for Germany, the Leverkusen striker may well be the solution to any Bayern/Dortmund conundrum, just as he has proven in the Bundesliga this season.