10 Early Thoughts on the Bundesliga Season
The Bundesliga is back in session, and already the 2013-14 campaign promises to be a riveting affair.
Pep Guardiola's new-look Bayern have drawn attention with their exciting new system, but the Spaniard is not the only trainer to turn heads with revolutionary tactics: Gladbach, Mainz and Hamburg have also deviated from the status quo of the typical 4-2-3-1 formation with a classic target man.
Around the league, young talents are emerging and increasingly earning the trust of their trainers. But not everything has changed: Hamburg and Schalke have picked up from where they left off last season, delivering underwhelming and inconsistent performances relative to their potential.
The season may be young, but there are some developing narratives to consider. Enjoy this rundown of the take-home messages from the first two rounds of the 2013-14 Bundesliga.
FC Hollywood Is Back
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In May, everything was perfect for Bayern. A treble won in emphatic manner, an estimated €130 million boost in revenue and the advent of Pep Guardiola's tenure at the Allianz Arena meant all was well in Munich. It was an era of good feelings, marked by a real unity within a squad known for its strong personalities.
But it did not last.
Since his arrival, Guardiola has completely overhauled the Bayern that Jupp Heynckes built over the previous two seasons. The club board has granted his every request, allowing Mario Gomez, Luiz Gustavo and Emre Can to be cast away, while bringing in the trainer's former Barcelona protege, Thiago Alcantara.
The side that was built upon strength in defensive midfield now has only one true holding midfielder—Bastian Schweinsteiger—with Javi Martinez now being deployed exclusively as a centre-back and Gustavo and Can having been sold.
Bayern have rarely been a drama-free club during their history, and last year was an exception as Heynckes' experience and managerial skills kept his players focused. But already, the likes of Claudio Pizarro, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben have publicly spoken of confusion borne of Guardiola's unnecessary revolution. FC Hollywood is back.
Bayern Stars Will Be Happy Under Guardiola... as Long as They Win
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No player is happy to be benched, and for world-class stars, this reality counts as an understatement. But for a club to be competitive on several fronts, it's necessary to have a large squad—one in which several classy players will have to be omitted from the starting lineup every week.
Bayern have Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thiago, Mario Gotze, Muller, Franck Ribery, Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri and Mario Mandzukic as established stars competing for six places in midfield and attack, with youngsters Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Mitchell Weiser trying to make their way into the first team. No matter how Guardiola chooses his lineup, at least a few players worthy of starting at nearly any club in the world will be benched.
Last season, the likes of Robben, Gustavo and Gomez were able to handle long spells on the bench with minimal complaint. But Bayern won the treble last season, which softened the blow.
Guardiola has rotated his players in the early stages of the campaign, and perhaps as a result he will keep most of his team happy. But it is a delicate balance that could soon fall apart if Bayern reach a rough patch in their campaign.
Leverkusen Are Ready for the Champions League
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One of the great difficulties Bundesliga teams have recently faced is juggling the burden of playing in the Champions League with their ordinary domestic obligations.
A lack of squad depth can have calamitous results. Schalke, for example, reached the 2011 Champions League semifinals but on the domestic front finished just four points above the relegation zone.
Leverkusen last competed in the 2011-12 Champions League, and it was no surprise when they just missed the cut-off for a return to European football's greatest international club tournament a year later.
Things are looking better for Leverkusen this season, however. Despite losing key starters Andre Schurrle and Daniel Carvajal, as well as squad players like Daniel Schwaab, Michal Kadlec and Hajime Hosogai, the Werkself reinforced their starting lineup with the capture of Son Heung-Min, Emir Spahic and Giulio Donati, and added depth in the form of Can and Robbie Kruse.
The signing of Spahic has left B04 with three international-calibre centre-backs in the form of him, Omer Toprak and Philipp Wollscheid. Can is an inspired signing who can play in midfield and across the back four, and at 19 years of age will only get better.
Levin Oztunali, who made his Bundesliga debut in the first matchday following an impressive preseason, is already a serious contender for minutes despite being just 17 years of age. Also in midfield, Leverkusen have the versatile Dominik Kohr, who has been awarded the bronze Fritz Walter Medal in each of the last two seasons.
In defense, recent signing Konstantinos Stafylidis is, at 19, already a capped Greece international. And up front, Arkadiusz Milik has been prolific for Poland's under-21s and had more goals (5) than appearances (4) for Leverkusen's reserves last season.
All of these young players have considerable potential to play a role in Leverkusen's campaign, meaning less stress for the likes of Stefan Kiessling and Lars Bender.
Schalke in a Shambles: A Great Assistant Is Still No Substitute for a Head Coach
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Jens Keller's tenure as Schalke head coach has long been a topic of scrutiny in Gelsenkirchen. Before taking the helm of S04's senior side last December, the 42-year-old was working with the club's under-17 side. And although enormously successful in that role, Keller was no more than a youth coach.
After Keller's appointment, Schalke went long spells without winning a single match and crashed out of the Champions League against a good but beatable Galatasaray side. Only in the final matchday of the season did they edge a vastly inferior Freiburg side for fourth place in the Bundesliga, earning a spot in the Champions League playoff round.
Schalke have done some great business this summer, acquiring depth in the form of striker Adam Szalai and defender Felipe Santana, as well as midfield wunderkind Leon Goretzka. But perhaps their biggest signing was Peter Hermann, who had served as Heynckes' assistant at Bayern Munich. Schalke looked brilliant during the preseason, with Hermann playing a key role in training. But it seems he was not enough.
The season may still be young, but Schalke are in serious trouble. Having conceded seven goals in two games, only Hamburg have a worse defensive record. The Royal Blues are in serious trouble, and at this rate, it may not be long before Keller is dismissed.
The Next Crop of Young Talents Is on Its Way
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History has been made in 2013 as six players—Marc Stendera, Levin Oztunali, Max Meyer, Timo Werner, Niklas Sule and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg—have made their Bundesliga debuts at the age of 17. Indeed, among the 14 youngest players in Bundesliga history, three have made their debuts in 2013. Suffice to say, the current influx of talent is unprecedented.
Fans should not expect much from any of the aforementioned starlets this season, and even slightly more senior players like Can may need some time to mature. But the fact that there are so many young talents trusted to play at the highest level suggests that at least a few of them will become big stars in the coming years, provided they remain injury-free.
New Season, Same Painful Reality: Hamburg Are a Wreck
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As recently as 2010, Hamburg were Europa League semifinalists. Since then, everything has gone downhill for the northernmost Bundesliga side, who have failed to return to the international stage in each of the last three seasons.
HSV have hit a new low in 2013-14. Although they managed a draw away to Schalke in their Bundesliga opener, their 5-1 loss at home to Hoffenheim on Saturday was proof enough that there are serious problems with Thorsten Fink's side.
Hamburg have thus far conceded a league-high eight goals, a record that in no way suggests the presence of Marcell Jansen and Heiko Westermann, who have a combined 66 caps for Germany. At this rate, it may not be long before 17-year-old center-back Jonathan Tah makes his debut.
Jury Is Still out on Dortmund's New Signings
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The summer transfer window has been a mixed bag for Dortmund, who were forced to sell star figure Gotze to Bayern but have added significant quality in the form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
The BVB newcomers have come with high expectations and, as of yet, their performance has been a bit of a mixed bag. Aubameyang was brilliant on his Bundesliga debut, netting a hat-trick in Augsburg. But in the DFB Pokal opener and in Sunday's narrow win against Braunschweig, he was rather ordinary. His pace makes him a terrifying striker on the counterattack, but when deployed as a winger against deep-playing opposition, his limitations have been found out.
Mkhitaryan looked brilliant in the preseason, but has only played one competitive match due to an injury. He had his share of chances against Braunschweig, but like most of his teammates failed to convert. Time will tell just how much value he can add. Occupying Gotze's former role, he certainly has large boots to fill.
Sokratis has also been given limited minutes, and thus is still difficult to assess. He played well against Braunschweig, but his true quality can only be measured when he faces top-class strikers. As of yet he has yet to assert himself and earn a definite starting spot in any position, which is perhaps somewhat less than what would be expected given that BVB's only right-back, Lukasz Piszczek, is recovering from a long-term injury.
Braunschweig Are in with a Chance of Avoiding Relegation
It's always easy to pick promoted teams as candidates to be relegated back to the second division, especially if it has been several years since they were last in the top flight. But Braunschweig are proving worthy of a second consideration.
The Lower Saxony side are yet to earn a single point this season, but their record by no means reflects their performance. Their opening-day loss to Bremen was quite unfortunate, and they battled to the last minute against a very strong Dortmund team on Sunday.
Braunschweig may need to become a little more wary and worldly, but generally, they are by no means one of the two weakest teams. Frankfurt and Augsburg have much more to worry about.
The Race for Top Scorer Is Wide Open
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There are several obvious candidates for top scorer in the Bundesliga, including Kiessling, Robert Lewandowski, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Mandzukic. But the first two rounds of the season have opened up the race for the Torjagerkanone even further.
Mandzukic has scored twice in as many games, but it's uncertain how many matches he will start under Guardiola, who enjoys a rotation and could also use Gotze in the striker position. Huntelaar also has two goals, but picked up an injury over the weekend and will miss a month that could cost him greatly in his quest for the top scorer honor.
Kiessling and Lewandowski, meanwhile, have a goal apiece. But the latter has looked a little less hungry than in previous years, while the former will have to adjust to the burden of playing extra games in the Champions League.
Any of the usual suspects could yet finish the season as top scorer, but there are others who have turned heads. Anthony Modeste, Aubameyang and Nicolai Muller have all started the season in scintillating form and have to be considered among the candidates.
Small, Mobile Strikers Are in Vogue
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Guardiola created the "false nine" role in 2010 when he converted the short and agile Lionel Messi from a winger to a centre forward. But curiously, to date it is not he, but a number of his Bundesliga coaching colleagues who have turned to unorthodox strikers.
Lucien Favre has used Max Kruse and Raffael as strikers in both of Gladbach's matches. And although the Fohlen lost their opener to Bayern, they were brilliant in Saturday's 3-0 rout of Hannover.
Mainz trainer Thomas Tuchel used a similar tactical setup over the weekend, with wingers Nicolai Muller and Shinji Okazaki deployed in the center of attack. And just as they won with a classic striker in their first match, they claimed three points with an unconventional attack on Saturday.
The Bundesliga's new tactical trend has not been universally successful, however. With playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu used as their only striker, HSV have had mixed results, scoring three in their first match and one in their second. Calhanoglu has been largely nullified, however, and played no direct role in any of his team's goals.
Successful or not, it seems the "false nine" is very much in vogue. Time will tell whether it is a viable tactical approach for a full season.