Strengths and Weaknesses of Bayern Munich's Bundesliga Title Rivals
The 2014-15 Bundesliga season is just weeks away from kicking off, and the question on everyone's mind is whether Bayern Munich can be stopped.
The Bundesliga record champions won the league by 19 points last season and by 25 the year before, their superior class and depth leaving the likes of Dortmund, Schalke and Leverkusen all distant specks in the rear-view mirror.
Hope springs eternal for Bayern's top competitors, though, all of which have have made significant upgrades in the form of depth and, in some cases, to their respective starting lineups.
And with the Bavarians having sent many more players to the World Cup than any other Bundesliga team, the 2014-15 season could be the closest title run-in Germany for several years.
With the new season approaching, B/R takes a close look at Bayern's top four title rivals, Dortmund, Schalke, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Click Begin Slideshow for a full analysis.
The Obvious: Dortmund
Dortmund have won two titles and placed second as many times in the last four seasons; suffice to say, Jurgen Klopp's side are the best-suited candidates to overthrow Bayern's latent hegemony atop the Bundesliga table.
BVB suffered a big loss in the form of Robert Lewandowski joining the Munich giants but have replaced him well and added considerable depth to their squad during the summer.
More than any of Bayern's competitors, Dortmund have experience. The majority of the current squad has been together since the title-winning 2010-11 campaign or earlier.
Most were part of the squad that reached the 2013 Champions League final, and the likes of Mats Hummels, Kevin Grosskreutz and Erik Durm are World Cup winners.
BVB have a phenomenal coach in Klopp, who can hold his own in a head-to-head with any trainer in the world. His system makes players better than they perhaps should be, his tactical consideration and motivational abilities bringing every last ounce of quality out of his players.
On the pitch, Dortmund have quality in all departments. Roman Weidenfeller is a seasoned veteran between the posts. Durm and Grosskreutz offer good depth in the full-back positions with Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek.
BVB now have four quality center-backs and at least two strong options in every midfield and attacking position. Even with their depth, it will be a huge uphill struggle for Dortmund to contend with Bayern. But if there's one club to bet on, it's the 2011 and 2012 Bundesliga champions.
There is some uncertainty hanging over the Dortmund squad heading into the upcoming season.
Weidenfeller, although Joachim Low's backup goalkeeper for Germany at the most recent World Cup, turns 34 in August and is approaching the end of his prime. He doesn't need much pace or explosiveness to play his position, but goalkeepers typically begin to decline in their mid-30s, an age Weidenfeller is now approaching.
With advancing age also comes a greater likelihood of injury, and behind the veteran, there is not very much to speak of in terms of experience.
Further to the topic of experience, Durm, Matthias Ginter, Ciro Immobile, Adrian Ramos and Ji Dong-Won are all unproven in various ways. All but Durm are completely inexperienced in the Champions League, and the pressure will be immense on Immobile especially to deliver from early in the group stage.
And although Durm has some experience playing against elite wingers at the highest level, he was a substitute for Schmelzer last season and before that had only ever played in attack. He needs more live experience to build his confidence and hone his skills as a defender.
The Up-and-Coming: Schalke
Schalke are an extremely dangerous and very underrated team that could, in the next few years, become the Bundesliga's third big power.
They've managed to keep together a strong contingent of young, hugely talented prospects, have the best academy in Germany and are backed by some of the most ardent supporters in the Bundesliga.
Like Dortmund, Schalke have a core of players who have been at the club for several years. The Royal Blues reached the Champions League semifinals in 2011 and, despite many changes in the meantime, are on paper no less a team now than they were back then.
Jens Keller's side have two key factors in their favor as they enter the upcoming season. The first is a young squad with potentially world-class talents that could undergo an explosion of development at any time.
Julian Draxler, who had a disappointing 2013-14, is a mega-talent who, despite his experience, only turns 21 in September.
Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka are, at 18 and 19 respectively, already fully capped Germany internationals. Kaan Ayhan was one of the Bundesliga's best center-backs this spring when a blight of injuries in the Schalke defense resulted in him being relied upon.
Leroy Sane and Marvin Friedrich were named to the UEFA Youth League Team of the Tournament last season. And 17-year-old Donis Avdijaj comfortably holds the record for goals scored in an under-17 Bundesliga season, with 44 (in addition to 13 assists) in just 25 appearances.
The other big strength of Schalke's is in depth. A veritable plague of injuries decimated the squad last season but also allowed fringe players to develop.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Dennis Aogo, Marco Hoeger, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and captain Benedikt Hoewedes all missed long spells last season due to injuries, but all are fit and will be almost like new signings.
And even though Jefferson Farfan could miss the entire first round with a knee injury, Schalke finally have depth to back him up in the form of not only youngsters but an established talent in Sidney Sam.
Whether this season or otherwise in the not-so-distant future, Schalke's time is coming.
Although the current Schalke side is, player for player, at least on par with the 2011 semifinalists, the big comparative deficiency the current side has is in the leadership area.
Three years ago, Raul was a living legend who commanded the attack, while Manuel Neuer was equally influential in defense. Now Hoewedes is the captain. Although he has natural leadership qualities, the 26-year-old hasn't yet had the effect of his predecessors. That could change after playing every minute in Germany's historic World Cup triumph.
Otherwise, Schalke are generally inexperienced. Plenty among their squad have been around for several years, but the likes of Meyer, Goretzka and even Draxler are not finished products. Any could take a huge step this season, but stagnation as experienced by Draxler last season is similarly a possibility.
In any case, there's a big difference between performing against the average Bundesliga team and making an impact in the key head-to-head against the likes of Bayern and Dortmund. Substantial pressure will be on the shoulders of Schalke's youth in the coming season.
Finally, injury susceptibility is another huge concern for Schalke. Although most of their stars are fit again, there is no certainty that any among them won't suffer a setback in the coming weeks and months.
Farfan already has been diagnosed with knee cartilage damage; he surely will not be the last Schalke player to be injured. Fitness will be a key issue for Keller's men if they are to stand a chance in the Bundesliga.
The Wild Card: Leverkusen
Leverkusen have had somewhat of a rocky recent history. They pipped Bayern to second place in the Bundesliga as recently as 2011. But they have also had many players come and go during that time.
Now with Roger Schmidt at the helm and some brilliant work in the transfer market behind them, there's reason to believe in the Werkself.
Having finished in the top four in four of the last five Bundesliga seasons, Leverkusen are a rather well-known quantity. And yet, the Werkself are still not taken seriously like Bayern, Dortmund and even Schalke are.
Expectation will be on a top-four finish, but as they've proven before (they finished second in the spring of 2011), B04 are more than capable of an upset.
Leverkusen invested significantly in the transfer market this summer and pulled off some superb signings, especially in attack. Josip Drmic and Hakan Calhanoglu are already stars of the Bundesliga, but neither has reached his ceiling just yet.
Julian Brandt and Levin Oztunali are two of Germany's best talents born in 1996; either could have a big breakthrough this season.
The newcomers and rising prospects will join a core of Leverkusen players such as Bernd Leno, Omer Toprak, Lars Bender and Stefan Kiessling, who have been instrumental to the club's progress from a shadow of the 2002 Champions League finalists to a consistent force present in Europe's elite club tournament.
Leverkusen's progress from relative anonymity to a top German club has not exactly been organic, the Werkself having benefited greatly from the Bayer Pharmaceutical company's stake in the club.
Perception isn't a direct contributor to instability, but Leverkusen's relatively small fanbase and the BayArena's modest capacity of 30,210 don't exactly rouse the passion of the players in the same manner as Dortmund or Schalke's legendary fans.
The Werkself have historically had a bit of an inferiority complex, doing enough in the Champions League against more ordinary clubs but simply falling apart when faced with elite opposition or any club with a proud history.
They conceded nine goals in two group-stage matches against Manchester United last season before being eliminated by PSG in the round of 16 following a 5-1 aggregate loss. In their most recent previous campaign in the Champions League, they were knocked out by Barcelona by a 7-1 margin in the round of 16.
Leverkusen have individual weaknesses in certain areas of the pitch, particularly in defense and defensive midfield (Bender and Toprak aside).
But their biggest problem to address is one of mentality. They are very much outside candidates for the Bundesliga title and will only stand a chance of finally winning the title if they can overcome their sense of inferiority.
The Dark Horse: Wolfsburg
Wolfsburg are the smallest club on this list and have considerably fewer supporters and a fraction of the revenue of Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke.
But the Volkswagen-backed club have assembled a strong team of players who look unlikely to be sold and benefit from not being burdened by Champions League football. They are decidedly outsiders in the title race but stand at least something of a chance.
Wolfsburg finished 30 points behind Bayern last season but just one point behind fourth-placed Leverkusen.
Although they missed out on Champions League football by just a hair, the Lower Saxony side will be able to focus more on the domestic front than Schalke, Dortmund, Bayern and (if they qualify) Leverkusen.
VfL have relatively low expectations and come equipped with a combination of experience (Luiz Gustavo and Aaron Hunt), potential (Junior Malanda and Maximilian Arnold) and something in between (Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic) in midfield.
Their back line includes an internationally coveted left-back in Ricardo Rodriguez and this summer has been reinforced by the addition of capped Germany international Sebastian Jung. If they manage to sign a new striker, VfL will be a complete package, at least in their first team.
Based on squad quality, Wolfsburg finished appropriately last season, in fifth place. Although their first team has few real deficiencies, their starting lineup contains many good but not great players. And "great" is the standard for contending with elite European teams such as Bayern and Dortmund.
If Wolfsburg are to stand any chance of even qualifying for the Champions League (let alone winning the title), they'll need a new striker.
Bas Dost hasn't yet convinced and could be sold this summer, while Ivica Olic will turn 35 in September.
Success in the Bundesliga is not measured by scraping by in gritty draws against the elite teams but rather in consistently winning games against lesser opposition. Without a clinical striker, Wolfsburg will drop unnecessary points.