Soccer  

Bayern’s dominance, Bellingham’s final run, top four race

The fun league is almost back! After more than two months off — one for the World Cup and one for the customary winter break — the Bundesliga will finally resume play Friday, and it will do so with a doozy, as Bayern Munich visits RB Leipzig (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

The pre-World Cup portion of the club season went pretty well in Germany. Ten-time defending Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich found itself in a scrap for a while, with upstarts like Union Berlin and Freiburg occupying elevated positions on the table and RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt both building quite a bit of momentum before the break. Plus, of the eight German clubs that entered UEFA competitions, seven ended up in knockout rounds.

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The action resumes with some pretty high-leverage matches this weekend — Bayern-RBL on Friday, Freiburg-Wolfsburg on Saturday, Bayer Leverkusen-Borussia Monchengladbach on Sunday — and resumption of UEFA play is less than a month away. Time to catch up!

Here’s everything you need to follow as the Bundesliga returns.

Let’s start with the obvious: Can anyone challenge Bayern?

The short answer: Probably not, but please read the long answer.

OK, I said Bayern was involved in a scrap above; I didn’t mention that the Rekordmeister won their final six league matches before the World Cup stoppage to pull four points clear of Freiburg and six clear of RBL. They seemed to be wresting control of the league, and if they win in Leipzig on Friday, they will be in excellent shape for an incredible 11th straight title.

Here’s how the top half of the table looks entering the Ruckrunde (the back half or so of the season):

  • 1. Bayern Munich: 34 points (+36 GD)

  • 2. Freiburg: 30 points (+8)

  • 3. RB Leipzig: 28 points (+9)

  • 4. Eintracht Frankfurt: 27 points (+8)

  • 5. Union Berlin: 27 points (+4)

  • 6. Borussia Dortmund: 25 points (+4)

  • 7. Wolfsburg: 23 points (+4)

  • 8. Borussia Monchengladbach: 22 points (+4)

  • 9. Werder Bremen: 21 points (-2)

Union Berlin was the story of September and October, going unbeaten in seven matches to begin the season and spending weeks in first place. They needed the break more than anyone in the league, however; after a thrilling last-second goal against Gladbach allowed them to carry first place into November, they proceeded to draw at home with Augsburg and lose by a combined 9-1 at Bayer Leverkusen and Freiburg. They were running out of steam and had quickly fallen to fifth.

Another upstart, however, was continuing to thrive. The underlying xG figures suggested Freiburg had better staying power than Union even though they trailed in the table, and after a dismal 5-0 loss at Bayern on Oct. 16, Christian Streich’s squad rebounded to win four of five before the break.

Freiburg clings to second place ahead of an RBL squad that was in torrid form in November — unbeaten in their last eight league matches with four straight Champions League victories, too — and an Eintracht Frankfurt team that rallied to advance in the Champions League and produced some dominant victories (amid a few letdowns) in league play: 4-0 over RBL, 5-1 over Leverkusen, 4-2 over Hoffenheim, 3-1 over Gladbach.

We could see plenty of plot twists in the race for second or third place, but unless injuries take a toll, it appears Bayern is in great shape to roll to the title again. After a run of three league draws and a loss to Augsburg, Bayern’s title odds, per FiveThirtyEight, had sunk to 74% in September — panic levels by their standards. But after their November hot streak, they’re back up to 93%, with only RBL (4%) and Freiburg (1%) holding on to long-shot hopes.

Can Bayern be the best in Europe without Manuel Neuer?

Bayern’s smoking-hot November form, combined with Manchester City’s recent rickety moments, mean that Bayern currently ranks first in 538’s SPI ratings and, despite a rough round-of-16 draw against PSG, holds the best overall Champions League title odds at the moment at 26%. But those odds are based on the version of Bayern that has Neuer at goalkeeper, Lucas Hernandez in the center-back rotation and Noussair Mazraoui as an option at right-back.

All three of those players are out at the moment — Mazraoui with heart inflammation following a bout with COVID, Hernandez with an ACL tear suffered at the World Cup and Neuer with a serious knee injury suffered while skiing after the World Cup. Mazraoui will return before the others; Neuer’s condition, combined with his age (36), have led Bayern to look into long-term replacement options at goalkeeper and Thursday brought us confirmation that they’d agreed a move for Gladbach’s Yann Sommer, who’s only two years younger but, if we’re being honest, looks about 26. (He also stopped an incredible 19 of 20 shots on goal against Bayern back in August.)

Bayern still boasts an embarrassment of riches in attack, especially if veteran forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting holds onto the career-best form that he found pre-break. (He had scored 10 goals in his last nine appearances in all competitions.) But depth has taken a major hit at the back, to such a degree that Bayern signed veteran Daley Blind, most recently of Ajax, as a stopgap option at both center-back (behind Dayot Upamecano and Matthijs De Ligt) and fullback (behind Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies).

Needless to say, defensive glitches aren’t really what you want to be suffering when you’ve got a pair of season-defining matches against Kylian Mbappe, Leo Messi, Neymar and PSG on the horizon. PSG haven’t lit the world aflame since their own restart — they’ve lost at both Lens and Rennes in league play since Jan. 1 — but the potential is forever obvious.

The Bundesliga vs. Europe

Indeed, German teams fared pretty well in European competitions last fall. Of the five teams that entered the Champions League — last year’s top four teams in league play, plus Europa League winner Eintracht Frankfurt — four advanced to the knockout rounds, and Bayer Leverkusen overcame its dreadful league form to at least finish third in its group and therefore qualify for the Europa League knockouts.

Meanwhile, both of Germany’s Europa League teams (Freiburg and Union Berlin) advanced. The only team knocked out of competitions entirely: Koln, which came up one point short of advancing in the Conference League. Considering how poor their form was in league play, their failure wasn’t an incredible surprise.

Seven of 18 Bundesliga teams, then, have knockout matches on the horizon. The draw did not do many of them favors, but let’s walk through what each of the seven teams is facing.

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1:09

Juls devastated as PSG draw Bayern Munich

Gab & Juls look ahead to a mouthwatering Champions League clash between PSG and Bayern Munich.

Champions League

Bayern Munich – Group stage: first place in Group C (18 points, +16 GD)
– Next opponent: PSG (February 14 and March 8)
– Odds (per FiveThirtyEight): 69% to advance to quarterfinals, 26% to win final

RB LeipzigGroup stage: second place in Group F (12 points, +4 GD)
Next opponent: Manchester City (February 22 and March 14)
Odds: 27% to advance to quarterfinals, 3% to win final

Borussia DortmundGroup stage: second place in Group G (9 points, +5 GD)
Next opponent: Chelsea (February 15 and March 7)
Odds: 43% to advance to quarterfinals, 2% to win final

Eintracht FrankfurtGroup stage: second place in Group D (10 points, -1 GD)
Next opponent: Napoli (February 21 and March 15)
Odds: 30% to advance to quarterfinals, 1% to win final

Bayern drew the best of the second-place teams, RBL drew the best of the first-place teams that aren’t named Bayern, and Eintracht drew what has been the hottest team in Europe for much of the season, Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli. There’s only about a 2% chance that all four teams advance to the quarterfinals, but Bayern is favored, and at least one of the trio of RBL, Eintracht and Borussia Dortmund (playing an out-of-form Chelsea) should advance as well.

Europa League

Freiburg – Group stage: first place in Group G (14 points, +10 GD)
– Next opponent: bye
– Odds: 100% to advance to round of 16, 4% to win final

Bayer Leverkusen – Group stage: third place in Champions League Group B (5 points, -4 GD)
– Next opponent: Monaco (February 16 and February 23)
– Odds: 54% to advance to round of 16, 3% to win final

Union Berlin – Group stage: second place in Group D (12 points, +2 GD)
– Next opponent: Ajax (February 16 and February 23)
– Odds: 25% to advance to round of 16,

Freiburg took care of business, going unbeaten in group play and advancing easily, but just like last season, Union Berlin had to overcome another slow European start — 1-0 losses in its first two matches — to advance. Unlike last year, however, Eisern Union indeed advanced. Now they face a rough task against Dutch heavyweight Ajax.

Can Freiburg or Union Berlin finish in the top four?

The story of German football over the past decade or so has been three-pronged:

  • 1. Bayern crafts a well-tuned and astonishingly consistent wrecking ball.

  • 2. Other aspiring German heavyweights fail to get the arrows all pointed in the right direction.

  • 3. Well-organized upstarts make it pretty far up the table, at least in part because of (2).

It’s not Freiburg’s or Union Berlin’s fault that Borussia Dortmund has been stuck in third gear this season, or that Bayer Leverkusen or RB Leipzig started the season terribly under managers who had led them to high heights last season (Gerardo Seoane and Domenico Tedesco, respectively), or that Eintracht Frankfurt can’t defend set pieces, or that Borussia Monchengladbach can’t defend, period.

Their respective ceilings and budgets might not be as high as these other clubs, but Freiburg’s Streich and Union’s Urs Fischer have had their teams playing high-level, high-effort, highly-organized ball for a while now, and they continue to creep higher and higher up the table.

Freiburg’s sixth-place finish last season was its best in the Bundesliga since 2012-13, and Union’s fifth-place finish was its best ever. They have the two best non-Bayern defenses in the league, Freiburg owns set pieces, Union counter-attacks as well as anyone, and if you give either team a lead, they’re not going to let go of it.

Union’s November funk dropped them to fifth place, but they’re still tied for a top-four spot in the points department, and Freiburg remains in second. With RBL, Eintracht and Borussia Dortmund all getting ready to mount top-four charges, one of the most interesting subplots of the coming months will be whether these upstarts, two of the easiest teams in Europe to root for, can establish good enough form to threaten a high finish as well.

Can Schalke stay up? (And who else is likely to go down?)

The bottom half of the Bundesliga table is just about as clustered together as the top half, with nine teams — half the league — within five points of the relegation zone.

  • 10. Mainz: 19 points (-5 GD)

  • 11. Hoffenheim: 18 points (+0)

  • 12. Bayer Leverkusen: 18 points (-1)

  • 13. Koln: 17 points (-8)

  • 14. Augsburg: 15 points (-8)

  • 15. Hertha Berlin: 14 points (-3)

  • 16. Stuttgart: 14 points (-9)

  • 17. Bochum: 13 points (-22)

  • 18. Schalke: 9 points (-19)

Each of the bottom three teams have already canned managers this season — Bochum’s Thomas Reis was sent away in September, Stuttgart’s Pellegrino Matarazzo and Schalke’s Frank Kramer in October (Schalke replaced Kramer with Reis, actually) — and while all three of them have struggled to show sustained signs of life, they’re each only one hot streak from climbing out of the cellar.

The poster children for the “You can’t just spend your way out of bad decision-making because debt is a no-no” effects of Germany’s rigorous club certification standards, Schalke bottomed out in record fashion a couple of years ago, suffering relegation for the first time in three decades and nearly breaking an unbreakable winless streak in the process. They rebounded to win the second division last season with a late rally — I was at their promotion-clinching win; it was incredible — but their money problems didn’t suddenly vanish.

They had to replace six of last season’s top 12 players from a minutes perspective, and of the four players they spent actual transfer fees on, only one has played more than 700 minutes thus far (left back Thomas Ouwejan). They lost center-backs Ko Itakura (he was on loan) and Malick Thiaw (to AC Milan), and their defense has been predictably awful (2.1 goals allowed per match, second-worst in the league).

They’ve been poor from an xG perspective (-0.55 xG differential per match, third-worst), and their actual goal differential (-1.27 per match) suggests they’ve been terribly unlucky as well. But they finished November with a win over Mainz and a respectable showing against Bayern. That kept them within reach of the other teams near the bottom.

Schalke’s post-restart schedule is brutal: visits from RB Leipzig and Wolfsburg and trips to Eintracht, Gladbach and Union, all among their first six matches before they play Stuttgart and Bochum back-to-back. They therefore still remain in dire overall shape, as 538’s relegation odds attest.

Schalke is currently 75% likely to go down, followed by Bochum (51%), Augsburg (33%), Hertha (21%), Stuttgart (18%) and Koln (9%).

Augsburg enjoyed a three-match winning streak in September but went winless over its last seven matches and has the second-worst xG differential in the league. The Fuggerstadter always rally to save themselves, but they’ll likely need another rally in the months to come. Bochum seemed assured of a bottom-two finish for a while, too, but won four of its last seven matches before the break.

If there’s a strong rebound candidate among the bottom five, it could be Stuttgart, which hired master relegation-avoider Bruno Labbadia over the break and actually managed a positive xG differential over the first 15 matches (+0.02, 10th overall). They rank second in xG per shot allowed (0.10) but 11th in save percentage, a difference that could progress toward the mean, and they’ve been unlucky to score only three set-piece goals considering the quality of chances created. This isn’t a good team, but it probably isn’t the third-worst team in the league either.

It’s the last four months for Christopher Nkunku in Leipzig and (probably) Jude Bellingham in Dortmund

It’s a double-edged sword: Once you build the reputation for being a great developer of young talent, you (a) end up at the front of the line for bringing in future young talent and (b) lose that talent to big transfers pretty soon after. The money’s good, but it feels like you’re always in transition.

RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund are very much in this boat. In the past five years or so, BVB has raked in huge transfer fees for Ousmane Dembele and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in 2017, Christian Pulisic in 2018, Jadon Sancho in 2021 and Erling Haaland in 2022. RBL did the same with Naby Keita in 2018, Timo Werner in 2020 and Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate in 2021. They’ve brought in plenty of new, young stars with that revenue, but fifth gear and a genuine Bayern challenge continues to feel slightly out of their grasp.

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Gab and Juls confused by Dortmund’s approach to Bellingham’s future

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens can’t understand Borussia Dortmund’s stance on the future of midfielder Jude Bellingham.

Both will try to at least lock up top-four positions this winter and spring while knowing that they’ll be seeing the same turnover soon. RBL attacker Nkunku, the best player in the Bundesliga over the last season-plus — and a player still working back from a November knee injury — is off to Chelsea this coming summer, and while we don’t know BVB midfielder Jude Bellingham’s destination just yet, it’s all but assured that he will be leaving on a big-money transfer as well. RBL defender Josko Gvardiol, meanwhile, was one of the World Cup’s breakout stars and could also command a huge fee in the months (if not days) ahead.

Both of these clubs still boast scads of young players with huge potential — RBL will still have Dominik Szoboszlai (22), Dani Olmo (24), Mohamed Simakan (22), among others, and recently brought Werner back; Borussia Dortmund will still have Karim Adeyemi (21), Nico Schlotterbeck (23), Gio Reyna (20) and, if he signs a new contract soon, Youssoufa Moukoko (18). But these versions of these clubs only have a few more months together. What sort of noise can they make in the meantime?

Five World Cup stars to follow

Gvardiol was one of quite a few Bundesliga athletes to make an impact at the World Cup. Here are five more players you might have gotten to know particularly well following the action in Qatar.

Ritsu Doan, MF/FW, Freiburg

The 24-year old right winger scored in Japan’s wins over Germany and Spain, and in his first season with Freiburg — he joined from PSV Eindhoven in July — he’s contributed two goals and two assists among 15 chances created. If Freiburg indeed continues to hold a top-four spot, he’ll be a major reason why.

Jamal Musiala, MF, Bayern Munich

In record time, Musiala’s gone from incredible prospect to simply incredible. The 19-year old was one of Germany’s most reliable and creative players in Qatar (he created eight chances with one assist in just 259 minutes), which just continued his league form: In 1,390 minutes in all competitions, he’s combined 12 goals with nine assists among 36 chances created.

Randal Kolo Muani, FW, Eintracht Frankfurt

The 24-year old scored the clinching goal in France’s World Cup semifinal win over Morocco and, with help from Gladbach’s Marcus Thuram, completely changed the energy of the final against Argentina after coming on as a substitute. He nearly won the match in extra time, and his play was not a surprise to anyone who’s watched him with Die Adler this season. Since moving from Nantes over the summer, he’s already combined eight goals with 10 assists for Eintracht.

Niclas Fullkrug, FW, Werder Bremen

After leading Bremen back up from the second division, the 29-year old has combined 10 goals (five after the 80th minute) with two assists in Bundesliga play. His form led to his not only getting called up to the national team; he also thrived as a super-sub with two goals and an assist in just 66 minutes. Suddenly he’s the subject of transfer rumors.

Noussair Mazraoui, DF, Bayern Munich

Playing mostly as a left back for Morocco, the 25-year old won 55% of his duels and completed 83% of his passes over 367 minutes in Qatar. He was playing an increased role at right back for Bayern before the break, too, and contributed a pair of assists to their 6-1 win over Werder Bremen on November 8. The sooner he can return to action, the better for the Rekordmeister.

BVB attempted to pull itself from the “sign young players, lose young players” cycle by bringing in the 28-year old Haller from Ajax this past summer after he scored 34 goals in all competitions last season. He was almost immediately sidelined, however, by a fight with testicular cancer. In one of the most moving stories of the winter, he’s been cleared to return to practice, and he was prolific in a couple of January friendlies. He is not quite ready to return to full form, but it appears that’s only a matter of time. Incredible news.

Hello again, Florian Wirtz! How far can Bayer Leverkusen rebound?

Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz was emerging as probably the best teenager in the Bundesliga — on par with Musiala — when he suffered a knee injury last March and missed the rest of the campaign. Leverkusen maintained form without him, securing a spot in the league’s top four, but star forward Patrik Schick endured a dreadful finishing slump this fall, attempting 50 shots worth 7.0 xG in all competitions but scoring only three actual goals.

The club sure could have used another dynamic attacker. Die Werkself began 2022-23 in shockingly poor fashion, winning only once in their first eight league matches and falling to third-division Elversberg in the DFB-Pokal. Gerardo Seoane seemed like one of the best managers in the Bundesliga last season, but he was fired on October 5 and replaced with Xabi Alonso.

Their form did not improve immediately under Alonso — they lost by a combined 8-1 to Porto and Eintracht Frankfurt in a four-day span in October — but November brought a different story. They nabbed two late draws to finish third in their Champions League group (ahead of Atletico Madrid), and then they stomped Union Berlin, Koln and Stuttgart by a combined 9-1 to head into the break with three straight wins.

The right-sided duo of Moussa Diaby and Jeremie Frimpong has thrived (combined: 13 goals and eight assists among 57 chances created in all competitions), Schick will start finishing again at some point, and now Wirtz returns as well. Leverkusen is still in 12th place, nine points back of the top four, but they are all but guaranteed to make a charge up the table. How much of one?

Checking in on the Americans

The Bundesliga has long been a comfortable spot for up-and-coming young American players, and four such players have seen solid roles this season.

Joe Scally, Borussia Monchengladbach

The right back has become a stalwart for his club at only 20 years old. He has already logged 1,304 minutes in league play with 50 ball recoveries and seven chances created. For who-knows-what-reason, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter was slow to give Scally a look, but his national-team fortunes will likely change soon no matter who is managing the team.

Jordan Pefok, Union Berlin

Brought in from Young Boys to replace Premier League-bound Taiwo Awoniyi this past summer, Pefok was a major reason for Union’s early surge. Despite missing some time with injury, he scored three league goals with three assists on 12 chances created in 852 minutes. He, too, was marginalized by Berhalter, but he remains only 26 years old; there’s time for his national-team status to change as well.

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What happens next for Berhalter, Reyna and U.S. Soccer?

Kyle Bonagura explains potential outcomes for Gregg Berhalter and U.S. Soccer after Danielle and Claudio Reyna threatened to reveal sensitive information about the USMNT coach.

Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund

A return to club play will be a welcome distraction from some of the unfortunate off-the-pitch news Reyna has been involved in recently — both his turbulent World Cup and his parents’ response to said turbulence. The 20-year old attacker managed 362 minutes, two goals and seven chances created for BVB while returning from last season’s long-term injury issues, and he will almost certainly play a larger role in the Ruckrunde.

Kevin Paredes, Wolfsburg

After a breakout season with D.C. United in 2021, Wolfsburg snatched Paredes up for a nearly €7 million fee last January. The 19-year old midfielder was just beginning to emerge as a first-team threat — 173 league minutes, 15 ball recoveries, two chances created — when he came down with a calf injury and missed the last few pre-break matches. Now healthy, he’ll have a chance to work back into the rotation.

There could be one more name to track in the coming months, too:

Paxten Aaronson, Eintracht Frankfurt

After a solid season with the Philadelphia Union, the attacking midfielder, younger brother to Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson, recently made the move to Frankfurt. Eintracht is loaded in attack, and we’ll see what kind of role the 19-year old is able to carve out for himself (and when). But he’ll get some mentorship from fullback and fellow American Timothy Chandler, who still cracks the Eintracht rotation every now and then.