Bundesliga preview: Can anyone catch Bayern Munich? Probably not
The Bundesliga is back! Is there a chance that Germany will see a new champion this year? Raphael Honigstein previews the season.
Is anyone capable of stopping Bayern at the top?
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. If VfB Stuttgart sporting director Michael Reschke is to be believed, there will be no title race for years to come in the Bundesliga in its current form.
"Bayern Munich will be champions [this season] and also in 2019-20, 20-21, 21-22 and so forth," the 60-year-old told Welt. "Only Bayern decide whether there's excitement [at the top of the league]. Should they one day wish to celebrate a title properly, due to it being close, it'll only work if a playoff mode is introduced. Until such time, they will dominate and buy their competitors' best players."
Reschke, himself a former Bayern employee, understands that the champions' hegemony is nigh impossible to challenge in the short- or medium-term. It's not solely the money. Whereas Bayern's turnover has constantly hovered around the 2:1 ratio in comparison to their nearest rivals since the turn of the century, better scouting and a more careful choice of managers have seen them pull away from the pack in recent years to the point of being untouchable.
Their past six consecutive championships have yielded an average of 86 points. The previous six league titles (2009-10, 2007-08, 2005-06, 2004-05, 2002-03, 2000-01), by sharp contrast, were won with a far less impressive average of 73 points. While the bar was set at those rather mundane levels in the low-to-mid-70s, teams such as Borussia Dortmund (2002, 2011, 2012), Werder Bremen (2004), VfB Stuttgart (2007) and VfL Wolfsburg (2009) could still win the odd Meisterschaft.
Getting anywhere near the Bavarians' current output of 2.5 points per game has become so difficult as to be almost fanciful, however. Only one club other than Bayern have managed more than 80 points in a campaign over the 55-year history of the league: Jurgen Klopp's Dortmund, when at their peak in 2012 (81 points). (Pre-1995 results have been adjusted to three points per win.)
And so, not one but two things must happen if the trophy isn't to remain in southeast Germany. Firstly, Bayern have to inadvertently turn back the clock to a time when their "Red Machine" was working far less efficiently and was occasionally faulty. New manager Niko Kovac's emphasis on discipline, fitness and hard work make this an unlikely scenario. It would take a total breakdown of changing room dynamics, akin to the one Bayern were beginning to suffer before the board pulled the plug on Carlo Ancelotti's reign in September 2017, for a squad of such quality to under-perform this drastically once more.
Even if such an apocalypse indeed befalls Sabener Strasse, other Bundesliga clubs would still have to improve in nearly unprecedented fashion.
Thomas Tuchel's first year in Dortmund (2015-16), a campaign that amassed a hugely impressive 78 points, was by some distance the best finish of any of Bayern's competitors during their current purple patch. Excluding that outlier, though, second-placed clubs have averaged a meagre 67 points since 2012-13.
Can Schalke 04 (63 points last season), Dortmund (55 points last season) or RB Leipzig (67 points in 2016-17) get anywhere near the high 70s or low 80s that might just put a bit of pressure on the record title-holders? Domenico Tedesco added a whopping 20 points to S04's bottom line in his first season in charge, but progress of similar magnitude cannot seriously be expected of a squad that will be pushed too hard to deal with the pressures of being back in the Champions League. TSG Hoffenheim are in the same boat, albeit with a qualitatively poorer team.
Dortmund, now in the care of "team whisperer" Lucien Favre, will surely improve on their disastrous performance last season, but it might take a bit of time before the Swiss manager's exacting coaching methods fully bear fruit. The Black and Yellows have yet to sign a guaranteed goal scorer as well, which hampers their chances considerably.
That leaves Leipzig as the last potential challenger, a tall order given that 2017's runners-up will have to take their energy-zapping style into the Europa League. Ralf Rangnick's caretaker stint ahead of the arrival of Julian Nagelsmann in 2019 will nevertheless provide one of the most interesting storylines of a new season rich on competition and intrigue ... albeit from second place down.
Axel Witsel, MF, Borussia Dortmund
Big name, big hair and big expectations: Dortmund want their new €20 million man from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian to dominate games and add a strong winning mentality to their first team. The Belgium midfielder should be able to provide an ideal platform for Lucien Favre's multi-talented side to bring their considerable attacking prowess to bear once more.
Paulinho, FW, Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Bayer have a long history of bringing in world-class South Americans ahead of the curve. Paulinho, an 18-year-old muscular winger signed from Vasco da Gama, will turn out to be a real bargain at €18.5 million if the scouting reports from Brazil are correct. His pace and scoring threat will provide great balance to Bayer's attack.
Alassane Plea, FW, Borussia Monchengladbach
A tally of 21 goals and seven assists for OGC Nice made the 25-year-old Frenchman one of the hottest commodities in France last season. Signing the quick and versatile centre-forward for €23 million was a coup for Borussia. The Foals have been in desperate need of a true striker for a number of years now. Plea's inclusion should reinstate their competitiveness at the top end of the table after last season's journey into mediocrity
Naby Keita, MF, Liverpool
Excluding Douglas Costa, whose loan move to Juventus was made permanent this summer, there's no bigger loss to the Bundesliga than the one-man goal-assist-tackle machine that is Naby Keita. If the Guinea international replicates the form from his first season at Leipzig for LFC, the €59 million fee will look positively cheap.
Arturo Vidal, MF, Barcelona
Bayern were quite keen to sell the Chile international, whose combative approach on the pitch was sometimes hard to reign in. His off-pitch behaviour raised eyebrows, too. Concerns over his injury record made it an easy decision for the champions, especially with new signing Leon Goretzka poised to play that role for the champions.
Thilo Kehrer, DF, Paris Saint-Germain
A sale price of €37 million for a talented but still inconsistent defender with only one year left on his contract? Schalke had no choice but to sell the 21-year-old who will hopefully continue his education under Thomas Tuchel.
Who will win the league?
Provided they can find a striker in time, Dortmund will be second ahead of a steady if unspectacular Schalke. Leverkusen have a decent chance of completing the top four, courtesy of their thrilling attacking play, with Leipzig and Gladbach in hot pursuit. For Champions League novices Hoffenheim to finish in the top six would be a sensational success, but it looks unlikely, considering the improvement ahead of them.
The battle at the bottom
New boys Fortuna Dusseldorf (back in the top flight after five years) and 1. FC Nurnberg, last seen in the top flight in 2013-14, are the obvious candidates to make the drop. Both have little individual quality, probably too little. In recent years, finishing 16th was enough to stay up via the play-offs.
Vying for that spot, if that's indeed the right way to put it, will be Hannover 96 and SC Freiburg. The latter are always underrated due to their small budget, but coach Christian Streich will do well to finish any higher than he did last season (15th) with players at his disposal.