Ahead of a barely noticeable winter break in this unusual season, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator examines the state of play in Germany’s top flight entering 2021. Will Bayern stay on top and how is the relegation scrap panning out, among other topics?
One of the many reassuring aspects of Bundesliga life is symmetry. Traditionally at the halfway stage of the 34-round campaign, we pause, take stock and look forward to the second half of the season played in the same order as the first.
– Stream Bundesliga matches, replays on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
The German language offers us shorthand for these two segments of 17 matchdays: the Hinrunde (first half) and the Rueckrunde (second half), with a Winterpause (winter break) lasting several weeks, helping us look forward to it all again. In this pandemic year, of course, everything is different.
The later start and absence of a fully fledged winter break, allowing coaches and players at least a week of warm weather training, have hammered home the message that these are not normal times. Whereas the leaders at the end of the Hinrunde have the informal title of Herbstmeister (winter champions) bestowed on them, this year, with only 13 rounds completed, we’ve had to be a bit more creative with our terminology.
Bayern rule the Hinrunde roost
So it is that Bayern Munich are Weihnachtsmeister (Christmas champions), something that looked unlikely for most of their top-of-the-table showdown with Bayer Leverkusen at the Bay Arena on Dec. 19. Outplayed for the opening phase of the game and finding themselves 1-0 behind for a seventh successive league game, the Rekordmeister nevertheless found a way to turn a potential defeat into a last-gasp victory — secured by FIFA The Best award winner Robert Lewandowski with assistance from Joshua Kimmich.
That Kimmich played a part at all was a minor miracle. Out for 42 days after suffering a meniscus injury in the 3-2 victory at Borussia Dortmund, Bayern’s stabilizer-in-chief came on midway through the second half. Kimmich is the one who makes the team complete, with his intelligence and sheer indefatigability, and had been badly missed, so it serves as a warning to Bayern’s title challengers that he will be back from the outset when Mainz travel to the Allianz Arena on Sunday (stream live on ESPN+ at noon ET).
It is natural to see the last matchday of 2020 as a missed opportunity for Leverkusen, since RB Leipzig were held 0-0 at home by FC Koln and Dortmund fell 2-1 away to surprise package Union Berlin.
But while Bayern are favourites to clinch a ninth successive Meisterschale (Champions’ Bowl), the demands on their players will not let up in 2021. Early February will mean travelling to Qatar for the FIFA Club World Cup and a corresponding deluge of fixtures. The onus is on the others to be more ruthless, but will it be enough?
Bayern lost only one competitive game in all of 2020 (to TSG Hoffenheim). They are the undisputed masters when it comes to negotiating the unique challenges of playing during a pandemic. It is safe to say they will navigate most of the expected — and perhaps unexpected — hurdles that will arise.
Derek Rae reflects on how Hansi Flick turned Bayern Munich around with a few key personnel changes.
Can anyone challenge for Bayern’s perch?
Among the sides in the top half of the table, Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, FC Union Berlin and VfB Stuttgart have surpassed expectations, while Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach have performed below the level we anticipated. In the case of Gladbach, there are extenuating circumstances. Having to be ready for Champions League football in an exacting group — containing Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk — undoubtedly took its toll on the Fohlenelf. That they progressed from that group was a considerable achievement and a feather in the cap of highly rated coach Marco Rose.
A few weeks ago, I was a bit worried about SC Freiburg, who I consider to be a permanent feel-good story where the Bundesliga is concerned. But over the last five matchdays they have the best record of any side in the league. Three successive wins in a week against direct rivals in the relegation fight has lifted the Breisgau side to 10th. Their coach, Christian Streich, celebrated nine years in the job this week, and frankly there is no-one else you would want in that post. Freiburg being one of Germany’s preeminent university towns, the wise owls know a good thing when they see it.
U.S. Young Male Player of the Year Gio Reyna has been in top form for Dortmund so far in 2020-21.
Bottom side clubs playing with fire
In the lower half, the biggest disappointments have been Hoffenheim, another team perhaps affected by European considerations. They were only team with a new coach going into the new season, and I’m inclined to give them a pass, as the football under Sebastian Hoeness has been eye-catching. After two previous failures on the continental stage, everyone at the Kraichgau club was determined to make amends, and they can feel confident about taking on Norwegian side Molde in the Europa League knockouts in February.
With an easier Hinrunde run in these next few weeks, look for Hoffenheim to climb back up the table. Their 2-1 win at Gladbach last time out in the league could be a portent of better things to come.
Werder Bremen, Hertha Berlin and Koln all have their heads above water for now, but will it stay that way? Of the three, I might be a bit more concerned about Bremen, for whom points have been difficult to come by. Their three wins have been at the expense of the current bottom three and they have Union, Leverkusen and Gladbach all coming up as opponents before the Rueckrunde begins. Points-gathering looks more probable in the short term for Hertha and Koln.
Relegation drama looms
Sixteenth-placed Arminia Bielefeld have managed key wins, both well merited, against Mainz and Schalke 04 in recent weeks. Third bottom and a relegation playoff place would be no mean achievement for a club back in the Bundesliga after an 11-year absence.
Can the two teams beneath Bielefeld in the automatic relegation positions dig themselves out with new supervising personnel? Mainz are going ”back to the future” with longtime general manager Christian Heidel returning as senior board member overseeing Sport, Strategy and Communications. With sporting director Rouven Schroder ousted just before Christmas, in comes former Mainz coach Martin Schmidt. Heidel and Schmidt are targeting the club’s former player and youth coach Bo Svensson, currently coaching Liefering in Austria.
Schalke, meanwhile, are on their fourth coach of the season after David Wagner, Manuel Baum and Huub Stevens. The Gelsenkirchen club have handed the reins to former Tottenham boss Christian Gross, who last worked in the Bundesliga more than a decade ago with VfB Stuttgart in 2009. It has the appearance of a desperate roll of the dice for a team without a league win in almost a year.
Frohes neues Jahr!
On a personal note, thanks for reading my weekly German football columns these past few months and a happy new year to you and your family. ESPN+ viewers and many around the world can join me for live international feed commentary on Hoffenheim-Freiburg (Saturday, 9.30 a.m. ET) and Bayern-Mainz (Sunday, noon ET) this weekend.