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ISSUE #34: The Ultimate Season Review
To wrap up our final issue of the season, The German Football Weekly has invited various experts to detail the 59th Bundesliga season in all its entirety
In less than 48 hours, another Bundesliga season will be in the books.
306 games, 900+ goals, and over 1,050 cards have been brandished in a fascinating 275 days of heart-break, intrigue, and madness that inevitably ended with a 10th successive Meisterschale heading towards Munich.
To wrap up our final issue of the season, The German Football Weekly’s Head Writer Adam Khan has invited Neel Shelat, Lewis Ambrose, and Ronan Murphy to detail the 59th Bundesliga season in all its entirety.
From the player of the season, the biggest moment of the campaign, and the definitive Best XI, all is covered in The Ultimate Season Review.
The Player of the Season was…
Despite potentially missing out on Champions League football if RB Leipzig fails to win this Saturday, I just can’t look past 24-year old Christopher Nkunku as my player of the season. With 35 goal contributions he is almost neck-in-neck with Robert Lewandowski, but what sets the youngster apart is simply how vital he has been for both Jesse Marsch and Domenico Tedesco this season.
The French international has had a direct hand in 49.3% of Leipzig’s Bundesliga goals, and when he fails to get on the scoresheet with a goal or assist, Die Rotten Bullen pick up almost two fewer points per game!
Christopher Nkunku has by far been the most well-rounded attacker in the Bundesliga this season.
Despite drawing blanks in each of his first five matches under Marsch, Nkunku has 20 goals and 15 assists at the time of writing - more goal involvements than anyone bar Robert Lewandowski.
I’m also a big fan of his versatility, both in a positional sense, as he can play anywhere across the front line, and in terms of his role. Nkunku can pose a threat as a creator out wide and between the lines, make runs in behind, score goals, and even drop deep into midfield.
It’s hard to look beyond Christopher Nkunku, who has undoubtedly been the league’s standout player, but how much is that the case because he has been in a fairly disappointing team and has exploded?
Which is to take nothing away from him, but I do feel we’ve just become desensitized to Robert Lewandowski’s brilliance. He’s scored more than a goal a game for the third season running - scoring or assisting in 26 of his 33 appearances - and his movement is yet again the main reason Bayern can’t be caught.
The clear player of the season is Christopher Nkunku. He’s the most important player on any team in the league and without him, RB Leipzig would have had a wasted season.
With him, they will likely dine at the top table in Europe again next season, and can use this promise to convince Nkunku to stay a while longer. Half of Europe is reportedly interested, but RB Leipzig can build a team around him and finally be the side to unsettle Bayern Munich from that top seat at the Bundesliga table.
The Biggest Flop was…
My heart leads me towards Gladbach, but my head nevertheless drags me to the Zweite Bundesliga where in late November Werder Bremen’s head-coach - Markus Anfang - was fired after the Bild Zeitung correctly reported he was operating with a falsified vaccination certificate.
Besides the complete lack of respect for his position as a public role model, Anfang was left even more humiliated when his replacement - Ole Werner - came into the club and almost immediately transformed the fallen giant’s fortunes.
Since arriving in December, Werner has taken Bremen from 10th to 2nd, and they are now within touching distance of automatic promotion whilst Anfang sits at home, banned from football for a year, and forced to pay almost €40,000 in fines.
After their very impressive top-four finish last season I had high hopes for Wolfsburg. Losing Oliver Glasner in the summer was not ideal of course, but their player recruitment in the transfer window was quite exciting, so it was disappointing to see how easily they crumbled this year.
Unfortunately, they did not get it right in terms of head coaches, as both Mark van Bommel and Florian Kohfeldt haven’t got the team operating at a level anywhere close to its full potential.
They have already signed Patrick Wimmer for next season so you can only imagine that the upcoming transfer window will be full of shrewd signings, and hopefully Wolfsburg will be able to get back to challenging for Europe next season.
I had really high hopes for Stuttgart after last season, when they were so much fun to watch. I thought they would build on that early success by becoming outsiders for Europe this year, but second season syndrome has struck.
The injury crisis feels like the main reason for their troubles but that doesn’t mean it has been acceptable. Pellegrino Matarazzo is a great coach, and really affable too, but he hasn’t adapted to the players available to him with a fresh approach and it’s hard to see them staying up.
The Red Bull conveyor belt of talent from Salzburg to Leipzig produces a lot of quality goods, but the latest person to make that transition was found out of his depth once he moved to Germany.
Jesse Marsch fought for the Leipzig job and then found out quickly that he was not cut out for it at all. His style didn’t fit, and he was not able to adapt, yet somehow he landed on his feet with a Premier League job.
Maybe the Bundesliga tax doesn’t apply to managers?
The Biggest Positive Outperformance was…
One could easily put the entire club at 1.FC Köln in this category, but the resurgence of Anthony Modeste is simply unrivaled.
As a 34-year old who failed to score a single goal on loan at Saint-Etienne last season you’d be forgiven for writing him off at that point, but the big French forward simply can’t stop scoring now that he's back in the Bundesliga.
The inspiring influence of Steffen Baumgart, and FC Köln’s renewed focus on a crossing game, have combined to make Modeste one of the most fearsome center forwards in the country again.
With 19 goals in 31 matches Modeste is 5th in the Bundesliga scoring charts, whilst his 8 headed strikes make him the most effective aerial threat in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
SC Freiburg are fifth in the table at the time of writing and two points off Leipzig in fourth, so although their final game of the season will see them face a tough opponent in Bayer Leverkusen, they have an outside shot of qualifying for the premier European competition for the first time in their history.
It is impossible to overstate how big an achievement this would be for a club that dropped to the 2. Bundesliga just a few years ago, and has had a positive net spend in just one of the last five seasons.
There are plenty of candidates here — Freiburg and Köln are great shouts — but I have been so impressed by Union Berlin. Doing it once is something, doing it a second season in a row shows it was no fluke.
And, they’ve had to contend with key players either leaving before the season (Robert Andrich), during the season (Max Kruse), agreeing to leave in the summer (Grischa Prömel), or preparing to leave (Taiwo Awoniyi), yet all the while they just seem to take those hits and continue to perform over and over again.
Urs Fischer and co. simply deliver!
Köln were a fairytale story from a fairytale city with a head coach that could easily be the bad guy in one of the Brothers Grimm’s classics.
Steffen Baumgart is box office, and is better than any of those Hollywood remakes of old classics himself.
He’s coached a team of good but not brilliant players into a side capable of beating anyone on their day, and if they can stick together next season, they could cause a shock to one or two on the continent.
The Bundesliga Team of the Season (with a maximum of 2 players from one club) was…
Some tough decisions leaving the likes of Gregor Kobel, Robert Andrich, Jeremie Frimpong, and Anthony Modeste out of the side, but I’ve had to reward individuals like Trimmel, Skhiri, Riemann, and Grifo who have been star performers at clubs performing far beyond all expectations.
As for the Erling Haaland omission, I simply refuse to go with a player who has started just 20 matches all season, and never looked at his consistent best in 2022.
Manuel Riemann’s shot-stopping ability has been absolutely vital in keeping Bochum up this season. He has saved over 11 goals more than the average keeper based on the PSxG (Post-Shot Expected Goals) model.
The amount of talented left-footed centerbacks in the Bundesliga is quite incredible, so it was really tough to pick Stefan Bell over Moussa Niakhaté or Evan N’Dicka, but I had to do it in order to add some balance in the back line.
Jeremie Frimpong and David Raum have adapted to the league brilliantly after joining in the summer, and Jude Bellingham being just 18 years old continues to baffle me. I really wanted to include at least one of the Leverkusen attackers (Diaby, Schick, or Wirtz) but it is impossible to look past Lewandowski, Haaland and my player of the season, Nkunku.
Dortmund have conceded over 50 Bundesliga goals and Kobel has been at fault for hardly any. I don’t think anyone matches Frimpong or Günter (sorry David Raum) in their roles, while Stefan Bell is the unsung constant in a superb team and Nico Schlotterbeck is an obvious choice.
I’ve gone for a combative midfield behind a front four – Skhiri has his hands full screening the defense for a gung-ho Köln side, while Andrich has been incredible for Leverkusen. Nkunku, Müller and Lewandowski don’t need explaining and I’ve gone for Schick over Haaland because of slightly better availability and consistency.
4-4-2 because I don’t do any other bloody formation. Me and Mike Bassett are one and the same.
Bayern Munich only has one player in my XI, but it’s the one who scored all the goals. Elsewhere, there were plenty of options for almost every position which is a sign of how strong and competitive the Bundesliga has been this season.
The interesting thing compared to previous years is that the vast majority of these players will likely still be in the league next season.
Screw you oil clubs from abroad!
The Best Moment in the Bundesliga was…
The wonderful, eccentric Steffen Baumgart probably could have warranted a personal best moments' category for all his bewildering touchline antics, but by far the most comical one came on gameweek 11.
Following a late equalizer against Union Berlin, Anthony Modeste ran over to his manager, stole his flat-cap, and promptly started dancing with it in front of an increasingly agitated and ferocious Baumgart.
Just pure vibes.
Freiburg’s last match at the Dreisamstadion - a 3:0 win over FC Augsburg - was a really emotional affair, and it’s in times like these that you get to see the beauty of football as a cultural phenomenon.
The reactions and emotions of the players, management, and fans were a rare sight in the modern game, but moments like head-coach Christian Streich climbing into the North Stand and singing with the ultras reminds us that the concept of a community club can still exist in 2022.
The new stadium also added another layer to Freiburg’s Champions League pursuit, because as Streich said, it was ‘Farewell, but also a new start’ in the aptly named Europa-Park.
I’m a sucker for ridiculous moments, particularly those that come in less-glamorous games which you only see because of the Konferenz (the Bundesliga's version of the NFL RedZone), and Bochum-Hoffenheim delivered two such moments back in November.
First Bochum gets a penalty and goalkeeper Manuel Riemann decides to take it. He misses.
And then, in the 96th minute, Miloš Pantović scores the furthest goal of the season after Oliver Baumann goes up for a corner hoping to equalize. These are once-in-a-season type things, and to get them in the same game was just magic.
It’s probably cliched, but there was no better sight in the Bundesliga this season than seeing grounds across Germany filled to capacity. Over the past two years, we’ve been blessed with ghost games and limited-capacity matches, but they just don’t compare to the full matchday experience.
Welcoming back 100% capacity stadiums reminded us why there’s no other league quite like this one we love so much.
The Best Moment outside of the Bundesliga was…
It’s not just hard, it’s impossible, to look past Eintracht Frankfurt’s run to the Europa League final as the greatest moment outside of the Bundesliga this season. A full-scale pitch invasion at the end of the semi-final second-leg shows the magnitude of the accomplishment.
And, with a spectacular fan-base, a sympathetic squad, and an entire nation which has united behind their run, one can only hope that the final set for the 18th of May will provide the next magical moment in Die Adler’s European campaign.
Eintracht Frankfurt’s win over Barcelona in Camp Nou in the Europa League quarter-final was a pretty crazy result on its own, but the atmosphere in the stadium was just incredible.
The traveling Frankfurt fans completely took over Camp Nou, and throughout the 90 minutes it almost always felt like it was a home game for Oliver Glasner’s side.
The players matched the supporters' intensity and blew Barcelona away in the first half, doing enough to hold on to the win despite the Spaniard’s late flurry. 30,000 Frankfurt fans singing in the streets of Barcelona well past midnight is exactly what European away days should be all about.
Is it cheating to pick a title race as a moment?
The 2. Bundesliga scramble for promotion has been my favorite thing outside of the top flight. St. Pauli doing their usual Jekyll and Hyde routine, HSV falling away again, Bremen and Schalke coming strong as the season has gone on, and the minor surprise of Darmstadt being involved with them all as well.
Every single weekend has been thrilling.
Bayern Munich’s shock 5-0 loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach was a priceless moment for this season’s DFB Pokal and German football in general.
It showed that not only was Nagelsmann the second coming, but he could be nailed to the cross with the right tactics. It opened up the cup to new winners and gave us a glimpse of a possible future where other teams win the trophies.
One word to describe this Bundesliga season…
8 clubs brought in a new manager over the summer - including all of last season’s top 6 - so rarely any of the big sides could provide a consistent image across all 34 matchdays.
Thus, an optimistic outlook would entail that the 2021/22 Bundesliga was a season for various clubs to grow into their new identity before we see the very best of them in the coming campaign.
As you might be able to guess after reading my repeated ramblings on Freiburg, I’m a bit of a sucker for tradition.
Tradition has been the theme of the 2021/22 season for me, not just in Freiburg’s campaign, but also in Bayern and Dortmund doing the traditional thing of keeping faint hopes of a title race alive until as late as possible, and the traditional top clubs battling it out in the 2. Bundesliga.
Amidst intense discussions about abolishing the 50+1 rule, I remain hopeful that German football sticks to its traditions which have set the league apart from the other major European competitions.
This has been a weird season, a sort of placeholder for me, waiting for football to really come to life again.
Without full stadiums until April, the Bundesliga was never going to be the same and it was only compounded by how many coaching changes happened during the off-season. I think, and hope, we will look back a year from now and say 2021/22 was just the lead-in to an amazing 2022/23 campaign.
I’m surprisingly hopeful that Bayern’s decade of dominance has come to an end. They seem to be spending less than in the past few years, while others around them look to be making shrewder signings. They also slipped up plenty of times in the league and cup which shows that maybe someone else can be crowned champions in 2023. We can only hope.
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno