The Bundesliga Returns: 8 Storylines to Watch
The 2022/23 Bundesliga season is finally back upon us, a full 68 days since the last kick of the ball. With new fans joining us, and old faces returning, we look at 8 storylines to keep an eye on.
The 2022/23 Bundesliga season is finally back upon us, a full 68 days since the last kick of the ball.
The lengthy intermission has added even more excitement to a tense title race, and a cagey relegation battle, and the fact that all the other major leagues have long since resumed has made one desperate to see football finally return to Germany’s topflight.
So, with new fans joining us, and old faces returning, why not look at 8 storylines to keep an eye on for the remainder of the season.
Contract Crisis across the Bundesliga
Expiring contracts will be one of the biggest off-field storylines to keep an eye on in the remaining 4 months of the season. I wrote an entire article dedicated to this topic before the World Cup, and it is striking to see how little has changed in the intervening 12 weeks.
Borussia Dortmund, for example, will need to weigh up resigning aging club-captain Marco Reus, agreeing, or not agreeing, to Youssoufa Moukoko’s ludicrous wage demands, and considering whether the strong performances of Mats Hummels and Raphaël Guerreiro warrant new extensions.
FC Köln are another club with more questions than answers.
The Billy Goats have gone public regarding their tight financial situation, and it surely won’t help if they end up getting nothing for club captain Jonas Hector, former German international Mark Uth, and stalwart midfielder Ellyes Skhiri.
Perhaps the one silver lining for Köln is that their biggest rivals are facing an almost identical conundrum.
After prolonged talks, Borussia Mönchengladbach finally received an adequate offer to let Yann Sommer leave this winter, but the squad is still filled with personnel that could be out the door for free in July.
Star left-back Ramy Bensebaini, club-captain Lars Stindl, and World Cup finalist Marcus Thuram are all out of contract in the summer, and far away from agreeing to resign with the West-German outfit. Such a mass exodus could spell disaster after both Denis Zakaria and Matthias Ginter left under similar circumstances last season.
Finally, Eintracht Frankfurt’s remarkable rise has been exhilarating to watch, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed as almost every key player is being linked with a massive European club.
Deciding whether to hold on, or cash in on, talents like Jesper Lindstrøm, Randal Kolo-Muani, and Djibril Sow will shape the trajectory of Frankfurt’s future. Still, it is two other out-of-contract stars that are likely posing Sporting CEO Markus Krösche the biggest headache right now.
Evan Ndicka and Daichi Kamada, key protagonists of Frankfurt’s Europa League triumph and Champions League groupstage, will leave the club at the end of the season if Die Adler aren’t able to agree to a contract extension.
Though multiple notable outlets are reporting that Ndicka is nearing an extension, holding on to Kamada seems impossible at the time of writing. The 26-year-old midfielder has attracted intense interest from Borussia Dortmund, and it’s easy to see why given that he is entering his prime age as a footballer, and has already contributed 12 goals and 4 assists in all competitions this season.
On the Rise with German Football’s Underdogs
The tremendous performance of SC Freiburg and Union Berlin has been one of the most fascinating, and heart-warming, storylines of the early season.
Two clubs with minuscule budgets have taken this season by storm, regularly upsetting the elite establishment, and playing a leading role in the race for the Champions League.
SC Freiburg, the more established of the two, is in second place when the league resumes, just 4-points off FC Bayern in first.
Though there are some notable performers - like the serially underrated Vincenzo Grifo or “the signing of the summer” nominee Ritsu Doan - the greatest strength of the Freiburg squad comes from the complete absence of ego and the strong togetherness which is on display every matchday.
With a background structure focused on financial sustainability, and a manager who has mastered the art of long-term development, SC Freiburg’s eye-catching rise in 2022 seems to be the obvious reward for the fantastic work which the club has manifested over the past decade.
Much the same can be said about Freiburg’s East-German counterparts doing their own part in upsetting the establishment.
Despite winning only one of their last 5 league fixtures, Union Berlin are still within 6-points of the top of the table and proving themselves as one of the most likable underdogs in all of Europe.
Since their topflight debut in 2019, Union has constantly been written off as a relegation candidate, but Urs Fischer’s side continues to defy the odds with a combative and disciplined match plan unlike anything else the German topflight has to offer.
It’s not the scintillating positional play of FC Bayern or the masterful attack of Eintracht Frankfurt, but Union’s structured defensive approach has been a valuable addition to the Bundesliga, and one which no club has found an answer to.
Under the Radar with Marco Rose’s RB Leipzig
Marco Rose is not the most universally loved manager in the Bundesliga, but his early record at RB Leipzig has proven once again why many consider him to be the greatest managerial product to come out of the Red Bull school of thought.
In less than three months, Rose transformed the fortunes of the East German outfit, returning the club to its more traditional roots of fast-transition football to ensure that their season got back on track.
The simplicity has gotten the best out of Chelsea-bound Christopher Nkunku, returned Timo Werner to a state of prominence, and even seen Dominik Szoboszlai spark into life after what was a stop-start first season in Germany.
Not only are individual performances reflecting the positive influence of Rose’s dynamic match plan, but the results on the pitch have Leipzig posing a growing threat to FC Bayern.
Since the first of October, Leipzig have not lost a match in all competitions, a record which reads 11 wins, 2 draws, and 0 losses.
At home, Die Rotten Bullen are even more imperious. They have won 9 of 9 matches under Rose, a slate of fixtures that included wins over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund.
While it’s too early to call it a title decider, there probably isn’t a more significant fixture to kick off the Bundesliga restart than Friday’s opener between RB Leipzig and FC Bayern.
Bayern will undoubtedly be the favorite - having not lost once in their last 10 encounters with RB - but the added bonus of playing at home will boost the morale amongst the Leipzig squad and give them the confidence to bring the gap to the top of the table down to just 3 points.
A Rejuvenated BVB, or more of the same?
For many German football fans, this season felt like one tailor-made for Borussia Dortmund to wrestle back the ascendancy in the Bundesliga.
FC Bayern would be without their Polish goal-scoring machine, and the squad looked far from their consistent best in Julian Nagelsmann’s first season in Munich.
Yet, now that we are just shy of the halfway mark of this campaign, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Dortmund fan whose expectations have been met. Compared to the first 15 matches of last season, Die Schwarz-Gelben have scored 11 fewer goals and taken 6 fewer points.
Although the defense has slightly improved around an in-form Mats Hummels, almost every other aspect of Dortmund’s game seems to have regressed from Marco Rose’s equally underwhelming 11-month tenure.
Edin Terzić - so revered in his first interim management spell a year and a half ago - has hit an early cross-road after taking full control in the summer.
Dortmund’s attacking game lacks a clinical edge, the midfield is physically outmatched, and almost all of the new signings have failed to live up to expectations.
Though Sébastian Haller has proven in his limited pre-season minutes that he is capable of raising the threat level in Dortmund’s attack, he alone won’t be able to rescue Terzić from sinking ever further into the hot seat.
Many had hoped the 40-year-old could establish a Klopp-like legacy in Dortmund, but at the current trajectory, he may not even outlast Marco Rose’s 324 days in charge.
Ole Werner on the Precipice
While we are on the topic of a potential managerial vacancy in Dortmund…
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to resist mentioning Ole Werner.
Though just 34 years old, the Preetz-born coach already has an eye-catching CV that could see him earn a massive move in the near future.
In 2020, while managing Holstein Kiel, Werner knocked FC Bayern out of the Pokal, and narrowly missed out on promotion to the Bundesliga after losing a two-legged playoff against FC Köln.
Less than a year later, Werner was back in the headlines.
He joined Werder Bremen in November 2021 after the historic North-German outfit underwent a disastrous start to their first second-tier season for more than 40 years.
Knocked out of the Pokal in the first round, and 6 points off the relegation zone after 15 matchdays, a campaign that should have ended in certain promotion was now spiraling out of control.
Though Werner arrived with the fear of back-to-back relegations looming, the young manager immediately eased the tension with a 10-match unbeaten streak that saw Bremen climb the table.
With an almost unchanged squad, he completely turned Bremen’s fortunes around, ending the season in the automatic promotion zone after suffering just two defeats in his 19 matches in charge.
By the time Bremen secured their return to the Bundesliga, all of Germany was enamored by the brilliant tactician leading the reigns of one of the nation’s most historic outfits.
Today, this sparkling reputation remains intact with Werner enjoying a fantastic start to life in the topflight.
At the time of writing, Bremen are 9th in the table, 1 point closer to the Champions League places than the relegation zone. Playing attractive, attacking football with a squad of outcasts that refuse to be beaten, Werner has re-instilled a sense of identity into a Bundesliga giant that - for the longest time - looked to be losing control.
Whether it be the fabulous rise of Niclas Füllkrug or the unpredictable return to form of Mitchell Weiser, there are countless reasons to watch this Werder Bremen side in the new year and continue to marvel at the fabulous work being done by the man leading it all.
Schalke doing a Schalke
It felt like a monumental weight was lifted from one of the most passionate fan bases in all of Europe when Schalke confirmed their Bundesliga return last May.
After a rotten 2-years with one of the most startling losses of form, Schalke entered this season’s Bundesliga with a clean slate, prepared to rebuild their legacy piece by piece.
With this optimism, Die Königsblauen traveled en masse to the first matchday of the season - a frustrating 3:1 defeat that has become a symbol for much of this campaign.
Though this squad is far from the hopeless, mercenary eleven which took to the pitch for much of Schalke’s last topflight campaign, the results point emphatically toward a return to the second tier.
Schalke have won only twice in the Bundesliga, and of their last 10 competitive matches in all competitions, Die Königsblauen have been on the losing end on 9 occasions.
Even the lengthy training camp during the World Cup break couldn’t return any sense of optimism to the Veltins-Arena.
Schalke lost two players to season-ending knee injuries, key summer-signing Florent Mollet returned to FC Nantes after a frustrating half-season in Germany, and Die Königsblauen failed to win a single one of their 6 friendly fixtures.
Manager Thomas Reis - formerly of VfL Bochum - re-ignited some of the spirit when he arrived in late October, but it feels like a miracle is needed to ignite a turnaround in the remaining weeks.
Schalke has a squad riddled with injuries, an attack lacking speed and dynamism, and an inability to find a formation that suits their excess of central midfielders.
Though it’s foolish to count them out with more than half of the season remaining, Reis will truly need to work a wonder if he is not to take this side straight back down to the Zweite Bundesliga.
The Confusing Case of TSG Hoffenheim
TSG Hoffenheim are probably the most confusing side in the German topflight.
With a skilled squad and the potential to play some of the most exciting football in the division, Hoffenheim have the ability to compete at the very peak of the table, but instead, Breitenreiter’s side entered the winter break a head-scratching 4 points off the relegation zone.
As is so often the case with the club owned by German software billionaire Dietmar Hopp, the mentality has been thrown into question.
When things are running smoothly, Hoffenheim are capable of challenging the very best, but too easily, Die Kraichgauer get thrown off their track and experience a collective slump of form that tears through the squad.
The results this season are a great reflection of this.
Hoffenheim won 4 of their first 6 Bundesliga matches but then went into the winter break looking like an unrecognisable outfit that only produced one win in their final 9 league matches.
While a squad that features numerous internationals and countless rising stars should be able to ease their way out of the relegation battle, there is no guarantee that Hoffenheim can find the mentality switch to force a return to form at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.
Mathys Tel Time
As German football desperately waits for the Bundesliga to return, transfer rumors and tabloid gossip has overtaken the headlines.
And, in what is - even by German standards - a historically long winter break, no story has been bigger than FC Bayern’s desperate search for a goalkeeper.
Following Manuel Neuer’s season-ending leg break on a skiing vacation, FC Bayern had weeks to find an adequate replacement who could field the goal for the remainder of the season.
Countless names were mentioned before finally, yesterday evening, Yann Sommer was unveiled.
The 34-year-old Swiss shot-stopper has all the qualities to play an integral role in Bayern’s pursuit of European glory, but it's nevertheless further up the field where my attention will be drawn for the remainder of the season.
With every passing minute, 17-year-old Mathys Tel looks more and more ready to lead the line for Der Rekordmeister.
While still extremely raw in his movements, and selfish in the final third, the French youth international has an insatiable appetite for goal that has already been reflected in limited game time this season.
In just 347 minutes in all competitions, Tel has scored 4 goals, an average that comes out to more than a goal every game!
As one of the few Bayern pros not on international duty the youngster was able to make use of extra time on the training pitch, both perfecting his craft and digesting the demands of Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical blueprint. In Bayern’s one and only friendly against RB Salzburg, Tel brought this development to the pitch, contributing a goal and assist in less than 30 minutes on the pitch.
With Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting a doubt due to illness, and Nagelsmann wary of playing without a central focal point, tonight’s fixture versus Leipzig could be a massive opportunity for Tel to slip into a starting role, and retain this position for the foreseeable future.