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The Storylines to Watch in the 2023/24 Bundesliga
For each Bundesliga club, we have chosen one unique storyline to look out for next season.
Rather than post a traditional Bundesliga preview, I have opted for a more unconventional newsletter to kick off the new campaign in the top flight.
For each Bundesliga club, I have chosen one storyline to look out for next season. From a leadership conundrum to a Norwegian forward ready for a resurgent campaign, each club’s storyline is unique to their needs and situation. Enjoy… and let the 61st Bundesliga season roll on!
With the signing of Harry Kane, FC Bayern have finally resolved the Lewandowski-sized hole at center-forward. However, there is arguably a far more alarming need in midfield that remains unaddressed.
Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Konrad Laimer, and Ryan Gravenberch all profile as attack-minded box-to-box midfielders. A true defensive anchor has alluded the Bavarians since Arturo Vidal’s departure in 2019, and while they may be able to win the Bundesliga on footballing quality alone, in the latter stages of the Champions League, the lack of defensive structure will severely hamper their chances of winning another European title.
Whether through an external signing or through the emergence of an internal solution, how Bayern addresses this position will be one of the most interesting storylines to follow in Munich next season.
Jude Bellingham has departed for Real Madrid, Marco Reus has rescinded the armband in anticipation of moving into a more secondary role, and Mats Hummels is already a peripheral figure since last season. It is clear that new leaders will need to emerge at Borussia Dortmund next season. That leaves uncertainty but also opens a huge opportunity at a club that has routinely lacked strong characters on and off the pitch over the past decade.
Emre Can has inherited the armband following a colossal showing in the post-World Cup portion of last season, but equally important will be the trajectory of Niklas Süle and Nico Schlotterbeck. Both players will undoubtedly be tasked with more on-field leadership next season, with the former needing to overcome his propensity for individual lapses, and the latter requiring a more vocal presence.
How Dortmund responds to this challenge could either see them slip even further away from winning the Meisterschale, or it could be the necessary spark to allow this club to finally flourish with a new generation of playing personnel.
With such monumental change taking place within the squad, there are countless storylines to follow as RB Leipzig looks to reinvent their playing personnel for the umpteenth time. However, the one I’d like to zone in on is Fábio Carvahlo.
The 20-year-old arrives on a 1-year loan from FC Liverpool, hoping to advance his career before returning to Jürgen Klopp’s side with an established basis in topflight football. It’s not the first time that RB Leipzig have signed a player from a Premier League outfit, but if the club’s prior track record is anything to go by, this transfer comes with substantial risk.
Oliver Burke, Ethan Ampadu, Ademola Lookman, and Emile Smith-Rowe all joined RB Leipzig as impressive talents in English football, but each of them ultimately struggled to adapt to the dynamics of the Red Bull system and life in the Bundesliga. While Ligue 1 and the Salzbug pipeline remain a lucrative model for Leipzig to tap into, English football has historically proven to be an area where other Bundesliga clubs have found far more success.
Union Berlin are looking to follow up a historic campaign in which they smashed everyone’s expectations. Qualifying for the Champions League will bring an additional level of scrutiny to the work that Urs Fischer is doing, and it will potentially highlight one of the few shortcomings within the current Union model.
In what is a league historically renowned for its talent development, Union Berlin have completely neglected youth development in order to achieve maximum success. Die Eiserne held the oldest average age in last season’s topflight (28.3 yrs), and were the only Bundesliga outfit to not give any game time to a player under the age of 21 (below).
This phenomenon is set to change next season though, as the summer transfer window has targeted players within this previously unexploited age bracket. Mikkel Kaufmann (22 yrs), Brenden Aaronson (22 yrs), Benedict Hollerbach (22 yrs), and David Datro Fofana (20 yrs) all arrive at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei with the expectation to immediately challenge for a spot in the first eleven. Whether Urs Fischer can facilitate this changing dynamic without forfeiting Union’s mature style of play and consistent levels of performance will be interesting to watch across all competitions next season!
A club-record 59 points and a return to European football next season highlights what was all around a wildly successful campaign for Christian Streich’s SC Freiburg.
Yet, it wasn’t only the senior side who achieved unprecedented success, but also the U23s tore down barriers with an astounding campaign in the 3. Liga. 73 points and a second-place finish was a performance few had foreseen for a club tipped to fight for survival. Some of the protagonists have been sold for a healthy profit, others have been loaned out to continue their development, while still others remain at the club in order to make their first steps into the first team next season.
Goalkeeper Noah Atubolu (20 yrs), centerback Max Rosenfelder (20 yrs), midfielder Merlin Röhl (21 yrs), centerback Kenneth Schmidt (21 yrs), and left-back Jordy Makengo (22 yrs) were integral members of the 3. Liga squad last season, and all have featured extensively throughout the first team pre-season. Christian Streich has never been opposed to giving young, academy, talent an opportunity in the past, so SC Freiburg could truly be one of the most exciting destinations in Europe to watch the next generation this season.
Bayer Leverkusen have always been known for their excellent eye for young talent in Europe & South America, but Die Werkself have shifted their focus in this summer window to engineer a squad ready to compete for titles.
Whereas previously Leverkusen almost exclusively signed young prospects without extensive international experience, this summer they have changed their approach to focus more on established stars that will enter the peak of their career at the Bay Arena. Jonas Hofmann (31 yrs), Granit Xhaka (30 yrs), and Alejandro Grimaldo (27 yrs) won’t offer extensive resale value, but they are the perfect example of players at their peak who can immediately deliver veteran quality in Alonso’s squad.
Could these statement signings finally turn an ultra-talented, albeit wildly inconsistent side into a true title contender? Only time will tell if Leverkusen can end an over 30-year wait for a title!
Former Julian Nagelsmann assistant Dino Toppmöller replaces Oliver Glasner in the Frankfurt dugout, overseeing one of the biggest summer transitions in the German toplight. 5 of the 11 players who started the 2022 Europa League final have now moved on, with a critical defensive factor in Evan Ndicka, a midfield engine in Djibril Sow, and an essential attacking star in Daichi Kamada all leaving Eintracht this summer for opportunities abroad.
Die Adler have proactively looked to address these departures on the transfer market, but such colossal turnover also provides an opportunity for out-of-favor stars still at the club. One such could be 23-year-old Norwegian winger Jens-Petter Hauge.
After arriving from AC Milan in 2021, Hauge initially struggled for game time in Frankfurt before completely falling flat after a disastrous loan spell at KAA Gent in Belgium. Denounced for his lack of professionalism and inconsistent performances, Hauge was practically written off ahead of this summer’s pre-season as a costly mistake Frankfurt would need to get off their books.
Yet, the Bodø-born winger has found a new gear as one of the few winners in a pretty desolate Frankfurt pre-season. After losing 8 kg over the summer, Hauge has looked sharp and fit, scoring 4 goals in the various friendly tests, assisting 4 goals in 25 minutes in the DFB-Pokal, and generally adapting well to the demands of Toppmöller’s brand of football. With Daichi Kamada’s departure there is a position available in Frankfurt’s attack, and Jens-Petter Hauge could be the perfect internal solution nobody had on the cards 6 weeks ago.
VfL Wolfsburg are a side who quietly went under the radar in the bygone Bundesliga season. In the end, a mere point was missing for European qualification; a testament to what was a very impressive defensive performance. Only SC Freiburg’s Mark Flekken kept more clean sheets than Wolfsburg’s Koen Casteels last season (12), and if one takes out the freak 6:0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in May, Wolfsburg averaged 1.27 goals against per game - the 4th best record in the division.
What was missing then for a more impressive finish was a cutting edge in the final third. No player scored more than 6 goals last season, a reoccurring problem at the Volkswagen Arena since Die Wölfen lost Wout Weghorst in January 2021. Without a true goalscoring focal point, Wolfsburg have struggled to turn tight fixtures in their favor.
Whether it is Lukas Nmecha staying fully fit and developing into a consistent finisher, or the entire attack collectively adding 10-15 goals more, Wolfsburg’s effectiveness in front of goal will ultimately determine if they will return to European football, or slot into a mid-table finish again this year.
Entering their 15th consecutive top-flight campaign, Mainz 05 are slowly establishing themselves as a mainstay in the Bundesliga. With a productive academy, an intelligent scouting system, and a history of innovative management, Mainz are one of the best examples in modern football for how to create long-term sustainable success without significant external investment.
They did not only prove it via the first-team squad’s top-half finish, but also at the youth level, winning the U19 Bundesliga. Tricky winger Brajan Gruda, and hard-nosed defender Philipp Schulz have both made the step up into the first team, but it is clear that their teammate, Nelson Weiper, is the main attraction from the young starlets at Mainz 05.
In 91 minutes of senior Bundesliga action, Weiper managed two goals last season, and a surprise call-up to Germany’s U21 Euro roster made him the 4th youngest player in the entire competition.
With Jonathan Burkardt sidelined until mid-October, and no other Mainz forward proving irreplaceable, there may be an opportunity for Nelson Weiper to establish himself in Bo Svensson’s first eleven and potentially even make an outside bid for a chance at the upcoming European Championships on home soil!
There is probably no Bundesliga club that has experienced more turnover than Borussia M’gladbach this summer. The top 4 goalscorers from last season have all departed for new challenges, taking 39 of the club’s 55 goals in the 22/23 Bundesliga with them. It’s a star-studded list that includes German international Jonas Hoffmann, World Cup finalist Marcus Thuram, BVB-bound Ramy Bensebaïni, and club captain Lars Stindl.
With so much personnel change it is easy to glance over what has happened on the touchline, but that is arguably the most eye-catching development at the BORUSSIA-PARK. Gerardo Seoane returns to the Bundesliga less than 12 months after being relieved of his duties at Gladbach’s local rivals, Bayer Leverkusen.
It is easy to look at how it ended for Seoane - elimination in the first round of the DFB Pokal, and only 5 points after 8 Bundesliga matchdays - and make a judgment about the Swiss manager, but that fails to take into account an extremely impressive debut campaign where Leverkusen comfortably qualified for the Champions League with the most goals Die Werkself have ever scored in a topflight campaign (80).
With mass overhaul in attacking positions, Seoane's decisive attacking match plan may be precisely what Gladbach need to generate a collective approach to compensating for the marquee departures. If Seoane has taken the learnings from his Leverkusen downfall and addressed the defensive problematic which plagued his entire reign, then this could still be a very exciting campaign for Die Fohlen.
We mentioned a leadership conundrum at Borussia Dortmund earlier in the newsletter, but this same issue applies to FC Köln to an even greater extent. After 11 years of service Jonas Hector has retired from football, after 12 years of service Timo Horn has departed as a free agent, and even star midfielder, Ellyes Skhiri, has opted against extending his contract for the opportunity to join league rivals Eintracht Frankfurt.
Key footballing personalities and locker room leaders have departed the Dom-Stadt in a significant moment of change, leaving a younger, less experienced, squad in its place. Veteran campaigners like Benno Schmitz, Florian Kainz, and Marvin Schwäbe will likely need to take up an even bigger presence now, but also 21-year-old Eric Martel will be required to take up an even bigger role as the only true anchoring presence in Köln’s midfield. Last season he quietly impressed alongside Ellyes Skhiri, and now in the greater spotlight, he must maintain an even higher standard of consistency if Köln are to make it through a difficult campaign.
If Martel can shoulder these demands there is no reason why he shouldn’t be in outside contention for one of Germany’s European Championship spots.
Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for TSG Hoffenheim last season. Die Breisgauer went on a historic 14-game winless streak between October and March, lost key summer signing Grischa Prömel to a 5-month injury layoff, and spent almost the entire campaign dragging themselves through a relegation battle. With their ultimate finish of 13th being the worst result since 2016 there were few positives to take for Die Kraichgauer.
Nevertheless, the emergence of two extremely talented teenagers was perhaps one of the few bright spots. 18-year-old Tom Bischof and 19-year-old Umut Tohumcu both made their Bundesliga breakthrough last season, featuring for a combined 575 minutes in the 23/24 topflight. Not only is it promising to see two young prospects breaking through at the topflight level, but more importantly, both are products of the Hoffenheim academy which has struggled to produce in recent seasons.
Foreign talents like Joelinton, Georginio Rutter, and Christoph Baumgartner have all made their breakthrough at Hoffenheim, but the last talent from the academy who could truly establish themselves in the first team was Dennis Geiger - now 25 years old.
Tom Bischof, Umut Tohumcu, and loan returnees Maximilian Beier and Marco John could all finally change this dynamic by delivering a refreshing homegrown impulse in the first-team squad.
A 13th-place finish, and a season in which not a single day was spent in the relegation zone, is a more than respectable return for Werder Bremen’s first season back in the topflight. However, it is not all positive at the WESER-STADION with the club’s exceptional hinrunde canceled out by a turbulent rückrunde. A solitary win in the last 12 matches of the campaign meant that there were only 3 points separating Bremen from the relegation zone when the league finally came to a close in May.
A new season provides a fresh start for a squad spiraling out of form last Spring, but 4 winless friendly fixtures, and an embarrassing first-round cup exit, mean Bremen have seemingly failed to bury their performance crisis from last campaign.
With FC Bayern on the opening day, followed by two difficult matches against SC Freiburg and Mainz 05, Bremen coach Ole Werner could be one of the first managers set for the exit door in the new Bundesliga season.
There is no doubt that VfL Bochum will be one of the prime candidates for relegation again this season. Bochum’s set-piece threat, combative playstyle, and aerial dominance were enough for survival last season, but the defensive deficiencies remain extremely worrisome.
Bochum are the first club since FC Augsburg in 2019 to not finish in a relegation spot after conceding 70+ goals in a Bundesliga season. More alarming: their fragility at the back looks to be far from resolved after a pretty uninspiring off-season.
January loanee Keven Schlotterbeck and VfL Bochum failed to agree on a permanent transfer, and the West German outfit have publicly admitted that they remain on the search for another starting centerback with hours to go until the start of the season.
Bochum will not go down without a fight this season, but to hope that they can make it over the finish line by conceding, on average, over 2 goals per game again is quite fanciful.
Since entering the Bundesliga for the first time in 2010 FC Augsburg have almost unanimously been regarded as one of the least charming clubs for a neutral spectator to be drawn to. Die Függerstädter do not have an impressive fanbase, often deliver some of the most laborious football in the top flight, and have historically failed to produce young talent over an extended period.
However, these unglamorous aspects are beginning to change following the new ownership campaign headed by American investor David S. Blitzer. FC Augsburg enter the 2023/24 campaign with the youngest squad in the club’s topflight history, and despite some notable struggles last season, Die Függerstädter have held true to 39-year-old Enrico Maaßen in the dugout.
Adding young talent with footballing ability will make FC Augsburg an enticing watch next season, but at the same time, losing a core of experience - Rafał Gikiewicz (35 yrs), Julian Baumgartlinger (35 yrs), Daniel Caliguiri (35 yrs), Tobias Strobl (33 yrs), and Andé Hahn (33 yrs) - means Augsburg could struggle if thrown into an inevitable relegation battle.
After two seasons of narrow escapes, VfB Stuttgart have finally taken a more proactive stance in the summer transfer window to ensure a less volatile 4th year in the Bundesliga. Both experienced and talented topflight personnel have been signed in order to bolster, rather than replace, a squad that has maintained its most important components from last season.
Alexander Nübel will hopefully strengthen a defense that kept only two clean sheets in the entirety of last season, while top-scorer Serhou Guirassy was signed on a permanent deal after impressing in crucial moments last season.
It is neither the goal-getter nor the goalkeeper, who have me particularly excited for the upcoming Stuttgart season, however. Instead, the arrival of Woo-yeong Jeong could end up being one of the most influential signings that few had on their radar ahead of the campaign.
The Korean international showed glimpses of supreme quality for Christian Streich’s Freiburg, and more importantly, at Stuttgart, he will be reunited with manager Sebastian Hoeneß under whom he enjoyed a meteoric rise at FC Bayern’s U19 and U23 outfit.
Only one of Jeong’s 4 seasons at SC Freiburg ended with over 1000 minutes in the Bundesliga, so it will be interesting to see how he fares in a more established role within the Stuttgart squad.
Though defeat on the final matchday saw Darmstadt surrender the 2. Bundesliga title to FC Heidenheim, there is no debate that Die Lilien were the most consistent outfit in the 2022/23 second tier.
From matchday 10 onwards Darmstadt never dropped out of a direct promotion spot, and between mid-July and the beginning of March, Torsten Lieberknecht’s side went on a historic 21-game unbeaten streak.
Nevertheless, regardless of how impressive they were last season, there is nobody at the club who hasn’t registered just how difficult the task of remaining in the Bundesliga will be without an established goalscorer.
Selling last season’s top scorer Phillip Tietz in the summer window was self-destructive behavior, leaving Braydon Manu as the only player in the current squad who managed 5 goals for Darmstadt last season (7 goals). There is a stronger onus than ever on Lieberknecht’s strong defensive blueprint to carry an underwhelming attack throughout the upcoming campaign.
1. FC Heidenheim
One would be forgiven for never having heard of FC Heidenheim ahead of this season. Hailing from a mid-sized village with a population of less than 50,000, the club’s rise to the pinnacle of German football is truly inconceivable. Less than 15 years ago the South-German outfit had never played higher than the regional 4th tier, and in one day’s time, they travel to Wolfsburg for a Bundesliga fixture.
A lot has changed to turn a small village club into one of the top 18 sides in the country, but there is one thing that has remained constant throughout the entire meteoric rise. The manager, Frank Schmidt, has been in the hot seat for over 15 years at Heidenheim. To no surprise, it is a feat unmatched by any other head coach in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Rather than focus on a player on the rise, or where the key to topflight survival will be, for Heidenheim the biggest storyline to follow will simply be watching this tiny club enjoy an unimaginable topflight campaign. Heidenheim, on the basis of population, are the 227th largest city in Germany, yet, they are amongst the 18 biggest football clubs in the country without any outlandish investor or major sponsor.
If that isn’t the beauty of German football, then what is?!