With the Winterpause nearing completion and the Rückrunde beginning in a flurry when Bayer Leverkusen host Bayern Munich on Friday, one of the most entertaining Bundesliga campaigns on record is set to continue. It is unfortunate that, as per usual, the Bavarian juggernaut sits atop the table and looking odds-on favorite again to continue their dominance, but it has hardly been cut and dry below them.
The gap between high-flying Schalke 04 (2nd) and promoted Hannover 96 (11th) is a mere seven points, while the European places are separated by just four. Everything is up for grabs in the second half of the campaign.
From Carlo Ancelotti and Peter Bosz now on the unemployment line, FC Köln forgetting how to play football, and the continued saga of when Hamburg SV will finally fail its now famous escape act, there is never a lack of talking points in what is, for me, the best league in Europe. Here is our Hinrunde review and my predictions for the remainder of the 2017/18 Bundesliga season.
My Hinrunde Talking Points
Who will be the genuine successor to Pep Guardiola at Bayern? Make no mistake about the fact that Carlo Ancelotti was not viewed as the long-term option to kick on in the wake of Guardiola’s tenure in Bavaria. What was unexpected, however, was that he completed only a shade over one season with the club.
Ambitions to win another Champions League trophy were at the root of his appointment to the position, with the former Italian international having won three in his managerial career, most recently with Real Madrid. But despite his longevity on the touchline at the San Siro (8 seasons), Don Carlo never spent more than two at any of the other charges on his CV. For the short-term goals laid out, Carlo made sense for Bayern, at least on paper. In practice however, it was a very different scenario.
At the very core, Guardiola and Ancelotti are two different headmasters with two very different approaches to management. Pep is hyper-active and very hands on, demanding incredibly high levels on the training pitch and during matches, but also champions the importance of building bonds between players both on an individual level and in a team setting. In contrast, Carlo was reportedly far less personal with his players while also allowing training levels to diminish, even sometimes cancelling sessions without just cause. The players didn’t take to him, but most importantly, he didn’t truly take to the club like Pep did.
Part of being involved with Bayern is buying into the clubs’ ethos, the importance of the collective – despite the high-profile nature of most of their players – and the importance of truly understanding the culture. To his credit, Guardiola not only fully bought into this, but he also took that core and strengthened it for the better, to the point where Bayern players still discuss their admiration of him. This is where Ancelotti genuinely failed (let’s not even mention the stale tactics and other residual issues on the pitch), and it’s where Bayern’s true target for succession must not.
It will be the most high-profile managerial vacancy when current place-holder – and Bundesliga legend – Jupp Heynckes’ caretaker role is up. For the sake of Bayern’s future, it is a decision that Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge must get spot on. The influential pair have in the past been open admirers of the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, and Julian Nagelsmann. It’s clear that their ideal candidate will be a German, narrowing down the field of qualified candidates. But what should be considered more important is if that manager is both adaptable and innovative; a more modern manager in terms of training, tactics, analytics, and how well they can man-manage high profile players while meeting the expectations of both the board and the fan-base.
It is not an easy decision to make, and the wrong decision could turn German football on its head if they fail to make the right choice moving forward.
Can Schalke and Domenico Tedesco maintain flight for the remainder of the season? Sometimes it just makes sense to follow-up a risk with another risk; at least that’s the rationale that Schalke are currently finding success with. After a season under the once highly-touted Markus Weinzierl saw Die Königsblauen fail to progress up the Bundesliga ladder and finish a disappointing tenth.
A blue-collar manager wasn’t enough for a blue-collar city looking for their own transformation. Schalke’s first-team – and youth set-up – just had too much silk for the Weinzierl approach. Enter Domenico Tedesco.
The proud holder of a Fußball-Lehrer degree from the vaunted Hennes-Weisweiler-Akademie (ironically, Weinzierl is also a recipient), the Italian-born German only managed eleven senior matches in the 2. Bundesliga with FC Erzgebirge Aue – where, to his credit, he saved their season – before signing a two-year deal with Schalke this past summer. Before Aue, Tedesco spent four years on the touchline with Stuttgart’s U17s and Hoffenheim’s U19s. A strong recent background of managing young players benefited him when being considered by Schalke CEO Christian Heidel.
Widely regarded as having one of the best youth-set ups in Europe and arguably the best in Germany, the way forward for Die Knappen must rely on its talented young crop of talent both now and regarding those that will continue to come through the ranks. Tedesco is far from bashful at giving youth a chance, highlighted by the likes of Amine Harit (20), Thilo Kehrer (21), and Weston McKennie (19) all seeing regular, high-valued first-team minutes. Combined with Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer (both 22) remaining key personnel for the first-team – though you could argue that Meyer hasn’t progressed as hoped – Tedesco has won over the players and fans with both his tactical approach on the pitch, and his embracing of the long-term project of the club.
Schalke’s squad now has a much better balance than they did during the Weinzierl administration, and no European football of any kind this season means the club can focus solely on its domestic standing. Sitting second at the halfway point, and only tasting defeat in the league three times (while still marching on in the German Cup), there’s no indication that Schalke will put the breaks on.
Going into their key away-day fixture at RB Leipzig in their opening match of the Rückrunde, such is the close nature of the clubs vying for European nights next season that defeat to Timo Werner and company could see them fall to at least sixth if results don’t go their way. Despite being thrown into the dog-fight immediately after the winter break, Schalke genuinely look a better side than previous seasons. For me, they’ll be enjoying mid-week European fixtures on the schedule next term.
What is the next step for Christian Pulisic? Much like Landon Donovan before him, the American wunderkind now has the hopes of an entire nation resting on his young yet ever-progressing shoulders. Unlike Donovan though, Pulisic not only has hacked it in the Bundesliga (Donovan failed to make any considerable impact at both Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen), but he has progressed into a vital piece of the attacking puzzle at one of the best clubs in Germany. It’s because of this that the expectations surrounding Pulisic are far beyond those that should have been placed on Donovan to begin with.
If handled correctly, the Pennsylvania-native has a real chance at actual global recognition for both club and country. The question surrounding the youngster, however, is if a prolonged stay with Dortmund is a better choice than trying his hand in the Premier League or any other top European league for that matter.
In the past, the US international of Croatian descent has been public in his desire to stay at the Westfalenstadion, but as his reputation in the Bundesliga and for the USMNT grows, more and more wandering eyes have trained themselves on the attacking prodigy.
Jurgen Klopp has not kept it a secret of his admiration of the youngster, or his desire to bring him to Anfield, but now other big clubs such as Manchester United have begun to circle. It’s unfortunately that he will not be on display at Russia 2018 this summer, as an impressive tournament could have seen his stock rise exponentially, but beyond his appeal as a player, being the current gatekeeper of the American sports market adds even greater value.
With the popularity of football increasing year on year in the United States, with the Premier League unquestionably being the most widely watched and supported league in the States, a move to an English giant would unlock a marketing treasure trove for the club in question. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal all already have massive followings across the Atlantic, making Pulisic the ideal catalyst to further exploit an already massive money vault. But in terms of football, the boy from Hershey is no Freddie Adu, and he has more natural ability than Donovan.
Like all talented young players, tempering expectations, hype, and managing the pressure placed upon him is key to his development. Still just 19-years-old, he has nothing but the future ahead of him, and there is no need to rush a move to a bigger club than Dortmund.
The same holds true of the American fan-base. Pulisic is not the only bright young American player showing promise for the future. Schalke’s Weston McKennie and Haji Wright, Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent, and a handful of others plus young players who have shone in the MLS this past season are all tipped to lead the United States forward in the coming years. Pulisic will undoubtedly be the standard bearer however, and if he’s to carry the flag and lead from the front, his development as player must not be hampered.
For me, a couple more years in North Rhein-Westphalia will do him wonders before he likely tackles English football, though prominent American journalist Grant Wahl pegs him for a move to the red half of Merseyside in the summer. Do not rule out Bayern sniffing around him when the time is right if such a move doesn’t materialize.
Should Leon Goretzka remain in Gelsenkirchen? It is undeniable that Schalke and Germany midfielder Leon Goretzka is one of the hottest properties in the Bundesliga, right up there with Timo Werner, Joshua Kimmich, and Julian Brandt. Together, the four of them make up a small cadre of players who, if all goes according to plan, will be a large part of the lifeblood of the national team for the next decade. But much of their hopeful international success will come down to their development at club level.
Interest in the midfield dynamo has reached near hysteria, with no less than Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Liverpool, and Arsenal all rumored with heavy interest. Clemens Tonnies, chairman of the Schalke supervisory board, has been quoted by Welt am Sonntag calling for the Bochum native to decide his future in the immediate future.
“We’ve done everything to ensure he stays. In January, he wants to say what he’s doing. Schalke have accepted the financial conditions of Leon and his management. He was also important for the sporting development of the team last summer and, after the first half of the season, we’re in second place and in the quarter-finals of the DFB-Pokal. Leon can and must decide now.”
Tonnies has made it abundantly clear that Schalke consider Goretzka of vital importance to any additional success they’re targeting on the pitch both this season and in the coming seasons. But the underlying tone of the quotes suggests he understands it’s going to be difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to keep hold of the burgeoning talent.
It is a major decision for Goretzka, who has Europe’s elite rubbing their hands at the prospect of prying him away from the Ruhr valley. The truth of the matter is that his decision doesn’t just have implications for his career on a personal level, but for Germany as well. While the richest of the Premier League will always be attractive, and the potential of perhaps working for a German manager in Klopp at Liverpool, or such a heralded icon like Arsene Wenger, Goretzka must factor in not only his eventual value to a club, but if the set-up and football being played at his next destination is suitable for him to continue his development.
In this case, depending on who Bayern earmark as their long-term managerial option, it makes Bayern likely the most attractive option. The appeal of the Bavarian giants is difficult to pass up, especially for German players. It is often said that there are players who play for Bayern, and there are players who want to play for Bayern. But despite its obvious pull in terms of its dominance on the domestic front and its stature in Europe, would even Bayern be the best next port of call?
Already overloaded with midfield talent through Arturo Vidal, Corentin Tolisso, Thiago Alcantara, Sebastian Rudy, Javi Martinez, and an emerging Niklas Dorsch, Der FCB are hardly lacking central midfield options. While his ability as a player is undeniable, the necessity of rotation in the first-team squad would limit the amount of time he would play in comparison to his other potential options. What if the best option, for the time being, is for Goretzka to remain at the Veltins-Arena?
He has everything he could want at a club already; a young and ambitious manager who has revitalized the team, a club that promote trust in youth and have a long-term vision of success, established understanding with a core group of players that continue to grow together, and the trust of one of the most passionate and hardcore fanbases in the country. He’s very much the central figure, and has dealt with the pressure of expectations well, something that will become far more burdening should he move now. If Schalke do achieve champions league and continue to show signs of progression under Tedesco, perhaps Goretzka should offer a few more seasons in royal blue colors. In contrast, the career track Toni Kroos decided to take turned out quite well, so perhaps, if he decides to remain in Germany for a while – even if it is Bayern – his development will remain a high priority.
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GK: Jirí Pavlenka (SV Werder Bremen); Do not let Werder Bremen’s position in the table fool you; they would be worse off if it was not for Jiri Pavlenka. Though a collective defense has found itself with the third-best goals allowed record in the league at the mid-way point of the season, the Czech shot stopper can hold his head highest in the group. An excellent shot stopper with quick reflexes and good command of his area, if any form is to be found by Die Werderaner during the second-half of the campaign, Pavlenka will be as vital as any player available to manager Florian Kohfeldt.
LB: Philipp Max (FC Augsburg); Augsburg seemingly have a knack for left-back’s finding joy at the club. In recent seasons both Abdul Rahman-Baba and Konstantinos Stafylidis thrust their way into the conversation for best in the league at the position. Philipp Max, on form, is doing the very same, perhaps with even more aplomb. One goal and nine assists in eighteen appearances in all competitions thus far is evidence to just how good he is going forward; he leads the Bundesliga in assists. He has an excellent range of passing and a sublime ability to produce quality service into the box, and though his hallmarks aren’t at the defense end, he is no slouch there (though his aerial prowess is less than stellar). The big club buzzards are already circling around the player, but despite the unknown nature of his long-term future, at current he’s a force to be reckoned with down the left-hand side of the pitch.
CB: Naldo (FC Schalke 04); When you are thirty-five years of age, normally it’s time to consider life after football, but Brazilian center-back Naldo has other ideas. A Bundesliga veteran, he’s seen everything the league has to offer over the years, and now in the twilight of his career, he’s having what is arguably his best-ever season. Beyond his dramatic headed equalizer in Schalke’s stunning comeback in the Revierderby, the ex-Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg standout has won 75% of his total challenges (best in the Bundesliga) and can boast a 92% pass completion rating; he is equally important both as Domenico Tedesco’s rock at the back as well as an offensive catalyst during build-up play. He’s been excellent, despite his advancing years.
CB: Benjamin Pavard (VfB Stuttgart); Stuttgart one of the dominant youth production centers in German football, up there with the very best in Europe. So perhaps it’s a surprise that their standout player thus far this season after winning promotion back to the German top flight is a youngster that they didn’t produce. Still just twenty-one, Benjamin Pavard has turned heads this campaign, after helping Stuttgart get back to the Bundesliga last season. Such have been his performances at club level that he received an unexpected call-up to the full French national squad. Aerially dominant, intelligent with a strong awareness of space and reading of the passing lanes, and a very good distributing center-back, he has been a key factor in Stuttgart’s defensive structure. People are already talking, and Pavard may soon find himself courted by clubs far larger and internationally known than Die Schwaben.
RB: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich); Point blank he’s the best right-back in Europe currently, and that won’t be changing any time soon. After coming of age in short order during Euro 2016 after being under the watchful and nurturing eyes of Pep Guardiola, Kimmich has continued his maturation and growth as a player. Truly, he is the heir to Philipp Lahm. Short and simple.
DM: Leon Goretzka (FC Schalke 04); Potentially a controversial choice despite the expectation and interest now surrounding the talented young German, but it’s the strength and consistent nature of Goretzka’s two-way game that warrants inclusion. Brilliant for Schalke before missing eight matches through injury, he’s just as much a threat in the final third as he is tracking back and defending. Able to play as the deepest midfielder, in the center of the park, and as a number ten, his tactical versatility to go along with his overall ability as a player cannot be spoken of highly enough. Intelligent and mature through the middle, strong on the ball, good in the air and possessing an eye for goal both through a late run into the area or from range, he is the complete package. Distractions regarding his future are a potential stumbling block as the season presses on, but the Bochum native is the real deal.
CM: Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Mönchengladbach); For so long he was known as the younger brother of Eden Hazard, but Thorgan has come of age and has made a name for himself in Germany. Brilliant during his loan spell in Belgium, Hazard left Chelsea for Gladbach amidst both excitement and concern, but this season he’s put to rest the last of those worries. Forming a credible attacking triumvirate with Lars Stindl and Raffael, he’s made himself the focal point of Gladbach’s attack this season and it’s paid off in spades. Quick and technically gifted just like his older brother, Thorgan has also shown his versatility by featuring on either flank as well as through the forward channel. He’s tied for the team-lead in goals with Raffael (6) and level atop the assists chart with summer addition Vincenzo Grifo (3). Now that expectations are very much reality, he will only continue to improve.
CM: Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich); It was always the case that fans agreed with the notion that Arturo Vidal was a “world class” central midfielder; that case continues to be put on display in Bavaria. Now thirty-years-old, Vidal remains the midfield dynamo for the German giants. An absolute beast in the center of the park, his two-way play continues to evolve and develop. While he excels on the defensive side of the ball both in the air and when in the tackle while showing composure and intelligence when in possession, the offensive side of his game continues to grow. Reliably helping to pull strings from deeper midfield, he’s even added more goals to his game, scoring five in fourteen Bundesliga appearances at the half-way point. It’s a shame we won’t have the pleasure of watching him in Russia this summer.
LW: Maximilian Philipp (Borussia Dortmund); Though he’s missed a considerable amount of time through injury, the new Dortmunder was hands down one of the best attacking players in the country up till that point. Making the big jump from SC Freiburg to Borussia Dortmund and all the expectations that come with it, Philipp did a fantastic job of helping the fanbase forget that Marco Reus was still unavailable through yet another injury. Wonderful both on and off the ball, intelligent in his understanding of space in the attacking third, and instantly finding chemistry with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Christian Pulisic, he seamlessly transitioned to the next level and never missed a beat. Auba may be the main source of goals, but Philipp was Dortmund’s best attacking player when fit.
RW: Leon Bailey (Bayer Leverkusen); When he moved from KRC Genk to Bayer Leverkusen in last seasons January window, Leon Bailey already came with a considerable amount of expectation attached to his name. After dazzling for the Belgian youth export center of trade both domestically and in the Europa League, Leverkusen saw it fit to add him to Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz, forming a trio of young attacking talent that many would come to envy. All three seemingly have the world at their feet, but it’s been Bailey this season that has stolen most of the limelight. Eight goals and four assists in all competitions, superb technical ability, Usain Bolt-like pace with a vicious left foot and the eye for a killer ball into the box is ample evidence to suggest he’s been one of the attacking highlights of the season thus far. European giants are certainly standing up and taking notice, the same way they did with Brandt the previous season.
CF: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich); Pretenders continue come and go, and potential usurpers stake their claims, but Robert Lewandowski remains, for me at least, the best all-around center forward in both Germany and Europe. Now 29-years-old and at the peak of his powers (baring injury), Lewandowski is still the perfect focal point for the Bayern Munich attack. Twenty-one goals in twenty-six appearances in all competitions (15 in 17 in the BuLi) continues to signal a wonderful return. Though the club has brought in German international Sandro Wagner from Hoffenheim as a traditional option through the middle, Lewandowski, when fit, will remain first-choice at the Allianz Arena for the entirety of his prime playing years.
Champion: Bayern Munich
Champions League Places: Borussia Dortmund, FC Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen
Europa League Places: Borussia Mönchengladbach, RasenBallsport Leipzig
DFB-Pokal Winner: Bayern Munich
Player of the Season: Robert Lewandowski
Manager of the Season: Domenico Tedesco
Signing of the Season: Sebastian Haller (FC Utrecht to Eintracht Frankfurt; £6.3m)