Checking in on the Bundesliga at the halfway mark
After a wacky 2016-17 campaign, a bit of order has been restored to the Bundesliga through the first half mark of this season. Before the opening kickoff this year, we previewed the Bundesliga season, ranking the teams into bins based on both their projections and their volatility. As always, some teams have over-achieved over the past few months while others have wilted. Now, as the second half gets underway, let’s look back at how those early predictions have fared so far, as well as forward at what could change between now and May.
Preseason: The odds-on favorite — Bayern Munich
Now: Better than odds-on favorite
After a tumultuous start, Bayern have turned on the jets and been as good, if not better, than advertised. Jupp Heynckes’ return has brought prosperity and stability so far. Since the start of October, Bayern have won all their games in every competition save two, a solitary draw and loss, which includes a Champions League triumph over PSG. That result doesn’t help them in the league, but it proves that Bayern are fully back following the early wobble, and their 11-point lead at the top of the table looks seemingly insurmountable. They undoubtedly have the best team on paper, and they’ve recovered from their stumbles under Carlo Ancelotti, getting back to a place from where only they can lose the title for themselves. Safe to say, it would take a shock and a minor miracle for anyone other than Bayern to lift what will be their sixth straight Bundesliga trophy. It might not be the most interesting story, and it’s one we hear every year, but Bayern Munich are again steamrolling to the title, and they’re further cementing their status as the lone wolf up top.
Preseason: Close, but not Bayern — Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig
Now: In similar situations and by no means clear in the Champions League race
For a moment, it looked like Dortmund would be able to bridge the gap to Bayern, but a horrible run that ended in Peter Bosz’ sacking (combined with Bayern’s strong charge) has dropped them back to
third place, which really just about where they belong. Leipzig, meanwhile, haven’t been the same stellar side they were last year, but a regression was always likely as the club balanced big incoming transfer offers and European competition along with their Bundesliga aspirations. Still, Germany’s detested Red Bull-backed side joins Dortmund in a four-way tie for third place, sitting in fifth at the moment on goal differential. The teams have come to their equal positions in completely different ways, with Dortmund riding a hot start and one ice cold streak and Leipzig remaining consistently above average. Still, each has the talent at both ends of the pitch to like their chances to make a second-half push towards a Champions League place in what’s shaping up to be a fascinating fight (which we’ll get more into in a moment). Both teams have proven in both this and last season that they have the chops to stay sharply focused for the entire second half of the campaign. Neither has particularly overachieved as a whole so far, but Dortmund and Leipzig have kept themselves in the running and should be content with their first halves — as long as they build on them in the coming weeks.
Preseason: The Established Strugglers — Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg
Now: A quick turnaround, for most
As a whole, the teams in this category have lived up to their lofty expectations. In 2016-17, all four were hit with a major regression, but three of these sides have picked themselves right back up, dusted themselves off, and worked their way into European contention. Schalke currently sit in second, with Leverkusen and Gladbach joining Dortmund and Leipzig in the aforementioned four-way tie for third. In truth, this is exactly what should have happened. For some reason, the Bundesliga was particularly chaotic last year, but none of these three sides panicked. They had solid squads to lean on, and sticking to their guns has paid dividends so far. Schalke, who sit alone in second place, were the biggest overachievers of the first half, with just three Bundesliga losses and an ongoing unbeaten run that dates back to September 23. At the moment, the Royal Blues look to have the most balance, and thus the most potential to break away from the pack thanks to an attack that has produced seven players who have scored multiple league goals this year. Their defense has been equally solid too, tied for fourth-best in the league with 21 tallies allowed through 17 games. They haven’t been overly stellar at either end of the pitch, but the team as a whole is meshing well and producing consistent play.
Leverkusen are steaming hot too, riding their own unbeaten run, which began September 19. It has been an even more impressive feat as well considering the side lost a ton of attacking talent in the offseason, as the emergences of striker Kevin Volland and 20-year-old winger Leon Bailey — who have combined for 15 goals and five assists this year — have spurred the side forward. Gladbach, meanwhile, who currently have a minus-one goal difference, look the most likely to drop off. Still, their recovery has been fantastic after a couple of up-and-down seasons. They are going to need a unforseen spark in the second half to qualify for the UCL, but they are still making noise at the moment, and that about what the club should be aiming for. Then, however, there’s Wolfsburg, who sit in 12th. The Wolves have done little right in the last few seasons, and they are paying the price. Their 19 points has them only four clear of the relegation zone, and they look bound to be near the bottom of the table for quite some time. Unlike the other three teams we put in this category in the preseason, Wolfsburg’s management has struggled to bring in the necessary talent for the team to return to previous heights, most notably up top. If the trend continues, relegation looks more probable than a run up the table.
Preseason: The Wildcards — Hoffenheim, Koln, Hertha Berlin, Freiburg, Werder Bremen, Eintracht Frankfurt
Now: All over the map
There’s a reason we dubbed these sides (who finished fourth-ninth last year) wildcards, and they have definitely lived up to that billing. Only Hoffenheim — whom we said had the best shot to replicate last season’s successful battle into Europe — Frankfurt, and Hertha are looking likely to repeat their solid finishes of last year. The trio sit in seventh, eighth, and 10th, respectively, and while those sports aren’t exciting, they are certainly encouraging for sides trying to establish themselves as top-half regulars. Last season’s finishes were undoubtedly a blip, and few expected them to happen again, but staying near the top bunch is still critical if these clubs want to constantly challenge for European places. All three are within striking distance of doing so this season, and whether that happens or not is really less important than distancing themselves from the bottom pack which they have risen away from. If they continue to do so, a bright future is in store. The other three in this grouping, however, have regressed back to the bottom third, with Freiburg leading the charge in 13th. Their minus-14 goal differential is second-worst in the league,
though, and it’s certainly not an encouraging notion heading into the second half. They have found a way to pull out results so far, and that might be enough to save their skins from what could be a nervy second half. Werder Bremen, meanwhile, have really struggled in the attack, scoring just 13 goals in their opening 17 contests, second-worst in the league. However, with three wins (their only three wins of the season) and a draw in their last six games, Bremen took some momentum into the winter break, and hope is far from lost. Despite sitting in the relegation zone, Werder have as good a chance as anybody to escape. The same cannot be said for Koln, who sit dead last with a dismal six points, nine fewer than their closest competitors. There’s not much to say, honestly; Koln have just been awful at both ends, with only 21-year-old Sehrou Guirassy having scored more than one league goal and a league-high 32 tallies conceded. Teams have worked their way back from similar positions before, but Koln are really buried, and with just a single Bundesliga win so far, they are surely low on confidence. That win did come in their most recent fixture against Wolfsburg, so they might get a small boost early in the second half, but don’t expect a major turnaround as Koln head further down a dark road.
The Survivalists — Augsburg, Hamburg, Mainz, Stuttgart (Promoted), Hannover (Promoted)
Now: Clawing their way up
Staying up was the name of the game for these sides, and for the most part, they are doing their jobs. Most are still far from safety, though, and will need to repeat and improve on their first-half performances to keep it that way. Augsburg have snuck themselves into the top half behind 11 goals from Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason, who is third in the league in scoring, and his production should keep them in great shape, with a chance to aim up the table next season if they can hold onto him. Newly-promoted Hannover were a revelation in the opening part of the season as well, but losses have caught up to them recently.
Their 11th-place status is good, but ambitious. They will need to stay mentally solid to the end to keep themselves away from the relegation scrap. Stuttgart, Mainz, and Hamburg are all in big trouble, however. This wasn’t unexpected, as the teams are all returning to the league (in Stuttgart’s case) or have been struggling for quite some time. All three have been decent enough at the back but have been starved for goalscoring. It has been particularly bad for Stuttgart, who have just 13 tallies at the moment and lost four straight matches heading into the break. They sit level on points with Mainz, just two above the relegation zone, although each probably feels better than Hamburg. They sit in 17th, with a revolving door of flailing attackers — which prominently includes American Bobby Wood — struggling at every turn. Wood was one of a few arrivals in recent times supposed to solidify Hamburg’s attack, but neither he or those who have replaced him have produced what is needed to keep them in the top flight. Still, all three are alive and kicking and have avoided a similar fate to Koln. There is certainly a light at the end of the tunnel, but they are going to need goals to make it there.