As the Bundesliga season goes into its winter break or Winterpause, FC Bayern München head the standings by a massive eight points, with Borussia Dortmund heading the chasing pack. While Pep Guardiola’s side look supremely dominant, there is some hope for the rest: the Bavarians started off the season with such force as to blow everything that stood in front of them out of the way, but ended the first half of the season – in German, the Hinrunde – with more of a stagger than a swagger.
Bayern’s flying start
Both Bayern and Dortmund would get off to fine starts on the opening weekend, with Guardiola’s side thumping hapless Hamburg 5-0 and the Schwarzgelben – looking to make up for their poor season in 2014/15 – rolling to a somewhat surprising four-goal win over the third-placed side in 2014/15, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Elsewhere, the other title hopefuls all got off to winning starts: VfL Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke 04 all started with the full three points. Indeed, of all of the previous season’s top seven finishers, only FC Augsburg missed out as they fell 1-0 at home to Hertha BSC.
For those looking to a more competitive league season, it was close to being the perfect start.
Things would start to take a familiar shape over the next weeks however, with only Dortmund – under new coach Thomas Tuchel – managing to keep up with the Bavarian powerhouse. With Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller finding the back of the net with terrifying regularity for the men from Munich, Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finally found his scoring boots for the Ruhrpott side.
By the third week only the top two sides had managed to retain 100% records, and five weeks into the campaign third-place Wolfsburg – though still unbeaten – found themselves four points adrift. Meanwhile further down the table there were also a few surprises. Promoted sides FC 04 Ingolstadt and SV Darmstadt were more than holding their own in mid-table despite their paltry budgets, though perhaps the biggest surprise was the poor form of Mönchengladbach. Looking anything but title contenders, Die Fohlen found themselves rooted to the foot of the table, with no points and only two goals to show for their efforts.
Gladbach’s poor start led to the first managerial casualty of the season as Lucien Favre departed the Borussia-Park – an illustration of just how much of a thin line coaches have to walk on in the modern game. In the summer the Swiss had been hailed as a genius for taking Gladbach to third place and the Champions League, and less than six weeks into the new season he was on his way, replaced by assistant André Schubert.
It was clear that Gladbach were far better than their statistical record suggested, and surely enough they started to turn things around. While this turnaround might have also happened under Favre, it was Schubert’s turn to be hailed as the new genius.
While Gladbach were starting their gradual climb up the table, Bayern stepped out on their own at the top. A thumping 5-1 win over the previous season’s runners-up Wolfsburg provided what was arguably the talking point of the season, as the Bavarians – or rather Robert Lewandowski – turned around a 1-0 deficit at the Allianz Arena. Having appeared on the pitch as a second-half substitute, the Pole broke a number of records – and Twitter – with a spectacular burst of five goals in the space of nine minutes. It could have even been six or seven.
With Dortmund dropping their first points against struggling 1899 Hoffenheim, some had already started to etch Bayern’s name on the Meisterschale. As BVB dropped another couple of points against gritty new boys Darmstadt, the Bavarians continued on their merry way with a seventh win on the bounce in Mainz.
Week eight produced what was billed as the big showdown, with the unbeaten top two colliding at the Allianz. The result was stunning. Although Aubameyang continued his fine form in scoring for the visitors, both Lewandowski and Müller showed who were the top dogs as they netted braces in a crushing 5-1 win for Guardiola’s men. With eight wins from eight, twenty-eight goals and a goal difference of +24, Bayern were seven points clear of the pack and flying.
With wins over Werder Bremen and 1. FC Köln, Bayern took their unblemished start into double figures, though Dortmund managed to keep the gap between them and the leaders at seven points. The other form team however were Mönchengladbach, who had climbed up to seventh spot with a run of five straight wins – a mirror image of their winless start. Meanwhile at the other end of the table Augsburg found themselves propping up the rest, with just one win to show for all their efforts in their first ten games. Much like Gladbach earlier on, it was difficult to understand how Markus Weinzierl’s side were struggling so badly.
The run comes to an end
Week eleven provided the first real shock of the season, as Bayern were held to a goalless draw by an obdurate Eintracht Frankfurt, bringing their record-breaking winning start to an end. Dortmund took advantage to narrow the gap to five points, while Gladbach continued their revival with a sixth straight win to climb up to fifth place. Meanwhile, everybody’s relegation candidates Ingolstadt continued to surprise. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s eighth-placed side had only scored seven goals in their eleven games, but in conceding only nine could boast a defensive record second only to leaders Bayern.
Bayern were quickly back in the groove as they disposed of struggling VfB Stuttgart and then clinically dispatched a misfiring Schalke 04, and behind the leaders the table assumed a rather familiar look. Augsburg meanwhile finally started to fire, as a crushing 4-0 win in Stuttgart lifted them off the basement, leaving Hoffenheim in last place.
It was in week fourteen where there were clear signs that things were starting to wobble slightly in Munich – relatively speaking at least. Having scored at least four goals in the four previous league games – in addition to racking up similar scorelines in the Champions League against both Arsenal and Olympiakos Piraeus – Bayern were held to just the two goals by a keen Hertha BSC, who showed just why they were up at the top battling for the European competition places.
Gladbach crown their revival
The stumble turned into a fall the following week, when Die Roten were brought crashing back down to terra firma by a rampant Gladbach. Having bossed a goalless first half Bayern were treated to some of their own medicine, with the foals tearing them to pieces with three goals in the space of fifteen minutes. Bayern’s dull afternoon was brightened slightly with a consolation goal from the returning Franck Ribéry, but the unbeaten run was finally over. Another long unbeaten sequence also ended in Wolfsburg, where the Wolves’ unsullied home run that stretched back over a year was ended by a last-gasp Dortmund winner.
At the other end Augsburg notched up a gutsy win in Köln to lift themselves out of the automatic drop zone, leaving being the two teams from Baden-Württemberg, Hoffenheim and Stuttgart.
Bayern made sure of the unofficial title of Herbstmeister with a hard-earned 2-0 win over Bavarian rivals Ingolstadt, though in truth the scoreline hid plenty of sins. The unheralded Schanzer had thrown everything and the kitchen sink at their more illustrious opponents and had created plenty of excellent opportunities, but in the end Bayern just about did enough to satisfy the home fans. With injuries also starting to mount, it was clear that the champions were already in holiday mode.
Not so the rest. Dortmund’s final game of 2015 at the Westfalenstadion saw them come back from a goal down to thump Frankfurt 4-1, a Hertha team that had finally dared to believe climbed into third with a 4-0 win in Darmstadt, and just two points separated Wolfsburg in fourth place from eighth-placed Schalke. Then, having blown hot and cold all season, Leverkusen suddenly clicked against Gladbach, destroying André Schubert’s unbeaten run of ten league games with a 5-0 win that came out of almost nowhere.
Perhaps the team of the penultimate week however were the back in-form Augsburg. Having stormed to a stunning 3-1 win against Partizan Belgrade to secure a place in the knock-out stages of the Europa League, Weinzierl’s warriors notched up their third league win in four starts with a glorious late, late winner from Brazilian Caiuby – nicknamed “Kai-Uwe” by the WWK-Arena faithful – against Schalke.
Bayern stumble, but secure eight-point advantage
The season’s end could not have come any sooner for Bayern, who looked a shadow of themselves as they laboured to a 1-0 win against struggling Hannover 96, who themselves fell into the drop zone. The Bavarians could rest easy however: one of the bigger surprises of the day saw Dortmund fall eight points behind the leaders after a 2-1 reverse against neighbours Köln. Surprise package Hertha ended the year on a high and three points clear in third place as they dispatched Mainz, and after being destroyed in Leverkusen the previous week Mönchengladbach closed things out with a tight 3-2 win against Darmstadt to ensure their finishing the Hinrunde in fourth place.
At the other end, Hoffenheim end the year as the Keller-dwellers. After their encouraging eighth-place finish in 2014/15, things are not looking bright for the Sinsheim-based team who now have Dutch coaching journeyman Huub Stevens at the helm. Just above them are Hannover, who are also with a new coach having replaced Michael Frontzeck with former Bremen and Frankfurt coach Thomas Schaaf. Schaaf’s two former clubs are also in the relegation mix: the magic spell of Ukrainian coach Viktor Skrypnyk seems to have worn off in Bremen who now occupy the playoff spot, while Armin Veh is surely living on borrowed time for the second time at Eintracht.
It’s the same old story at poor Stuttgart, where former U-19 coach Jürgen Kramny is now in charge following the dismissal of Alexander Zorniger just six months into a slightly optimistic three-year contract. The Swabians appear to change coaches like the wind changes direction, and the bets are on whether Kramny will be the next Bundesliga coach on the chopping block.
The biggest news of the season was of course Pep Guardiola’s decision to not extend his contract at Bayern at the end of the season – bringing weeks of media gossip and speculation to an end. It was an announcement many Bayern fans and Bundesliga observers had been expecting. The Catalan coach has so far failed to deliver the Champions League trophy and will be challenged again to do so in 2016, but it is fair to say that he will almost certainly leave Munich with his third successive Bundesliga title.
The Report Card
Marks are given based on realistic expectations and targets for each club (which explains why Ingolstadt and Hertha BSC have higher scores than Bayern or Dortmund).
FC Bayern München
9/10. Sprinted out of the blocks and were well on the way to getting a mark to match, but stumbled a bit as the Winterpause approached. When free of injury issues this Bayern squad is as good as any in Europe, and capable of inflicting some serious damage on their opponents. Perfectly positioned to breeze to a fourth domestic title in a row, and a third for Pep Guardiola.
8/10. A marked improvement on last season under new coach Thomas Tuchel, but short of Bayern in all the key departments – even with the prolific Aubameyang in superb form. Tuchel’s men have looked spectacular at times, but on many occasions have looked ordinary at best. While not quite at Bayern’s standard this BVB side are a good couple of steps ahead of the rest, and are looking good bets for second spot.
10/10. After last season struggles at the wrong end of the table, the Alte Dame are shooting well beyond all of the pre-season predictions from the expert pundits. Salomon Kalou has finally found his shooting boots, and Hungarian coach and former fan favourite Pál Dárdai is working miracles with a limited squad. TCan it last?
7/10. A funny one, in that Mönchengladbach’s season can easily be split into a poor opening third and an excellent second two thirds – zero for the first five weeks that cost them coach Lucien Favre and at least a nine for the second twelve that has seen the emergence of André Schubert, who with his bald head and ubiquitous green sweater looks a little like Shrek. After their poor start Gladbach are back in the mix, and will be looking to secure another top-four spot.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
6/10. In sixth spot at the break, but a half-season than can best be described as a heady mix of the spectacular, the ordinary and the underwhelming. Roger Schmidt’s side have far too much talent in their ranks to be lying only sixth, and are capable of doing a whole lot better. Mexican import Chicharito has started to fire, and could light the blue touchpaper for a more productive Rückrunde at the BayArena.
FC Schalke 04
3/10. A case of same old, same old from the Gelsenkirchen outfit, who like Leverkusen have an arsenal of talent at their disposal. Capable of wonderful things, but way too inconsistent – which explains their disappointing position at the end of the Hinrunde. Another side more than capable of turning their season around completely if things start to click.
4/10. After last season’s second-placed success, big things were expected of Dieter Hecking’s side this year. Despite the money and rich talent at their disposal, the Wolves have at best been inconsistent – serving up more bark than bite. They have the right ingredients for a top-four finish and the financial power to challenge the likes of Bayern and Dortmund, but it’s going to be tough.
FSV Mainz 05
7/10. Having settled into the role of mid-table floater, the team from the Palatinate have done what they need to do, and a little bit more. With more consistency, they will have a chance of making one of the Europa League spots. Martin Schmidt’s side may lack the spectacular edge of past Mainz teams, but they have worked their way up the table by playing to their strengths and quietly going about their business.
1. FC Köln
8/10. Proving that last season’s mid-table finish was no fluke, Peter Stöger’s battlers have once again out things together nicely as they look to establish themselves as long-term fixtures in the top flight. Effzeh have carried on with the sound defensive approach that was so successful in 2014/15, while offering a little more threat up front. One fancies Köln – like Mainz – to quietly continue doing their thing – ensuring a safe mid-table finish and even the possibility of a place in the top ten.
7/10. For a club with such a proud history, HSV are a hard team to gauge. Their fans are always looking to roll back the years and challenge for the top places, but more recently it has been a challenge to stay clear of the grubby scrap at the bottom end. Compared to the last two seasons it is been a solid return for coach Bruno Labbadia, who was widely tipped as being the first coach to fall this season. The chances are good that he will still be there at the season’s end – which would be something of a feat given the circus at the Volksparkstadion in recent years.
FC Ingolstadt 04
10/10. At the start of the season, Ingolstadt were seen by many – myself included – as prime candidates for a quick return to the 2. Bundesliga. However what Die Schanzer lack in budget and resources has been more than made up with commitment and passion, not to say excellent tactics from Austrian coach Ralph Hasenhüttl. While not offering much up front, Ingolstadt have been tight as a drum at the back, with the second best goals-against count behind Bayern, alongside Hertha BSC. If they can match this form in the much tougher Rückrunde, Hasenhüttl could very well end up being given a free Audi every year for the rest of his life.
6/10. A somewhat disappointing Hinrunde after their fifth-place finish in 2015, but things could have been a lot worse. Having found themselves bottom of the league ten weeks into the campaign, the FCA board could very easily have followed everybody else in jettisoning Markus Weinzierl – but they made sure to keep their highly-regarded young coach. To nobody’s great surprise things slowly started to click, and there is no reason why Die Fuggerstädter cannot make it into top ten again.
SV Darmstadt 98
8/10. Like Ingolstadt, little Darmstadt have punched far above their weight to complete a decent Hinrunde. As gritty and as earthy as their compact Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor, Dirk Schuster’s side have been defined by their fiercely competitive streak. With a matching Rückrunde, Die Lilien will not only ensure survival in the top flight, but also have bragging rights over their fierce local neighbours from Frankfurt.
4/10. A club rich in tradition, Frankfurt have always aimed high. In recent years they have established themselves as a mid-table outfit, but a run of poor results means that Armin Veh’s men finish the Hinrunde floating perilously above the relegation spots. They are a much better side than that, but things could get sticky if they can’t find the right formula. The upside is that talisman Alex Meier is back following a long spell out through injury.
3/10. Every season in Stuttgart seems to begin with high hopes, only for things to be inevitably smashed once the actual football begins. This season the great hope was Alexander Zorniger, who had hardly got off the ground before he became the latest coach to be sent to the exit door at the Neckarstadion. With confidence at a low ebb, it is going to be a long battle for survival for VfB and new and inexperienced coach Jürgen Kramny.
SV Werder Bremen
3/10. After years competing at the top with the best, Bremen – much like Stuttgart – have had to adapt to a new life struggling at the wrong end of the table. Coach Viktor Skrypnyk appeared to have got things right as he took the Green-Whites to tenth place last season after rescuing them from almost certain doom, but the magic appears to be wearing off week by week. Werder end the Hinrunde in the playoff spot, and it may just be the beginning of a long struggle.
2/10. The team that seems to float around without being noticed – apart, perhaps, by their own supporters. Former player Michael Frontzeck proved unable to get things running at the second time of asking, and as they prepare for the second half of the season “96” have a new coach in the shape of Thomas Schaaf, who certainly has the experience and tactical nous to turn things around. The problem is that there appears to be a lack of obvious talent at the Niedersachsenstadion, more so after the departure of star man Lars Stindl.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
1/10. Hoffenheim have the ground. They have the money. They even have a couple of full German internationals in their ranks. Having finished in a more than creditable eighth place last year, they find themselves propping up the other seventeen teams as the Hinrunde comes to an end. While the squad is little different from last year’s, there is clearly a crisis of confidence at the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena. The dismissal of coach Markus Gisdol certainly didn’t help, and it is now up to caretaker coach and expert crisis manager Huub Stevens to turn things around and avoid the drop.