Surveying the Bundesliga Overachievers and Their Bids for Sustainability

Over the last few seasons, the Bundesliga has provided its fans with a shock side that punched far above their weight, to the delight of die-hard fans and neutral spectators alike. Last season saw Mainz 05 beat out Wolfsburg for a spot in the Europa League, while the prior season gave us Markus Weinzierl’s Augsburg finishing in an incredible fifth. Whether you want to attribute a “lesser” side’s success to their own performances or to a lackluster campaign by one of the big boys, the trend seems to be continuing this season.

The current top four, nearly thirty-three percent into the season with over half the Hinrunde complete, is graced by the presence of three sides that few would have predicted to have a shot at Europe’s top club competition. The rise of RasenBallsport Leipzig, the Julian Nagelsmann revolution at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, and the ever-growing threat of Hertha BSC have given us a wonderfully entertaining opening ten frames in Germany.

Though many sides around Europe are seemingly under the inspiration of Leicester City’s Premier League heroics last season, the question many will be asking is if their level of play, as well as what they can bring to the table on a player-by-player basis, is sustainable throughout the campaign. In Leicester’s case, headmaster Claudio Ranieri knew exactly what was required to achieve the unthinkable - a reliance on team camaraderie, a work-ethic that was second to none, and allowing the handful of stars at his disposal to shine individually while staying within the tactical ethos of the side as a whole.

By the season’s end, Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater were the talk of the town, while the unsung heroes at the back got the praise they deserved in the aftermath. Leicester gave us a champion born out of simplicity and acknowledgement of an identity that every player bought into - will we be able to say the same about any of the three Bundesliga sides highlighted above? Glad you asked!

RB Leipzig (2nd)

RasenBallsport LeipzigTop of the table, level on points (24) with juggernaut Bayern Munich, RasenBallsport Leipzig are simply living the dream.  After securing promotion to the Bundesliga last season by way of topping the 2. Bundesliga, RBL are currently on course for achieving their mission of becoming a heavyweight in the German top-flight. Plans for a new ground are also in the works as well, and under the combined guidance of Sporting Director Ralf Rangnick and Manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, Die roten Bullen have taken the league by storm.

Their current directive is a counter-attacking brand of football that relies on pace and youthful exuberance. After summer dealings that saw the club bring in German wunderkind Timo Werner, Scottish wiz-kid Olivier Burke, Guinean midfield maestro Naby Keita, and Benno Schmitz and Bernardo from Red Bull Salzburg - all of whom are 21 years of age or younger - RBL are certainly building for the long term. The club already boasted key components in the form of Youssuf Poulson, Emil Forsberg, Marcel Sabitzer, Davie Selke, Dominik Kaiser, Diego Demme, and Willi Orban - all players who were brilliant in their run-up to promotion. Shockingly, the RBL first-team has an average age of just 24.7 years, but you’d never know it by the quality produced on the pitch early doors.

If their youth is one of their key assets, it may also be their potential downfall. There are only a handful of first-team players who have Bundesliga experience, and though at the moment their counter-attacking brand of football hinges on their productivity and depth of scoring options, it could all come undone if that inexperience rears its ugly head.

Still and yet, you have to give Leipzig credit where it is certainly due. Not only have they been incredibly entertaining to watch, there are shades of Leicester about them. They know what they are about, all the players are on the same page with regards to match set-up and the tactical schematics, and the defensive corps that was once thought of as a potential weakness has been nothing short of excellent.

All told, Leipzig are currently third in goals scored (20) behind Borussia Dortmund (25) and Bayern (24), while boasting the second stingiest defense (level with FC Koln) in the Bundesliga, conceding on just seven occasions; only Bayern have a better defensive record, surrendering just six.

With twenty-four matches still on the docket, it could be too early to tell, but do not be shocked at all if they fight their way into the Champions League next season - current evidence shows they are indeed that good.

  • Are they sustainable for a European finish? Yes
  • Predicted final position: Third

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (3rd)

HoffenheimWhen your manager has not yet reached the age of thirty, you’re most likely to be a Sunday League side down in the seventy-fifth division in Baden-Wurttemberg. In the case of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and 29-year-old Feldmarschall Julian Nagelsmann, they’re currently staking their claim as the surprise package of the season.

Die Kraichgauer’s great escape last season, orchestrated by the young German manager, was inspirational to say the least, and it’s a feeling that appears to not have subsided. Struggling mightily in the 2015-16 campaign, Chairman Jochen Rotthaus decided to push forward his appointment as manager (which wasn’t supposed to go ahead until the current season) after then-manager Huub Stevens stepped down due to health concerns.

Having managed at various youth levels at the club, Nagelsmann brought a knowledge of the youth set-up and the complete faith of the board that he would be the upstart to bring the club forward. Not only did he complete the side’s rescue from relegation (despite a torrid final four weeks of the season), but his tactical knowledge and ability to bring the right pieces into the puzzle is highly commendable.

After letting highly-rated forward Kevin Volland move to Bayer Leverkusen and Champions League football for €20million over the summer, as well as seeing French winger Jonathan Schmid switch to FC Augsburg for €5million, Nagelsmann conducted arguably the most brilliant business the Bundesliga saw all summer. Andrej Kramaric (€10m), Lukas Rupp (€5m), Kevin Vogt (€3m), Sandro Wagner (€2.8m), Kerem Demirbay (€1.7m), and Benjamin Hubner (€800k) were all brought to the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena for the price of the two key departures in the summer window, and have all been absolutely brilliant since their arrival.

Kramaric and Wagner have formed a strong attacking trio together with Mark Uth, while Rupp has been vital to midfield operations in tandem with Demirbay (who has been nothing short of brilliant). Additionally, the back-three consisting of Vogt, Hubner (quietly one of the best center-backs in the league last season for FC Ingolstadt) and youngster Niklas Sule has given Hoffenheim defensive solidarity, something which they’ve historically lacked during their time in the Bundesliga.

What is most important of all to highlight, however, is that Hoffenheim have found a wonderful balance in both personal (as well as depth in quality) and tactical deployment.  Nagelsmann’s efforts in those two key areas saw Hoff draw their first four matches of the Hinrunde before going on a five-match winning run - they are currently 5-5-0, sitting third in the table and level on points with Hertha BSC while boasting the league’s fourth best goal-scoring record (18).

Though performing well, the question of sustainability will come via the consistency of their performances as well as questioning whether or not their key assets can play at the levels at which they are performing at the moment. Realistically, only Hubner and Wagner performed well throughout the entire season last season for their former employers.  Though the likes of Nadiem Amiri, the aforementioned Sule, and German U-21 left-back Jeremy Toljan all featured prominently in 2015-16, it must be a season of consistency if Hoffenheim are to achieve European qualification.

  • Are they sustainable for a European finish? Yes
  • Predicted final position: Fifth

Hertha BSC (4th)

hertha_bsc_logo_2012-svgA club that recently morphed into the poster-child for a lack of sustainability, Hertha BSC both lived and died last season in the exact same fashion - their lack of goalscorers.  Relying heavily on a reinvigorated striker tandem of Salomon Kalou and Vedad Ibisevic (the pair combined for 24 of the club’s 42 goals), Hertha were in the running for Europe for the duration of the 2015-16 installment of the Bundesliga… that is, until the final two months of the season struck.

Four losses and two draws in their final six outings of the Ruckrunde last term saw Hertha miss out on automatic Europa League qualification by goal difference with Mainz 05 while also sitting just two points behind of Schalke. They also missed out on an improbable fourth place finish at the hands of Borussia Monchengladbach, who finished five points clear of them after a late season surge in conjunction with Hertha’s woeful form.

Die Alte Dame seem to be back to their strong Hinrunde form of last year however, currently sitting joint third with a 6-2-2 record, while maintaining a defensive approach that is bearing fruit once again. Only surrendering ten goals in ten outings, Hertha are putting stock in a defense-first mentality that worked so well for nearly the entirety of the last campaign. Manager and former Hertha fan-favorite Pal Dardai, recognizing that more offensive output is needed, targeted his club’s weakness in the summer window to the tune of deals for highly touted Slovakian youngster Ondrej Duda, a full-deal for Vedad Ibisevic (on-loan at the club last season), and a move for Alexander Esswein.

In principle, Dardai was right on the money with this approach, providing added attacking depth via Duda and Esswein, while locking up Ibisevic, who was one of only three players for Hertha who managed more than five goals in the Bundesliga last season (Kalou and Darida being the other two). With Ibisevic leading the line through the center forward channel and already registering six goals and three assists in ten appearances, the likes of Kalou, Esswein, Mitchel Weiser, Valentin Stocker, and Julian Schieber have been allowed to all contribute on the score sheet. But is this enough, or will Hertha again fall short in the goalscoring column come the season’s end?

Though early contributions have been sufficient to see them score seventeen in the opening ten exchanges, if one were to extrapolate the numbers out for a thirty-four match period, once again Hertha would have only three players with five goals or more over the length of a full season - to put it plainly, that is just not good enough.

Hertha in it’s current approach is not a sustainable project, and it may take Dardai pulling away from his overly defensive set-up and reliance on counter-attacking to punch through into Europe come the completion of the season. They certainly have the players to control matches more efficiently than their approach suggests, and they maintain a back four and goalkeeper that are solid enough to deal with the increased pressure that would come with a downward trend in midfield support if Dardai did take the leash off tactically. But will he? For Hertha’s European ambitions, their supporters can only hope.

  • Are they sustainable for a European finish? No
  • Predicted final position: Eighth

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