With the winter break now in full swing, Bundesliga sides have trotted off to different corners of the world to train, play in friendlies, and maintain sharpness. The 2016-17 season has certainly proved to be one of the most exciting campaigns in recent memory. Talking points abound, it is difficult to highlight everything that can (and should) be brought under the microscope.
Whether if it’s Julian Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim’s still undefeated record, the meteoric rise of RasenBallsport Leipzig, or perennial big boys Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach falling far short of expectations, it’s been a Hinrunde full of surprises.
In that light, let’s take a look at some of those first-round talking points, as well as taking a dip into some Rückrunde predictions for the remainder of the campaign.
Four Hinrunde Talking Points
Are RasenBallsport Leipzig the real deal? In a word, yes, but naturally it’s so much deeper than just a single-word answer. Though there is a debate on who deserves more credit (Ralf Rangnick or Ralph Hasenhüttl) for Die Roten Bullen sitting just three points off giants Bayern Munich, what cannot be disputed is their brilliant brand of football. Not only have RBL turned heads with their tactical approach, but the manner in which they have done it, heavily relying on youthful exuberance, has made Leipzig arguably the biggest story to come out of the Hinrunde.
On the back of brilliant performances by Swedish talisman Emil Forsberg (who is now linked with a move away from the club), as well as from the likes of center back Willi Orban, newcomers Timo Werner and Naby Keita, Marcel Sabitzer, and the highly underrated Yussuf Poulson, RBL are dreaming of European ambitions despite it being their first ever appearance in the Bundesliga.
The winter period could not have come soon enough for the Bundesliga newcomers, however, with Hasenhuttl’s troops losing two of their last three outings before the break: a disappointing 1-0 loss at struggling Ingolstadt, and a 3-0 humbling by table-topping Bayern. Still and yet, they can take confidence from many credible results, including two clean-sheet home wins against both Borussia Dortmund (1-0) and Hertha Berlin (2-0).
With their opening fixture of the Rückrunde seeing them host upstarts and European hopefuls Eintracht Frankfurt, Leipzig have the perfect tie to get back on track and continue to prove their credentials for a place in Europe’s biggest club competition come next fall.
Can TSG 1899 Hoffenheim or Eintracht Frankfurt remain European dark horses? This one is difficult to dissect, but on the surface it can easily be asserted that both Hoffenheim and Frankfurt are heavily reliant on their overall team approach rather than individual brilliance.
For Julian Nagelsmann’s side, Hoffenheim have been a revelation under the young German manager. Even past the fact that they come into the winter break having yet to taste defeat (6-10-0), in addition to consistent performances from brilliant under-the-radar summer additions in Sandro Wagner, Kerem Demirbay, and Benjamin Hübner, the way Die Kriachgauer have performed as a unit under Nagelsmann—who seemingly knows exactly what his team needed and how to get the best out of the sum of the parts—has been brilliant to watch.
If there is a criticism of Hoff this campaign thus far, it’s that they have been guilty of both switching off at the back and some woeful finishing on a fair few occasions. Their twenty-eight goals is good for fourth in the league in goals scored, and even though their goals surrendered (17) is sixth-best in the BuLi, Hoffenheim’s one win and five draws in their last six outings stand as a testament to their struggles. If they can find more consistency in the final third, an up-tick in goals scored will offset the odd issue at the back that they do suffer. However, they’ve been excellent throughout, and I’d be shocked if they weren’t in the European dog fight come the later stages of the season.
As for Eintracht Frankfurt, their first full season under former Croatian international stalwart Niko Kovac, much like Hoffenheim, has seen them improve leaps and bounds compared to last season. Kovac saved the club from relegation in 2015-16, and now having his hands fully embedded in the club, he’s completely transformed a side that propped the league up to one that is going into the winter period have put in brilliant team performances.
With a bit of a Leicester City feel about the make-up of the team, Kovac can call on a small cadre of players who he leans on, particularly Mexican international Marco Fabian, Frankfurt icon and club captain Alexander Meier, and center back veteran David Abraham. Much like Claudio Ranieri, Kovac certainly has his finger on the pulse of his team, and despite the side lacking a ton of quality, he’s come up with a system and approach that masks their lack of quality and puts heavy emphasis on aggressive team defending and rigidity that has bore fruit; Frankfurt go into the break with the second-best defensive record in the Bundesliga.
Unfortunately, a brilliant back four will not be enough for them to maintain a challenge for Europe through the final stages. Hertha Berlin last year were lauded in similar fashion, but their lack of consistent sources of goals past Vedad Ibisevic and Salomon Kalou was their undoing. Kovac will have to tweak the system if he hopes Die Adler can keep up with the pace, though I suspect they’ll drop off and have to fight for Europa League.
Is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang genuinely the best striker in the Bundesliga? Comparing players at any position, especially at center forward, is always a difficult task. More often than not, what a player produced leading the line up front is indicative of the team’s tactical approach, as well as his personal niche in that particular system. In the case of Aubameyang, a player capable of such individual brilliance and wonderful attacking instincts, he can still be accused of streaky performances—not so much in regards to his goal tally, but more so how wasteful he feels like being on a particular day.
Chances will always be afforded to him, however, as he leads the line for the second-best attacking team in the Bundesliga, and this has a lot to do with the amount of goals he scores. He’s not incredibly creative, though he does create more chances than people probably realize. Ruthless in the box, a wonderful understanding of running the channels using his special awareness, and a mobility that no other center forward in the league can match.
He’s not the focal point of the Dortmund attack in the ways that the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Anthony Modeste, Vedad Ibisevic, and Sandro Wagner are for their respective clubs however, with Auba being part of a mobile front three trio that constantly adapts to what is presented in front of them. In this sense, he’s not a traditional center forward at all, but more so a versatile front-man who can be tasked in different ways at different times, unlike the other forwards mentioned above apart from probably Lewa.
On form, Auba is in fact the Bundesliga’s best striker, but as stated before, it’s hard to definitively argue that he is at the summit of the list when form is discounted. In that light, take a gander at some key stat markers via Squawka.com and have your say:
Can Borussia Monchengladbach right the floundering ship? After impressing last season with a fourth place finish and eventual Champions League qualification, Gladbach are in a world of hurt going into the winter break. After their attacking approach last season was highly lauded, Die Fohlen have found the back of the net just fifteen times this season…a mark that is good for less than a goal a match. With just a single win in their last six outings, the winter period could not have come at a better time, and new manager Dieter Hecking, former architect of VfL Wolfsburg’s brief period near the summet, will have his hands full getting Gladbach back on track.
Hecking will certainly provide a bit of stability amongst his players though, and club president Rolf Königs will look to Hecking’s experience with Wolfsburg and different tactical approach to get the best out of a group of players who are certainly selling themselves short.
The main issue Hecking will have to contend with is formation adjustments and a personnel imbalance. Playing three at the back in ten of their sixteen matches of the Hinrunde, Gladbach didn’t offer nearly enough moving forward, and were cut open far too often at the back, relying on Oscar Wendt and Julian Korb as wing backs rather than traditional full backs in a more stable back four. With Gladbach genuinely lacking a ton of creativity, additional support on the flanks could have worked if they didn’t lack pace at center back. On similar lines, the likes of Christoph Kramer and Tobias Strobl, normally two very reliable holding midfielders, have both hampered Gladbach’s creativity from deeper areas but also failed in giving Gladbach mobile central players in defense.
Further forward, the club’s real lack of a true center forward has been exposed. Both Raffael and Lars Stindl certainly overachieved last season, and coupled with the injury bug that is currently hitting Fabian Johnson, Ibrahima Traore, and Patrick Hermann, Die Borussen have fielded a make-shift attack more often than not, which has even included Thorgan Hazard leading the line. Utilizing your players in their best positions is key to any positive performances a club can produce, and currently, this is not a reality for the club.
Whether or not Hecking can bring in a proper central striker remains to be seen, but certainly a change in tactics is an absolute must. Wide players should be played out wide. No.10’s should be played in a central creative role going forward. Full backs should utilized in a more traditional manner. If Hecking can get the players back on a positive page tactically, Gladbach can certainly make a push in the second-half of the campaign. Europe is surely out of the question, but a high mid-table finish with the view of building for next season is a more than reasonable expectation.
Team of the Hinrunde
In a bid to justifiably not select nothing but Bayern and Dortmund players, here is my take on the best XI from the first-half of the Bundesliga campaign. To have your say with the community at large, Bundesliga.com has a fan voting system where you can participate.
GK: Timo Horn (FC Köln) - One of the brightest young keepers in Germany, Timo Horn has long been pegged as one to watch at club level and for the national team. As the shot stopper at the RheinEnergieStadion, Horn has put in a string of excellent performances that has aided Köln’s defensive record to be one of the best in the league, giving the club an outside shot at European football next season.
LB: Jonas Hector (FC Köln) - Another selection from Die Geißböcke, Hector’s form from last season up till now has seen him position himself as the first-choice left back for the national team, and for good reason. Stout in defense, strong in the air, and excellent going forward and providing service into the area, there is a case to be made for Hector being named one of the best in Europe given his current form.
CB: Benjamin Hübner (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim) - After shinning through for FC Ingolstadt last season, Hübner made the switch to Sinsheim and has been excellent during the Nagelsmann revolution. Despite only featuring in eleven of the sixteen fixtures, the Wiesbaden native’s strength in the air, reading the opposition passing lanes, and tackling ability make him one to watch moving forward despite his age.
CB: Mats Hummels (FC Bayern Munich) - After his move back home to the club where it all began for him—despite being the third Borussia Dortmund key player to switch to the Bavarian giants in recent seasons—Hummels instantly settled in under Carlo Ancelotti. Still a brilliant distributor from the back, Hummels has played a key role both in his play and as a leader for the Italian headmaster, helping Bayern to an astounding goals surrendered tally of just nine. He remains one of the very best in world football at his position.
RB: Mitchell Weiser (Hertha Berlin) - To go from a want-away player at Bayern to arguably the most consisted right back over the course of the last two seasons (this one included), Weiser continues his push for consideration for the national team. Brilliant going forward with recovery pace that allows him to get back if caught out, as well as providing excellent service from wide areas (he leads Hertha in assists this season with four), he’s arguably been Hertha’s best overall player up to the winter period.
DLP: Thiago Alcantara (FC Bayern Munich) - Having been hailed by Pep Guardiola as a brilliant La Masia product, Thiago has been putting his rubber stamp on the Bundesliga over the past few seasons. On the balance of his playmaking ability from deeper areas of the park, his control of Bayern’s tempo as a key orchestrator, and his ever improving contributions in defense, Thiago can certainly be added into the conversation as one of the best deeper playmakers in Europe. He makes Bayern tick, and will undoubtedly do the same for Spain in due time.
CM: Kerem Demirbay (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim) - After a less than stellar showing for struggling SV Hamburg during the 2015-16 campaign, Demirbay made an unheralded move to Hoffenheim, where he has seen a rebirth. Not only has he been key to the way Hoffenheim conduct themselves on the pitch, but his fighting spirit throughout his performances has embodied the Nagelsmann approach to the letter. He’s creative, excellent when on the ball, has a brilliant shot from range, and is the set-piece general; it’s difficult to see Hoffenheim this season without his influential performances.
CM: Naby Keita (RasenBallsport Leipzig) - Seen as one of the brightest young talents during his days at RBL’s affiliate Red Bull Salzburg, Keita came to the newly-promoted side amid great expectations; he’s delivered brilliantly. Along with Emil Forsberg, Keita has been the driving force behind both RBL’s ability going forward and their pressing capabilities without the ball. He’s having a brilliant debut season at the highest level of European club football, and though he’s drawing incorrect comparisons to N’Golo Kante, Keita is positioning himself for bigger and better things in the very near future.
RW: Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund) - Though seen just as frequently on the left side of Tuchel’s system, youngster Ousmane Dembele has taken the Bundesliga world by storm. After coming through the ranks at Stade Rennais FC and dazzling in Lique 1 last season, Dembele chose Dortmund as his next port of call despite interest from “bigger” clubs. Though Aubameyang’s form continues to impress, Dembele has proven why he is in the top echelon of young players in Europe. He’s second in the league in assists, is arguably the most exciting player in the BuLi when on the ball at pace, and he’s already shown a wonderful capability of taking matters into his own hands and raising the level of play singlehandedly. One for the future? No, one for the present.
LW: Emil Forsberg (RasenBallsport Leipzig) - The one bright spot from Sweden’s disastrous Euro 2016 campaign this past summer, Forsberg has cemented his place in RBL lore despite the club being so young. The player of the season during the 2015-16 campaign that saw the club win promotion to the German top flight, he’s become the main figure in an impressive (and young) Leipzig attack. His eight assists leads the Bundesliga currently, and his five goals for the club are only bested by wunderkind Timo Werner. With rumors surrounding his future at the club, Leipzig supporters will wait with baited breath and hope the Swedish maestro helps the club achieve their domestic and European ambitions.
CF: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund) - It is so easy to pick Robert Lewandowski for this slot, but Aubameyang has been in the goalscoring form of his life. After finishing last season with twenty-five goals in the league, he’s on pace to break the thirty goal barrier, averaging just over a goal per match currently. Second in goals in Europe’s top five leagues behind PSG’s Edinson Cavani, Auba’s ruthlessness in the final third and tactical versatility make him one of the biggest threats on the continent. Like any standpoint player at Dortmund in recent seasons, there is no telling if and when he could head for the departures gate, but for the time being, just sit back and watch the brilliance.
- Top Four/Champions League Places: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RasenBallsport Leipzig, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
- Europa League Places: Hertha Berlin, FC Köln, Eintracht Frankfurt
- Relegation: FC Ingolstadt (17th), SV Darmstadt 90 (18th)
- Top Scorer: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
- Player of the Season: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
- Manager of the Season: Julian Nagelsmann (honorable mention to Ralf Hasenhüttl)