The Bundesliga returns after the winter break this weekend and the title race is closer than ever — a welcome change. But it will be Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig or Borussia Dortmund who lift the Meisterschale in May?
The list begins on what used to be the outer rim and the names circle inwards before jumping back out to an extra rim added when space ran out, spinning round and round like a record, each name a groove on an album which first appeared in 1903.
Since 2013 however, the record has stalled. “FC Bayern München” has been on repeat again and again, totaling seven times in a row.
Because, as good as album tracks such as “exciting youth prospects”, “tactical innovation”, “vibrant fan culture” and “socially-responsible football” undoubtedly are, even the Bundesliga’s biggest advocates will admit that the absence of that stand-out single “title race” has held it back for much of the last decade.
New decade, new tune
In just under four months’ time, we’ll know whether that has changed or not. For the time being, it’s looking good. The Bundesliga hit-parade has a new leader at the half-way stage: RB Leipzig are two points clear of Borussia Mönchengladbach, four points clear of Bayern and seven points ahead of Borussia Dortmund and Schalke.
Four clubs are within striking distance of the league leaders – no wonder kicker‘s front page ahead of the start of the Rückrunde – the second half of the season – this weekend proclaimed that “the title race is more exciting than it has been for ages.” The magazine’s favorite for the title is clear: RB Leipzig.
Should they still be top come May, Julian Nagelsmann’s team will hardly be the most popular of new champions and questions about the future of German football will have to be asked, but there will be no room on the Meisterschale for B-Sides such as “undemocratic club structures,” “circumvention of 50+1,” “dubious transfer policy” or “Red Bull marketing vehicle”.
A triumph for front man Julian Nagelsmann and his band of players would hardly be undeserved. So far this season, RB have scored the most goals in total (48), the most from set-pieces (13), the most on the counterattack (11), the most in the first 15 minutes (7) and the most in the last 15 minutes (13). They’re also the best away team in the league, having lost only once on the road, all a result of Nagelsmann’s efforts to make them a more rounded team than the aggressive pressing machine they were under Ralf Rangnick.
In Timo Werner, they have the most dangerous striker in the Bundesliga leading the line. The 23-year-old’s 18 goals and six assists trumping Robert Lewandowski 19 goals and only two assists by that particular measure. “Winning the title would be the ultimate achievement,” Werner told BILD ahead of Saturday’s visit of Union Berlin– the newly-promoted side whose values, for many fans, stand diametrically opposed to RB Leipzig.
Eighth album trouble
But an RB title will also be dependent on others not performing – particularly Bayern. It seems the eighth album is notoriously tricky to get right.
This season has already seen significant upheaval in Munich. Upstairs, Herbert Hainer has replaced Uli Hoeness as president and Oliver Kahn has joined the board. Down on the bench, Hansi Flick took over from Niko Kovac, inheriting a thin squad very much in transition, frustrated with life under Kovac and plagued by injuries. All of this, forced Flick to turn to youth to plug the gaps.
Alphonso Davies, the Canadian teenager and a winger by trade, was pressed into service at left-back, taking to the role instantly. Bayern also had 18-year-old Dutch super-sub Joshua Zirkzee to thank for late wins over Freiburg and Wolfsburg in December.
Lucas Hernandez, Niklas Süle, Javi Martinez and Kingsley Coman are all out, while Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry both missed Bayern’s controversial training camp in Qatar. Both will travel to Berlin on Sunday to face Hertha.
Bayern were six points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund at this stage last season, a gap which became nine points before they ultimately caught up. A four-point deficit this time around won’t have them panicking just yet– especially with RB Leipzig visiting the Allianz Arena in February.
The alternative charts
Capable of unstoppable rock and roll football when they feel like it (just ask Inter Milan), Borussia Dortmund have also been guilty of being sloppy in possession, weak at set-pieces and liable to ship late goals, leaving them seven points off the pace.
The capture of Norwegian star Erling Haaland is a real coup and will help bolster an attack which, while rich in creativity and verve, often lacks a focal point. With Saturday’s trip to mid-table Augsburg followed by home games against Union and newly-promoted Cologne, Dortmund will be looking for nine points to stake their claim in the title race.
Two of their direct competitors in that race get the new Bundesliga decade underway on Friday night when fifth-place Schalke welcome second-place Borussia Mönchengladbach – both under new coaches who have had an immediate effect.
In Gelsenkirchen, David Wagner has so far succeeded where Markus Weinzierl and Domenico Tedesco struggled – namely to coax a tune out of a squad which had been written off by most. In Mönchengladbach, there were higher expectations of Marco Rose but the 43-year-old has met them. The Foals spent eight weeks on top of the Bundesliga thanks to a varied attack and the joint-best defense in the league.
Elsewhere, in the alternative charts, there will be the usual intrigue provided by the two Berlin clubs who meet again in March, by the consistently over-performing Freiburg and the consistently inconsistent Cologne. Both Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt have work to do after disappointing starts.
But the focus will be on the top of the Bundesliga where, at the start of a new decade, it’s time to change the record.