Bayern Munich peerless, Dortmund best of the rest, Freiburg a pleasant surprise


There is, of course, a German word for everything, and with the Hinrunde (the first half of the season) now in the history books, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae runs the rule over the talking points and surprises going into the break.

There has been a feeling of inevitability about the past few weeks. Bayern Munich, despite significant absences — in particular the loss of Joshua Kimmich for various well-documented COVID-related reasons – have pulled away from the singular chaser, Borussia Dortmund, to claim the unofficial Herbstmeisterschaft (autumn championship) for the 25th time. The bad news for Dortmund and non-Bayern fans alike is that the Bavarians have gone on to win the Meisterschale 21 times out of 24 from this position.

Der Klassiker took place a mere three and a half weeks ago, but the Rekordmeister‘s lead at the top has grown from one point just prior, to nine points now, as German football, in keeping with the country’s family-centred holiday traditions, goes dark until Jan. 7.

Plenty of opprobrium has been heaped in Dortmund’s direction, but much of it, I feel, is overly harsh.

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Yes, five defeats for Marco Rose’s team are a couple too many and their away record shows a negative balance with more losses than wins, but 11 victories out of 17 is about normal for a Dortmund Hinrunde. The team in its current guise is not outstanding, with an overreliance on the individual qualities of the otherworldly Erling Haaland, the still classy Marco Reus and the precocious Jude Bellingham. Beyond that trio, there are multiple plodders and there have been too many injuries for BVB to have a realistic chance to go toe to toe with Bayern over half a season.

Bayern under Julian Nagelsmann have mostly been “Bayern-like” — an expression that has entered the German language in that precise form. Granted, there have been hiccups against Eintracht Frankfurt and FC Augsburg, and we shouldn’t gloss over a harrowing DFB-Pokal night when everything inexplicably went awry at Borussia Monchengladbach. Yet Nagelsmann has been a colossus in his short time at the club.

His vertical, possession-based tactical vision for Bayern is a perfect fit, and although young for a coach at 34, embodies what Germans call “Sozialkompetenz.” There is a conversational ease about him, and with senior figures like Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge having vacated their executive posts, Nagelsmann has become the likeable, interesting public face of Bayern, rather than new CEO Oliver Kahn or sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.

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On the pitch for the champions, Robert Lewandowski set a new record for Bundesliga goals in a calendar year (43), Thomas Muller is on a pace to log assists like no one before (13 so far) while Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane have hit numerous high notes — Sane after hearing boos from some home fans at the start of the season. I remain convinced that in Jamal Musiala we’re watching a once-in-a-generation talent, and Nagelsmann has used him judiciously.

That SC Freiburg are third should be cause for celebration. Were a comparable provincial team with limited resources in such a lofty position, say in England, we would doubtless be hearing about it as a measure of the league’s greatness. Manager Christian Streich is about to celebrate 10 years in charge of the club, and his stamp is everywhere. The star man has been 22-year-old defender Nico Schlotterbeck, who has already been called up by Germany. His first cap can’t be far off.

The foundation is strong. Freiburg have an excellent and versatile keeper in Dutchman Mark Flekken, a courageous captain in Christian Gunter, who selflessly throws his body up and down the left flank, and an unsung hero in long-serving midfield stopper Nicolas Hofler.

The flair and imagination comes often from Vincenzo Grifo, who capped off his Hinrunde exploits with a Panenka penalty in the deserved 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday.

Leverkusen, underpinned by youth and a fine coach in Gerardo Seoane, remain one of the Bundesliga’s most watchable sides, but a bit like Dortmund, the wobbly defence has been known to let them down. Perhaps it’s no shock that the most entertaining game of the season so far was the 4-3 defeat they suffered at BVB’s hands in September. In Patrik Schick (16 goals), the Werksclub has a striker who looks ever more complete with each passing season.

After the first half of the Bundesliga season, there looks to be little chance of keeping Bayern Munich from a 10th straight title. INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

Leverkusen and TSG Hoffenheim, fourth and fifth, are about where I imagined they would and should be before a ball was kicked. I didn’t expect Frankfurt as high as sixth given all the changes on and off the pitch, but it’s a tribute to coach Oliver Glasner that they have found a way, reeling off six wins from their past seven Bundesliga matches and toping their Europa League group.

Nor did I anticipate Union Berlin and FC Cologne to be seventh and eighth, respectively. Ably coached by Urs Fischer and Steffen Baumgart, these are well-balanced sides who understand their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Special mentions for strikers Taiwo Awoniyi and the evergreen Anthony Modeste, who’s enjoying one of his best ever campaigns at the age of 33.

The negative surprises have been RB Leipzig, Gladbach and VfL Wolfsburg. All made coaching changes in the summer and of the three, only Gladbach have stood by their man.

That situation won’t change in the short term as Adi Hutter has a big believer in sporting chief Max Eberl, and after all, Hutter had similar initial problems in his previous job with Eintracht before guiding the club to a European semifinal. But the next two games are against Bayern and then Leverkusen, and the last thing Eberl needs is a prolonged fight against the drop. Gladbach must improve.

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THURSDAY, DEC. 23
• PSV v Go Ahead (12:30 p.m. ET)
• Anderlecht v Kortrijk (12:40 p.m. ET)
• Club Brugge v Leuven (2:55 p.m. ET)

SUNDAY, DEC. 26
• Cercle Brugge v Club Brugge (7:25 a.m. ET)
• Barnsley v Stoke (9:55 a.m. ET)
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Wolfsburg — who have lost seven competitive matches in a row — appear ill equipped for a relegation scrap, and Florian Kohfeldt, who succeeded Mark van Bommel (who was dismissed after just 13 games), has his work cut out for him.

Mainz and VfL Bochum have arguably overachieved, but neither can be totally sure it won’t ultimately be a battle to preserve their top-flight status. Hertha Berlin must also tread carefully, although there have been one or two encouraging signs under new coach Tayfun Korkut, particularly in the weekend win over Dortmund.

Augsburg, VfB Stuttgart and Arminia Bielefeld at the moment look favourites to compete to avoid 17th place, which brings with it automatic relegation.

SpVgg Greuther Furth, on the other hand, are almost certainly going down, despite a shock win over Union recently. The gap is just too great, points and quality wise. At least they’re now on course to top Tasmania Berlin’s 1965-66 Bundesliga record for futility (two wins, four draws, 28 defeats).

Thanks for reading these columns, and I wish you and your family ein frohes Fest und einen guten Rutsch.

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