The wonderful thing about the Bundesliga is its unpredictability. You just never know what is going to happen. Witness the remarkable rises of Mainz, Hannover or Nürnberg last season, while teams expected to challenge at the top of the table – Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg – spent much of the season desperately fighting against relegation.
Or I could point you in the direction of champions Dortmund. Dortmund’s title victory was not shocking, but it was surprising. Dortmund finished fifth the year before and had developed a good group of players. Some labelled Dortmund as potential dark horses, but few really expected them to be crowned champions. But they were. Dortmund played at a tempo other teams simply could not handle. Dortmund’s pressing was exquisitely executed, which hemmed in the opposition and allowed Dortmund to win the ball deep inside the opposition’s half. Once they got the ball, Dortmund were equally devastating. Kagawa, Götze, Barrios and Großkreutz were excellent, as their swift, incisive passing and movement tore teams to shreds. At the other end, Dortmund’s pressing kept the pressure off of a fantastic defence – marshalled by the superb Mats Hummels. Dortmund only conceded 22 goals all season, coming tantalisingly close to beating Bayern’s record of conceding only 21 goals in a Bundesliga season, set in 2007/08.
The question now is how will they do next season? History doesn’t seem to be on their side. The last two surprise champions – Stuttgart in 06/07 and Wolfsburg in 08/09 – both struggled domestically and in Europe the following season. Of course, there were specific reasons why both Wolfsburg and Stuttgart failed to reproduce their title winning form the following season, and that doesn’t mean that Dortmund can’t. It still, however, begs the question: can Dortmund emulate last season’s wonderful form?
The fear was that this great young team would be broken up, as big sides from across the continent waited like vultures to pick apart a beautifully assembled side. Thankfully, that fear has not been realised, with one major exception. Nuri Sahin. Sahin, along with Hummels, was Dortmund’s best player. Alongside his faithful deputy Sven Bender, Sahin broke up the play and intelligently used the ball. He linked up everything and kept Dortmund’s play ticking over. His vision is excellent and his range of passing even better. He also chipped in with some absolutely vital goals, such as a last minute effort against Köln. Six goals and 8 assists in 30 games speak volumes about his importance. In short, he’s brilliant.
Unfortunately for Dortmund, Sahin had a release fee, valid only for this summer, written into his contract. Real Madrid met that fee, and it was never likely that Sahin would turn them down. However, Dortmund have replaced Sahin about as well as they could. Ilkay Gündo?an has been signed for a bargain price of only €4 million. At only 20, Gündo?an should improve massively over the next few seasons, and he undoubtedly has big potential. He’s technically excellent and is a great passer, but there are still doubts that he’s ready to provide the same consistent quality that Sahin did last season.
In addition, the Croatian international Ivan Perisic has also been added to the squad. With 22 goals and the Belgian player of the year award to his name last season, Perisic, on paper, should provide a new and exciting option in attacking midfield.
Another classic pitfall for Bundesliga teams is the ability to balance European and domestic commitments. Dortmund do not have that experience. Last season, Dortmund could not transfer their domestic form to the Europa League, and Dortmund, slightly unluckily, went out at the group stages, albeit in a tough group. Next season, the demands will be even greater and Dortmund need to learn to produce top form midweek without sacrificing their domestic challenge. As almost certain fourth seeds, Dortmund are likely to find themselves in a tough Champions League group. Even considering that, Dortmund have to aim for at least the last 16, while also striving to retain their title, so manager Jürgen Klopp faces a very difficult balancing act.
It should be noted that Dortmund were not a flash in the pan who took advantage of other teams’ (Bayern’s) weakness to win the league. They amassed a very high points total by recent standards and are a genuinely very good team. They are unlikely to be ‘found out’ next season. They still have the best defence in the league by miles, which will see Dortmund have, at the very least, a solid season. In addition, the guile, craft and hard work or last year’s forwards remains, perhaps even bolstered by the return of Kagawa and the addition of Perisic. It seems likely that Dortmund will be fighting it out at the top of the, but it’ll be very difficult to emulate the Dortmund team of the mid-90s which won back to back titles, before winning the Champions League in 1997.
Bayern’s anti-cyclical transfer policy is being brought to bear. With Neuer, Rafinha and Usami already added, and more additions probably on the way, Bayern look very likely to win the title. The real goal for Dortmund has to be Champions League qualification. Without Champions League football, Dortmund simply won’t be able to keep this team together. Champions League qualification will be easier next season, as, for the first time in a decade, the top 4 Bundesliga teams qualify. A lot rests on Gündo?an being able to replace Sahin, but Dortmund should have enough quality to compete in Europe, while ensuring a top 4 finish.
But, of course, the wonderful thing about the Bundesliga is that it’s wonderfully unpredictable.