After a 25-day hiatus, otherwise known as the ‘Winterpause,’ the Bundesliga is back, so what can be expected from the second half of the season?

Bayern fans were left incredulous at the sight of their idols picking up what they believed to be a long-lost eleventh title in a row on match day 34 after Borussia Dortmund failed to pick up three points at home against fourteenth-placed Mainz 05. This season, however, is looking like it could be different.

The first half of 2023/24, however, has once again been seen as a major challenge at the top, but it is far from Borussia Dortmund, who are still reeling from the loss of midfielder Jude Bellingham to Real Madrid. 

Action from top to bottom

This time around, it’s all about the Bayer Leverkusen side of former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso. But Bayern, who added England midfielder Eric Dier in the January break, will not give up without a fight. As BVB showed in 2019, even a 9-point lead can melt away, and Pokal winners RB Leipzig could also mount an assault.

At the other end of the table, most neutrals are surprised to see Champions League participants, and many neutral fans’ favorite teams, in the relegation zone. Cologne is also taking a big risk by appointing new coach Timo Schultz, who has no prior experience fighting the drop and will need to start scoring if they are going to avoid second-tier football next season.

Borussia Dortmund seem to have been reeling from their last-minute slip-up, but could the ‘Jadon Sancho effect’ see a revitalization of Edin Terzic’s side and a Champions League place? What about the other European places? Which other sides will be stuck in the relegation zone? Let’s look at part two of season 23/24:

The fight for the Meisterschaft; two surprise packages in the first half of the 2023/24 season:

Bayer 04 Leverkusen en route to a first-ever Meisterschaft?

The prospects for Leverkusen going into the season were challenging. However, a year into the tenure of the 114-time Spain international midfielder, Xabi Alonso, as coach, the 1988 UEFA Cup winner, Leverkusen, has been revitalized and is a serious contender for the title in 23/24.

Things seem to be going the way of the Red and Blacks. The signings this season, which include Victor Boniface, Jonas Hofmann, and Álex Grimaldo, have all hit the ground running and slotted right into Alonso’s system. 

Sporting director Simon Rolfes has struck gold with the signing of a natural-born leader and a great fit in the role of playmaker with Granit Xhaka. The all-time leading Swiss record international brings not only his experience and skills but also the form of his career.

The system of the Xabi Alonso team relies on maintaining excellent control of the ball, playing an attractive style of football, switching up the tempo, and putting the opponent under constant pressure. Bayer also possesses one of the most talented attacking midfielders in Europe, Florian Wirtz, who is in high demand from Premier League sides, including Liverpool.

If Alonso can break Bayern’s title run of eleven Meisterschaften, his stay in the Rhineland could, however, be short-lived, with reported interest from clubs including Real Madrid. For now, the Werkself, who has finished second five times, earning themselves the nickname Vizekusen, have their first-evertitle in sight. 

Can Thomas Tuchel also ‘earn’ a title with this Bayern Munich side?

Last season was too tight, by far, for most fans of the Rekordmeister. The inconsistent performances of last season, which included a quarterfinal exit in both the Champions League and the DFB Pokal, have continued into the current season.

Bayern have won the title eleven years in a row. The fans are used to success and want to see a return to a real winning routine. Despite strengthening the side, in particular, with center-back Min-Jae Kim from Serie A champions Napoli, they are only partly getting that under former Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel.

In particular, a question mark remains about the number one spot, with Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer having been out long-term with an injury. 

The Reds will have been hugely disappointed to have missed out on Sevilla’s Bono this summer; Sven Ulreich is not a realistic long-term substitute. While in Harry Kane, Tuchel has a player to replace Robert Lewandowski; whether a twelfth title is possible will depend a lot on the availability of captain Neuer. 

This season could see a change of guard at the top.

VFB Stuttgart, an inspiring turnaround that will see a top-four finish:

VfB Stuttgart narrowly missed out on relegation via the play-offs against second-tier Hamburger SV in May, but thanks to some smart transfer business in the summer, including Guinea-international Serhou Guirassy, who hit the back of the net 17 times in the first half of the season, and at a transfer fee of just €6 million, this has to be one of the best deals in the European game this summer.

The quality and confidence among this Stuttgart side are remarkable; the attack is where the exciting stuff happens. Deniz Undav, who is on loan from Brighton Hove & Albion, has contributed 11 goals so far this campaign and is ideally up from the five-time champions. 

Sebastian Hoeness is an innovator who has brought together a talented side, including Angelo Stiller, who has picked up straight where Liverpool-bound Watara Endo left off.

What’s interesting in the defending is the lack of focus on intense pressing; this is a hard team to grind down. Die Schwaben will be in the mix for their first Champions League place since 2009.

RB Leipzig can rightly be counted among the leading Bundesliga clubs.

In the summer, RB Leipzig saw the departures of Christophe Nkunku, Josip Gvardiol, Dominik Szoboszlai, and Konrad Laimer, which would hurt any club. However, the Rote Bullen has once again brought top talent, including Lois Openda, who scored 21 goals last season for Lens, Xavi Simons, Benjamin Sesko, Christoph Baumgartner, and Fábio Carvalho. All of these players have demonstrated a track record of delivering so far. 

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Marco Rose has shown he is not afraid to rotate, which serves the side well. However, RB is a club that has made an incredible ascent since its foundation in 2009. If the side can find more consistency, despite missing out on defending their DFB Pokal title, Leipzig can, as well as reaching the last eight of the Champions League, once again close in on a place in Europe’s elite competition.

Can the ‘Sancho factor’ inspire a Borussia Dortmund revival?

This season, with few exceptions, including a strong Champions League campaign, Edin Terzic’s team is showing a worrying lack of rhythm, bonding, collective and individual form, and flow, and the fifteen-point gap to Bayer Leverkusen is testimony to it. 

It was always going to be a big leap of faith to give the captaincy to Emre Can, but Marco Reus, who will be 35 in May, and even at his peak, the Dortmund-born Germany international was injury-prone, is no longer able to play more than a bit in the side.

The combination of the loss of Jude Bellingham and the limited scope of Marco Reus has left the side without real leadership and creative impulses. In particular, in midfield, there is a disconnect between defense and attack. Felix Nmecha, with a few exceptions, such as in the game against Werder Bremen in October, so far has not looked like having the scope to fill that gap.

While BVB excelled in the Champions League, where they exceeded all expectations and unexpectedly finished first in a tough group that included PSG and Newcastle United, in the league there was little to cheer about. In particular, in the attack, neither Sebastian Haller nor Karim Adeyemi have looked anything like filling the shoes of Erling Haaland, as big shoes as they are. 

There are also issues in defense due to the injuries of Julian Ryerson and German center-back Nico Schlotterbeck. A lot now depends in terms of whether Dortmund can achieve their stated goal of a Champions League place on what impetus the return of the crest-fallen Jadon Sancho and fellow loanee left-back Ian Maatsen can have.

Dortmund have not missed out on a European place, and the club, which, despite the world’s largest gates, does not even nearly match the financial muscle of Bayern Munich, can afford to either. 

Nuri Sahin has been brought in, alongside former defender Sven Bender, to shore up Edin Terzic; a Europa League-place finish could result in the former Turkey international replacing him.

The other contenders for the European spots are:

Among the chasing pack in the hunt for the Europa League and Conference places will, for certain, be Eintracht Frankfurt. Dino Toppmöller has taken over from Oliver Glasner in the hot seat. 

Among the leading players, Evan Ndicka, Djibril Sow, and Daichi Kamada have all left. Midfielder Hugo Larsson and Ecuadorian center-back Willian Pacho have been added. 

Despite the loss of center-forward Kolo Muani, whom Omar Marmoush is so far not yet a valid replacement for, this side has a lot in the tank and can stay the course. 

The Waldstadion remains once again one of the toughest places to pick up points. Eintracht looks good enough for Europe once more.

There are few more respected coaches in the league than SC Freiburg’s Christian Streich. The manager, who is in his twelfth season with Die Breisgauer, has a balanced squad at his disposal and the backing of a sold-out Europa Park Stadion for most games. 

The challenge is scoring more goals; the addition of Junior Adamu from RB Salzburg has so far failed to ignite. Relying on Enzo Grifo alone is risky. The Black and Whites have struggled in 23/24 with the added pressure of European competition, but with only the league to concentrate on, Freiburg will qualify for a European place.

Coach Pellegrino Matarazzo, who replaced Andre Breitenreiter as Hoffenheim coach, is so far struggling to persuade the doubters that he can take the ‘Blue & Whites’ to the next level. Centre-back Attila Szalai, who is one of the pillars of the renewed Hungary side, has looked like a good signing, however, the side is struggling to replace the talismanic Israeli-Arab striker Munas Dabbur, as well as midfield leader Christoph Baumgartner. 

The ‘Blue and Whites’ are also conceding too many goals. The US-born coach and his innovative tactics are proving the side’s key asset; the side’s unpredictability is also its strength. Pellegrino is getting the most out of the Hoffenheim team and it may be enough for the Conference place. 

The disappointments of the first half of the season:

Wolfsburg had a better second half of the first part of the season, but they are inconsistent and underperforming. This season, they have added Danish left-back Joakim Maehle, who has been one of the leading players at the impressive Atalanta Bergamo in Serie A. 

He is joined by former Ajax player Vaclav Cerny, who is a versatile reinforcement who can play on both wings. It remains to be seen which Wolfsburg we will see going into the second half of the season. Wolfsburg may well slip up and it could cost Nico Kovac his position.

Borussia Moenchengladbach have conceded 35 goals and are going through a season of change. Gerardo Seoane is one of the best coaches in the Bundesliga, and ‘Die Fohlenelf’ has done very well to secure his services. 

There is more at the heart of the ongoing crisis at the club than changing coaches, however. Four of the best performers—Jonas Hofmann, Lars Stindl, Ramy Bensebaini, and Marcus Thuram—have been sold. There have not been sufficient investments in the side to take the club any further ahead of where they were in 22/23.

Many neutral fans will be disappointed to find Union Berlin, a team from the eastern side of Berlin that has caught the minds and hearts of football fans from across the world in recent seasons, in the bottom part of the table. 

The challenge of a Champions League group with Real Madrid and Napoli, in addition to the league and Cup, has simply proven too much. 

After five successful years under Swiss coach Urs Fischer, the slump has seen him replaced by Croatian coach Nenad Bjelica from Turkish side Trabzonspor. Apart from two seasons with 1 FC Kaiserslautern, the former midfielder is an unknown in the Bundesliga; little more than survival can be expected from ‘Eisern Union’.

The relegation candidates:

VfL Bochum impressed in 22/23, and during this transfer window, they have done an almost complete switch-up of the squad. The side is an experimental one; coach Thomas Letsch took Vitesse Arnhem to the final of the Dutch Cup and a European place in 21/22, and he is building a solid, functional team.

Despite the solid form in the first half just a couple of injuries across key positions however would see Bochum knocked back, whether they are too good for the second tier remains to be seen.

Another team that had not been expected to be in the battle against the drop is 1. FC Köln’s eleventh-place finish in 22/23 was respectable, but the dropdown to the penultimate spot and the dismal string of results this season, which has seen only two wins and the second-highest number of goals conceded, were enough to see fan-favorite Steffen Baumgart replaced by former FC Basel coach Timo Schultz. 

Based on the quality of the side, including one of Germany’s most promising young defenders, Noah Katterbach, the Billygoats on paper have enough to fight their way out of relegation. 

However, a lot depends on the form of Wolfsburg loanee Luca Waldschmidt and former Dortmund striker Steffen Tigges. On current form, the two-time champions look like relegation candidates.

Darmstadt 98 invested just €3 million in the side that got promoted from the second tier. In particular, the failure to replace lead scorer Philip Tietz, who left for Augsburg in the summer, has left the side without firepower. 

The injury to former Norwich City center-back Christoph Zimmermann has also left the defense hobbled, and ‘Die Lillien’ has conceded 41 goals already. 

Unless there is a drastic improvement, Torsten Lieberknecht’s side looks like certain relegation candidates, and they have a lack of investment in the squad to blame.

Overall prediction: 

This season will see a change at the top, with Bayer 04 Leverkusen winning their first-ever title. Borussia Dortmund will miss out on a Champions League spot, but not by much. 

FC Cologne and Darmstadt 98 are going down, Heidenheim and Mainz 05 have too much to offer, and VFL Bochum will have to fight it out in the play-off.

Lots to look forward to, it’s all change in the Bundesliga.

Photos: Imago.