No matter how long you study the game of football, it's never predictable. The first half of this season was one that confounded experts. As expected Bayern Munich are tops, but even they are something of an enigma.
Every season brings new faces to the Bundesliga, but not every campaign features a new arrival with a profile as high as Bayern coach Pep Guardiola. Any thoughts that the Bavarians would have trouble adapting to their master's tiki-taka approach flew out the window, however, as the reigning champs went undefeated and dropped only four points in sixteen league games.
Guardiola spends most of every match furiously gesticulating like an elegantly-dressed octopus directing Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," but to outside observers it's unclear if anyone, including his players, understands what he's on about.
The basic idea seems to be that every player should be able to play almost any position on command, which is why an old-school one-trick-pony like Mario Gomez is gone and a technician like Rafinha has experienced a minor career renaissance under Pep's regime. Whatever the Spaniard's doing, it#s working - Bayern had all but wrapped up the title before the first snowfall in most of Germany.
Salt-of-the-earth eloquence, and not elegance, has always been Jürgen Klopp's strong suit, but the Dortmund coach has gotten a bit too salty for many officials' liking in this campaign. Indeed, the congenial Kloppo has at times seemed as though he was about to transform into a werewolf on the touchlines - most notably in the Champions League, where he earned a two-match ban.
In part it's hard to blame Klopp for blowing his stack. The number of injuries Dortmund have suffered - at one point the entire starting back four was out - would provoke fits of rage in far less excitable coaches. At times it seemed as though all Dortmund players had to do to twist an ankle or knobble a knee was to make contact with a blade of grass.
At the same time, it's hard to dismiss the thought that teams are finally learning how to play against the Bundesliga champs of 2011 and 2012 - namely defend high and use long balls to combat Dortmund’s pressing, a recipe Guardiola employed too. In Dortmund’s last match of 2013, Klopp’s men went down to their third straight home defeat against a Hertha Berlin squad with an equally long injury list. That result dropped Borussia to an unaccustomed fourth in the table
Old dogs with new tricks
Mönchengladbach, who supplanted Dortmund in the top three in their final match of 2013, were the pleasant surprise of the first half of the season. And one of their lynchpins is Raffael, whose nine goals made him Germany's top-scoring midfielder.
It was hardly a surprise that Foals coach Lucien Favre brought in the Brazilian, who worked with him at both FC Zürich and Hertha. But not even Favre would have expected Raffael to become a goal-machine he has in 2013-14. In the past, the slender midfielder was known for weaving his way through defenders only to run out of gas in front of the keeper. Clearly something has clicked in Raffael's head - whether the switch will stay on in 2014 is anybody’s guess.
A team that keeps everyone guessing is Bayer Leverkusen, who have stealthed their way into second place - miles behind Bayern but a healthy four points ahead of Gladbach. Ask a regular Bundesliga watcher to name the Pharmaceuticals best performance and he’ll probably shrug. Ask him to name a Leverkusen embarrassment, and he'll say Leverkusen’s defeat to last-placed Braunschweig, or the 5-0 thrashing by Manchester United in the Champions League or the team's failure to score against Werder Bremen's slapstick defense.
So how the heck are Leverkusen second? The consistency of goal-getter Stefan Kiessling or the fine season by keeper Bernd Leno don’t suffice as explanations. The truth is no one knows. And don't expect any answers from their Finnish coach Sami Hyypiä. Finns have a reputation for being taciturn, and the Hyypster is no exception.
Mechanical failure and human frailty
Folks in Hoffenheim, of course, would argue that Leverkusen should have a couple of points fewer. Last October, the Pharmaceuticals narrowly beat the southern Germans thanks to a goal Kiessling headed in through a hole in the side netting. Fans of the Hoff were outraged and demanded a replay, ignoring the fact that Lothar Matthäus has a better chance of getting a head coaching job in Germany than any team has of getting UEFA to annul a result.
For Hoffenheim's many detractors in Germany, the irony was delicious. A team that has risen to the top flight thanks to the support of a billionaire software tychoon patron was undone by a simple tear in a bit of cord. However, the spectacle of the goal that wasn't put more wind in the sales of those who argue that technological help should no longer be excluded from a sport whose results turn on the trickiest and most precise of decisions.
Count Nuremberg among their number. "The Club" had already set a record for the longest winless streak ever to begin a season and thought they were about to end their frustration when they went ahead 3-0 in Hanover. But the hosts got back into the match thanks to a late goal by Mame Diouf who was at least two meters offside. The final score 3-3.
Rather understandably, Nuremberg were incensed about a linesman’s decision worthy of Ray Charles, but it’s been typical of their season thus far. The Club have held their own against almost two-thirds of their opponents, racking up eleven draws. But they’ve been unable to beat three-thirds of their foes, remaining winless at the winter break. Half the league has lost more often than Nuremberg. Nonetheless, the Club are second-last, level on points with Braunschweig.
The all-time record for draws in a season is eighteen. Nuremberg are well-poised to break it - and become one of the most consistent teams to ever get relegated to division two.