The Bundesliga title race this season should come down to youthful champs Dortmund versus angry giants Bayern. Bayern Munich are desperate to prevent a Dortmund dynasty.
The race for the title this year should be a head-to-head affair. Dortmund are gunning for a three-peat and a seismic shift in German soccer. Bayern Munich are spending big to ensure that doesn’t happen.
By the standard that matters most, points earned, last season’s Dortmund squad was the best Bundesliga team in history. That has Bayern Munich worried – and rightly.
Contrary to the impressions Bayern made by finishing runner-up three times, last’s years Munich squad wasn’t a bunch of bumbling idiots. In fact, the team played well enough to win the German title in the vast majority of seasons. So how, if at all, can they improve enough to edge ahead of the record-setting champs, especially since Dortmund themselves seem to have gotten better on paper?
“Must stop Dortmund” is at the top of Munich President Uli Hoeness and his employees’ to-do list, underlined in red and decorated with multiple exclamation points. In the fifty years since the Bundesliga was formed as Germany’s national league in 1962, Mönchengladbach are the only team other than Bayern to have won three titles in a row. That was back in the 1970s, the last decade in which Bayern Munich were not the dominant team in Germany.
The last thing the 60-year-old Hoeness wants is a return to the dark ages when the tone was set somewhere other than in Munich’s Säbener Street. Thus far, though, traditional Bayern strategies have not worked against a Dortmund team with a knack for bargains, which has shown that youthful enthusiasm can trump princely-paid professionalism.
Rolling with Reus
Dortmund’s only major loss this summer was midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who was sold for roughly seven times his original transfer fee to Manchester United. Dortmund Chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke and coach Jürgen Klopp know a good deal when they see one. And they sent an immediate signal by reinvesting that money to bring in rising star Marco Reus from Gladbach.
The signing was significant not only because 23-year-old has the quality to replace the fleet-footed Japanese midfielder. Dortmund also succeeded in landing Reus despite strong interest from Bayern.
Dortmund’s other new additions are also first-rate. Striker Julian Schieber from Stuttgart should be a good replacement and perhaps occasional partner for Robert Lewandowski. And 18-year-old midfielder Leonardo Bittencourt was one of the most hotly coveted prospects of that age in Germany, potentially a new Mario Götze.
Speaking of Götze, the breakthrough player of the 2010-11 season is back after a long injury and is still only 20 years old. Having played but a marginal role in Dortmund’s title last season, his return could have the same impact as a major new signing.
There’s a pattern emerging here. Dortmund brand of forechecking, high-intensity football are now attracting Germany’s top young talents, who relish the idea of playing for the hyperactive and likeable Klopp, while Bayern are bringing in talent from abroad and focusing on veterans.
Someone’s got to give
Hoeness is many things to many people, but one thing he’s not is a miser. In an effort to restore the natural order of the universe, he’s prepared to shell out 40 million euros – a new Bundesliga record – for Spaniard Javi Martinez.
The fact that he’s allocating silly money for a defensive midfielder who is Xavi Alonso’s back-up in the Spanish national team shows how grim Uli’s mood must be. Earlier this summer Bayern also inked highly rated Swiss playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri, underrated Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, veteran forward Claudio Pizarro and defender Dante.
The result is a squad bursting at the seams with quality but also with the potential to come part completely. The past two seasons, whenever fit, wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery enjoyed guaranteed spots in a 4-3-3 line-up. If that remains true, nine players – the new offensive acquisitions plus Mario Gomez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller and Luis Gustavo – will be competing for only three spots in the line-up.
On the other hand, the new roster may be intended to let coach Jupp Heynckes depart from the somewhat predictable “Robbery” system that came up short the past two campaigns. If so, that is not going to sit well with some people, particular Robben, whose clubhouse demeanor is rumored to be so irritating that Ribery allegedly slugged him in the face last season.
Heynckes needs to focus his charges on putting the hurt on opponents, and he’ll have to hope Dortmund get distracted and come back down to earth.
A season to savor
The pre-season sparring contest went to Bayern, who beat Dortmund to win the so-called Super Cup, a two-team event whose significance is such that it’s played in the dog days of August. Still. Still, it was the first victory for Munich in six tries against Dortmund, a stretch that included a 5-2 humiliation in last season’s German Cup.
Last season, Munich’s bosses blamed the team’s failures on the fact that Dortmund crashed out of the Champions League early and thus could focus on domestic titles while Bayern had to play internationally right up to the very end. This year should put that theory to test. It’s hard to see Dortmund repeating the naïve, over-awed mistakes that led them to finish last in their Champions League group.
A deep run in club football’s premier competition could divert Dortmund’s attention and lead them to drop points, opening the door for Bayern. Especially in defense, Jürgen Klopp’s men haven’t looked sharp in this summer’s pre-season matches.
Then again, virtually all the pundits predicted that Bayern would reassert their dominance last season. And no one foresaw the men in yellow and black rewriting the record books.
All of which means that fans can look forward to what should be one of the most fascinating title races in Bundesliga history. Could there be a better way to mark the fiftieth anniversary of league? Hardly.
So strap yourself into your seats, ladies and gentlemen. A wild ride of exclamation points and question marks is about to begin.