Since Borussia Dortmund claimed the title in 2012, Bayern Munich have comfortably strolled to each of the last three Meisterschale.
On the face of it we have seen a few dull years at the top of the table. The race to be ‘best of the rest’ was good last season and promises to be even better this time around, but not once has there been a title race. The league, which has been labelled as uncompetitive, is said to have suffered as a result. But it hasn’t.
In fact, Bayern Munich’s sterile dominance – in the long run – may have changed domestic German football for the better.
How did Bayern used to function? Well, it’s quite simple. For a rather long time ‘FC Hollywood’ signed the best players from clubs which threatened their dominance. They have the most money in Germany (how they got it is another story and irrelevant to this article) and are the biggest club in the country. Players aspire to play for them, and they offer the biggest salaries; Bayern play the game very well off the field as well as on it.
So in recent years, before Dortmund rose to the top of Germany football, we saw the likes of Michael, Ballack, Lucio, Valérien Ismaël, Daniel van Buyten, Miroslav Klose, Tim Borowski and Mario Gomez make the move to Bavaria from clubs who dared to threaten, or come close to threatening, Bayern’s place at the very top of the Bundesliga tree.
Then Dortmund not only won the Bundesliga in 2011 but even went on to retain it with a then Bundesliga record of 81 points in the 2011/12 season.
Away from the league ‘die Schwarzgelben’ convincingly beat Bayern in the DFB Pokal Final, and a whirlwind of noise was created. Can Dortmund now go on to form an unending rivalry with Bayern Munich that nobody else had managed? The noise was only made louder as Bayern lost the Champions League final for a year of second-placed finishes, and the landscape changed forever.
But it didn’t change in the way that many expected. Bayern pushed on and left Dortmund trailing in their wake. The truth of the matter is, if everyone spends their money as smartly as one another, it is impossible to catch Bayern.
After years of buying the best players from within Germany (the signings of Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel were from clubs who no longer wanted them, and Franck Ribéry had become something of an unreliable wandering maverick yet to fulfil his potential) Bayern broke the bank for Javi Martínez.
It was pretty uncharacteristic, they had originally baulked at the asking price of Athletic Club, but Bayern signed their missing piece. With Martínez undeniably integral and proving himself as a true world class talent, Bayern Munich made up for 2012 and won the treble.
Dortmund’s record of 81 Bundesliga points in a season was blown out of the water as Jupp Heynckes’ side claimed 91 to win the title by early April.
Now there are no signs of stopping. The signings of Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski at least temporarily put a nail in the coffin of Borussia Dortmund’s hopes of becoming the second German superpower, but Bayern’s previous strategy has taken a backseat to see the likes of Medhi Benatia, Douglas Costa and Arturo Vidal (who almost moved to Bayern when at Leverkusen) signed from abroad for big fees and on a whim.
The fees are by no means astronomical but they are nothing that anyone else in the country can compete with. Bayern are worth more than three times the valuation of Dortmund, who remain the 11th most valuable club in Europe and 2nd most valuable in Germany.
Path less travelled
If you can’t compete financially, you have to find another way.
Bayern are now so far ahead of the rest of the Bundesliga that other big clubs have had to act intelligently and decisively to launch any attempt to even keep up. To do so they need to excel tactically, in player recruitment, and with their youth systems.
The top of the Bundesliga is home to wonderful tacticians in Lucien Favre, Roger Schmidt and Thomas Tuchel. These men will give their teams an edge when they face classy or determined opposition this season.
Borussia Mönchengladbach are the finest example of using player recruitment to keep up despite trailing financially. Die Fohlen finished 4th in 2011/12 only to lose Dante, Roman Neustädter and Marco Reus to richer clubs. Last year Marc-André ter Stegen departed. This summer Max Kruse has joined VfL Wolfsburg and Christoph Kramer has returned to Bayer Leverkusen after a two-year loan.
They, however, are my tip to finish second and I suggest you look out for them in the Champions League. Lucien Favre is excellent, able set his players up to control games both with and without the ball. Above him Max Eberl manages to spend little to sign players under the radar, before selling at a large profit and starting all over again. Smart transfer and smart tactics are keeping Gladbach ahead of the game.
Roger Schmidt has developed an almost unique playing style which will see Bayer Leverkusen compete, while Dortmund have attracted a gifted coach to lead a squad built by the use of excellent scouting and finances driven by having a huge fanbase. Big money signings like Henrikh Mkhitaryan are possible, but are supplemented by incredibly intelligent buys – Julian Weigl is currently impressing after a €2.5m switch from 2.Bundesliga side 1860 Munich.
This season we may well see Schalke surprise people. Horst Heldt has not done a good job as the general manager of the club but, after fans have endured Huub Stevens, Jens Keller and Roberto Di Matteo, has brought in the much more impressive André Breitenreiter. Now he must harness the incredible youth system at the club, which has most recently churned out Julian Draxler, Max Meyer, Sead Kolašinac, Felix Platte and Leroy Sané. Signing young talents like Leon Goretzka and Johannes Geis to develop alongside them is a smart move.
These clubs can’t compete with Bayern Munich financially but, because they were left so far behind, have found alternative ways to improve. The league is of a higher standard than ever before, and that will show in time. Not one current top club in Germany is standing still so have some patience and enjoy the ride.
In football there is a lot of money, but it is largely in the hands of people who have no idea how it could be best used. Schalke, over recent years, aren’t a bad example of that.
The finances in the Bundesliga are gradually increasing but, in the meantime, most clubs are acting intelligently with little money (relatively speaking). In that regard the league is far ahead of any other in Europe.
Thanks to Bayern driving the league on Gladbach, Leverkusen, Dortmund, and Schalke now have squads they could only have dreamt of years ago in terms of both quality and depth. All four sides, and VfL Wolfsburg, have a fantastic chance of making an impression on a European level this season.
Don’t judge the quality of German football on the title race this season, as there may not be one. The best signs of domestic progression will come when you see how many Bundesliga teams reach the latter stages of European competitions.