MUNICH, GERMANY - APRIL 17: Franck Ribery of Muenchen is seen with David Alaba after winning the UEFA Champoins League Semi Final first leg match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Real Madrid at Allianz Arena on April 17, 2012 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)
As far as a nickname, I'm considering the "Bundies," the "Germies," or the "DeeEffBees." But whatever you want to call them, below are our awards-show-style accolades for the entire 1. Bundeliga's 2011-2012 season. First, some ground rules: this includes JUST matches under the DFB Banner (Bundeliga and Pokal), unless otherwise specifically noted. Second, for each category, I've first explained exactly what the award means/requires, if it's not obvious through the name, and important factors that were considered. Then the winner is listed in bold, along with other candidates that received consideration, for the reasons described. Third, I tried to be as fair as possible, and not just give all the awards to Bayern players (though Bayern guys were given an award if they truly earned it).
I watch a good deal of Bundesliga ball, but I'm sure there are people out there who watch even more, so feel free to critique my choices (and each other's). Just try to keep it clean and friendly in the comment section. And we're off ...
Best Performance by a Newly-Promoted Team
This one goes to FC Augsburg, who never threatened for a European spot, but did enough to show they belonged at this level and avoided relegation by several spots. Augsburg and Hertha Berlin were the new boys this season, and most people probably would have picked Hertha to finish higher - bigger club, better stadium, several new transfer pick-ups of decent players (including a pair of Bayern guys).
But Hertha is going to have to win the play-off just to stay up, while Augsburg finished in 14th, and with the 2d-best defensive record of any team outside the European spots, with just 49 goals allowed in 34 matches. They also finished undefeated against Monchengladbach (one win and one draw) and earned a big draw against BVB in March that gave Bayern a chance at the title (which we promptly blew). Congratulations, Auggies, and best of luck next year.
The run-away winners of this award are 1. FC Köln, who had an 18-goal scorer and were gifted a cheap red card against Ribery in their first Bayern match, and yet still couldn't stay out of the bottom 2. The billy-goats had the league's worst defensive record, worst goal differential, and most losses, all by fairly large margins. With Podolski now leaving, Köln are going to have to fight their way back into the top flight without the only difference-maker they had. Tough times in the beautiful city on the Rhine. They've been relegated before, though, and quickly battled back.
Most Surprisingly Good Season
Two months ago, this one wouldn't even have been a question. But as it stands, I had to think for a bit, with Hannover 96 (solid season, 2d straight year going to Europa League), Augsburg (see above) and Freiburg (see further below) all earning consideration.
At the end of the day, though, this one goes to Borussia Monchengladbach, their recent run of mediocrity notwithstanding. Last year, the Foals finished with 18 losses, an ugly -17 goal differential, and only stayed up by the skin of their teeth thanks to a win in the play-off. This year, they were a surprise feel-good story (to their own fans, at least), seriously competing for the title for much of the year and earning a spot in the Champions League final qualifying round. Most amazing was BMG's defensive transformation, going from worst in the league in goals allowed last year to second-best this year. Sure, their dip in form over the past 12 weeks shows they might have been riding their luck a bit. But jumping up the table 12 spots and cutting your goals allowed by two-thirds is worthy of some accolades. So, congratulations to Lucien Favre and BMG, and let's hope they can make some noise in the Champions League next year.
Comeback Player of the Year Award
It feels weird to give a "comeback" award to a player who's been recognized as good for the past 6 seasons. But it's worth noting that, at this time last year, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was seen a someone who had found his level as a solid, B+ striker who could find the net if you gave him the ball from inside 14 yards. Between injuries, shuffling between clubs, and generally inconsistent form, Huntelaar was an afterthought when talking about truly dangerous strikers.
But this year, he answered the bell, scorching Bundesliga defenses to win the league scoring title. He was always a guy who could shoot, but his game had previously stagnated, and defenses had figured out you could basically shut him down just by keeping a CB between him and the target. This year, though, he added some versatility to his game: he has better lateral movement, better patience, and a better "second touch" that makes him hard to shut down with simple man-marking. When you add his 14 goals in the Europa League and 5 in the Pokal, KJH is starting to show the talent that made him interesting to Real Madrid and AC Milan earlier in his career. He's still only 29 years old and seems to have put his fitness issues behind him. With Schalke playing in the Champions League next season, Klaas is hoping to show that the previous 2 seasons were a fluke, rather than this one.
Best Breakthrough Performance from a Rising Star
One word: Alabaster.
To say that this kid saved our season would be an exaggeration ... but not a very big one.
Most Mind-Boggling Performance from the Lower Leagues
An easy win for SpVgg Gruether-Fuerth, who won the 2. Bundesliga outright and will be playing with the big boys next year. SpVgg also went on a memorable run in the Pokal, beating 2 top-level teams on the road to reach the semifinals.
At that point, they embarked on one of the strangest matches in recent memory, as they fought to a stand-still against Bundesliga leaders BVB over 120 minutes. With only a few seconds to go, SpVgg manager Mike Bueskens switched 'keepers to prepare for the penalty shoot-out, only for new GK Jasmin Fejzic to watch the ball ricochet off him into the net just as the official was preparing to call time on the match.
This had to be just an awful moment for SpVgg fans, but they can take solace in the fact that they're going up, and that their performances from this season show they can make a real go of it. Also, they can rekindle their next-door-neighbor rivalry with Nuernberg, who they beat in the Pokal already this year. Also, SpVgg has some weird Irish theme going on - they wear green-and-white hoops like Celtic, and they even have a clover-leaf on their crest. Anyone with information on this is welcome to weigh in.
Their stadium, by modern standards, is kind of crappy. I'll be interested to see whether the DFB asks them to make upgrades.
Worst Champions League Performance
Borussia Dortmund. FFS, you nerds couldn't even beat Marseille. And they have a stadium that looks like it's not even finished being built.
Best Second-Half Salvage Job
This one flew under the radar, but it's possibly the most remarkable story of the Bundesliga this year. SC Freiburg went into the winter break dead last, having won only 3 matches. When the winter transfer period rolled around, they promptly sold Papis Demba Cisse, literally their only noteworthy player (who went on to light up the Premier League). You probably could have gotten even odds on their getting 2 more wins for the season, much less securing continued 1. Bundeliga existence.
So what did they do? Rattled off 7 wins and 3 draws of their next 17 matches, including a huge win on the road against a solid Leverkusen club and a 4-1 stomping of Köln. The Freis finished in 12th place, and if the season went on a little longer, would probably claw their way into the top half. Manager Christian Streich, who took over in truly awful circumstances over the winter break, earns Manager of the Year honors for the job he did over the past 4 months.
Most Valuable Player
I really had to give this one some thought. There were a lot of players who looked really sharp and had a few huge games this year, but I wouldn't say anyone who really dominated the league. Huntelaar, as mentioned above, was awesome. Gomez had over 25 goals for the second straight year. Ribery had 12 goals and 12 assists, and was back to his old self ripping up defenses on the left side. Pizarro, amazingly, had 18 goals and 8 assists on a mediocre Bremen team; without him, they're probably in the relegation fight. Even Marco Reus played incredibly well - 18 goals and 9 assists, including several match winners, and showed he could turn a match on its head in less than 3 seconds as the leader of BMG's quick-counter-strike squad.
At the end of the day, though, I'm going to give Bundesliga MVP to Robert Lewandowski. If you'd told me at this time last year that BVB would sell Sahin and that Goetze would then miss long periods of time due to injury, I'd say "they'll probably sneak into a CL spot, but no way they could win the title again." But they did, with room to spare, as an offensive juggernaut. And Lewandowski's 22 goals, 8 assists, and constantly threatening presence in the opponents' area was the biggest reason why.
Sure, Dortmund has other great players: Hummels, of course, Kagawa, even that bastard-ass Subotic. But if you take any of those guys away, Dortmund probably still wins the title. They'd have had to sweat it out, and Bayern would have had a much better chance, but Dortmund probably wins it in the end. But if you take Lewandoswki off their roster this year, you're looking at an entirely different club. And that's probably the most accurate measure of who's truly the most valuable player.
Now we go into Pokal and CL Final mode, starting tomorrow or Tuesday. As always, email me with suggestions or if you're having trouble activating an account. I welcome criticism of the above awards, but let's not lose our tempers. Thanks for reading.