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Can an established “top five” knock Bayern Munich off their perch in the Bundesliga?

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A solidified top five may be the key to increased competitiveness and perhaps, the end of Bayern Munich’s utter dominance, in the Bundesliga.

Bayern Munich - FC Schalke 04
Is the Meisterschale forever Bayern’s?
Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images

When Jonas Hoffman was substituted for Nadiem Amiri in Germany’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic, I was worried for a moment. Hoffman, instrumental in Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Champions League campaign so far, might miss some important games, including three crucial Champions League games after the international break. Gladbach, in swashbuckling style, hammered Shakhtar Donetsk, 0-6, in Ukraine for their biggest every away victory before the onset of the current international break.

A first victory in this year’s group stages accompanied by two draws took them to the top of the table of a group in which they, were by and large predicted to be the bottom side, the team that Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk would think about the least as they tried to find a way to progress to the Round of 16. A win in Germany against the same team might all but guarantee Gladbach’s seemingly impossible passage into the second round of the Champions League next week, a remarkable feat for a team relegated in 2007. Gladbach won promotion in 2008 and had to win a playoff for survival in 2011.

If Gladbach keeps finishing in the top five in the Bundesliga, perhaps, they will find themselves in a Champions League final. Perhaps, they will find a way to become a solid competitor of the behemoth that is Bayern Munich.

Why does this matter? In 2013, I was one among many who believed that Bayern progressed to become, perhaps, the best Bayern side of all time because they had a serious rival at home, they had to take care of in Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund, if your memory stretches that far back is the last German team not named Bayern Munich to win the Bundesliga.

Dortmund is also the last German team not named Bayern Munich to find themselves in a Champions League final (2013). If one wants to look for German teams not called Bayern which reached the Champions League final before that, one has to go as far back as 2002 (Bayer Leverkusen 1-2 Real Madrid) and 1997 (Borussia Dortmund 3-1 Juventus). In a much smaller time period (2005-2019) from the Premier League, for context, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal have all made the final or won it.

The Premier League’s Top Six and the Bundesliga’s Top….?

Premier League 2005 - 2020 Finishings
Does the Premier League have a top six?

The table displays a very clear trend. Manchester United tends to finish between second and third during most seasons. Arsenal is extremely consistent, despite being the English Neverkusen, and hence, their cementing of fourth spot in the table is no surprise. Tottenham has had a grip on fifth while Manchester City’s data is slightly skewed due to poor seasons pre-2007. There is an established top six in the Premier League.

Let’s make a similar comparison for the Bundesliga. Due to the competitive nature of the league from second to eighteenth spot, I had to make room for no less than seven sides:

Bundesliga 2005-2020 Top Seven Performances
Bundesliga 2005-2020 Top Seven Performances

I took some creative liberties with RB Leipzig. As the data is for 15 seasons and Leipzig has only been a Bundesliga side for four, I decided to predict where they would finish in four other seasons. The average of their best finish and worst finish was four. If fourth was occupied, I placed them in the next available spot not already occupied by another team in the table.

The data shows there is a top one in the Bundesliga, namely Bayern. While the difference between the top two finishers in the Premier League was 0.07 (3.00 – 2.93), the difference was 2.91 in the Bundesliga following the adjustment of Leipzig’s data. Further down, there is competition for fourth spot between Leipzig and BVB. Leverkusen seems to take fifth while Schalke takes sixth. The data essentially shows the lack of consistency in the Bundesliga; take away Leipzig as they are a newly promoted side more or less (the English equivalent would be Leicester perhaps) and you have only one team which occupies a top four berth (Borussia Dortmund). In the Premier League, if you leave out Manchester United, there are four teams which consistently vie for fourth or above judging by the data.

I noticed as a viewer that the Bundesliga teams have shown more consistency over the past decade, coinciding with Borussia Dortmund claiming their spot as the second most recognized team in Germany. Let us update the table accordingly.

Bundesliga Top Seven Adjusted for Worst Performance 2010-2020
Bundesliga Top Seven Adjusted for Worst Performance 2010-2020

As we are down to 10 seasons, Leipzig’s position has been updated for only two seasons in this table. Furthermore, the seasons with asterisks for Gladbach and Leverkusen are seasons not included in the final calculations because they were anomalies; neither team had any finishes in the bottom half aside from those seasons. When these adjustments are made, the biggest mover, not surprisingly, is Gladbach (2.75 positions). Dortmund emerges as a clear second team, Leverkusen third and Leipzig fourth. Schalke had more than one bottom half finish and hence, I did not adjust Schalke’s data.

What about Europe?

Now, let us look at European ranks for the teams. I assigned the points according to the following table per season:

Points assigned to European teams
Points assigned to European teams

Teams can be tied for ranks outside of the top two in each competition. UCL stands for UEFA Champions League while UEL stands for UEFA Europa League; the rules which apply to the Europa League also apply to its former format, the UEFA Cup. While I would have liked to rank the Europa League winners higher, I decided that teams which finish third in their groups in the Champions League join the Europa League, sometimes winning the competition. Thus, a ranking of 6, just below Champions League Round of 16 standards, seemed suitable. Any team knocked out in qualifying round is ranked 14.

Based on the above rankings, let us look at where the Premier League stands over the past 15 seasons:

Premier League European Performances 2005-2020
Premier League European Performances 2005-2020

Based on the table above, five Premier League are capable of being at least Europa League finalists; Spurs is not too far behind. Furthermore, United, Chelsea and Arsenal’s consistency (feel free to insert Arsenal jokes here) means they are truly Champions League sides using the rankings. The blank spaces are seasons in which the team did not qualify for Europe; the team is not penalized due to not qualifying as that season is not included in its final averages.

Teams are occasionally allowed to have a poor season; taking away the poorest performance for each team, we find a league truly capable of producing Champions League caliber sides consistently:

Premier League European Rankings adjusted for worst performance
Premier League European Rankings adjusted for worst performance

The finishes with asterisks are the ones ruled out of the final calculations; there are now four sides which are above Europa League standards; the other two, City and Spurs, are not far behind with City contenders for Europa League winners’ medals.

Now, let’s produce the same graphic for the Bundesliga:

2005-2020 Bundesliga European Performances
2005-2020 Bundesliga European Performances

Hoffenheim is taken out of this table as they had the lowest ranking of all the Bundesliga clubs in the Bundesliga table consisting of seven teams. There is one team clearly of Champions League quality here: Bayern’s remarkable consistency means their ranking is that of a Champions League semifinalist/quarterfinalist. Everyone else ends up firmly in the Europa League. The sample size for Leipzig is too small of course. Now, let’s repeat this table with two changes: let us only look at the past ten seasons and take out the worst finish for each team:

Bundesliga European Stats 2010-2020
Bundesliga European Stats 2010-2020

Schalke, despite the current mess, is the only team which rises to Champions League standards. Bayern gets even better, as expected. The table shows that, despite my best efforts, Germany does not have four teams which belong in the Champions League. While Leipzig is close, the sample size is too small to make any judgements about Leipzig. This means consistency and more strength are required.

Head-to-head in Germany

What stands out in every table about the Bundesliga of course is Bayern’s dominance. With that in mind, I am going to make the argument that Leverkusen, Gladbach and Leipzig can all lay claim to the number two spot in German football and it is not quite Borussia Dortmund’s forever, judging by their head to head records against Bayern, all better than that of Dortmund over the past six games.

BVB, B04, BMG, RBL results against FCB
BVB, B04, BMG, RBL results against FCB

Every team, aside from Dortmund, has picked up six points against Bayern over six games in all competitions. However, Dortmund has a superior record against all other opponents for the second position, providing legitimacy to the claim that they are indeed the second-best side in Germany:

B04, BMG, RBL results against BVB
B04, BMG, RBL results against BVB

If Dortmund has cemented their status as the second-best side in Germany, can Leverkusen, Gladbach and Leipzig round out the top five and make for a competitive Bundesliga in the future? Judging by the table for the past ten seasons, I would argue they can especially if they can remain consistent in the league. However, when these teams lose their best players each and every season (Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Granit Xhaka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are recent examples), why do I believe that Bayern will not be champions forever and that more Bundesliga teams will have strong showings in Europe much like Leipzig in the past season?

Qualitative arguments for a more competitive Bundesliga

Identity:

Gladbach is lethal on the counterattack and does not need much possession to play effectively meanwhile Leverkusen plays possession-based, incisive, eye-catching soccer. Borussia Dortmund is a mix of both; however, playing forward-thinking, eye-catching soccer is also their identity. Leipzig’s identity is perhaps the ability to adapt; Julian Nagelsmann adjusts his team to the opponent, although that woefully fails in some games.

Adaptability:

Leverkusen can play on the counterattack and defend if need be. Gladbach can press opponents into mistakes in the final third or in the center and Dortmund has learned, to an extent, how to win when their opponents park the bus. They give up less goals than they used to do before and that is down to Lucien Favre’s pragmatism. I know many do not like Favre and I cannot say that he has pressed a winning mentality into the team. However, there are small improvements which have occurred along the way judging by recent performances although there is work to be done as evidenced by their 3-1 defeat against Lazio in the Champions League.

Star Players:

While Dayot Upamecano from Leipzig and virtually all of Dortmund’s front four are constantly talked about in the English-speaking press, all of the teams are brimming with talent in almost every position. Take Gladbach’s midfield talent: Lars Stindl and Jonas Hoffman are creative and experienced players who can support more explosive players such as Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea. They play with a double pivot of Florian Neuhaus and Christoph Kramer, giving them sturdiness in the middle of the park.

When Gladbach played Leverkusen, they had to deal with a front three of Moussa Diaby, Lucas Alario and Leon Bailey. That trio, especially as Alario has found his feet this season, is hard to defend against. Leverkusen’s slightly shaky backline has a reliable goalkeeper in Lukas Hradecky to help out when necessary. Dortmund is swarming with talent all over the pitch. Leipzig has Angelino to score stunners when necessary and Marcel Sabitzer as well to lead the team on.

It only takes one or two players saying “no” for a selling club to become a competitive name. Although I doubt Erling Haaland or Thuram will turn down his suitors in the future, I hope they stay and make the league more competitive.

Conclusion

Overall, as shown by the data above, my hope is that a cementing of the top five teams will make for a more competitive league in which the teams will not only shine at home, but also shine abroad.

I would love to know our readers’ thoughts on the matter. Thank you for reading!