A lack of Bundesliga news these last two weeks leads us to reflect on the World Cup qualifiers and other general European news for this edition of The Calm Before.
Reflecting on the five teams from my October WCQ preview
- Canada stalled slightly over the international break with back to back draws against Mexico and an under powered Jamaica side. The Mexico game featured some fantastic back and forth football that unfortunately ended 1-1. Following that came a 0-0 tie with a Jamaica side missing their top winger (Leon Bailey) and main striker (Michail Antonio). However, Canada were able to finish strong - besting Panama 4-1 to finish this round of qualifying exactly where they started: 3rd in the Octa behind Mexico and the United States.
- Things did not go well for all the teams I previewed — with Austria now eliminated from the World Cup. Following a 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands, all Austria needed was a result against Denmark to keep their hopes at 2nd place alive. Instead, Austria and Union Berlin wingback Christopher Trimmel failed to stick to his position and wasn’t able to recover in time to pick up Danish winger Joakim Mæhle. The Atalanta winger scored to make it 1-0 for Denmark and that was all that was needed. The Danes qualified for the World Cup and with Austria now seven points behind 2nd place Scotland with only two games to go, Das Team will be watching the World Cup from the couches for the sixth time in a row.
- Egypt needed two wins to go top of their group against neighbors and rivals Libya. Two wins is exactly what they got. A 1-0 win at home was followed up by a 3-0 win away giving Egypt six points and the lead in their group. All that’s left is an away game to Angola and a home game against Gabon to clinch their spot in the third round.
- Lastly, the Samurai Blue of Japan had a mixed bag in their must-win games against then 2nd place Saudi Arabia and 1st place Australia. Possession in their first game with Saudi Arabia was relatively even breaking 52-48 in favor of The Green Falcons. Shots were close as well at a rate of 11-10 again in favor of Saudi Arabia. It seems that extra shot went in the Saudis favor as Firas Al-Birakan fired the only goal of the game to win 1-0. Japan were in crunch time. They still had seven games to play, but their rhythm and hope was fading fast. Their next game was against their bitter rivals from Down Under in the Socceroos. Beating them would be a tough task and yet Japan did exactly that. After going up in the eighth minute, an Aussie goal in the 70’ from Ajdin Hrustic wasn’t a death blow but it was destined to hurt Japan’s chances down the line. Then came an own goal from center back Aziz Behich in the 86’ that gave a 2-1 win to Japan. With six games to go in qualifying —their next two being against Vietnam and Oman — you can’t count Japan out of making yet another appearance in the World Cup.
Germany is the first team to qualify for Qatar 2022
It was a perfect way to exorcise the demons of the Jogi Low era. The old regime ended their time in World Cup Qualifying with a 1-0 loss to North Macedonia. In a fitting step forward, their last game of this round was a 4-0 win over the same North Macedonia side. In doing so, they became the first team (other than the hosts) to qualify for the World Cup next November.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the team and they look almost completely different from the Low period. Why is that the case? Well, from what I’ve observed and boiled it down to, is that new manager Hansi Flick has completed something that needed to be done a while ago: simplify the team. In the last three World Cup qualifiers, Low used a 4-3-3 for their first two games against Iceland and Romania. While it didn’t play to the teams strength due to their lack of a true striker, Die Mannschaft won both games. In their last game against North Macedonia — the loss — Low inexplicably changed to a 3-1-4-2 formation with Kimmich as the sole pivot.
In Hansi Flick’s last five games in charge, he has only used one formation: the 4-2-3-1. He has not lost a game with that formation. Over the last three Bundesliga games, the 4-2-3-1 has been used by x teams in the league including Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, VfL Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, TSG Hoffenheim, Borussia Monchengladbach, VfL Bochum who combined had 15 players called up to Low’s March squad. During that same period, the 4-3-3 was used by Borussia Dortmund, TSG Hoffenheim, and Greuther Furth in one game each. However, considering how close this formation is to a 4-2-3-1, this isn’t too drastic a change.
Not a single team playing in the Bundesliga used a 3-1-4-2 in the last three games. In fact, I can’t recall a team that deploys it regularly. Having that much of an imbalance forward on the field is bound to cause problems — and it did.
Flick came into the team and brought stability in the formation — and by doing so, created an environment a majority of the team was familiar with. That should be the goal of an international manager in the first place — to find the best balance within a roster of people who don’t all play together. I know this is a wild concept, but maybe *just maybe* sticking with a formation that a majority of your players are familiar with is a good starting point to find that harmony you need to win a championship.
Now, Flick has the luxury of using these last two World Cup Qualifiers — home v. Liechtenstein, at Armenia — to start and nail down the roster he needs to try and capture glory yet again.
Ballon d’Or finalists have been announced
After being cancelled last year for some reason, France Football has brought back the most prestigious individual prize in world football: the Ballon d’Or. France Football actually gives out four prizes, but I’ll touch on three of them: Men’s, Women’s and Best U-21 player.
The short list for the men’s Ballon d’Or bleeds for Serie A and the Premier League. Of the 30 nominees the league breakdown — going by team they played for at the start of the year — breaks as such:
- 12 EPL players: Manchester City (5), Chelsea (4), Liverpool (1), Manchester United (1), Tottenham (1)
- 8 Serie A: Juventus (3), Inter Milan (3), AC Milan (2)
- 6 La Liga: Real Madrid (2), Barcelona (1), Villarreal (1), Atletico Madrid (1)
- 2 Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (1), Borussia Dortmund (1)
- 2 Ligue 1: Paris Saint-Germain (2)
So let’s see what those numbers really mean when it comes to quality of player. Overall, I can’t say this is a terrible list. There are a few players I personally wouldn’t put in here but that’s not to say I can’t see why they’re not included. The three players I truly have a gripe with are Barcelona’s Pedri, AC Milan’s Simon Kjaer, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric.
Pedri is a fantastic player, but when you compare his last season to that of someone like Thomas Muller or Joshua Kimmich, does he really deserve to be on this list? Plus, he’s already nominated for the Kopa Award for best U-21 player (we’ll touch on that later) and to me that’s really where his accolades this season deserve to be recognized.
I was confused — as many others were — over the inclusion of Simon Kjaer, before remembering that his nomination is most likely attributed to his work as captain of Denmark. If he’s on this list for the role he played during the horrible events surrounding Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, that’s understandable but there really should be a separate award given out for heroics. If he’s truly on here for his play, then to be honest, I don’t think he deserves it.
As for Luka Modric...is this just part of the perennial past-winner’s handicap? When it comes to the eye test, can we truly call Modric one of the better midfielders of La Liga last season? Let alone all of Europe?
All of this leads up to my main point. France Football routinely overlooks the Bundesliga and their failure to recognize the individual accomplishments of players in the league is disheartening to say the least. I’m going to highlight three Bundesliga and Germany players in particular who should be on this list:
- Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller is perennially, undoubtedly, the most underrated player in the world. Without a question, without a doubt. After not being in the list since 2016, you would think that in Muller’s best scoring season ever, that he’d be up there? All in all, Muller scored 15 goals and bagged 24 assists for a total of 39 points across 46 games in all competitions. That’s second on the continent behind Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes and his 28 goals and 17 assists in all competitions. It should be noted, however, Fernandes had 12 more games to reach that mark and therefore Muller’s Points Per Game ratio of 0.84 is better than Fernandes’s 0.77 PPG. Also, in the top five leagues, Fernandes and Muller were the only central midfielders who broke their league’s top 10 in goalscoring. It’s criminal that the Raumdeuter isn’t on this list and the more they overlook his accomplishments and those of players like him — the more the trophy is devalued in my opinion
- In the race for the European golden shoe last year, the top five consisted of a few typical names in Robert Lewandowski (1st), Lionel Messi (2nd), Cristiano Ronaldo (3rd) and Kylian Mbappe (5th). The player that came in 4th place with 28 goals was then-Eintracht Frankfurt striker Andre Silva. Lack of a title is a poor excuse in my opinion to exclude someone from a list because if that were really truly a factor, then players with less goals like Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah wouldn’t be on this list. Yet they are.
- France Football really made a list of the 30 best footballers in the world AND SOMEHOW they failed to put Kai Havertz in there.
As for who the final three will be, I’m expecting it to be Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, PSG winger Lionel Messi, and Chelsea midfielder Jorginho. If the trophy isn’t given to Lewandowski for his accomplishments these last two seasons — in particular the fact that he won four trophies and broke the record for most goals in a season over the course of the 2020/21 season — then it’ll be a testament to how FF is unable to look past traditional names in awe of true athletic achievement.
Looking at the women’s award, we see something similar: a lot of players from England and Spain. In particular, the Chelsea team that finished runner up in the UWCL and topped the Women’s Super League has five representatives on the shortlist of 20 names. While there are some fantastic names on here — all of which I don’t have a problem with — I find it baffling that not a single German player or Frauen Bundesliga player made an appearance on this list. How do players like Nicole Billa of Hoffenheim, Laura Freigang of Eintracht Frankfurt, or Lea Schuller of league champions Bayern Munich miss out? There’s a tougher argument to make for them to be in given the strength of the list already, but you have to wonder why the list for the women is 10 spots smaller than the men when there are so many high quality footballers from all leagues left off the list.
Finally, the Kopa Trophy for 2020/21 seems to be where the Bundesliga shines. Of the 10 players named to the list, four are from the Bundesliga. They consist of two Dortmund players in Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham, a Bayern player in Jamal Musiala, and a Leverkusen player in Florian Wirtz. I’d argue that they all deserve the accolade — considering how close they are statistically. However, they face a tough field. They go up against the likes of the aforementioned Pedri and English talents Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka.
Game of the Week: Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs. FC Bayern München
It almost seems uncommon to have a spitzenspiel (or top-two game) between Bayern and someone other than Borussia Dortmund. It happened last year with RB Leipzig but it still seems like these things hardly ever occur. There’s a reason why I put “the first Spitzenspiel” in the title. Not only do I believe teams in the top two will face each other again, I believe it might happen before the Winterpause.
Leverkusen’s rise up the table shouldn’t be all that surprising for those who have seen the squad over the last few years. After saying goodbye to the Stindl brothers, the backline has stabilized. Even with last year’s youth sensation Edmond Tapsoba out with an injury, a center back pairing of Jonathan Tah and a new acquisition in 20-year old Odilon Kossounou (from Club Brugge for ~ $25 million USD) has become the new rock in front of keeper Lukas Hradecky. A left-back-by-committee between Dutch defenders Mitchel Bakker and Daley Sinkgraven has yielded some great defensive performances between both of them. Rounding out the backline at RB is Dutch-Ghanaian international Jeremie Frimpong — whose support play behind the terrifying wingers Die Werkself employs has been rewarded with consistent starts.
The midfield is more than just one player — let me just put that out there first. Kerem Demirbay (3G/2a 10GP) and Nadiem Amiri (1G/1a 9GP) have both produced great offense. Charles Aránguiz has been a reliable presence in transitioning from offense to defense. All of these players play an important role in how Bayer Leverkusen works. All that being said — and with all due respect — their on-field impact has paled in comparison to that of 18-year old wünderkind Florian Wirtz. I don’t ever recall really using that word with any player before, but the start to the season that Wirtz has had makes him more than deserving. His numbers are eye popping at 6G/5a in eight games played. His field vision, creativity, passing ability, and pace make him a natural fit in a team full of players who do those things well. It’s going to be fun to continue to watch him grow at Leverkusen. It seems the front office’s decision to pocket the money from selling Kai Havertz instead of finding an outside replacement has paid off.
What may be more interesting is that Wirtz’s goal total is only tied for second on the team when it comes to the Bundesliga. Czech striker Patrik Schick leads his team in the Bundesliga with six goals — good for second behind Lewandowski and Erling Haaland league wide. Moussa Diaby has used his pace and knack for intelligent runs to bag four goals alongside Wirtz. The team’s decision to sell Leon Bailey to Aston Villa this summer hasn’t seemed to backfire as Brazilian 21-year old Paulinho (0G/2a 7GP) has started to settle into the squad nicely.
Overall this isn’t a team Bayern Munich should take lightly. They have swept through the league with fury. Even in their one loss of the season — a 4-3 thriller against Borussia Dortmund — Die Werkself played admirably, but lost momentum late. The key for a Bayern victory this time around is to catch them out early and often. If the Rekordmeister can score two or three goals by the 35’ then they’ll be in a comfortable position. But Leverkusen is just as comfortable with quick buildup as they are with possession football. They can adapt tactics and manager Gerardo Seoane knows this and will use it to their advantage. If Leverkusen can just be calm and play their game then they’ll have as good a shot as any at coming out of this game at the top of the table.
Game of the Week Honorable Mentions a.k.a. Why Are These All Being Played on Saturday at 09:30 ET?
I made the last minute decision to include this. While on the surface, the game of the week is clearly Bayern Munich v. Bayer Leverkusen, there are many matches that need to be addressed for their importance. So, I will do my best to neatly summarize why you should be watching each of these games this weekend.
- Borussia Dortmund v. Mainz: After Mainz’s fast start to the season, the car seems to be having engine problems. Center back Jeremiah St. Juste injured his shoulder in the club’s last game before the international break — and it seems the Dutch defender will requiring surgery. That puts him out for the rest of the calendar year. Even with St. Juste out, Mainz may have a chance against the walking wounded that is Borussia Dortmund. Just a summary of the injuries facing Der BVB ahead of this top-10 matchup:
- Manuel Akanji picked up a muscle injury October 10th
- Raphaël Guerreiro picked up an injury October 6th
- Youssoufa Moukoko picked up a muscle injury October 6th
- Erling Haaland is still recovering from muscle problems he had in September
Freiburg v. RB Leipzig: With Willi Orban seemingly recovered from the flu, Leipzig have some good news after a nightmare start to their season. Dani Olmo is still out with a torn muscle that should sideline him for a while, but no one else who was a major contributor to the team is out so far. Freiburg, meanwhile, may have to be without right back Philipp Leinhart — who skipped a call up to the Austrian national team to get dental surgery. However, this match carries a greater meaning beyond its 4th place v. 8th place billing. This is the first match at Freiburg’s brand new stadium: the SC-Stadion (or the Europa-Park Stadion thanks to licenses). Manager Christian Streich will be sure his boys are ready to open the building with positive memories.
Union Berlin v. Wolfsburg: There are new injuries for both teams, but none that they can’t live without. One of Union Berlin’s substitute center backs Timo Baumgartl is out with a concussion. Meanwhile, on Wolfsburg’s side, right back Kevin Mbabu went down with a muscle injury over the international break. At the end of the day, this is a 5th v. 7th matchup between two teams who are top 10 in goals score and goals allowed that could make for a fun defensive battle or a raucous goal scoring thriller.
Here are all of the games ahead of us this weekend (all times Eastern U.S.)
Friday, October 15th
- TSG Hoffenheim (11) v. 1. FC Köln (6) (PreZero Arena - Sinsheim, Baden-Württemberg)
Saturday, October 16th
- 1. FC Union Berlin (7) v. VfL Wolfsburg (5) (Stadion An der Alten Försterei - Köpenick, Berlin)
- Borussia Dortmund (3) v. 1. FSV Mainz 05 (9) (Signal Iduna Park - Dortmund, North Rhine-Westphalia)
- Eintracht Frankfurt (13) v. Hertha BSC (14) (Deutsche Bank Park - Frankfurt, Hesse)
- SC Freiburg (4) v. RB Leipzig (8) (Europa-Park Stadion - Freiburg im Briesgau, Baden-Württemberg)
- SpVgg Greuther Fürth (18) v. VfL Bochum (17) (Sportpark Ronhof Thomas Sommer - Fürth, Bavaria)
- Borussia Mönchengladbach (10) v. VfB Stuttgart (12) (BORUSSIA-PARK - Mönchengladbach, North Rhine-Westphalia)
Sunday, October 17th
- Bayer 04 Leverkusen (2) v. FC Bayern Munich (1) (BayArena - Leverkusen, North Rhine-Westphalia)
- FC Augsburg (15) v. DSC Arminia Bielefeld (16) (WWK Arena - Augsburg, Bavaria)