The Bundesliga is dull. The same team wins the title every year. No challenger has been able to close the gap to Bayern Munich in recent years.
These statements have held true during the Bavarians’ eight-year run as league champions. But to reduce this pandemic-interrupted season to those terms is to dismiss the progress the rest of the German top-flight has made towards changing the narrative.
Bayern were in third place going into the Bundesliga’s mid-season break and just six points separated the top four before league play stopped for two months due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Despite having a familiar finish, this season’s Bundesliga title race showed that several teams could be on the verge of being able consistently challenge for the title.
Contenders with clear identities
One positive aspect of Bayern’s dominance is that it has forced other clubs to try to figure out who they are and what they want to be. The sides that have best answered those questions this season closed the gap between themselves and the Bavarians.
DW’s Davis VanOpdorp
Borussia Dortmund are the most prominent example. Although they still struggle to hold onto their best players, they have become a prime destination for talented youngsters looking for top-flight experience. The signing of Erling Haaland, perhaps Europe’s best young striking talent confirmed this.
Whether Lucien Favre is the right coach to take Dortmund to the next level is a legitimate question, especially since his side lost both matches against Bayern this season. But their squad, which includes a balance of exuberant youth and veterans such as Mats Hummels, Emre Can and Axel Witsel, has put the club in a solid position to contend.
Although their presence in the Bundesliga has undermined the 50+1 structure of German football, RB Leipzig have always had a clear identity. Their 23-or-younger recruitment strategy aligns perfectly with their Red Bull marketing aims, and they possess some of the world’s brightest young talent. A title is the only thing that has eluded them, but given the fact that they led the Bundesliga halfway through the season, winning a trophy may not be all that far off.
Borussia Mönchengladbach, who have gone a quarter-century without winning a title, have also taken steps towards becoming a perennial contender. The Foals took a calculated risk by replacing coach Dieter Hecking, who is a proven steady pair of hands, with Marco Rose, an attack-minded coach who, despite a semifinal run in the Europa League with Salzburg, had never coached in a top-five league. Rose’s side led the Bundesliga for two months before coming back down to earth.
That Erling Haaland chose Dortmund over other top European sides shows how far the club has come
In the end, though, Bayern, as they tend to do, rose to the top, due in large part to the mid-season appointment of head coach Hansi Flick. Bayern have won 19 out of 22 league games under his leadership. But teams like Dortmund, Leipzig and Gladbach are starting to make defending titles more difficult for Bayern, and it may not be long before they are dethroned.
Can the challenges continue?
The coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about how the financial side of football will look going forward. There is the potential for Bayern’s monetary advantage to become even greater, with some German clubs apparently simply struggling to weather the storm. But Bayern’s financial advantage, whatever it may be, is something clubs have long had to contend with.
Even if the potential acquisitions of budding German stars Leroy Sane and Kai Havertz lead to an even more indestructible Bayern side, this season has demonstrated that their Bundesliga challengers are starting to figure things out, and the Bavarians won’t be kings forever.