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FEATURE | What the opening seven games have told us about the 2018/19 Bundesliga season

The second international break of the season is done and we return to a Bundesliga that is shaping up to be one of the more interesting in recent years.

At the top of the table we find Borussia Dortmund, not perennial Bundesliga conquerors Bayern Munich. Despite sitting top of pile it was a tricky start to the year for Dortmund, they came from behind to beat RB Leipzig and then dropped points in games against Hannover and Hoffenheim, the second of which they were lucky to escape without defeat. They fell 2-0 behind to Bayer Leverkusen and needed a second half fight back to take all three points. Then against Augsburg they came back twice from 1-0 and 2-1 down and needed a 96thminute winner from Paco Alcacer to win the match.

Alcacer has been the revelation of the season so far for Borussia Dortmund. Signed on loan from Barcelona in the summer he scored on his debut in a win against Eintracht Frankfurt. After missing the next two matches he came off the bench to score twice in the comeback in Leverkusen and then again against Augsburg, Alcacer was Dortmund’s super-sub with a second half hat trick. In total, the Spaniard has six goals in 81 minutes without starting a game. It’s unsustainable for him to keep up that rate of scoring but in Alcacer it seems Dortmund have found a replacement for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Elsewhere Dortmund have received important contributions from summer signings Axel Witsel and in particular Jadon Sancho. Sancho registered six assists and a goal in total this season and the young Englishman was rewarded with his first start in the final game before the international break against Augsburg. While some of Sancho’s production can be put down to him coming on late against tired defences, he is without a doubt an incredible talent and there are few better places for him to continue his development than in Dortmund. Teams will eventually start to plan more to neutralise Sancho and his production will likely decrease as the season progresses. But the attention he will now have to receive will only open up more spaces for fellow attackers Marco Reus and Alcacer.

Dortmund have been without a doubt the most exciting in the Bundesliga so far this season, and arguably the most entertaining in Europe. The players they have at their disposal means the entertainment is unlikely to diminish however, whether they can stay the course and win the Bundesliga this season is trickier to predict. The wins over Augsburg and Bayer Leverkusen and the draw in Hoffenheim have had elements of luck to them and you’d expect that to even out over the course of 34 matches. However, Dortmund are right in the mix and if Bayern do continue to falter then they look best placed to take advantage.

It is impossible to talk about the Bundesliga this season without mentioning Bayern Munich’s slow start. They are without a doubt not the powerhouse they have been in previous years, but given how far ahead they have been of the chasing pack recently even a small decline would be manageable and likely still title winning. Bayern’s decline looks like being far more serious than just a small one. Nico Kovac has struggled, not helped by summer departures of key players such as Arturo Vidal and Juan Bernat and long term injuries to Corentin Tolisso, Kinglsey Coman and Rafinha. However, with the likes of Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowksi there is still more high end talent at Bayern than at any other club.

Few people will predict Bayern will finish the season in the sixth position they currently find themselves in. It’s true that most people would still predict them to win the Bundesliga, they are still the prohibitive favourites with the bookmakers giving them a 75-80% chance of ending the season as champions. However, it looks likely to be a far tougher road to glory, if indeed they get there and that surely is all anyone is asking for from Dortmund et al.

The two major surprises so far are in the forms of fourth and fifth placed sides Werder Bremen and Hertha Berlin. Both sit on 14 points, three behind Borussia Dortmund at the top. While it is unlikely they will both remain in those lofty positions there is history to suggest it isn’t an impossibility. Hoffenheim went from a relegation playoff to the Champions League under manager Julian Nagelsmann and Bremen are looking to take inspiration.

Florian Kohfeldt (36) is an old man compared to Nagelsmann (31), but still a very young man in managerial terms. Promoted from second team coach to head coach at Bremen in October 2017 with the club in seventeenth position, Kohfeldt lead Bremen to mid-table solidity. Things have only become better this season and their 2-0 win over Wolfsburg last time out was their best performance so far this year.

Over in the capital, Hertha have finally become a club that Berliner’s can be proud of, although the attendances are yet to reflect that. Pal Dardai lead the club to Europe in his first full season in charge of the club and has made relegation fears a relative thing of the past. Like Bremen, it is perhaps fanciful to think Hertha Berlin can end the year in the top four, but an improvement on last season 10thplaced finish would represent another step forward.

Early season surprise package VfL Wolfsburg have fallen off after impressive wins over Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen to open the season. They have failed to win since the second game of the year and although draws to Hertha and Borussia Monchengladbach aren’t bad results, there is a sense of an opportunity missed to build on such a good start.

Elsewhere Hoffenheim must be worried about what impact a first Champions League campaign will have on their league form. Two wins, a draw and four worrying losses see them in 13th, and while fans would probably accept a mid-table finish if the club choose to prioritise the Champions League, in the Bundesliga it’s a small drop from mid-table to a relegation battle.

Eintracht Frankfurt have dealt slightly better with being in Europe and look set for another encouraging season. They don’t seem to be missing now Bayern manager Kovac, especially with main man Ante Rebic back and scoring.

Further down the table both Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen have so far failed to build on successful campaigns last time out. Schalke opened the season with five consecutive losses, although two wins in two mean they are off the foot of the table; Dominic Tedesco perhaps needs to learn that scraping out 1-0 wins while being second best isn’t likely to be successful in the long run.

Leverkusen’s issues have surprisingly been in attack, although 13 goals conceded in seven games so far isn’t great either. For a team that boasts attacking talent in the form of Julian Brandt, Leon Bailey, Kai Havertz and Lucas Alario they haven’t scored as many goals as would be expected. There is little doubt that Leverkusen will re-find their attacking flow, the worry would be that it is re-found too late or that they can’t fix their attacking issues without further weakening a shaky defence.

Neither Schalke or Bayer Leverkusen will be relegated which means three other teams will be and the bottom three now of Stuttgart, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hannover must be extremely worried. Neither team currently has more than one win and if you exclude Schalke, Leverkusen and Hoffenheim from the equation then a gap of three points has opened between Hannover and Nurnberg in 12th. It’s too early to talk about definite relegation candidates, certainly no team looks nailed on like Hamburg and especially 1. FC Köln did at this time a year ago.

At seven games old, this Bundesliga season is only getting started but the top especially looks likely to be one of the most interesting in recent history. Barring a meltdown from Dortmund or RB Leipzig, we look set to have a title race into the new year and in Germany that is something rare. Can Wolfsburg rediscover their very early form? Can Werder Bremen and Hertha Berlin maintain theirs? Can Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim get into the mix at the top or will this season be a nervy one for all the wrong reasons for one of the top clubs in Germany? And most interestingly… what is up in Munich?.

By Thomas Pain.

 

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