FEATURE | Borussia Dortmund crash out of Europe as Karl-Heinz Riedle warns Bundesliga teams not to lose touch

In spite of a brave performance by “Die Schwarz-Gelben”, Borussia Dortmund were knocked out of the Europa League last night and will count themselves lucky to have come away with a face-saving 2-2 after Ryan Kent’s lead for Rangers lead in the 67th minute was disallowed.

In spite of solid performances by both Donyell Malen and Jude Bellingham, who both got on the scoreboard, overall Rangers were the hungrier team over the two fixtures and deserved to progress.

Dortmund will reflect on what will feel like a very disappointing result in the second tier of European competition in what would on paper at least appear to have been a manageable tie against the champions of a football nation ranked 40th in the FIFA rankings.  

Elsewhere, RB Leipzig were able to improve on their disappointing 2-2 draw at home to Real Sociedad, winning 4-2 at the Reale Arena. Real went into the game off the back of 4-0 drubbing against Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby with five changes including notably the absence of former BVB midfielder Mikel Merino. RB took the lead through a Willi Orban penalty in the 39th minute and never looked back from there.

The third German team in European competition, Bayern Munich will be hoping to build on a 1-1 draw from the first leg against Austrian champions RB Salzburg in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Overall with VfL Wolfsburg, Union Berlin and BVB all out of the competition, in spite of Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen being pre-qualified for the last 16 of the Europa League, it’s been a disappointing ‘Euro campaign’ for the Bundesliga in 21/22.

This has not gone unnoticed by RTL TV Pundit, 42-time Germany international Karl-Heinz Riedle, who shared his concerns about what he sees as a “lack of competitiveness of the German league.” In an interview with German Kicker earlier this week, the former Fulham and Liverpool striker, sounded a note of caution warning that “German clubs must be careful not to lose the connection in the European race.”

A notable factor affecting BVB’s attack over the two ties was the absence of Erling Haaland who has scored 23 goals for ‘Die Schwarz-Gelben’ so far this season. With Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City rumoured to be amongst the 20-year-old’s strongest suitors, for Riedle the Bundesliga’s ‘brain drain’ to the English league is at least partly a key to the underlying problem.

The 53-year-old elaborated: “For the Bundesliga, I think it is vital to keep one or the other great players we have in the league here in Germany. I’m thinking of Haaland, for example. Having him in the Bundesliga generates international interest and also attracts other players of his quality to the league.”

The persistent rumours about a summer transfer of the 20-year-old will, especially in light of the exit of BVB, once again generate criticism that the Signal-Iduna Park-based club are starting to feel like an ‘Ausbildungsklub’ or feeder club for the Premier League.

In the domestic league, twelfth-placed Wolfsburg and in-spite of their second place in the table, Dortmund are both having very mixed seasons. Whilst the Bundesliga still have four out of the seven teams in the competition results appear to back Riedle’s concerns.

Over the last three seasons in particular the ‘money men’ of England’s top league have picked off the cream of the German league. SC Freiburg’s Robin Koch moved in the summer to Leeds United where he joins former Eintracht striker Sebastien Haller. Kai Havertz also left Leverkusen for Chelsea where he plays alongside Timo Werner who arrived in the summer from RB Leipzig. Other former Bundesliga stars in the Premier League include Ilkay Gundogan, Bernd Leno, Granit Xhaka and Heung Min-Song.

The trend is notably not limited to players either with Thomas Tuchel following Jürgen Klopp and David Wagner, Jan Siewert and Daniel Farke all having taken up the reins in recent seasons in the English league.

What’s more, with the exception of former BVB U23 coach Siewert who oversaw Huddersfield’s relegation, former Bundesliga managers have achieved notable success. The same applies to players  with Leroy Sane, Emil Forsberg and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang amongst the Bundesliga’s successes in the English League. Simply put, as long as the Premier League pays more the ‘brain drain’ trend is unlikely to end anytime soon.

On reflection, what should be a concern to the Bundesliga, in terms of European competitions is that the only other Bundesliga team to win a title in recent times are BVB and their arch-rivals Schalke 04, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup, now Europa League, and that not so recently both in 1997.

Although a notable exception is Bayern Munich who won the Champions League in 2013 and 2020, the Munich team are able to compete in Europe at what feels like a great cost to the Bundesliga. Much to the chagrin of the fans, the German league has become one-sided with the ‘Reds’ once again leading the Bundesliga by 6 points in 21-22 and particularly in light of a mixed season by both second-place Dortmund and Pokal finalists RB Leipzig, Bayern look set to record a 10th title.

The contrast with the Premier League couldn’t be greater with all the English clubs with the exception of Tottenham Hotspurs still in their respective competitions this season. 

Is there a trend developing? Results of Bundesliga clubs compared to the Premier League in European competitions last season 20-21 appear to support Riedle’s concerns about the increasing lack of competitiveness.

In 20-21 in the Champions League Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea all reached the quarterfinals and the final was an all-English bout between Manchester City and Chelsea, with the honours going to London. In the Europa League Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspurs, and Manchester United all reached the last 16 with the latter going on to win the tournament.

Of the Bundesliga representatives only Bayern survived to the quarter-final with Mönchengladbach, BVB, and Leipzig all knocked out in the last 16. In the Europa League the story was similar neither Hoffenheim nor Leverkusen getting beyond the last 32 in 20-21.

Season 19-20 shows an improved picture for the Bundesliga with both RB Leipzig and FC Bayern getting into the last four of the Champions League and the latter winning the competition. However, a look at ‘Die Mannschaft’, the German national team seem to support the argument that English football is gaining a lead.

In the FIFA Men’s world rankings, Germany is currently ranked 11th, contrasting former achievements between 2008 and 2018. Germany were consistently ranked first and third in the men’s game.

In line with their domestic League’s achievements, England has been becoming increasingly more competitive, reaching the semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup and going one further to the final of the 2020 European Championship. England has not been out of the top five of the men’s rankings since 2018.

In summary, there can be little doubt that the money fuelling the Premier League is generating results, the Bundesliga in contrast, appears to have had a challenging eight years since the 2014 World Cup win in Rio. But what are the reasons? Transfer spending is one.

The English league spent a combined £274m in the transfer market in the January transfer window in 21-22, £39m short of the combined total of the other four major European leagues; Spain, Italy, Germany, and France according to a report by consultants Deloitte.

The total spending in contrast in the Bundesliga was £60m in January. The comparison shrinks even further when you consider that Wolfsburg spent almost half of that i.e. £24m. Overall in a sign of considerable bravado in a pandemic the spend in the Premier overall was the second highest ever after January 2018 which was £340m.

Simply put the German league is simply being outspent and its top talent is being transferred to the English league and that competitive disadvantage, in particular in the recent seasons is apparent.

But what are the underlying issues? At least one top executive in the Bundesliga believes he has identified the source of the weakness. Bayer Leverkusen’s CEO Fernando Carro believes that out of all of its clubs, only Bayern can, as it stands now, compete with the Premier League.

In an October 2021 interview with The Guardian Carro explained: “The TV rights deals are the ones that we have. It would be difficult to increase them. So, the biggest change in income can come from sporting success in European competitions.

“The only other way is through transfers. At the end of the day, you can make money from transfers. English clubs pay the transfers, we get the money, but then that just means the entire Bundesliga is like a development league for the Premier League. Even Dortmund has to sell players to the Premier League. The only club that can compete at the moment from the Bundesliga is Bayern.”

The Spaniard added: “I think in general we aren’t as good at other leagues at marketing ourselves. If you look at Spain, they make €860m from overseas TV rights and we only make €200m. So, there’s a possibility.” Carro added “But even if we could make, say, €300m in overseas rights, we would still not bridge the gap with the Premier League. The gap is still much higher. So, we could double or triple our TV income and we still wouldn’t close the gap.”

The Bundesliga is managed in the long-term interest of the domestic pyramid and historically the league is with 31 European titles the fourth most successful. However, the results in this and the last season’s European competition, even taking into account the pandemic which has affected all European leagues, shows a decline in German football’s competitiveness.

As Bayer 04 CEO Carro argues, the cause of this can be partly to do with media deals. In the last two decades, as reported by Inside World Football the Premier League is set to record a media deal exceeding £5bn for the first time in the 2022-25 business cycle.

In contrast, the Bundesliga is reported by Sportnd TV to have signed a deal for just over £1bn per season which is the first decrease in the value of the rights package since 2002.

Looking ahead Bayern’s tie against Salzburg on Tuesday will make interesting viewing and RB Leipzig and Frankfurt will be looking forward to the draw. But it’s not either of those clubs that BVB club ambassador Riedle is backing to bring silverware this season but rather Leverkusen. Riedle: “coach Gerardo Soane in my view, is doing a great job, Bayer player a great style of football and they deserve to and can have a chance to win the cup.”

Whilst progression to the next round will be expected by Bayern’s fans and Leipzig going through would be an improvement over last season, anything less will reinforce the argument that the league of the four-time world champions, in spite of being highly respected for the 50+1 rule which is especially admired amongst English fans, is starting to be affected by the brain drain which should be a concern to the Bundesliga’s governing authorities.

Ben McFadyean

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