OPINION | How viable is the playoff format in the Bundesliga?

The level of competitiveness in the Bundesliga has been a topic of interest for football fans and pundits for some time now. The dominance of Bayern Munich over the course of the last decade has left many debating the quality and overall health of the league as it stands.

Just by glancing at the current season’s table, no one is surprised that Bayern sit at the top, eight points ahead of closest competitors Borussia Dortmund. In some leagues, an eight point gap may seem surmountable. In the Bundesliga, it often means Bayern are inevitably going to lift another trophy. Should the Rekordmeister stay on course, they will lift their 10 straight league trophy come May, a not so exciting prospect for neutrals who often complain about the competition being a “one horse race”.

The current state of German football has sent the DFB looking for answers. In a bid to make German football more competitive, current DFL CEO Donata Hopfen has recently suggested the implementation of a playoff system whereby teams that finish in the upper reaches of the table would compete in a knockout style format at the end of the season to determine a champion. The system is widely used in American sports, including the MLS.

To no surprise,  the idea has received a mix reaction, with Bayern Munich’s Oliver Kahn coming out in support of the idea. The likes of Bayer Leverkusen Sporting Director Rudi Völler and SC Freiburg head coach Christian Streich on the other hand were far less welcoming towards the idea of a potential change in favour of a playoff format, with Völler himself stating that the move towards a playoff system is the “totally wrong approach.”

Streich argued that the approach to playoffs would be unfair, stating that: “I think it’s good that whoever has the most points at the end of 34 games becomes champion and those with the fewest points have to be relegated unfortunately. I can understand the idea to make the league more attractive. But I think the way it is now is the fairest and most meaningful.”

Streich did indeed state that the state of the league as it is now is not as exciting as it could be, however. Dortmund coach Marco Rose also chimed in, stating that a playoff system was “not for him”.

With the subject as contentious as it is, the question remains: how viable is the playoff format in the Bundesliga? The answer, at least in my book is simple when it comes to the Bundesliga trophy. No matter how dominant Bayern are, it would be extremely unfair to base the league title on a knockout style competition when there is often a double digit gap between first and second, let alone between first and sixth, for example. A league title is won over the course of a season, and a team that finishes even several points behind the league leaders should not be given a chance at that particular silverware.

That doesn’t mean that the idea of a playoff system is completely invalid, however. While it’s clear that most of the league seems quite content with keeping the current league format, a knockout competition between teams that finish in the top 6 places at the end of the season could offer an additional chance at silverware for clubs playing in Germany.

For a league with such a high profile, there are only two main domestic trophies, the DFB Cup and the Bundesliga title. Then there is the DFL Supercup, which is the equivalent to most “curtain raiser” trophies in Europe’s top five leagues. Most other top leagues have at least three potential domestic honors for clubs to compete for.

Adding an additional trophy would be a good way of motivating teams to push for top six while offering an additional playoff besides being able to play in European competition. The playoff system would fit this sort of competition perfectly and add some additional excitement for fans of the league to look forward to.

While a move such as this wouldn’t necessarily break up Bayern’s dominance over the league overnight, it would give teams an opportunity to get one over the Bavarian giants and help facilitate a level of competitiveness that could further translate to league play. It could give teams something to fight for aside from qualification for Europe, which while is and should be a tangible incentive, does not always provide a realistic chance at silverware depending on the team that ends up actually competing in Europe. The budgets and capabilities of teams from England, even the mid table sides, exceed that of German teams in many cases.

Theoretically, the implementation of a playoff-based trophy such as this could be used to add slightly more weight to the DFL Supercup as well. The competition as of now, is played between the winner of the Bundesliga and the winner of the DFB Pokal. With the addition of a third trophy such as would be the case with this “playoff competition”, instead of playing additional friendlies, The winners of the three trophies and fourth place could add a semi-final to the DFL Supercup format, making it one step harder to reach the final and all the more sweeter for the team that  would eventually end up lifting it.

The main problem in the Bundesliga, as noted by DFL CEO Hopfen, is competition. These sorts of changes would bring about additional opportunities up ramp up the pressure and competitiveness between Bundesliga sides as a whole and Bayern. It would give each team more to compete for which would inevitably increase the significance of every game, and provide more incentive for teams to push Bayern, even if their chances of lifting the Bundesliga title aren’t realistic. Each game would have far more weight and teams would fight harder for these further chances at silverware. Finishing top six would be far more meaningful, which would increase the intensity teams would bring to the pitch on a weekly basis.

The one stumbling block would of course be finding the time for the matches to take place. Considering the Bundesliga season often ends in May, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for the tournament to take place over the course of the two following weeks after the Bundesliga title is awarded, barring the start of various international competitions in the summer. Alternatively, qualification for this playoff format tournament could be administered in a fashion whereby the teams who qualify for said top 6-8 positions in Germany’s top flight the season before are given the places to compete in the following season, with the matches sprinkled in between March and May, providing for some extra excitement for the fans, and extra revenue for the clubs who partake.

For many, the playoff system is something that isn’t applicable when it comes to football in its most traditional sense. At its core, it’s very hard to imagine a league title being determined in Germany in the basis of said playoff format. The idea does lend itself to providing more opportunities for teams to obtain silverware in a league where Bayern have proven to be wobbly in knockout competition format. Taking the DFB Pokal this year as an example, the winner of this year’s cup competition will be a team other than Bayern or Dortmund for the first time since Eintracht Frankfurt won the cup in the 2017/18 season. An additional trophy would add some needed incentive for teams to push both Bayern and even the other teams in the top four or five, including Dortmund, who may have grown complacent with their positions in said top four or five almost secured year in, year out. 

At the core of the “competition dilemma” also sits the fact that Bundesliga teams that perhaps have managed to push Bayern in recent seasons have lacked the consistency necessary to overcome them. Taking Borussia Dortmund as an example, the club have had trouble overcoming opposition in games that many would expect them perform clinically in. Opposition that they themselves have not taken seriously has come back to haunt them. This season alone, Dortmund has lost games to Hertha Berlin, Greuther Fürth, and drawn against the likes of Bochum. Taking every game seriously is the mark of a team that deserves to be champion at the end of the season, and perhaps adding that additional light at the end of the tunnel could help propel clubs like Dortmund, RB Leipzig or Bayer Leverkusen to really ramp up the pressure on Bayern and make the league a truly competitive spectacle once again.

By Brian Szlenk.

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