The Big Bundesliga Question: Can Someone Else Win the Title?
At the end of the international break, for the first time in 21 years, Bayern Munich will head into a Bundesliga match having won none of the previous four. The season may only be seven games old, but the league table is unusual enough to raise some eyebrows all the same. Bayern are fifth, outside the top three at this stage for just the second time since 2010-11, and on 12 points, their lowest tally at this stage since that same campaign.
Every season begs the same question in Germany — will we finally get a title race this time around? — but Bayern’s slow start means it really is a question worth asking.
Union Berlin – Genuine Title Contenders, or a Mirage?
With Bayern stuttering to defeat at Augsburg last time out, Union Berlin remain the league’s only unbeaten side and are, for the first time in their history, top of Germany’s top flight. Their 15 goals are only bettered by Bayern and nobody can match their stingy defensive record of just four conceded. The problem is they only seem likely to keep things up at one end of the pitch.
Union are undoubtedly difficult to play against. They defend deep and compact, playing aggressively against the ball but in their own half. That is the foundation of their overperformance in recent years, with the team consistently hard to break down. Since promotion in 2019 the only Bundesliga ever-presents to concede fewer are Bayern, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. Only those clubs plus VfL Wolfsburg and SC Freiburg have managed more clean sheets.
The effectiveness of their low, compact block is highlighted in the numbers. Only Bayern Munich have conceded fewer expected goals against (5.8) than Union Berlin’s 6.2, showcasing how well they’re able to thwart opposition attacks. That comes from a very press-hesitant style, with Urs Fischer’s side ranking bottom, or close to bottom, for high turnovers, PPDA, and possession won in the attacking third.
So, Union can defend. There’s no doubt about that.
But this newfound goalscoring threat is a surprise, especially when you consider they lost creative genius Max Kruse last January and last season’s two top scorers, Taiwo Awoniyi and Grischa Prömel, left in the summer.
But new front two Jordan Pefok and Sheraldo Becker are on fire. Becker is the Bundesliga’s top scorer, netting six already having scored just four last season. He is being used interestingly in attack, playing in a front two with Pefok but drifting to the flanks and injecting a different type of attacking speed to the attack, driving with the ball at his feet rather than just acting as a target for long balls, something Pefok does well.
Becker has created 11 chances following ball carries this year, by far and away the most for Union (the next highest is Julian Ryerson with three) and only four players across the entire league have created more.
The pair look like a complimentary fit. The issue is they are currently performing like a world class duo but a dig into their numbers suggests they’re just good, not great.
Becker has converted 37.5% of his shots this season, and Pefok has converted 20% of his, despite almost half of them being headed efforts. Last season’s highest conversion rate in the Bundesliga belonged to Erling Haaland (27.5%) and Robert Lewandowski was down at 21.7%, which should give you an idea of how unlikely it is that these two continue to deliver the way they have, especially as they haven’t been on the end of many big chances.
Union will continue to win a lot of points because their defence is genuinely superb, and their last performance against Wolfsburg was probably their most dominant and controlled of the season to date. But their attack cannot keep this up without a significant uptick in output. They are yet to trail this season and that will surely change before long, demanding something different in the league from a side that has lost both of their Europa League games so far this season without scoring.
Dortmund: The True Hope for A Surprise?
Down in second, despite two defeats already, are likely lads Borussia Dortmund. If there is hope or expectation in Germany that someone can stay the distance and give Bayern a run for their money, it’s the Schwarzgelben.
The numbers don’t make for particularly promising reading, nor do the performances so far. Four of their five wins have come with just one goal, with the other (3-1 vs. Freiburg) coming courtesy of a big goalkeeping error. Defeats to promoted Werder Bremen and inconsistent RB Leipzig were entirely deserved.
Really, the question is how much BVB can improve in attack. The loss of Erling Haaland was always going to be felt and it hasn’t been helped by early-season injuries to Donyell Malen and Karim Adeyemi limiting them to just three appearances each. The unfortunate loss of Sebastién Haller has to be considered too but the late transfer window swoop for Anthony Modeste isn’t paying off at all, with the Frenchman managing just 0.29 xG/90 so far while not joining in with play outside of the area at all.
Despite starting every game, Modeste has only been involved in 77 passing moves where Dortmund have strung together 10 or more open play passes. At 13.9 per 90, that is the lowest rate of involvement of any Dortmund player, showing his isolation up front.
Dortmund are 10th in the league for xG and it is surely a matter of time until teenager Youssoufa Moukoko is thrown in to play from the off.
Local boy Edin Terzić has taken the club back to their Jürgen Klopp-inspired roots, with Dortmund not playing like a possession team at all, pressing high and attacking at speed as soon as they gain possession. It is not that the style cannot work but it does not lend itself to the sort of control that can see a team reliably see games out or calm them down when they are getting out of hand. It shouldn’t be possible to lose at home against Werder Bremen when 2-0 up in the final minute, not for a team considered the overwhelming favourites, and Dortmund will have to learn how to slow games down as well as playing them at breakneck speed if they are to go the distance. Without that, like in Leipzig, they will struggle to prevent counter-attacks at one end and unpick more stubborn defences at the other.
We see that best in the middle of the pitch. Dortmund are funnelled wide too easily and not even just when they approach the area but in the heart of the pitch too. Dortmund aren’t on par with any other top team when it comes to touches in the centre of the pitch just inside the opposition half but are most akin to Union, Mainz, Augsburg, some of the teams with the lowest possession and pass completion figures in the league.
Improvement at the back will only take them so far if they can’t also use possession both as a tool to create and to control.
The Best of the Rest
There are three more clubs other than Bayern who could be considered in the mix. SC Freiburg and TSG Hoffenheim are above the champions, Borussia Mönchengladbach are below them. Unfortunately for all three, you’d have thought they would’ve had to make more of Bayern’s slow start in order to capitalise.
Freiburg have continued from an excellent 2020-21 and seem best placed to ruffle feathers in Munich. Like Union Berlin, Christian Streich’s side are incredibly well organised, but they combine that with more creativity going forward — only Bayern have taken more shots or created more big chances so far — and are the league’s pre-eminent set-piece masters. Freiburg are one of only two sides not to concede from a dead ball situation so far this season and nobody has more than their five goals from set-pieces.
Hoffenheim and Gladbach are also teams to watch after appointing ambitious, attacking coaches over the summer. André Breitenreiter has never previously successfully translated his attacking approach from the second tier to the top tier in Germany but is back after leading FC Zürich to the Swiss title last season.
In Andrej Kramarić and Georginio Rutter, Hoffenheim boast one of the most consistently outstanding attacking players in Germany over recent seasons and one of the biggest and most versatile attacking talents in the league. A back-three formation has offered the platform to build considered attacks with real thrust through attack-minded wing-backs Robert Skov and Angeliño and two box-crashing midfielders in Christoph Baumgartner and Grischa Prömel.
Those two, the two forwards, and Skov are all taking over 1.5 shots per 90 so far this season, with Prömel the only one below two shots per 90, offering threats from multiple positions.
Gladbach are interesting this year under ex-Norwich boss Daniel Farke, playing by far the slowest football in the league but combining it with an electric ability on the break.
Their direct speed, a measure of how quickly they move the ball upfield, is a huge outlier at 1.17 metres per second, yet Gladbach aren’t an outlier in terms of possession and are not much of a pressing team.
It is a curious combination. They play slowly and carefully, an approach compounded by the deadline day signing of Julian Weigl in midfield, and while they are second only to Bayern in terms of completed passes and pass completion, they are also happy to let the opposition have the ball, sitting off to steal possession in their own half and burst into space. Gladbach have launched 20 build-up attacks, attacks that see 10 or more open play passes lead to a shot or a touch in the box (again, only Bayern have more), but also 18 direct attacks, the fifth most in the league.
Farke’s side get behind the ball after losing it, then look to attack right away after winning possession in their own half but are just as happy to circulate the ball at the back, using possession as a tool not to concede. It’s a low-risk, high-reward approach for the most part and it is working right now.
The Only Team That can beat Bayern… is Bayern
Finally, there’s Bayern themselves. None of the above will be able to keep up if they hit their stride but you have to wonder if there is something wrong in the south. They have beaten Inter and Barcelona since they last tasted victory in the league, so things aren’t completely broken, but an incredibly fast start to the season has gone from looking ominous to looking unsustainable.
The first match of Bayern’s four-game winless run in the league saw Yann Sommer make history, setting a new record for a number of saves in a Bundesliga match. There is not a great deal they could have done differently that day.
But their last three games, against Union, Stuttgart, and Augsburg, have seen a real drop off.
Bayern are still largely dominant but the margin for error has shrunk considerably as they are restricted to worse chances and opponents have managed to create better shooting opportunities. We’ve gone from Bayern not winning looking like a freak result to it being just quite unlucky.
Their finishing should improve, and you would expect it to, but what if it doesn’t? The post-Lewandowski era means the burden is shared in attack and the team is more unpredictable: Sadio Mané ranks just fourth for shots per 90 with 3.9, trailing Jamal Musiala (4.3), Serge Gnabry (4.8), Leroy Sané (5.4), with all four players registering over 0.4 xG per 90. It’s a big increase from players who were mostly there to supplement Lewandowski last season but the lack of a standout star who can get a goal when it is most needed is being felt.
As ever with Bayern and the Bundesliga, it’s a case of how long the champions will struggle and how much others can take advantage as they stumble.
For now, the door is ajar for someone to compete.
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