The Bundesliga was the first of Europe’s “Big 5” leagues to wind up after an extraordinary and challenging season. Despite the limitations induced by the pandemic, there is much to take away.
Due to Germany’s better control of the initial spread of the virus, the country’s authorities felt emboldened to restart the football league; and one fine weekend in the middle of May, football returned at long last. Among the others comprising the Big 5, France never restarted at all. England, Spain and Italy have of course resumed competition, but not without compromises.
Let us first assess some key trends that the Bundesliga’s end to the season showed us.
Behind Closed Doors suits Technical Teams
The concept of playing football “behind-closed-doors,” as a temporary measure to fight the COVID-19 spread, led many to contend that home advantage seemed to diminish as a result of not having fans around. It also led to the situation where the teams on the top third of the table seemed to blow away the others, due to their technical and tactical superiority. The smaller teams have often relied on a vociferous home support to lift the spirits of players whose passion often compensates for a relative lack of skill. Add to this the five substitutes’ rule, the clubs with larger budgets and bigger squads can make game-altering changes around the hour mark. We are seeing similar trends in the other leagues as well, since they reopened.
David Alaba’s Tactical Tweaks
David Alaba is a tactician’s dream. He has regularly turned up in midfield for the Austrian national team, while excelling as a left-back for his club Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola would often use him and Lahm as full-backs who could drift into the middle of the pitch and take control. He has also played on the wing at times, but this season he probably surprised himself with the ease at which he adapted to life at centre-back. It was initially a contingency move, due to the injury to Niklas Sule, and the summer move by Mats Hummels. But his superior performances prompted manager Hansi Flick to adopt this on a more permanent basis. So, even when Flick had the likes of Lucas Hernandez and Javi Martinez at his disposal, he stuck with Alaba at centre-back, and there was no looking back for the latter.
Austria to be the next Belgium?
Ever since tiny Belgium took the football world by storm at the start of the last decade, several other smaller European countries have tried following a similar model. The approach involves leveraging the immigrant population both from the developing world as well as the Balkans. It also requires players to be trained at some of the Big 5 countries’ clubs. Switzerland is close to reaping the benefits, but Austria could also soon be there. The Bundesliga is full of them, and we already knew about David Alaba. But now we can expect the likes of Konrad Laimer, Martin Hinterreger, Stefan Ilsanker, Alexander Dragovic, Xavier Schlager and more to make up for a good Austrian national football team.
Bremen Survives; Stuttgart comes up; Hamburg still down
Some purists among Bundesliga viewers had been complaining that small town teams have taken over. Ausgburg, Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim and Paderborn are all in it, and some even doing well. The giant cities of Hamburg and Stuttgart were already in the lower division, with Dresden long unrepresented in the top tier. Add to that Bremen’s struggles, another big city casualty was on the cards next season. However, Werder Bremen, in spite of all their struggles, did end up miraculously surviving. The return to fitness of the inspirational Swede Ludwig Augustinsson and the presence of club legend Claudio Pizarro surely lifted the players’ spirits. VFB Stuttgart meanwhile earned automatic promotion. SV Hamburg, though, remains in the second tier, thus keeping things interesting for next season.
The Next-Gen of Talent is Ready
The Bundesliga has long been known as one of the hottest leagues when it comes to promotion of youth talent. The English Premier League on the other hand requires ready-made talent, due to the vast amounts of money on offer, so experimentation with youth is not prioritised. This season, too, the Bundesliga lived up to its reputation by throwing in several youngsters who earned their names. The Englishman Jadon Sancho was one of the top players this season, across all age categories. His Dortmund team mate Erling Bruut Haaland continued his development from his goal-scoring feats at Red Bull Salzburg. Kai Havertz has improved his game significantly and could soon join the top ranks, while Timo Werner’s star further rose this season. Others deserving a mention include Ozan Kabak, Mattheus Cunha, Alphonso Davies, Christopher Nkunku, Alexander Nubel, Weston McKennie, Moussa Diaby, Marcus Thuram and many more. The ones who will stay on, will surely light up the league even more next term.