The 51st Bundesliga season starts this Friday in Munich when Bayern, the defending champs, host Borussia Mönchengladbach in the season opener. Perhaps you fell in love with German soccer last season as Bayern earned its historic treble (Bundelsiga title, DFB Pokal title, and Champions League title) and as Borussia Dortmund made its remarkable run to the Champions League final, and you want to follow the German Bundesliga this season, but don’t know anything about the league beyond these two clubs. If so, here’s a brief guide – as well as table predictions – for the 18 clubs in Germany’s top flight.
For each club, I’ll list last season’s finish, then key losses and key gains; finally, I’ll provide a bit of commentary on each club.
(Note: clubs are listed in order of my predicted my final standings.)
Last season finish: 1st place
Who’s out: Mario Gomez (Fiorentina), Antoliy Tymoshchuk (Zenit St. Petersburg).
Who’s in: Mario Götze (Borussia Dortmund), Thiago Alcantara (FC Barcelona), Jan Kirchhoff (1.FSV Mainz 05).
What to expect: continued domination – but not quite as dominating as last year’s record-breaking campaign. Bayern is arguably the world’s best club (Ribery! Lahm! Müller! Neuer! Schweinsteiger! Robben! Kroos! Javi Martinez! Dante! Mario Mandzukic) and became even more intriguing with Pep Guardiola’s arrival after his sabbatical from football. And Bayern upgraded what was already an unbeatable squad with Dortmund’s wunderkind, Götze, and Barca’s dissatisfied young genius, Thiago. Like last year, Bayern had the squad depth to compete equally well in all three competitions. Losing Gomez would be huge for any other club besides Bayern, but Die Rekordmeister are loaded. Another treble is not out of the question. However, it’s safer to predict there will some means regression, not to mention some bad luck somewhere. Don’t forget Pep is bringing a new system, too. I predict a double. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe plays catch up to the Bavarian all-stars.
Last season finish: 2nd place
Who’s out: Mario Götze (Bayern Munich) Felipe Santana (Schalke 04), Moritz Leitner (loaned to VfB Stuttgart), Daniel Ginczek (1.FC Nürnberg via loan to St. Pauli), Leonardo Bittencourt (Hannover 96).
Who’s in: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Shakhtar Donetsk), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (AS Saint-Etienne), Sokratis (Werder Bremen).
What to expect: more excitement. Although I’m terribly fond of Die Scwarzgelben, only the most delusional of BVB supporters would pick the electrifying squad to topple Bayern this season. It won’t happen. Dortmund lacks the three squads worth of talent Bayern seems to have. However, Dortmund is still one of the best sides in Europe with stars like Robert Lewandowki (pining for Bayern), Marco Reus, Ilkay Gündogan (BVB’s most valuable player), Roman Weidenfeller, Mats Hummels, and Lukasz Piszczek (he’s injured though). Plus, Dortmund replaced its lost parts with three great signings. Mkhitaryan will make an immediate impact as a slightly more withdrawn (than Götze) play-maker, while the blazing fast Aubameyang will be a power sub until Lewandowski leaves for Bayern next year. Meanwhile youngsters like Jonas Hofmann and Marvin Ducksch will gets some seasoning as BVB competes in three competitions. Besides, when the charismatic Jürgen Klopp (with his bear hugs and grin) is your boss, what’s to fear? Expect a solid 2nd place finish and another deep Champions League run this season.
Last season finish: 4th place
Who’s out: Michal Bastos (Olympique Lyonnais), Jose Manuel Jurado (Spartak Moskva).
Who’s in: Leon Goretzka (VfL Bochum), Adam Szalai (1.FSV Mainz 05), Christian Clemens (1.FC Köln), Felipe Santana (Borussia Dortmund).
What to expect: an uptick from last season. Schalke maddened its faithful supporters last season, as it first dramatically underperformed (falling to the last half of the table), then pulled itself up and qualified for Champions League on the final match day. This proud side from Gelsenkirchen hasn’t won the German domestic title since 1958 (the 30s and 40s were its heyday), so Die Königsblauen’s supporters are famished. Luckily for them, Schalke is loaded with firepower: Julian Draxler (one of Germany’s very best young stars), goal-machine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Max Meyer, Jefferson Farfan, plus the new signing from Mainz, Adam Szalai. New signings Goretzka and Clemens are very intriguing as well. However, Schalke probably doesn’t have enough firepower on a weekly basis to leapfrog Dortmund – Die Königsblauen will probably drop points here and there against inferior competition. Regardless, this well-seasoned side will probably remain quite competitive in the Champions League, advancing past its qualifying group.
Last season finish: 3rd place
Who’s out: Andre Schürrle (FC Chelsea), Daniel Carvajal (loan from Real Madrid), Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahçe SK).
Who’s in: Heung-Min Son (Hamburger SV), Emre Can (Bayern Munich), Giulio Donati (Inter Milan), Robbie Kruse (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Konstantinos Stafylids (PAOK FC).
What to expect: more of the same – that is, very good but not spectacular. “Neverkusen” has been perennial runners-up in the Bundesliga many times (e.g. the infamous 2000 campaign), as well as in the Champions League. The club is well equipped to retain its Champions League slot though with Bundesliga scoring champ Stephan Kießling (25 goals) leading the charge. Although the loss of Schürrle might look bad on paper, he was considered an underachiever and his replacement, Son from HSV, is a brilliantly creative and pacy attacker, offering Der Werkself an upgrade over Schürrle. Donati was brought in to replace the terrific Carvajal, who was one of the Bundesliga’s best right backs last season. Moreover, veterans Gonzalo Castro, Sidney Sam, and Lars Bender, along with fantastic young keeper Bernd Leno, comprise an impressive core. So it appears Leverkusen is ready to main its top tier status in the Bundesliga, leaving fans only to wonder if the club has enough depth to compete equally in all three competitions this season, as it returns to the Champions League after a one year hiatus.
Last season finish: 8th place
Who’s out: Igor de Camargo (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim).
Who’s in: Raffael (Dynamo Kiev), Max Kruse (SC Freiburg).
What to expect: intrigue, but probably success. And here is where the Bundesliga starts getting tricky: after the top four, God knows things can get crazy in a league known for its parity and goal-scoring. However, I’ll stick with the Foals at this slot. During the 70s, Gladbach duked it out with Bayern for Bundesliga supremacy, so this is a club of pedigree. Last season, the Foals recovered from the raid it endured after a successful 2011/12 (e.g. it lost both Marco Reus and Dante – huge blow), so this season more table climbing is expected. Defensively, the Foals are very solid and the additions of Raffael and Kruse should help Patrick Hermann and the unpredictable Arango in attack. Havard Nordveit is the deep-lying midfield anchor in front of the rock wall of Martin Stranzl and Alvaro Dominguez at center back. A return to the Europa League is a likely outcome for Gladbach and (now) longtime boss Lucien Favre.
Last season finish: 11th place
Who’s out: Fagner (Vasco da Gama), Emanuel Pogatetz (1.FC Nürnberg), Vaclav Pilar (loaned to SC Freiburg), Simon Kjaer (LOSC Lille).
Who’s in: Timm Klose (1.FC Nürnberg), Daniel Caliguiri (SC Freiburg).
What to expect: upward mobility. Easily the busiest club in the transfer market the past couple seasons – their balance sheet is a dizzying array of moving parts and intricate contingencies, so I’m sure I missed a player or two, given the disorientation Wolfsburg can cause! On paper, 6th place might be a bit bold for the “plastik club.” Although VfL won the title in 2009, it’s still derided because its company-owned (Bundesliga clubs are majority-owned by fans) and lacks the deep tradition of other sides. However, Wolfsburg does have Diego, one of the league’s most dangerous players. Klose will partner with the solid Naldo at back, while Caliguiri upgrades the midfield. Even the Bundesliga’s ardent traditionalists must admit VfL will be fun to watch this season. This will be season VfL quit their underperforming ways and cash in some of that Volkswagen dough.
Last season finish: 7th place
Who’s out: Heung-Min Son (Bayer Leverkusen).
Who’s in: Lasse Sobiech (Borussia Dortmund), Jacques Zoua (FC Basel), Johan Djourou (FC Arsenal).
What to expect: some angst, but a solid finish. Hamburger SV is another traditional Bundesliga power (the 80s were its heyday), usually boasting one of the league’s biggest banking accounts. However, the times have changed – momentarily – as HSV lost more (Heung-Min Son) than it gained this offseason (essentially prospects). Despite Son’s loss, there’s still enough skill and experience to keep HSV within striking distance of a European spot, thanks to local hero and former Spurs man, Rafael van der Vaart (hopefully undistracted this season), the rising star Artjoms Rudnevs at forward, the criminally undervalued Milan Badelj controlling play in the midfield, and Heiko Westermann leading the defense. Son’s los will sting, but HSV can still succeed.
Last season finish: 6th place
Who’s out: none.
Who’s in: Johannes Flum (SC Freiburg), Jan Rosenthal (SC Freiburg), Joselu (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim).
What to expect: spunk and some success. Last season, the newly promoted Eintracht surprised the Bundesliga by qualifying for the Europa League, thanks to Alex Meier’s goal scoring (16 goals), Bastian Oczipka and Takashi Inui’s powerful play along the flanks, the sensational goalkeeping of Kevin Trapp (the Bundesliga’s best keeper last season), as well as Pirmin Schwegler and Sebastian Rode’s dictating play in midfield. The Eagles – a traditional Bundesliga power – didn’t sustain any major losses during the offseason, and added depth (and competition for starting slots) with its new signings, which should help sustain its dual-competition run. Hopes are high in Frankfurt, yet some uncertainty lingers about how the Eagles will handle its multiple competitions – clubs green to domestic and European play from the Bundesliga are known to usually flame out in one competition or the other.
Last season finish: 9th place
Who’s out: Mohammed Abdellaoue (VfB Stuttgart), Sergio da Silva Pinto (Levante UD), Konstantin Rausch (VfB Stuttgart).
Who’s in: Leonardo Bittencourt (Borussia Dortmund), Edgar Prib (SpVgg Greuther Fürth), Salif Sane (AS Nancy-Lorraine).
What to expect: statsis. Last season, Hannover slipped out of its Europa slot, which it had held for the last couple seasons. I don’t expect the 96ers to return to Europa this season though, as its new signings really just maintain the status quo, rather than upgrade the squad. If anything, the 96ers might slip down the table, as its old (by Bundesliga standards) squad again struggles defensively. However, the like Hungarian Szabolcs Huszti and forward Mama Diouf hope to lead what should be a dangerous attack, bolstered by the three new signings, especially the hyped up prospect Bittencourt a midfielder from Dortmund.
Last season finish: 12th
Who’s out: Shinji Okazaki (1.FSV Mainz 05), Marc Ziegler (retired).
Who’s in: Mohammed Abdellaoue (Hannover 96), Moritz Leitner (loan from Borussia Dortmund), Sercan Sararer (SpVgg Greuther Fürth), Konstantin Rausch (Hannover 96), Daniel Schwaab (Bayer Leverkusen).
What to expect: mediocre success. Last season, VfB disappointed many – some even picked the club to win the Bundesliga! A running theme has been VfB’s ability to underperform during boss Bruno’s Labbadia’s tenure. Currently, the traditional power is over-reliant on Vedad Ibisevic’s goal production (15 goals) for offense. Much of the squad is “solid” (e.g. Christian Genter, Serdar Tasci, or even Tunay Torun), but not spectacular – nor memorable. Interestingly, Dortmund supporters have reason to watch VfB, as the super prospect Leitner, a midfielder, has been loaned to gain some consistent first team experience, like Philipp Lahm was to Stuttgart a few years ago. Needless to say, sip some espresso while watching the Swabians play – you’ll need the stimulation. However, expect VfB to grind its way toward the top half of the table.
Last season finish: 5th place
Who’s out: EVERYBODY. Cedric Makiadi (Werder Bremen), Max Kruse (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Daniel Caligiuri (VFL Wolfsburg), Johannes Flum (Eintracht Frankfurt), Jan Rosenthal (Eintracht Frankfurt).
Who’s in: Felix Klaus (SpVgg Greuther Fürth), Gelson Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Vaclav Pilar (loan from VfL Wolfsburg), Mike Hanke (Borussia Mönchengladbach).
What to expect: God knows. No other club suffered greater squad depletion than SCF this offseason, as its core of exciting young players was poached by other Bundesliga sides. And for good reason. SCF was the surprise club of 2012/13. The club from the small city in the Black Forest came from nowhere to claim a Europa spot (it only relinquished the final Champions League spot on the last match day by losing at home to Schalke, 1-2). Freiburg was the Bundesliga’s most romantic club last season with it featured ceaseless and inspiring running with lovely fluid passing in attack; it was also very solid defensively. Many attribute SCF’s success to the heroic managing of the energetic Christian Streich, who remains in charge. Although the losses are massive, SCF did bring in Hanke and Pilar to help with the attack. Plus, who knows what talent Streich is hiding from us in Freiburg’s fertile youth system. So we could be surprised again by this resourceful club. However, you could easily argue SCF will be a victim of its own success, as it now has three competitions to deal with no prior experience. The results could be disastrous or brilliant – regardless, everyone wants to see the next turn in SCF’s plucky narrative.
Last season finish: 10th place
Who’s out: Timm Klose (VfL Wolfsburg), Timmy Simons (Club Brugge), Sebastian Polter (loaned from VfL Wolfsburg).
Who’s in: Daniel Ginzcek (Borussia Dortmund via loan to St. Pauli), Emanuel Pogatetz (VfL Wolfsburg), Josip Drmic (FC Zürich).
What to expect: mid-table purgatory. Once up a time, Nürnberg was Germany’s dominant club – so dominant it’s now known as “Der Club.” However, this time was long ago – the 20s to be precise. Now Der Club is “Der Glubb,” and it has been relegated and promoted a record number of times. Last season, Germany’s charter club boasted a fantastically stingy defense – thanks to center backs Klose (now departed) and Nilsson (the club’s top scorer with 6 goals!) – and dreadful a offense, as most its goals were scored from set pieces. However, the offensive bright spot was the rise of the pacy and skilled player-maker Hiroshi Kiyotake, who single-handily it seems, kept Der Club in mid-table form.. 1.FCN did add Dortmund prospect Ginzcek to provide Kiyotake a target on top. However, the losses of grizzled veteran Simons (defensive midfielder) and Klose mean that last fantastic season’s defence will regress this season. At least, however, Der Club should be more balanced on the pitch.
Last season finish: promoted (1st place in 2.Bundesliga)
Who’s out: none.
Who’s in: Hajime Hosogai (Bayer Leverkusen), Sebastian Langkamp (FC Augsburg), Johannes van den Bergh (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Alexander Baumjohann (1.FC Kaiserslautern).
What to expect: upward mobility? Hertha gained promotion last season, after a powerful performance in 2.Bundesliga – this, after being relegated after one year ago from the top flight in 2011/12 (a short one year stay in the Bundesliga). Hertha is a perennial “elevator” club, bouncing between the top two levels. The club is led by the fan favorite, Ronny, the sometimes chubby trickster of a play-maker. The new signings – like Langkamp – look to bolster the defense, while van den Bergh is a solid left back and Baumjohann is a gifted attacking midfielder. I think this squad is improved enough to survive a year in the top flight, then look to really build squad strength and depth in 2014/15. Meanwhile, at least supporters in the German capital have top flight football to enjoy again.
Last season finish: 16th (relegation playoff)
Who’s out: Danny Williams (FC Reading), Joselu (Eintracht Frankfurt), Takashi Usami (Gamba Osaka).
Who’s in: Anthony Modeste (FC Bordeaux), Tarik Elyounoussi (Rosenborg BK), Igor de Camargo (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Kevin Akpoguma (Karlsruher SC).
What to expect: improvement. Really, Hoffenheim could be quite improved from last season, given the attacking potential on the roster. However, I’m going with this more modest prediction after last season’s near-death experience for the Bundesliga’s other “plastik club” – Hoffy is owned by software tycoon Dieter Hopp, who’s poured his fortune into bringing this club from 4th division obscurity to Germany’s top flight. Last season, Hoffenheim imploded and appeared to be relegated until a miraculous a Houdini trick of a win at Dortmund (!) on the final match day, then handily winning the relegation playoff against traditional power Kaiserslautern. Hoffenheim’s dismal 2012/13 belies its talent, particularly forwards Kevin Volland and Brazilain Roberto Firmino, Sebastian Rudy in midfield, and even the decent Andreas Beck and American Fabian Johnson along the flanks. While new signings Modeste and Elyounoussi are supposed to enhance an already strong attack, Akpoguma was the only “big” signing to improve a terrible defense from a year ago. Uh oh. Unless unknown youngsters who were called up from the reserve side surprise us. Expect fun matches with Hoffenheim’s strong attack and (still) weak defense, as the Bundesliga’s most hated “plastik” club lives another year.
Last season finish: 13th place
Who’s out: Adam Szalai (Schalke 04), Marcel Risse (1.FC Köln), Anthony Ujah (1.FC Köln), Jan Kirchhoff (Bayern Munich), Andreas Ivanschitz (Levante UD), Marco Caliguiri (Eintracht Braunschweig).
Who’s in: Dani Schahin (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Shinji Okazaki (VfB Stuttgart), Johannes Geis (SpVgg Greuther Fürth), Sebastian Polter (loaned from VfL Wolfsburg).
What to expect: continued backsliding. The pensive, yet explosive boss Thomas Tuchel has kept this overachieving side puffing along for a few seasons now – until last year. Mid-season, Mainz found itself sliding from a Europa League slot to the bottom third of the table. And it only got worse with the departures of main scorer and team leader, Szalai (13 goals), center back Kirchhoff, forward Ivanschitz, and midfielder Caliguiri. However, the two talent midfielders, Julian Baugartliner and (sometimes German International) Nicolai Müller, remain as Mainz’s fulcrums. Tuchel and his boys have been in this position before, only to surprise us. However, the betting side of me wouldn’t count on it this season, as the losses and form from last season don’t suggest Mainz has much to build on. Nevertheless, this blue-collar, coal-mining town will still fill the boisterous Colface Arena to cheer on its red Die Nullfünfer.
Last season finish: 15th place
Who’s out: Torsten Oehrl (Eintracht Braunschweig), Sebastian Langkamp (Hertha Berlin), Ja-Cheol Koo (VfL Wolfsburg), Dong-Won Ji (AFC Sunderland).
Who’s in: Panagiotis Vlachodimos (Olympiacos FC), Mathias Fetsch (Kickers Offenbach).
What to expect: scrapy fighting, but to no avail. Two seasons running now, wee Augsburg has defied the odds to stay in the top flight with Rückrunde (2nd half of season) heroics after a disastrous Hinrunde (1st half of season). Does FCA have another defiant survival season left in it? In some sense, the club was better than last season’s results, considering how many close matches Augsburg clawed around in. However, FCA suffered devastating losses on the transfer market, as its South Korean attacking duo – midfielder Ji and forward Koo – were poached away. Fortunately, Daniel Baier – the club’s best player – remains to run the show as a deep-lying midfield with his effective passing, intelligent running, and ability to create chances. But can Baier carry this side alone? Probably not. FCA are likely – and sadly, given how likable this club is – relegation playoff-bond.
Last season finish: 14th place
Who’s out: Kevin de Bruyne (loaned from FC Chelsea), Sokratis (Borussia Dortmund).
Who’s in: Luca Caldirola (Inter Milan), Cedric Makiadi (SC Freiburg).
What to expect: calamity. Bremen at 17th is a controversial choice – perhaps my equivalent of trying to pick upsets during March Madness. Longtime manager Thomas Schaf resigned after Bremen’s tumultuous 2012/13 season. His replacement is Robin Dutt (former Leverkusen and Freiburg boss). Expect hand wringing and narrative turmoil all season from the storied club. Schaf’s loss is only accentuated by de Bruyne’s return to Chelsea – the Belgian youth was sensational last season (10 goals, 9 assists). On paper, this Bremen looks like half-way decent side – with the likes of Aaron Hunt, Nils Petersson, Theodor Gebre Selassie, and Zlatko Junuzovic – but it’s an implosion from within that worries me, given the burden of expectations carried by this traditional power with its passionate fanbase. Expect a slide to relegation similar to the recent slides of other storied Bundesliga clubs with passionate supporters, Kaiserslautern and Köln.
Last season finish: promoted (2nd place in 2.Bundesliga)
Who’s out: none.
Who’s in: Torsten Oehrl (FC Augsburg), Marco Caliguiri (1.FSV Mainz 05), Simeon Jackson (Norwich City).
What to expect: not much. On paper, the forward Jackson is the most intriguing of the new signings, although Caliguiri will probably turn out to be the most valuable. This club’s core has been together since 3. Liga play, so there’s chemistry. Yet in these cases, you always wonder simply if the skill is there to keep up with top flight play, especially since Eintracht “B” haven’t been here in awhile. Besides, goals will still be scarce for the new boys – and who knows how the defense will adjust to the weekly top flight competition. Don’t be fooled: Braunschweig is no debutant to the top flight. Indeed, in 1973 the club became the first Bundesliga side to adopt a kit sponsor – none other than Jägermeister.