A few weeks ago, I compared the Bundesliga to American college football’s Big 12 conference — one dominated by offense-friendly, super-fun systems. It was an apt comparison in another way, too: the same damn team wins the league every year. The Oklahoma Sooners have won five straight titles in the Big 12; Bayern Munich have won seven straight titles in Germany. In fact, the last time a team other than Bayern won the league, it was Borussia Dortmund, executing one of its most sustained peaks as a club with two league titles and a Champions League finals appearance. Bayern then purchased a couple of Dortmund’s best players, adopted pieces of manager Jürgen Klopp’s press-happy style (who’s now using it to max effect at Liverpool) and started rolling.
Only once in Bayern’s run from 2012-19 has anyone come within even 10 points of the champs but that happened last year, as an aging Bayern had to make a sustained late-season charge in order to take first place. With Arjen Robben retiring, Franck Ribery, James Martinez and Mats Hummels now gone and Manuel Neuer, Javi Martinez, Jerome Boateng, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller all the wrong side of 30, it’s fair to wonder whether last year was the Bayern dynasty’s last gasp. And after some early-season stumbles got Kovač fired this past November, Bayern again finished the Hinrunde (the first half of the Bundesliga slate) looking up at someone else in the table.
This time, however, they have a few clubs to worry about. RB Leipzig lead the way with 37 points. Borussia Mönchengladbach, which led the way for most of the fall, have 35. Bayern (33), Dortmund (30), Schalke 04 (30) are still in the running, and even Bayer Leverkusen (28), Hoffenheim (27), Freiburg (26), and Wolfsburg (24) aren’t completely done.
With the Rückrunde (second half of the season) getting underway on Friday, let’s take a look at how good a shot Bayern has of pulling back ahead once more, and which of the league’s major contenders have the best shot at dethroning the champs.
To help gauge each team’s true first-half form, I projected the second half of the season based on (1) each team’s goal differential — a better predictor of future performance than wins and losses — and, (2) per Opta, each team’s Expected Goal, or xG, differential. (xG measures the quality of a shot based on several variables and gives us an indication of how many goals a player or team should have scored on average, given these shots.)
Using the typical expected point totals from these two numbers, I approximated how many points each team would finish with if they maintained the form they generated in the fall.
If nothing else, this can serve as a general idea for who needs to truly upgrade their form to have a legitimate shot (Dortmund, for instance, who are certainly trying to do just that) and who was maybe getting by a bit on smoke and mirrors (Gladbach, whose peripherals don’t quite match their lead over Bayern and others).
Barring a change in form, this is a two-team race with two wildcards. Leipzig and Bayern are neck and neck, and both are projected to finish solidly ahead of Gladbach and Dortmund. The other potential contenders should fall by the wayside.
Clear? Good. So let’s delve into the ins and outs of each primary German contender and project the 2019-20 champion.
RB Leipzig (Projected finish: 1st, 77 points)
Current position/points: 1st, 37 points
Key stats: +1.65 GD/90 (first in Bundesliga), +1.27 xG margin/90 (second in Bundesliga)
Caesars title odds: +320
Notable January signings None
Notable January exits: Diego Demme (MF, Napoli)
The Red Bulls are the most polarizing team in the league, adhering only loosely to the mostly beloved 50+1 ownership model — which infuriates most German fan bases to no end — and continuously raising their profile. At the start of Bayern’s title streak, they were in the fourth tier of German club soccer but next month they will play in their first Champions League round-of-16 matchup against Tottenham Hotspur. They are, according to 538’s Global Club Soccer Rankings, the seventh-best club in the world. They are at once an amazing David-turned-Goliath tale and a plastic club. They’ve also been the best club in Germany this season.
Manager Julian Nagelsmann’s squad has the best point total and best goal differential, and they are easily the clearest challenger for ending Bayern’s streak. Still, their xG differential was quite a bit worse than their goal differential, which suggests that some good fortune was in play, too.
What will help them: They take the best shots in the league. They are first in goals scored, second in xG, first in percentage of shots on goal and first in percentage of shots on target. And it all starts with Timo Werner. Not only has he taken more shots (excluding blocks) than all but one player in the league this season, but he’s also got the highest on-target percentage of the league’s most high-volume shot-takers. Right now, he’s the German Steph Curry.
What will hurt them: They let you have too much of the ball. It’s an odd thing to say about a Red Bull team — this entire, multi-club Red Bull experience is based around principles like high pressing — but Leipzig haven’t really hogged the ball like you think a top team would. While their tempo (103.5 possessions per 90 minutes) is the highest among the contenders, their 54% possession rate is barely ahead of Hoffenheim’s for fourth in the league, and they offer opponents 30.2 possessions per game of 6+ passes, the most among contenders.
In theory, this might be costly in situations where you have to ramp up the pressure and come from behind. That hasn’t yet been the case: Leipzig have trailed in the second half in parts of six matches but have rallied to win one and draw three. In fact, they’ve salvaged more points from deficits than anyone in the league. The correlation between these salvage jobs over the first and second half of the season, however, isn’t strong. The fact that Leipzig has simply trailed in more matches than Dortmund or Bayern could catch up to them but we’re still projecting they should hang on.
Bayern Munich (second, 76 points)
Current position/points: third, 33 points
Key stats: +1.41 GD/90 (second in league), +1.56 xG margin/90 (first in league)
Caesars title odds: -200
Notable January signings: GK Alexander Nübel (Schalke), joining this summer
Notable January exits: None
The projections above are based on a formula that, when applied retrospectively, gets to within five points or so of a club’s final point total on average. But in recent years, Bayern have made a habit of waiting until they have to turn things on before pulling away and winning the title. At the midway point of the 2017-18 season, they were on pace for 75.4 points but found a fifth gear and ended up with 84. In 2018-19, they were on pace for 70.3 but ended up with 78.
They don’t need to turn things up that much to be in good shape for an eighth straight title, but they’re in for a legitimate battle this season, especially if their relative bad fortune continues. I mean that in two ways.
First, from an xG perspective, Bayern have still been the class of the league this year, but a couple of either unlucky or unlikely results (depending on your perspective) have held them back. Second, the injuries are once again piling up. Centerbacks Lucas Hernandez and Niklas Süle have both been out since October (Süle might not return this season), winger Kingsley Coman is likely out until February, winger Serge Gnabry might not be ready for the resumption of play and striker Robert Lewandowski underwent a minor groin surgery last month.
Bayern obviously have massive payroll advantages compared to everyone else, but that doesn’t really pay off if your expensive guys can’t stay on the pitch.
What will help them: Their possession game is still crazy-good. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have possessed the ball 64% of the time in the Premier League this year. Barcelona, the home of the modern-day possession revolution, is at 64%, too. Bayern are at 67%, with an 87% pass completion rate. While plenty of those passes are horizontal or backwards, you don’t accomplish those numbers without prodigious passing skill. Add to that one of the best scorers in the world (Lewandowski), and you’ve got the groundwork for lots and lots of goals.
What will hurt them: Their breakdowns are breakdowns. Despite those high completion rates, opponents are winning 4.7 possessions per 90 minutes in the attacking third of the field, fourth-most in the league and easily the most against any contender. In Bayern’s losses, opponents have won six such possessions per match. There have been some wide open transition opportunities — especially when you take backup center backs into account — and as a result, opponents are getting clean looks: 41% of opposing shots have been on goal. Only Frankfurt has allowed a higher percentage.
In addition, their slow tempo isn’t great when it comes to playing from behind. They’ve thus far claimed just one point from matches in which they’ve trailed in the second half.
Borussia Mönchengladbach (third, 64 points)
Current position/points: second, 35 points
Key stats: +0.88 GD/90 (fourth in Bundesliga), +0.76 xG margin/90 (third)
Caesars title odds: +1100
Notable January signings: none
Notable January exits: none
Gladbach were once a true Bundesliga heavyweight, enjoying five league titles in the 1970s and finishing in the league’s top five 17 times from 1968 to 1996. In the last 23 seasons, however, they’ve only done so four times. And after hopping from ninth to fifth last season, the Foals took a risk by bringing in a new manager — they replaced veteran Dieter Hecking with 43-year old former Red Bull Salzburg manager Marco Rose, a branch off the Jürgen Klopp coaching tree.
The risk has thus far paid off. Gladbach were the story of the early season, topping the table for much of the way. A spirited, well-earned 2-1 win over Bayern on December 7 seemed to prove their legitimacy as a contender; not only did they match the champs from an athleticism standpoint, but their home crowd was amped. It felt like a championship-worthy match.
They leaked a few points thereafter, however, losing 2-1 to Wolfsburg and suffering a scoreless draw at Hertha Berlin. They look more like a third- or fourth-place team on paper, especially after that late mini-funk. Can they find a new gear, or are they doomed to become a “started hot, couldn’t maintain it” story?
What will help them: They create really, really good chances. Like Leipzig, a lot of Gladbach’s success has come from creative passing and strong transition opportunities. They are attempting 71% of their shots in the box (second in the league) and 42% of their shots have been on goal (third). The ball gets filtered beautifully into the center forwards for quality shots: our attackers (Alassane Plea, Marcus Thuram, Breel Embolo, Patrick Herrmann) have combined for nearly half their shots and half their shots on goal, and they’re all shooting on target at least 39% of the time. Thuram is at 70% thus far, and at 22 years old, no less.
This makes for a great combination when you’ve got active goalkeeping yourself. Veteran Yann Sommer has produced a crazy-good 77% save percentage this season, compared to 63% for opponents. That plus-14% margin is the best in the league. Save percentages aren’t the most stable and sustainable stats in the stat book, but Sommer is really good.
What will hurt them: Set pieces. Only 1.1% of Gladbach corners have resulted in goals this year, the second-worst rate in the league; the Foals produce only 1.1 shots per 90 minutes off of corners (worst in the league), while opponents produce 2.2 (third-worst). And while Gladbach’s free kicks have been pretty accurate, per Opta they’re still only producing 2.4 chances per 90 minutes off of set pieces (eighth in the league), while opponents are producing 3.2 (second-worst). This adds up to another “nearly there” season.
Borussia Dortmund (fourth, 62 points)
Current position/points: fourth, 30 points
Key stats: +1.00 GD/90 (third), +0.45 xG margin/90 (fourth)
Caesars title odds: +800
Notable January signings: Erling Haaland (FW, RB Salzburg)
Notable January exits: Julian Weigl (DM, Benfica)
BVB were languishing in eighth place back in September, leading to speculation about second-year manager Lucien Favre’s job security. A couple of dominant wins and a 3-3 thriller against Leipzig proved they are still loaded with potential and for now at least, Favre’s still on the job. And they won the transfer window by winning the services of Erling Håland.
In 28 total league, cup and European matches with Salzburg, Haaland scored 22 goals. He was the breakout star of the Champions League group stage, and he’s only 19 damn years old. It’s quite possible that, in Haaland and winger Jadon Sancho, Dortmund have the two most exciting teenagers in the world. Their upside is preposterous.
What will help them: Quality shots and heavy possession. It’s easy to break these four primary contenders into two buckets: the transition-heavy upstarts (Leipzig and Gladbach) and the possession-based stalwarts (Bayern and Dortmund). BVB play the possession game well — their 86% pass completion rate is second-best in the league, and their 83% completion rate in the attacking third is first. No one produces better shots than their opponent like BVB: 43% of their shots are on goal (second-most), compared to only 27% for opponents (least).
The attacking trio of Sancho (on the right), Marco Reus (center) and Thorgan Hazard (left) has combined for 22 goals and 19 assists, and Dortmund are third in the league in goals scored despite lacking a dominant central finisher. If the 6-foot-4 Håland can provide some high-quality opportunities of his own, this could be the most fun offense in the world.
What will hurt them:The opportunities opponents get are slam dunks. Again, Dortmund’s strengths and weaknesses are similar to Bayern’s. Opponents may get fewer shots on target than anyone in the league but that high line, combined with a lumbering pair of centerbacks (31-year-old Mats Hummels and big Manuel Akanji), means that when there’s a break down, it becomes a fast break.
Thus far this season, Dortmund keepers (primarily Roman Bürki) have produced a save percentage of just 51%. In 10 years of Opta data, no one in the league has saved less than 55% of shots in a given year. You don’t really want to make this kind of history.
Dortmund are a total wild card in this race. With fewer goalkeeping/defensive breakdowns and a Håland-based uptick in attacking prowess, BVB could be primed to surge. But the offense can only improve so much, and the defensive breakdowns were pretty jarringly bad. Improvement isn’t guaranteed.
Full projected Bundesliga final table
1. RB Leipzig (76.8 points)
2. Bayern Munich (76.5)
3. Borussia Mönchengladbach (63.5)
4. Borussia Dortmund (62.2)
5. Wolfsburg (50.3)
6. Schalke 04 (49.9)
7. Bayer Leverkusen (49.6)
8. Eintracht Frankfurt (48.0)
9. TSG Hoffenheim (43.4)
10. Freiburg (43.4)
11. Augsburg (42.9)
12. Union Berlin (42.9)
13. Hertha Berlin (38.6)
14. Köln (35.2)
15. Mainz 05 (32.1)
16. Werder Bremen (30.8)
17. Fortuna Düsseldorf (29.9)
18. Paderborn (24.7)