Prior to last season the now-defunct Grantland called the German Bundesliga “soccer’s most exciting forgone conclusion.” It’s not exactly a ridiculous statement as it pretty much was a forgone conclusion that Bayern Munich would win the Bundesliga, just as they had the previous three seasons.
After all, not only do Bayern have the biggest financial muscles – by a long shot – in Germany but they also have the best players available. Whenever a young prospect does emerge from a different Bundesliga team, they usually either find themselves playing for Bayern Munich pretty soon, or moving to La Liga or the English Premier League. With the best players either playing for Bayern or leaving Germany, it’s been easy for the Bavarians to maintain their advantage in Germany.
While Bayern did win their fourth straight Bundesliga title last season they didn’t exactly run away with it. They were surprisingly pushed until the second-to-last weekend of the season by long-time rivals Borussia Dortmund, who under first year manager Thomas Tuchel had their second best Bundesliga season ever.
By the end of the season it looked as if a changing of the guard in Germany was coming. Bayern’s time may have been coming to a close, ready to be overtaken by Dortmund. I even wrote that outgoing Bayern manager Pep Guardiola was getting out at exactly the right time.
It looked like that prediction would be short-lived however, as once the season ended Dortmund lost three of their best players. Attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan left for Manchester United, central midfielder Ikay Gundogan signed with Manchester City, and club captain and one of the best central defenders in Germany Mats Hummels left for, you guessed it, Bayern Munich.
It’s almost as if this is business as usual. Bayern poach Dortmund’s best players (they had previously signed Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski from their rivals), making the rich even richer and preventing anyone from mounting a serious title challenge right?
Despite losing three pillars of their team, Borussia Dortmund may have actually gotten better this summer. They haven’t just replaced the players they lost, they’ve also added to an already strong squad. So far this summer Dortmund have already gone out and signed nine new players, adding a mixture of established international players as well as exciting youngsters.
Dortmund have addressed needs all over the field, bringing in Marc Bartra to replace Hummels, as well as left back Raphael Guerreiro, who shined for Portugal at the Euros, to bolster the defense. To replace Gundogan they went out and signed Sebastian Rhode, who never quite caught on at Bayern Munich.
Obviously Bartra and Rhode are not exact replacement for players of the quality of Hummels and Gundogan but the truth is those players are far more replaceable then you’d think. Over the past two years Hummels has quietly been the weak link on Dortmund’s defense. Following his sensational performance at the 2014 World Cup, Hummels was nearly equally as bad in the first half of Dortmund’s disastrous 2014-15 campaign. When Gundogan is healthy, he’s a very tough player to replace, but the truth is at this point of his career he hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy consistently. If a team comes offering €27 million for him, you take it.
Dortmund will have trouble replacing Gundogan’s long passing and the ability to quickly spring attacks. Those attributes aren’t exactly Rhodes’ forte. However they will benefit from the emergence of 19-year-old Julian Weigl last season.
Weigl broke onto the scene last year, becoming one of the best holding midfielders in Germany. His ability to protect the back four on his own, will give Thomas Tuchel the freedom to play a slightly more attacking player, such as Shinji Kagawa, next to Weigl. This will allow Dortmund to somewhat make up for the lack of Gundogan.
It’s up front where Dortmund have done the most improving. There’s no denying that losing Mkhitaryan, who led the Bundesliga in assists last year, is a big loss, but Dortmund have not only replaced him but increased their strength in the area. They’ve signed German internationals Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze as well as highly sought after teenagers Emre Mor and Ousmane Dembele.
Dembele and Mor may still be teenagers, but they’re joining a club and a manager with a fantastic record of developing youth players. Dembele has looked fantastic in the preseason and will provide tremendous depth and competition to an attack that already includes Marco Reus, Gonzalo Castro, and United States teenager Christian Pulisic.
While Dortmund have been improving themselves all summer, Bayern Munich have been pretty stagnant. Now when it comes to Bayern they’re already an incredible side that doesn’t need to improve much, nor do they have much room for improvement. They’ve added 18-year-old Renato Sanches, who was the breakout player of Euro 2016, but he’ll now have to break through a very crowded Bayern midfield.
While Bayern ended up winning the Bundesliga by 10 points last season, they left it close until late. In the second half of the season, Bayern were collecting wins, but when it came to the eye test, they failed miserably. When facing Dortmund in the league and DFB Pokal final, both games ended level after 90 minutes, and Bayern’s performances against weaker sides were far from convincing. Only time will tell if these performances were due to having a manager with one foot already out the door.
Both teams have worked to improve themselves this summer, but don’t run and hand Bayern Munich their fifth straight Bundesliga title just yet. Borussia Dortmund may have just done enough to get them above their rivals.