So Close, Yet So Far…

By Adibir Singh – @adi_sza

With the dust finally settled on the 2019-20 Bundesliga season, we look back at a title race that was one of the most thrilling in recent years. Germany’s two crown princes- Dortmund and Leipzig- were out to dethrone the resident Kings of German football Bayern Munchen. Ultimately coming up short, we focus on how the two sides put on a serious challenge for the title and what cost them much coveted silverware.

Bayern were crowned Champions for a record 8th time in a row- overcoming their early season setbacks under Niko Kovac. Kovac’s form was seen as lacklustre by the heavyweights that make up the Bayern board- and Hansi Flick was handed the reigns following a resounding 5-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Borussia Dortmund were the favourites to push Bayern all the way again this season- on the back of an 18-19 campaign which saw them finish just two points behind them. Coach Lucien Favre brought in plenty of talent with the likes of Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt to bolster the attack, and Nico Schulz in defence- on the back of his splendid season with Hoffenheim.

Bayern’s season started in tumultuous fashion- dropping points in 3 of their first 7 games. Dortmund were the team everyone expected to capitalise on the misfortunes in Bavaria- but instead it was RB Leipzig who took the lead with a superb run of form. 

Julian Nagelsmann’s side had made their own notable signings in the summer window- bringing in Christopher Nkunku from PSG and Spaniard Dani Olmo for €19.00m from Zagreb- and fans were eager to see how this would help them better a 3rd place finish from the previous year and close a 12 point gap on Bayern. 

Leipzig started their season off in scintillating form- 4 wins in their first 5 games- including taking points off Bayern propelled them to the top of the table- a point clear of Dortmund in second place. This run was quickly dismantled by Schalke- beating ‘Die Roten Bullen’ 3-1 and undoing all of Nagelsmann’s early hard work. Leipzig failed to win their next three games as well- dropping all the way to 6th place after Matchday 9.

Dortmund on the other hand were replicating their form from last year, and not in a positive way. The same inconsistencies that hampered their title hopes were at the fore once again- notching just 3 wins from their first 7 games. Languishing in 8th place, Matchday 8 brought the challenge of surprise leaders Mönchengladbach- but Dortmund got over the line with a hard fought 1-0 win. 

4 points from 6 against Schalke and Wolfsburg took BVB up into second- but with a chance to go top of the table they had to beat Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena- which was no easy task irrespective of how mediocre a season Bayern were having. Dortmund were humbled by a newly rejuvenated Bayern under Flick- losing 4-0, dropping the Ruhr side back down to sixth place. Their momentum was evidently hampered after collecting just one point from six in their next two games. 

Matchday 10 was a historic one for Leipzig- demolishing Mainz with 8 unanswered goals- star man Timo Werner bagged 3 goals and 3 assists in a standout performance to push his side into second place. They then went on to win their next 5 games in a row- the best form they would produce throughout the season and go back into the top spot. 

Dortmund responded to this by scoring 9 goals against Dusseldorf and Mainz- setting up a tasty encounter for the two in-form sides in Leipzig and themselves for Matchday 16. The clash did not disappoint- ending in a free flowing 3-3 draw, but also highlighting how fragile the two sides were defensively. 

Leipzig ended Matchday 17 as the ‘Herbstmeister” or halfway champions- a first in their history and the sides form looked promising. But the new year brought the Bayern side back to life, who were on the rise with six wins on the trot- overtaking the herd and finally coming into the familiar territory of first place on Matchday 20.

A mere 3 points separated first from fourth place, and there was another big clash in the title race when Leipzig travelled to Munich to face Bayern on Matchday 21. A 0-0 draw did little good to Leipzig who trailed Bayern by just a point, in second.

January saw Dortmund bring in the most sought after striker in Europe- Erling Haaland- to their side, as well as a surprise signing of Emre Can to sure up the midfield department. Haaland’s impact was immediate- scoring three on his debut. 

However, Bayern were relentless after their 6-1 victory against Bremen, and really stepped on the gas to go on a 13 game unbeaten run before meeting Dortmund in Matchday 28. Dortmund were trailing their rivals in an all too familiar situation by 4 points. 

A home win against the Bavarians would put Dortmund just a point behind them- but a world class goal by Joshua Kimmich was the nail in the coffin for Dortmund’s title hopes. A 7 point lead for Flick’s side seemed an almost unassailable lead. 

Leipzig were victims of their own demise- trailing the leaders by 9 points after four draws in seven games which completely blew them out of the title race. Their only hope to try and salvage their domestic season was to try and push for a second place finish, ahead of Dortmund. 

FC Bayern would go on to stretch their unbeaten run to 19 games- winning 18 of those- and secure another record breaking title win. Dortmund and Leipzig faced each other on Matchday 33 with second place to play for- and the Black and Yellows made easy work of brushing aside the Leipzig challenge- albeit still finishing a disappointing 13 points behind the Meisterschale winners. 

Where did it go wrong?

Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund seemed to have no problem in attack all season. A formidable line up of attackers in Reus, Sancho, Brandt and Haaland never failed to deliver- but it was at the other end of the pitch where they had all the problems. Favre favoured a 3 at the back system for majority of the campaign- with full backs Guerreiro and Hakimi playing as the wing-backs in a five man midfield. 

Their games against bottom sides Paderborn and Bremen were perfect examples of this frailty. Being 3 goals down at halftime against Paderborn had alarm bells ringing for Favre- who relied on Schulz and Weigl in a back four- but to no avail. The ever-reliant attack saved Favre’s blushes by clawing back three goals- but the problems were much deeper and needed sorting out quickly.

The manager ruthlessly changed his formation and personnel- deploying Raphaël Guerreiro and dropping Nico Schulz for his sub-par performances. The teams performances improved but the vulnerability in defence was still visible- and easily exploited even by the weakest of opposition.

RB Leipzig

Leipzig had a similar problem at the back. The attack was clicking perfectly through the midfield pairing of Laimer, Demme and Sabitzer who helped Werner and Nkunku wreak havoc on defences. 

The defence that had conceded the fewest goals the previous year, didn’t come close to matching that feat when it mattered most. 37 goals conceded, and letting the opposition score first in crucial games ultimately caught up to the side in their hunt for the title- evident in games against Leverkusen, Freiburg and Hertha Berlin. 

Nagelsmann’s side performed extremely well in Europe throughout the campaign- and fatigue from midweek European games could have been a factor for a comparably inexperienced squad in their run in. 

The Silver Lining

Both sides had plenty to smile about throughout the campaign-

Dortmund saw their young superstars rise to the occasion- Jadon Sancho was the outright star- collecting 17 goals and 17 assists in a remarkable season. His link up play with teen sensation Haaland was a sight to behold- the Norwegian with 16 goal contributions in 15 games proving his moneys worth. 17 year-old Gio Reyna also broke into the team, and slowly established himself as a rotational first-teamer in just his first top flight season. 

Raphaël Guerreiro was another player that surprised fans and pundits alike- completely pushing Schulz out of the side and proving to be one of the most reliable players in the squad both defensively and with his goal contributions. 

Leipzig on the other hand were almost single handedly winning games because of their unstoppable German striker Timo Werner. His 28 goals were bettered only by Lewandowski at Bayern (surprise, surprise). 

Defender Dayot Upamecano caught the eye of suitors from around the world with his 

world class displays- something you wouldn’t expect from a 21 year-old in such a highly competitive league. It wouldn’t shock anyone if a bigger European club came for his signature in the coming transfer window. 

Christopher Nkunku had a stellar campaign as well- 5 goals and 15 assists put his numbers up with the best in the league, that too in his debut season. He quickly established himself as a first team starter and has left PSG wondering what they potentially missed out on.

2020 Vision

Borussia Dortmund

Achraf Hakimi’s departure will disappoint a lot of BVB faithful- having had a fantastic campaign and a telepathic understanding with Sancho on the right hand side. Thomas Meunier was brought in on a free transfer as an efficient replacement- and one that was needed especially since back up right-back Marcel Schmelzer has undergone surgery on his knee.

Jude Bellingham is on the verge of signing for BVB from Birmingham City- the midfielder being touted as another promising talent to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Sancho. 

More defensive recruitments are required by Dortmund if they want to reach the benchmark set by Bayern. An aging Hummels and injury-prone Akanji are not the recipe for success if results are to go by. 

Next season may be Favre’s last chance to show that his side are the real deal- and finally deliver a title after eight long years.

RB Leipzig

Timo Werner’s move to Chelsea is going to give Nagelsmann and his staff a headache to replace his phenomenal goal tally- but new signing Here-chan Hwang, signed from sister club Salzburg might just be the solution. Just like Dortmund, they need defensive stability to reach an even higher level of competition- and obtaining the signature of Benjamin Henrichs at right-back is just the type of move they need. 

Nagelsmann’s swift style of play has caught the eye of football fans around the world- but the final few pieces of the jigsaw are missing in defence to truly see the best of the German’s tactical prowess. Holding onto and developing key players like Upamecano are just as crucial as new signings if this side wants to fight for titles in the coming years. 

They say defence wins you titles and that is exactly where these two sides will look to invest and improve for next season. Bayern have also added marquee signings such as Leroy Sane to their ranks- and aren’t resting on their laurels despite the clear gulf in class between them and the rest of the league.

If this year is anything to go by- the 2020/21 Bundesliga campaign is going to be even bigger and even better. Keep your eyes peeled on the league that never fails to disappoint!

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