Ahead of the start of the 2018/19, starting Friday, Ian Hawkey looks at how Bayern's domestic dominance shows no signs of abating
Bundesliga preview: As is usually the case, Bayern Munich strengthen by weakening their rivals
Last off the grid of the major European leagues in kicking off their season, Germany’s Bundesliga almost looks a little timid this August.
Germany, of course, is no longer the home of the world champions, the national team who, it had been thought, might benefit from a late start to the domestic season after what was supposed to have been such a long run at the World Cup.
Instead, the likes of Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Joshua Kimmich, Sebastian Rudy, Niklas Sule and Manuel Neuer, all of who cantered with Bayern Munich to their latest Bundesliga triumph, returned, humbled from Russia before the end of June, with three points from three matches, and Germany’s first opening phase exit for 80 years.
Next week, Germany’s manager, Joachim Low will submit his report on what went wrong. There are any number of theories and the condition of the Bundesliga informs some of them. Are Germany's Bayern players softened by too many easy domestic victories? The numbers support that idea. Bayern, providers of the backbone to the Germany team, won the latest of their six successive league titles with a gap of 21 points. Mind you, in the two seasons leading up to Germany’s success at the Brazil World Cup in 2014, Bayern's margins of advantage over second place had been 19 and 25 points.
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To make a case for a tight Bundesliga race, in 2018/19, is tricky, not least because, as so often, the movements of personnel over a low-key summer transfer market feature a key man from the next-best club travelling south to Bavaria. By signing Leon Goretzka, on a free transfer, Bayern have fortified themselves and weakened Schalke, whom Goretzka helped to second spot in May, in a single act. It’s effectively what Bayern did to Borussia Dortmund, with the recruitments of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski at the beginning of their current sequence of titles.
Schalke have also lost the services of Max Meyer, to Crystal Palace, and will look across the Ruhr at Dortmund and sense that consolidating second place looks a tough ask. Borussia Dortmund, who have made Lucien Favre their fourth different manager in the past 15 months, have spent close to €75 million (Dh318m), principally on firming up the spine of the side.
The likes of Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney - who had stronger World Cups, with Belgium and Denmark respectively, than any German players did - will strengthen their midfield and Abdou Diallo, the France Under 21 defender signed from Mainz, looks a prospect at centre-back. It seems, with a week of the transfer window still to go, as if the electric Christian Pulisic will stay at Dortmund, despite interest from English and Spanish clubs - and from Bayern - in the American 19-year-old; if Marco Reus remains fit, Dortmund will alarm even the most mobile defenders with their speed up front.
Dortmund face RB Leizpig on Sunday in perhaps the most attractive duel of the opening weekend. RB Leipzig have lost Naby Keita to Liverpool, but apparently none of their aspirations to remain a significant force around the summit of German football, two years after their arrival in the top flight. Hence the hiring of the precocious Julian Nagelsmann as their next manager, and their willingness to wait for him while he honours his commitment to Hoffenheim for the current season. In the interim, Ralf Rangnick returns to the Leipzig touchline, tasked with bringing the best out of striker Timo Werner, one German who came back from the World Cup without his reputation badly diminished.
Nagelsmann is still only 31. He will lead little Hoffenheim into the Uefa Champions League group phase next month, while on Friday he seeks to maintain his rare record, for a modern Bundesliga manager, for having taken more points from Bayern than he has lost against the champions. “Against Bayern,” Nagelsmann told Kicker magazine, “you have to be positive, and keep your self-belief even though you know they have exceptional individual class.”
With Goretzka added to their ranks, they have added more class, even with the departure of Arturo Vidal to Barcelona. Bayern have a new, relatively untested manager, though, in Niko Kovac. How he shuffles the various talents of Goretzka, Muller, James Rodriguez, Thiago Alcantara and Corentin Tolisso, as well as veterans Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, is a major point of intrigue.
As will be the mood of Robert Lewandowski, who spent much of the year apparently restless to discover if he could look like the game’s most complete centre-forward outside the Bundesliga, where, leading the line for Bayern, the goals pile up and the medals become almost routine.