“Ryerson. RYERSON! JULIAN RYERSON! Bing!”
Hi folks! It’s Groundhog Day. Again. The Bundesliga’s coming out of its long hibernation tomorrow, trying to see past Bayern Munich’s shadow.
It will all probably end with Thomas Muller whispering “I got you, babe” to the Meisterschale when he wakes up in the morning, as he has done every year since 2013, but fear not. There’ll be plenty of scope for comedy, romance, daring heists and making new friends along the way.
Borussia Dortmund, who have signed the aforementioned Ryerson for €5million (£4.4m; $5.4m) from Union Berlin to replace injured right-back Thomas Meunier (torn calf), are even trying to break out of the loop altogether. Their signing of the Norway international, a no-nonsense type with an impeccable work ethic, is an attempt to bring more grit, hunger and reliable oomph to Signal Iduna Park after a near-decade of irritating meekness.
Coach Edin Terzic’s rebuilding project will take more than the next six months to come to full fruition but a strong second half of the season, combined with a finish in the Champions League places, should buy the 40-year-old and sporting director Sebastian Kehl more time to implement their back-to-the-roots policy.
This new, old Dortmund is supposed to be leaner, in terms of wages, and meaner, as far as the team’s collective attitude is concerned.
For the sake of the league and even serial champions Bayern themselves, one must hope that Germany’s second-biggest club will get their act together as soon as possible. French-Ivorian striker Sebastien Haller’s hugely welcome return after treatment for testicular cancer, discovered following his summer move from Ajax, should have a positive impact in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, however, lesser sides have thrived in Dortmund’s temporary absence from the top of the table.
Cuddly, lovely Freiburg, second in the league after a superb start to the campaign, have looked good in their Spanish training camp. Just don’t expect coach Christian Streich to start talking about Champions League qualification any time soon. “The atmosphere is good but we’re not euphoric,” the 57-year-old said ahead of their trip to Wolfsburg (seventh) on Saturday with characteristic dryness, “we’re doing our job and don’t have many worries — that’s very nice.”
Freiburg’s defensive solidity and efficient set pieces will keep them in the top-four mix even if their football doesn’t quite scream “Europe deluxe”.
Fifth-placed Union have moved on from their extreme-retro route-one style, developing into a very accomplished side squeezing the maximum out of a modest squad. Coach Urs Fischer wasn’t happy about Dortmund triggering Ryerson’s release clause but Jerome Roussillon (signed from Wolfsburg) is not a bad replacement. Union have so far made light work of playing in the Europa League too, a couple of poor domestic results just before the break notwithstanding, and are well-placed to continue their fairy-tale run even if doesn’t quite stretch to breaking into the Champions League big-time next September.
Eintracht Frankfurt (fourth) also have a great opportunity to solidify their position as one of the most-improved sides in recent years. Oliver Glasner and his squad have dealt with the demands of playing in the Champions League (for the first time in club history) much better than anyone could have anticipated. A quiet winter break was testament to the new-found seriousness of the club formerly known as ‘The Diva’.
Elsewhere, RB Leipzig (third) will have to, ahem, carry the can if there’s no title race to speak of.
Marco Rose’s team are best-placed to challenge the Bavarian hegemony, starting when they host the champions tomorrow (Friday).
Timo Werner is close to full fitness but it will take longer for fellow forward Christopher Nkunku (knee) to come back.
The 25-year-old Frenchman’s last few months in the Bundesliga before he joins Chelsea as their 357th transfer of the year this summer should be cherished. Nkunku will sadly complete a hat-trick of top forwards (after Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski) leaving German football in the space of 12 months. At least the race for the leading goalscorer trophy should become a little more competitive.
Daniel Farke’s Borussia Monchengladbach (eighth, and now without goalkeeper Yann Sommer but with his Switzerland understudy Jonas Omlin — an €8million buy from Montpellier in France) and Bayer Leverkusen (12th) have lost ground to make up in the fight for European places. Both clubs can welcome back key players, Florian Neuhaus and Florian Wirtz respectively, from knee injuries. The latter, especially, should light up the league in a new false nine position devised for him by new coach Xabi Alonso, who in his first couple of months played a surprisingly defensive brand of football to try to stop the bleeding.
Down at the bottom, Schalke (bottom of the 18-team table) look doomed to a second relegation in three seasons but Bochum (17th), Stuttgart (16th and under new management in Bruno Labbadia, who was previously their coach from 2010-13), Hertha Berlin (15th) and Augsburg (14th), who have brought in five new players including Leeds fan favourite Tony Yeboah’s nephew Kelvin (from Genoa in Italy’s Serie B on loan), can all stay up if they can put a little run of decent results together. They are all flawed and OK-ish in similar ways.
And what of Bayern? Their long search to replace Manuel Neuer after he broke a leg skiing finally saw them reel in Sommer on Wednesday after a lengthy pursuit. A fee of €8million plus add-ons is a lot for a 34-year-old who had six months left on his contract at Gladbach but, in the eye of club officials, it’s a small sum considering that having little-used Sven Ulreich in goal against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16 (and for the rest of the Bundesliga season) would have been the alternative.
Coach Julian Nagelsmann believes getting ready to play for Bayern “won’t be witchcraft” for Sommer, but it might well take time until a reshuffled back four, with fellow newcomer Daley Blind standing in for either Noussair Mazraoui (pericarditis) or Lucas Hernandez (ACL), really gels with the 80-cap Swiss between the posts.
So the forecast for the Allianz Arena in late May is still an outbreak of the beer showers usual there at that time of year.
But Bayern’s personnel problems in defence do at least offer a modicum hope for the rest of the league that the German championship’s Groundhog Day could come to an end at last.
(Top photo: Bayern are on course for an 11th straight German title. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
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