Bundesliga Restart: The Big Storylines Heading into the Rückrunde

When perennial champions Bayern step on the pitch on Friday evening to take on third-placed RB Leipzig, the Bundesliga will, at last, make its return from an extended winter break, being the final top-five league to do so. Though the table looks terribly familiar, with the Bavarians sitting four points clear at the top, there are interesting storylines aplenty as we head into the Rückrunde, the second half of the season. Let’s take a look at what occupied the minds of fans and functionaries at each of the 18 clubs throughout the league’s winter hibernation:

Bayern München: FC H̶o̶l̶l̶y̶w̶o̶o̶d̶ Hospital

Following the departure of Robert Lewandowski and with the concomitant arrival of Sadio Mané, Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann decided to tweak his tactical approach to make his side more flexible and its attacking arsenal more varied. It worked: after an exhilarating 5-3 victory over Leipzig in the Super Cup, the Munich outfit began dominating the league in typical Bayern fashion – by August 21, after a mere three league outings, Nagelsmann’s men had already amassed 15 goals. It seemed as though this season would be business as usual, with Bayern running away at the top and “farmer’s league” memes consequently flooding social media.

But then the Bavarian machine suddenly and unexpectedly ground to a halt. By early October, the mood at FC Hollywood had turned sour, and questions were being raised over Nagelsmann’s experiment. To be sure, Bayern were still doing well in Europe, but their league form had nosedived: one draw was followed by another, and when they lost 1-0 to Augsburg and then conceded a 95th-minute equaliser in Dortmund a week later, crisis mode was fully activated – or so it seemed in the media, at least. Cooler heads, however, preached calm; Bayern were still generating plenty of chances, they said, and they would eventually come good.

And, unsurprisingly, they did. The Dortmund debacle was followed by ten more or less comfortable victories in all competitions that left Bayern four points clear atop the standings before the World Cup hiatus. This hiatus, however, brought with it new drama: Manuel Neuer shattered his lower leg while skiing and will therefore miss the rest of the season. The legendary goalkeeper is joined on the season-ending list by defender Lucas Hernandez, who tore his ACL in France’s opener in Qatar. Sadio Mané missed the World Cup altogether, though he is now on the road to recovery, and Bayern are hopeful that he will be fit in time for the return of the Champions League in February. Right-back Noussair Mazraoui caught Covid-19 in Qatar and has been suffering from heart inflammation since; he’s out indefinitely.

Bayern’s shorthanded defence has been supplemented by experienced Dutchman Daley Blind, but the goalkeeping department had been causing the real headache until recently. When the extent of Neuer’s injury became clear, Nagelsmann confirmed that sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić would scour the market for an out-and-out replacement or at least a back-up to second-choice keeper Sven Ulreich. Consequently, Bayern were linked with seemingly every capable shot-stopper under the sun, from World Cup hero Dominik Livaković to the formerly much-maligned Alexander Nübel, currently on loan at Monaco from Bayern.

In the end, the Bavarians settled on Mönchengladbach star Yann Sommer. Wooed enough by the record champions’ interest to hand in a transfer request, the experienced Swiss’ switch has now been completed. Considering the circumstances – yes, he’s out of contract, but it’s mid-season and he’s an exceptional keeper – the reported fee of €8 million upfront seems negligible, which makes this an infuriatingly great bit of business, a sentiment echoed by my good friend and goalkeeping expert Aidan Reagh: “When we look purely at the numbers, we see that Sommer in 2022 was the most involved [goalkeeper] in Europe’s top leagues, with an average of 65.76 passes/90. Obviously being a distributor doesn’t translate to being ideal for Germany’s best club, but fortunately, his 0.136 prevented goals/90 is enough to say he can handle the shot-stopping duties comfortably…Given the data, Sommer would be a great fit for Bayern.”

SC Freiburg: keep on truckin’

The surprise package of this campaign so far has been Christian Streich’s SC Freiburg. While certainly incredible to see them in second place, it’s not actually particularly shocking that they are exceeding expectations. An intelligently run club, Freiburg have been on a steady upward trajectory in recent seasons – in fact, they were in a similar spot before the 2021/22 winter break! There were, however, plenty of questions hanging over Freiburg prior to this season: can they handle the extra burden of Europa League football? How will they cope with the loss of one of the Bundesliga’s standout performers in Nico Schlotterbeck? Can they turn their new stadium into a real home?

They have emphatically answered all of these questions in the affirmative, thanks chiefly to their savvy recruitment and the masterful Streich. Experienced centre-back Matthias Ginter has proved to be an adequate Schlotterbeck replacement, Japanese international Ritsu Doan has added plenty of quality in attack and the previously reliable if unspectacular striker Michael Gregoritsch has found an entirely new lease on life under Streich, now putting up some notable personal numbers.

Young right-back Kiliann Sildilla, too, has impressed while deputising for the injured Lukas Kübler, who looked like he hadn’t missed a beat when he returned. And it is precisely this which is so impressive; it’s not just the fresh faces who have sparkled but the established names, too, none more so than Vincenzo Grifo, who has already equalled his best top-flight season in terms of goalscoring.

In short, Freiburg are a textbook example of a well-oiled machine. With the exception of a couple of unnecessary results, chiefly their frankly unfortunate loss to Dortmund due to a Mark Flekken mistake, it has been almost a flawless season from them thus far, and not just domestically but in Europe as well, comfortably topping Group G. It sounds exceedingly simple, of course, but Freiburg just need to keep trucking along.

If you’re looking at a potential cause for concern, then squad depth is probably inducing the biggest anxiety right now. There was already a worrying lack of rotation in the first half of the season, and the roster has only gotten thinner since, following the departures of Keven Schlotterbeck, Hugo Sisquet and Kevin Schade – who was recently flipped to Brentford for an eyebrow-raising fee that could climb as high as €25 million – making the inevitable rotation (remember, they’re still in three competitions) even more problematic. They can still dip into the market, of course, and they also have a dependable youth set-up to fall back on – their reserves are fourth in the fully-professional third tier – but this is nevertheless an area to keep an eye on.

Mark Flekken celebrates with Freiburg fans after their victory over Bochum (Alex Grimm/Getty)

RB Leipzig: enjoy Nkunku (and Gvardiol) while you can

Despite changing coaches in September, RB Leipzig head into the second half of the season in third. In saying that, though, it’s necessary to remember that things are looking mighty tight between third and sixth, and Leipzig only got there thanks to their win over Bremen in the final match of the Hinrunde. Nevertheless, Marco Rose has managed to bring some of that Red Bull-y mojo back to Saxony’s largest city.

I think it’s pretty clear that Leipzig will continue to strut along in much the same way that we’ve become accustomed to, for better or worse, in the last few years. They’ll be fine, they might not get much further in the Champions League since they have to square up with Manchester City in February, but they’ll probably be in the competition again next season. More interesting is the situation around Christopher Nkunku. Sporting director Max Eberl has pretty much confirmed that the Bundesliga’s top scorer is joining free-spending Chelsea in the summer, so it’s going to be interesting to see how they will utilise their star man for the rest of the season.

I don’t expect them to change much – and honestly, why would they? – but perhaps we could see a bit more responsibility shifted onto Dominik Szoboszlai since he will be expected to become one of their main producers next season if he is to stay; he’s already putting up wonderful creative numbers but a consistent goal threat has proved elusive. As with Nkunku, these subsequent few months could also be the last that Leipzig fans will see of Joško Gvardiol. The Croatian defender has won himself plenty of suitors with his outstanding performances for RB and the national team this season, so he, too, could be on his way out. Enjoy the two while you still can!

Eintracht Frankfurt: can they keep this up?

Frankfurt are putting together an absurd season. After starting the campaign poorly, last year’s Europa League champions have managed to climb up to fourth while also reaching the Champions League Round of 16 in their debut season in the competition. I was going to say that they’ve quietly snuck into the top four because I had completely forgotten that they are there, but they’ve actually scored more goals than any other team, bar Bayern.

Daichi Kamada and Jesper Lindstrøm are largely responsible for this impressive offensive production, but it’s been the new arrivals of striker Randal Kolo Muani on a free – one of the transfer coups of the season – and a reinvigorated Mario Götze that have made most of the headlines. Götze has showcased glimpses of some of that attacking creativity that made him such a prized possession a decade ago, but his underlying numbers actually show more defensive effort than attacking output. The real star of the show has been Kolo Muani who has racked up five goals and nine assists in the league, terrifying defences with his skill, movement and intelligence in attacking areas, and even shining on the biggest stage of them all when given the chance at the World Cup – his performances have already earned him a ridiculous price tag and tenuous transfer rumours.

The question is, can Frankfurt keep this up? Considering that they’ve conceded the most goals in the top seven and that they’ve been overperforming their xG quite a bit, I’m inclined to say no. Even if they get dragged down to reality soon, this has already been a season to remember, and achieving, say, Europa League football again would undoubtedly still be a great achievement.

Frankfurt stars Randal Kolo Muani and Jesper Lindstrøm vs Leverkusen (Alex Grimm/Getty)

Union Berlin: let’s find some form again, eh?

For large stretches of the Hinrunde, as Sheraldo Becker and Jordan were running riot up top, it looked as though Union would keep, and indeed set, the pace in the highest echelons of the table. Some annoying know-it-alls always maintained that the side from Köpenick would eventually regress to the mean since their underlying numbers weren’t particularly impressive, but Union just kept chugging along, entirely fueled by serendipity, spite and the hate of Hertha fans. As it turns out, though, the nerds were correct.

Union did eventually run out of luck, slipping down to fifth. Having successfully played a whole bunch of friendlies during the break, Union’s task will be to carry this form over into competitive games. More so than that, consistently creating more promising chances is of utmost importance: both Jordan and Becker only mustered a measly 0.17 non-penalty xG per 90 in the Hinrunde; and in fact, the entire team struggled to consistently threaten, creating the lowest npxG (by some distance) in the league. That needs to massively improve if Union want to extend their European adventure beyond this season.

Dortmund: Moukostay or Moukogo?

Dortmund had a very Dortmund Hinrunde. The high-profile signings of Nico Schlotterbeck, Niklas Süle, Salih Özcan, Karim Adeyemi and Sébastian Haller inevitably begot the same old yearnings: “is this finally our season?” As it turns out, it wasn’t their season; or at least it hasn’t been thus far. While some of the reactions have been exaggerated considering that Dortmund were close to the top for most of the Hinrunde, it is true that they have been somewhat underwhelming. Of course, Haller’s cancer diagnosis and the rushed stopgap transfer of Anthony Modeste contributed to this – a more adroit striker, like Haller, or one more embedded in the system could’ve improved Dortmund’s comparatively poor goal haul of 25 – but it’s hard to contend that there aren’t more substantial issues at Dortmund, like the lack of a Jadon Sancho-type creator.

While coach Edin Terzic may be a Jürgen Klopp-like motivator, he’s no Klopp-like tactician, and it is he, of whom most of the questions should be, and have been, asked. Described in some circles as a “vibes coach” (derogatory), his inability to solidify Dortmund’s defence as well as the questionable utilisation of some players has left the BVB hierarchy in a tricky position entirely of their own making: persist or change coaches yet again?

Similarly delicate is the situation surrounding youngster Youssoufa Moukoko, who is out of contract in the summer. In lieu of Modeste finding the net consistently, the 18-year-old has stepped up and scored six goals in the league thus far. BVB naturally want to keep him and resolve this matter quickly, so sporting director Sebastian Kehl has set the teenage sensation the deadline of re-signing in time for the Bundesliga restart or leaving. The Dortmund offer currently on the table is certainly lucrative: a base salary of reportedly up to €3 million per annum. But does he want to stay at a club that can barely challenge for titles domestically (sorry, DFB-Pokal), let alone internationally?

Marco Reus and Mats Hummels are also out of contract, but with both well into their 30s now, this isn’t quite such a pressing issue. Despite all the noise around the club, including the ceaseless rumours of Jude Bellingham leaving, there is one thing that Dortmund fans can look forward to in the Rückrunde: the return of Sébastian Haller. The French striker already scored a hattrick in his first (friendly) game back, and it will be interesting to see if BVB are able to markedly improve their fortunes with a full complement of players.

Youssoufa Moukoko celebrates his game-winner vs Schalke (Lars Baron/Getty)

VfL Wolfsburg: defence is the best form of attack

It was a strange Hinrunde for Wolfsburg. They started the season terribly and were lurching in the relegation zone by matchday 7, yet they managed to turn it around, ending the first half of the season with four wins on the bounce. Now they head into the Rückrunde in seventh. On the goalscoring front, the Nmecha brothers, Lukas and Felix, have carried Niko Kovac’s team up the table, but for a side with such a ridiculous amount of attacking personnel, Wolfsburg have actually not been particularly impressive going forward. Lukas tops the side’s goalscoring charts with four, followed by central midfielders Max Arnold and Yannick Gerhardt and full-back Ridle Baku with three each.

If anything, it has been on the defensive side of the ball that Wolfsburg have looked the most adept. Kovac’s relatively settled back four of Paulo Otávio, Micky van de Ven, Sebastiaan Bornauw and Baku and the supporting Arnold and Gerhardt, who have been two of the side’s standout performers, has turned Wolfsburg into one of the more solid defensive bulwarks in the traditionally open and goal-happy Bundesliga. On the face of it, it looks as though Wolfsburg could realistically make it into Europe this season. The underlying numbers, however, suggest more caution because they show that Wolfsburg have been somewhat lucky both in an attacking and a defensive sense. Set pieces seem to cause them the biggest headache as they’re conceding the second-most xGA in the league in this particular department.

Borussia Mönchengladbach: embrace the chaos

If you think Wolfsburg’s season has been weird, wait til you find out about Borussia Mönchengladbach’s. Farkeball has been nothing short of magical – and infuriating – so far, with Gladbach easily dispatching the likes of Dortmund and Leipzig, winning big in the derby against Köln and drawing with Bayern, but then also getting battered 5-1 by Bremen, losing to second-tier Darmstadt in the cup and dropping points against lowly Schalke and Bochum.

It has been a season of contrasts thus far for Daniel Farke and his team, but on the whole, I think they’ve done pretty well. The biggest change that Farke has affected is the reinvigoration of the star players at his disposal. Marcus Thuram is having a stellar season, Ramy Bensebaïni and Alassane Pléa are back to playing consistently good football and Jonas Hofmann, too, is enjoying a real revival. Beyond the big names, French youngster Kouadio Koné has been a veritable spark plug in midfield for Gladbach, and many more affluent sides are surely keeping tabs on him. New signings Julian Weigl and Ko Itakura have also shown signs of promise, though the latter has only featured in slightly over 400 minutes due to injury.

This winter break hasn’t all been plain sailing. Thuram, who’s out of contract in the summer, has been consistently linked with a move away, and Yann Sommer actually did depart, which is a loss that will be incredibly challenging to counteract. The man they’ve identified as Sommer’s replacement, his compatriot Jonas Omlin, seems capable but he’s a different type of keeper. Such a considerable transition mid-season could jeopardise Gladbach’s European aspirations.

Werder Bremen: Ole the saviour

After what feels like an eternity, Werden Bremen are playing decent football again. Ole Werner has breathed new life into the fallen giant from the banks of the Weser, and his promoted outfit are enjoying life back in the top flight. Yes, they have obvious limitations, but heading into the final stretch of the season as a top-half side is an impressive achievement for any promoted club.

Propelled, almost single-handedly, by the goalscoring exploits of Niclas “The Gap” Füllkrug, Werder have been one of the fairytale stories of this term. Right-back Mitchell Weiser, too, has enjoyed a career resurrection under Werner, chipping in with six assists thus far. If Bremen are to keep riding this wave, one is inclined to suggest that in order to do so, Füllkrug’s attacking partner, Marvin Ducksch, will have to increase his attacking output. For a player who was tipped to outshine Füllkrug before the season started, his return of six goal involvements has been slightly underwhelming, though it’s far from terrible, mind. Shoring up the defence would also help; Bremen conceded the most open-play xG in the league during the Hinrunde.

Mainz 05: a tale of unfulfilled potential

Mainz 05 are an average side. They are pretty much smack dab in the middle of the table, and the numbers suggest that this is exactly where they belong. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Sure, as a club that mainly develops players, sells them on and hopes to stay up while doing so, there are certain limits in terms of what a side can realistically achieve. But you could argue that Mainz should at least challenge for the Europa Conference League; they have the playing and coaching personnel to achieve that – and at times, it seems like they are on the verge of hitting that next level.

But unnecessary results like drawing with Hertha or losing to Schalke ultimately hamper this side and ruin any previous good work. New signings Angelo Fulgini and Anthony Caci haven’t really had the desired impact thus far, one of last season’s stars, Silvan Widmer, has seen his year disrupted by injury as have some attackers, so it’s not all of Mainz’s own doing, yet you can’t help but feel that they are a side often playing below their capabilities.

Left-back Aarón Martín has been one of Mainz’s standout performers (Alex Grimm/Getty)

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim: what is going on here?

After matchday 10, Hoffenheim were sitting pretty in fourth. Now, they find themselves merely in 11th – five games without a win to end the Hinrunde will do that to ya! André Breitenreiter’s side seemingly got worse as the season progressed and plummeted down the table accordingly. The numbers suggest that they are right where they ought to be, and I’m torn as to whether to feel similarly as I do about Mainz or if Hoffenheim perhaps aren’t quite as talented a side as their roster might suggest.

Regardless, the big storyline of the mid-season break has been the Georginio Rutter saga. The still-raw but eminently fun attacker has now departed for Leeds. A like-for-like replacement hasn’t been brought in yet, but Kasper Dolberg has joined the club. A few years ago, this move would’ve aroused a fair bit of excitement. In 2023, however, it barely makes the headlines because, frankly, Dolberg hasn’t come close to hitting the heights that he was tipped for when he first burst onto the scene. That’s not to say he can’t be a useful piece of the puzzle for Hoffenheim, but he probably won’t fire them into Europe.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen: a season of two halves?

Bayer Leverkusen did not have a great Hinrunde. With the club stuck in the relegation zone, Gerardo Seoane was fired and replaced by Xabi Alonso. As is customary for a sport where fanbases and pundits are fickle and prone to overreaction, some immediately proclaimed that Leverkusen were on the road to recovery when Alonso’s side demolished Schalke in his first game in charge. In actual fact, it took quite a while for the Spaniard to affect something of a turnaround, but he seemingly did get there in the end, with his side winning their final three Bundesliga outings before the break.

For all intents and purposes, it would be quite the achievement for Leverkusen to be worse in the second half of the season than they were in the first. Progress is all but guaranteed. But of course, simply not being awful isn’t the benchmark for a club that should play internationally every season. So, will they get into Europe? I don’t know. But if they manage to figure out how to get back to the kind of rapid transition football that their playing personnel is tailored towards – and if Lukáš Hrádecký can stop making mistakes – then they’ll likely be quite good; after all, we shouldn’t forget what a ridiculous amount of talent this team possesses. With Florian Wirtz back from his lengthy spell on the sidelines, they could be quite fun again, although if some of their recent friendlies are anything to go by, I wouldn’t hold out hope for that.

Can Xabi Alonso mastermind a challenge for European competition? (Christof Koepsel/Getty)

FC Köln: a new Modeste?

The jarring late departure of cult hero Anthony Modeste loomed over Köln for much of the Hinrunde. They had lost their focal point, their goalscoring machine. Potential replacements were uninspiring: Florian Dietz joined from the fourth tier, while Steffen Tigges had been surplus to requirements at Dortmund. Though both exceeded expectations in the Hinrunde – a testament to the work of coach Steffen Baumgart – neither produced anywhere near as much as their predecessor, nor enough to halt Köln’s rapidly deteriorating domestic form.

The subsequent slump down the table set off alarm bells, and Köln decided to act in the transfer market. The apparent answer to their scoring woes is, well, rather unconventional: it’s Davie Selke. The striker has become something of a meme in recent years, a guy emblematic of the systemic failures and deficient recruitment at pre-Werner Bremen and Hertha.

That said, it has always felt as though Selke could be a decent enough Bundesliga player if utilised correctly. With a guy like Steffen Baumgart in charge, and with Florian Kainz and Linton Maina putting balls on a platter for him, the chances of that becoming reality are actually considerable. He is evidently the type of player that Baumgart wants up top; like Modeste, Dietz and Tigges, Selke is an absolute handful. A tall, athletic striker who is not afraid to do the dirty work, Selke appears, on the face of it, to suit Baumgart’s style to a tee.

Selke alone obviously won’t be enough to turn Köln’s fortunes around, but his being there does improve the odds of Baumgart’s side finding a way out of the doldrums. It wasn’t all bad for Köln in the Hinrunde, either: Denis Huseinbašić turned out to be one of the steals of the season, joining from fourth-tier Kickers Offenbach for just €50,000. He, too, could be crucial to any potential revival.

FC Augsburg: you can’t rest on your laurels

September was a great month for Augsburg: following a less-than-ideal start to the season, Enrico Maaßen’s side managed to bounce back with three wins: 1-0 vs Bremen and Bayern and 3-2 vs Schalke. A side which, with all due respect, has historically been incredibly uninspiring looked in high spirits, and young coach Maaßen appeared to be putting his ideas into practice fairly well.

But as they soon found out, you can’t rest on your laurels in the Bundesliga. By mid-November, Augsburg were again reeling following several losses, including to fellow relegation battlers Bochum and Stuttgart. Their throwing away of a 3-0 lead over Leipzig sums them up quite well: there’s potential in there, the likes of Mergim Berisha, Ruben Vargas, Arne Maier and, if he were fit, Niklas Dorsch are all players that would not look out of place at a bigger club, yet ultimately, Augsburg, as a collective, are very much an average side.

In order to rectify that, sporting director Stefan Reuter has been active in the transfer market. Bringing in several new faces, including three new strikers to compensate for the departure of experienced Florian Niederlechner and to improve their chance creation – Augsburg were putting up the worst xG numbers from open play in the league – their squad is certainly deep enough, but whether it’s good enough to stay up remains to be seen.

Out of the three fresh attackers of Kelvin Yeboah, Irvin Cardona and Dion Beljo, only the latter, a 6’4″ mountain of a man, has impressed with his output so far this season, consistently netting a goal every other game in Croatia. Yeboah hasn’t hit double figures since his time in the Austrian Bundesliga a few years ago, and Cardona’s best tally at the highest level was eight in Ligue 1 in 20/21. Both are pacy and not afraid to take a player on, so they could nevertheless be useful pieces, as could Belgian U19 winger Arne Engels, who has reportedly impressed in training since making the switch from Club Brugge’s reserves.

According to data provided by The Analyst, Augsburg are perhaps the most direct team in the league, playing the fewest passes per sequence and rapidly moving the ball forward. This playing style has very obvious limitations, and it is quite telling that three of the four sides similar in style are below Augsburg in the table. While the Leipzig game was certainly crazy and perhaps an outlier in terms of bad luck – exacerbated by a red card – there’s nothing to suggest that Augsburg have been in any way particularly unfortunate this season; the 26 goals they have conceded line up perfectly with their xGA numbers, which are the second-worst in the league. Though Maaßen is a well-respected coach and I personally don’t think that Augsburg will go down, the truth is that I wouldn’t be shocked if they were to depart.

Mergim Berisha celebrates his all-important goal against Bayern (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty)

Hertha BSC: a Rückrunde resurgence?

This title is perhaps a bit misleading because Hertha are a bad team and won’t significantly surge up the table in the second half of the season, but let’s face it, they are not get-relegated-bad. Despite what some fans will tell you, there is not some leaguewide, Union-led conspiracy and Hertha haven’t been notably unlucky, they’re just nothing special. They’re putting up similar numbers to Wolfsburg, so they most likely will be fine in the end, especially with the potentially useful Florian Niederlechner augmenting their front line.

VfB Stuttgart: unlucky or just bad?

A bit of both probably. Judging by the numbers, Stuttgart should absolutely not be where they are. The fact of the matter, however, is that they have been gambling with their recruitment recently, relying on raw talent in hopes of future profits and bringing in players that were surplus to requirements elsewhere for obvious reasons: the likes of Konstantinos Mavropanos, Josha Vagnoman and Dan-Axel Zagadou are not the most reliable of players at this level, despite being far from terrible. Even goalkeeper Florian Müller has seen some of his good work earlier in the season undone by silly mistakes later on.

There were some positives in the first half of the campaign: new striker Serhou Guirassy was an instant hit, Tiago Tomás showed flashes of brilliance as did Silas and 20-year-old central midfielder Naouirou Ahamada was an ever-present in the side. Ultimately, however, it was a terrible Hinrunde, and although it felt increasingly inevitable, the departure of Pellegrino Matarazzo still felt somewhat wrong.

New coach Bruno Labbadia, tasked with saving them from the drop, made headlines during the break with his Felix Magath-esque training regimen, but whether this is the most fruitful path of development for some of the younger talents on this roster is certainly up for debate. I’m not sure he will massively improve Stuttgart’s fortunes, but I also don’t think that they will get relegated.

Silas converts his third-minute penalty in Stuttgart’s 4-1 win over Bochum (Adam Pretty/Getty)

VfL Bochum: goodbye, we hardly knew ye

Last season was great, this season has been bad. That’s all you need to know about Bochum. The excitement of last term has given way to despair this time around, and it doesn’t look like Bochum are in much of a shape to prevent their descent back into the second tier. You shouldn’t read too much into friendly results since these games are about fitness and adjusting to the system, but my god have Bochum been bad; in fact, they had a better end to the Hinrunde – beating Gladbach and Augsburg – than winter break; how do you play six games against ostensibly lesser opposition and not win a single one, how is that even possible?

The arrivals of Pierre Kunde and Keven Schlotterbeck don’t necessarily inspire confidence, and neither does the squad that was already in place. Before his unexpected World Cup outings, Takuma Asano looked like he did not want to be in Bochum, Gerrit Holtmann hasn’t matched last season’s performances, and even cult hero Manuel Riemann, despite his three penalty saves, has performed below par at times. It would be an impressive achievement for them to stay up. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though.

Schalke 04: can they Reis up the table?

No. Schalke have been in turmoil all season, starting with the nonsensical appointment of Frank Kramer, who was replaced much too late by Thomas Reis. Rather than offering a brief reprieve, the winter break has only exacerbated their issues. They have found it exceedingly difficult to attract players. If anything, their personnel situation has only worsened following the departure of Florent Mollet. It doesn’t look good, and merely a new coach won’t be enough to get them out of the mud.

Schalke look set to head straight back down to the 2. Bundesliga (Lars Baron/Getty)

Final table prediction:

  1. Bayern München
  2. RB Leipzig
  3. Borussia Dortmund
  4. SC Freiburg
  5. Eintracht Frankfurt
  6. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
  7. Union Berlin
  8. Borussia Mönchengladbach
  9. VfL Wolfsburg
  10. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
  11. FC Köln
  12. Mainz 05
  13. Werder Bremen
  14. Hertha BSC
  15. VfB Stuttgart
  16. FC Augsburg
  17. VfL Bochum
  18. Schalke 04

Data from Fbref and The Analyst.

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