Posted by: mdegeorge | August 6, 2011

Preseason Diagnosis: The Bundesliga

It’s that time of year again: Soccer season is upon us. Now that the summer tournaments and international fundraising showcases are wearing off, it’s time for everyone to get back to business. With the major European leagues slowly springing to life one-by-one, I’ll be previewing each of the big leagues as they open their schedules throughout August. First up is Germany’s Bundesliga.

Is there a league more unpredictable than the Bundesliga in all of Europe? It’s a nation where champions can be relegation-threated within a couple years, establish teams can falter for long stretches, inconsistency reigns and every so often, a team comes out of nowhere to be a big factor (ahem, Mainz).

We’re talking about a league that annually plays the early stages of its domestic cup in the last week of July, one that has already seen top sides Bayer Leverkusen, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg dumped out by second-, third- and fourth-tier teams, respectively.

Entering Friday’s season opener, the story of the league’s preseason has been injuries. Bayern Munich is without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery for the curtain-lifter. Copa America has sent a bevy of wounded bodies back, including Borussia Dortmund’s Lucas Barrios, Schalke’s Jefferson Farfan and Bremen’s Claudio Pizarro. Also out for extended periods are Leverkusen keeper Rene Adler and Stuttgart defender Georg Niedermeier.

So let’s go team-by-team and look at how things may shake out in Germany this term.

Defending champions Borussia Dortmund had a fairly quite offseason, the most notable move being the departure of playmaker Nuri Sahin (six goals and eight assists in 30 matches last season) to Real Mardid, yet another addition to their sizeable stable of Turkish-cum-Germany midfielders. They hope to replace him with an already deep midfield that adds Ivan Perisic and fellow midfielder-of-Turkish-descent Ilkay Gundogan. The backline of Nevin Subotic, Mats Hummels, Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek remains intact with the addition of Chris Lowe; that group allowed a paltry 22 goals in 34 matches, the least in the league by a full 17. The aforementioned injury to Barrios will mean fellow strikers Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Zidan and Damien Le Tallec will have to step up, as will midfield scoring threats like Kevin Groβkreutz and Shinji Kagawa.

2011-12 Bundesliga Predictions
1. Borussia Dortmund
2. Bayern Munich
3. Wolfsburg
4. Bayer Leverkusen
5. Hamburg
6. Schalke
7. Hoffenheim
8. Hannover 96
9. Stuttgart
10. Frieburg
11. Mainz
12. Nuremberg
13. Hertha Berlin
14. Werder Bremen
15. Cologne
16. Kaiserslautern
17. Borussia Monchengladbach
18. Augsburg

Bayern Munich weren’t as active in the transfer rumor market as usual, and certainly not as active as a disappointing third-place finish might proscribe, but they were able to make some understated changes. Defense was a glaring need: While Philipp Lahm appeared in all 34 matches last season, the next most-present defender was Holger Badstuber with 23 matches played. They’ve reinforced that area with the return of Rafinha to Germany after a season with Genoa and the cut-rate purchase of wantaway Jerome Boateng from Manchester City. They’ll be patrolling in front of Manuel Neuer, the Germany number 1 goalkeeper who spells an end to the enigmatic reign of Hans-Jorg Butt. Hamit Altintop leaves to add to the German-Turkish flair of Real Madrid, but he’ll be compensated for by what manager Jupp Heynckes hopes is more than 39 combined matches from Ribery and Robben. Miroslav Klose departs after four years to be replaced by the loan capture of Takashi Usami and promising young Energie Cottbus striker Nils Petersen. Still in the fold are Golden Boot winner Mario Gomez and wonderful attacker Thomas Muller, so the Bavarian club will be in contention for a title most of the season if they remain healthy.

Last year’s runner-up Bayer Leverkusen’s most noteworthy offseason move was the inability to keep leading scorer, Chilean winger Arturo Vidal, from the clutches of Juventus. They hope to replace him with Andre Schurrle, the revelation forward from Mainz, and Karim Bellarabi, who comes from Eintracht Braunschweig with talent if not an impressive league goal-scoring record. They also lose Finnish defensive mainstay Sami Hyypia to retirement, and hope that Freiburg defender Omer Toprak can fill that void. The other big acquisition was American keeper David Yelldell, made even more pertinent by the injury to Adler that could keep the German veteran out through October. Someone will need to step up to fill the goal-scoring role, whether it’s a midfielder like Lars Bender, Eren Derdiyok or Tranquillo Barnetta, or a forward like Stefan Kieβling.

It’s difficult to say which team was the biggest shock last season. Mainz’s record-setting Bundesliga start warrants mention. But let’s not forget that Hannover 96 went from last-ditch relegation save to Europa League qualifier. The bulk of the team is back. Hannover will be putting their faith in 22-year-old keeper Ron-Robert Zieler, who lead them down the stretch last season by allowing 11 goals in 15 matches; departing keeper Florian Fromlowitz allowed 34 in 20. Their transfer-market activity has been speculative to say the least. They’re banking on Christian Pander, ending his decade-long stay with Schalke after numerous injuries, to regain his form. Polish striker Artur Sobiech and Norwegian midfielder Henning Hauger are young talents who could prove to be nice pick-ups. It’s worrisome, though, that so much of their goalscoring comes from two players, Didier Ya Konan and Mohammed Abdellaoue.

The demand in which Mainz’s players were held during the offseason indicates their performance last season was hardly a fluke. Andre Schurrle (Leverkusen), Lewis Holtby (returned from loan to Schalke) and Christian Fuchs (Schalke) are all core members of last year’s European qualifiers on the move. Schurrle delivered a team-high 15 goals, while Hotlby and Fuchs combined for four goals and 16 assists. Mainz gets to retain midfielders Marcel Risse and Eugen Polanski, both previously on loan, to offset the losses. Fuch’s contributions should be replaced by veteran defender Zdenek Pospech. Otherwise, Mainz is taking a chance on some talented young players like Bayern Munich youth product Deniz Yilmaz, former Aston Villa product and Hungarian left winger Zoltan Stieber, prolific Nigerian striker Anthony Ujah and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. One of the young players, including second-top scorer Sami Allagui, will need to step up to fill the goal-scoring void.

Nuremberg’s finish near the European places surprised some. It would be an even bigger surprise if they were able to maintain that positioning. They retain top scorer Christian Eigler (eight goals), but four of the next five have departed. Andreas Wolf was snapped up by Leverkusen, Iklay Gundogan by Dortmund and Julian Schieber and Mehmet Ekici return to Stuttgart and Bayern Munich, respectively. They’re hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with their offseason acquisitions, few of which are older than 22. Former Tottenham striker Tomas Pekhart, striker Alexander Esswein, midfielder Manuel Zeitz and defender Timm Klose all must contribute. In Daniel Didavi, on loan from Stuttgart, Nurnberg is hoping for an Ekici-like season. A return to health by Albert Bunjaku would be a big boost from an offensively-challenged side.

So much of Kaiserslautern’s success last season was due to tremendous loan captures. But gone are Jan Moravek and Erwin Hoffer, while Srdan Lakic has been prised away by Wolfsburg. The 26 goals scored by that triumvirate will be difficult to replace. A lot will be expected of the Hapoel Tel Aviv duo of Itay Shechter and Gil Vermouth. They’re also hoping for big things from midfielder Olcay Sahan and on-loan striker Dorge Kouemaha. Expect some struggles on offense.

Hamburg may have the roster that underwent the most changes in the offseason. Gone are such familiar names as Frank Rost, Joris Mathijsen, Ze Roberto, Piotr Trochowski, David Rozehnal and Rudd van Nistelrooy. They’re hoping Chelsea duo Jeffrey Bruma and Michael Mancienne step in to fill the holes in defense. The departure of Ze Roberto and Jonathan Pitroipa leaves a dearth of playmaking in the midfield with Eljero Elia, Hueng-Min Son and new arrivals Per Ciljan Skjelbred and Gokhan Tore asked to fill the void (though Elia’s future is up in the air with Juventus lodging a bid). Leading scorer Mladen Petric returns, and the team hopes Peruvian international Paolo Guerrero can continue his excellent goal-scoring form from Copa America. A solid backline that includes Heiko Westermann, Guy Demel and Dennis Aogo will be vital in protecting new full-time keeper Jaroslav Drobny.

Freiburg loses almost nothing from last year’s surprising team. They had some difficulty scoring, finishing with the fourth-least goals in the league, despite Papiss Cisse’s 22 strikes. More support scoring from the likes of Stefan Reisinger will be needed. The intriguing acquisition is Garra Dembele, a French-born Malian striker who scored 36 goals for Levski Sofia last season, including an unbelievable 26 in 24 league matches. The lanky African has a similar build as teammate Cisse and other strikers who have been revelations in the league like Demba Ba and Grafite. A big season out of Dembele could see Freiburg in the European conversation.

Cologne seems content to stand pat with its squad. The only major subtraction is midfield playmaker Mato Jajalo, who returns to Siena after a year on loan. The team is hoping for a better season from Michael Rensing between the posts; the defense is bolstered by the arrival of Sascha Riether, much needed aid for the third-most porous defense in the league. Cologne retains one of the most lethal strike tandems in Milivoje Novakovic (17 goals) and Lukas Podolski (13). A full season from Slawomir Peszko, who recorded five assists in just 11 games last term, plus intriguing arrival Odise Roshi, a 6-foot-2 Albania striker/attacking midfielder, makes Cologne a squad with interesting attacking options.

There aren’t a lot of big moves out of Hoffenheim; it appears they’re hoping for more from Vedad Ibisevic than the eight goals he mustered last term to pair leading scorer Gylfi Sigurdsson. They bring back frustrating striker Prince Tagoe from a loan spell and add quick Zimbabwean forward Knowledge Musona, And they also have Ryan Babel as an attacking presence. If out-of-favor Wolfsburg defender Fabian Johnson can turn things around and form a productive central pairing with club captain Andreas Beck, Hoffenheim could have the defensive stability to complement a Europe-worthy attack.

Stuttgart’s low position last year was despite having a positive goal difference. Offense wasn’t an issue for the fourth-most prolific attack in the league, and they have the luxury of adding Julian Schieber back from Nuremberg to an attack featuring Cacau, Zdravko Kuzmanovic, Martin Harnik and Pavel Pogrebnyak. Midfield mainstay Christian Trasch now calls Wolfsburg home, though the hope is that former loanee Tamas Hajnal, Ibrahima Traore and William Kvist fill the gap. The defense is strengthened by central defender Maza, but issues still exist at the back. Stuttgart should be entertaining, if not terribly successful this season.

It’s like a revolving door has been installed at Werder Bremen. Several outright releases, moves to 2.Bundesliga sides and Torsten Frings’ transfer to MLS, indicate the quality of player last season wasn’t adequate. They weren’t particularly adept either offensively or defensively last season. Having Claudio Pizarro injured drastically hurts the former category and means they’ll start the season without their top three scorers from last term (Pizarro, Hugo Almeida who was dealt to Besiktas midseason, and Frings). A lot will be expected of Sandro Wagner, while Aaron Hunt’s three goals in 29 appearances cannot be replicated. They shore up the defense by bringing in Andreas Wolf and Sokratis from Milan via Genoa. But the attack is still lacking. Markus Rosenberg returns from a moderately successful loan spell with Santander. Young Tom Trybull and Lukas Schmitz, presuming he reenters the midfield instead of playing the left-back role Schalke preferred him at, provide bite in the midfield to replace Frings. Mehmet Ekici, coming over from Bayern Munich, may be the key to the midfield to take the playmaking onus off Marco Marin. It could be another rough season for Bremen.

A disappointing season has Schalke ringing the changes. The biggest loss is Manuel Neuer to Bayern Munich; Ralf Fahrmann, formerly of Eintracht Frankfurt, is an adequate replacement who’ll benefit from a better defense than his relegated club gave him. The backline has been solidified by Carlos Zambrano and Christian Fuchs, while Marco Hoger, Lewis Holtby, Jan Moravek and Jermaine Jones, three of whom return from successful loans, bolster the midfield. Raul’s future is uncertain. If he remains with the club, he would be part of a deep forward line that also features Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar and Jefferson Farfan. It’s tough to believe this squad can be as bad as it was last year.

Wolfsburg also falls squarely into the “they can’t really be this bad” category. Things ground to a screeching halt last winter with Edin Dzeko’s departure to Manchester City. At the time, he had bagged 10 goals in 17 matches, while strike partner Grafite grabbed seven in 14. Then everything stopped. Grafite managed two goals in his remaining 14 matches, which turned out to be the final ones he’d have with the club before the 32-year-old was sold to Al-Ahli Dubai. In comes a new strike partnership between Mario Mandzukic, who almost single-handedly kept them up with eight goals down the stretch, and the acquisition of Srdan Lakic from Kaiserslautern. Patrick Ochs and Marco Russ provide support for an already solid backline that includes Marcel Schafer, Simon Kjaer, and when healthy, Arne Friedrich. The add midfielders with defensive sensibilities like Hasan Salihamidzic and Christian Trasch to the already excellent Josue, and Diego and Jan Polak are joined by young Polish midfielder on the creative side. If they could somehow manage 10 total league goals from Tuncay and Patrick Helmes combined, a feat much like pulling teeth I know, they would be in business.

Borussia Monchengladbach barely managed to avoid the drop. This season, they face the prospect of reassimilating two crucial pieces that went out on loan as they righted the ship – midfielders Raul Bobadilla and Michael Bradley. They don’t lose much, with the only major move the departure of Karim Matmour. Forwards Marco Reus, Igor De Camargo and Mohamadou Idrissou are back. They bring in young loan capture Joshua King from Manchester United, young Aussie forward Mathew Leckie and Japanese attacking midfielder Yuki Otsu. They’ll have to solve their goaltending situation, which was a revolving door last year; Logan Bailly is out of the mix thanks to a loan, meaning either Christofer Heimeroth and Marc-Andre ter Stegen needs to step up and take control. If they can reincorporate Bradley and Bobadilla to the extent they used to be, the success of late in the season could be reinvigorated.

It was a short stay in the 2.Bundesliga for the capital club, and Hertha Berlin managed to return to the top flight with a solid nucleus intact. They managed not to lose any of major players, and boast a troika of 10-goal scorers from last season in Gustavo Ramos, Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Raffael, as well as Bundesliga veteran Rob Friend, midfield playmaker Nikita Rukavystya and Peter Niemeyer. They’ve added players with Bundesliga experience like Andreas Ottl and Maik Franz. It may be a nucleus that can avoid a drop back out of the top flight.

Augsburg’s first year in the Bundesliga is the culmination of a long journey that included a 23-year hiatus between 2.Bundesliga seasons. They’ve lost a few pieces like Kees Kwakman, Ibrahima Traore and Michael Thurk. Top scorers Nando Rafael and Stephen Hain are back, as well as defensive stalwarts Gibril Sankoh, Uwe Mohrle and Paul Verhaegh. They added three strikers in Patrick Mayer, Edmond Kapllani and Sascha Molders, but survival will be struggle.

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