Delight in Dortmund as big guns flop
The final 2010/11 Bundesliga table is, to put it mildly, swamped with surprises, and pointers towards potential things to come. Even if normality returns and the old order re-establishes itself next term, the standings really ought to be printed out, framed, and hung in a museum, because the same order from top to bottom is extremely unlikely ever to come about again. "The table looks like a big mistake," the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper wrote after a season which confounded the pundits.
It was the season after the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, in which a national side bristling with youthful energy and creative football finally consigned the old German image of ruthless efficiency to the dustbin of history. Back in the Bundesliga, a clutch of perennial contenders promptly disappeared into mid-table anonymity, or even found themselves in a fight for survival. Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, Schalke and Wolfsburg finished 12th to 15th in the standings, while unfancied Hannover, Mainz and Nuremberg emerged from the shadows. Picking up where the Nationalelf left off, they claimed the spots from fourth to sixth with an energetic and aggressive brand of play.
Youth was a vital component for all these sides, but it was the core ingredient for champions Borussia Dortmund. The fresh-faced boys in yellow and black leapt clear of the pack and claimed a wholly merited championship in a fashion not seen in Germany for many years. The pain and bemusement was most keenly felt by those trailing in their wake, and especially in Munich, where star-studded Bayern limped in third behind Bayer Leverkusen. Last term’s UEFA Champions League finalists now have to qualify for next season’s competition. "We’ve avoided the worst-case scenario, but it was an unsatisfactory season," summarised director of sport Christian Nerlinger.
Overall, the campaign highlighted a move towards teamwork in the three-time FIFA World Cup winning nation. Success went to the clubs who eschewed experience and individual skill in favour of collective will and prodigious levels of fitness in attacking and defending as a unit. Younger coaches such as 44-year-old BVB boss Jurgen Klopp and Mainz‘s Thomas Tuchel, six years Klopp’s junior, are spearheading a new generation of talented tacticians, whose style involves lightning-quick transitions from defence to attack. This proved an attractive approach for the watching public because of its single-minded focus on goals.
"Klopp is on course for the very top," said Franz Beckenbauer at the midpoint of the campaign, and as so often, Der Kaiser’s assessment was correct: Dortmund finished with a phenomenal 75 points, 67 goals for and a paltry 22 against. The 1996/97 Champions League winners lost their first match but never looked back after that, proving en route that attack is the best form of defence.
The most remarkable thing of all was the youthful nature of the BVB team, and the best of the bunch was 22-year-old Turkey international Nuri Sahin. Recently snapped up by Real Madrid on a long-term deal, the midfielder is capable of dictating the pace and movement of a game.
The rock on which Sahin wove his magic was Sven Bender, seven months the playmaker’s junior. Central defenders Mats Hummels and Serbia's Neven Subotic are both only 22. Up front, alongside 18-year-old revelation Mario Gotze, Kevin Grosskreutz shone, as did Japan's Shinji Kagawa, also 22, until his season was cut short by injury at the AFC Asia Cup in January. In comparison, 16-goal Paraguay striker Lucas Barrios looks a real oldie at 26. "This kindergarten’s blasting through the rest of the league as if there was no tomorrow. It's exceptional," Klopp declared.
Frustration for the big boys
By contrast, Bayern will wish to forget this season as fast as possible. Arjen Robben missed the first half of the campaign with injury, the club dispensed with coach Louis van Gaal’s services, and Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm never really shook off the hangover from their FIFA World Cup heroics. Once the faint prospect of silverware finally disappeared, Bayern began scoring freely, but it was all too late as Leverkusen, for whom Michael Ballack remains an inconsistent conundrum, claimed the runners-up spot.
"We’re expecting trophies again next season," Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Kicker magazine. There was one consolation prize for the men from Munich, as Mario Gomez picked up the cannon-shaped trophy for the league’s top scorer with 28 goals, including five hat-tricks.
Elsewhere, it was a fraught campaign for a quartet of clubs who set out with high hopes last summer. For Schalke, Raul proved he remains world-class, and Germany keeper Manuel Neuer frequently showed he might well get there, but the team's only memorable moments came in the Champions League. Bremen and Stuttgart suffered from porous defending and toothless attacking, and it was an even more dismal season for 2009 champions Wolfsburg, who only escaped an ignominious drop on the last day – this after rehiring the iconic Felix Magath for the dying embers of the season. Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and minnows Hannover and Mainz gleefully seized the chance for UEFA Europa League qualification.
The final twist in the tale of the 2010/11 season was provided by Eintracht Frankfurt. Future analysts will puzzle over how and why it all went so horribly wrong: from seventh spot at the halfway mark, thanks to some decent football and 14 goals from Theofanis Gekas, Eintracht contrived to slide all the way to second-bottom and were relegated. The second half of the programme yielded just eight points, seven goals, and one win. Symbolising the collapse, although by no means the only guilty party, Gekas scored just twice after Christmas, and also missed from a couple of yards twice in the run-in, where goals would have brought points. St. Pauli also returned to the second flight, with Borussia Monchengladbach earning a second chance at top-flight survival in a play-off with Bochum, the third-placed team in the second flight.