Why the German Bundesliga Isn't as Great as Everyone Thinks It Is This Season

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2013

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund's progress to the final of the 2013 UEFA Champions League, at the expense of Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona, has caused some to proclaim that the Bundesliga is now one of the top divisions in Europe.

It's a bold claim, but is it a justified one?

True, the two German sides were, by and large, comfortable in their progress to the final, barring the last 10 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu. The German sides were both undoubtedly the better teams overall in their respective semifinals, and have been impressive throughout the Champions League competition.

It's not just two clubs who make up an entire league, though.

This season's No. 1 and No. 2 in the league domestically—Bayern and Dortmund, respectively—is a role-reversal of last season's finish. They are the current big two, and are far and away from the rest of the league. Bayern, having already secured the title, lead Dortmund by 20 points—with Dortmund a further eight points clear of Bayer Leverkusen in third as things stand.

Since the 2007-08 campaign, only one league winner has come from outside these two, with Wolfsburg winning in '09.

As far as the top end of the league goes, is this so very different to Spain's own La Liga? Barcelona and Real Madrid are frequently the top two, and it was 2004 the last time an alternative team—Valencia—sat atop that table come the end of the season.

So what about further down the table?

Whereas in England there has traditionally been a group of clubs with a stronghold on the top four or five positions, Spain and Germany have both seen the nearest challenges change with some frequency.

There are two real ways to look at this interchanging of challengers.

Firstly, that there is very real and healthy competition between the sides, forcing each other to continue to improve just to stay in the same position year on year.

Alternatively, that there is no real force in place below the very top few teams, just a group who have a chance to finish higher in the league if they can find some form or consistency during any given season.

Take the teams who finished third to sixth in each of the past four seasons in Germany:

2011-12: Schalke, M'Gladbach, Leverkusen, Stuttgart

2010-11: Bayern, Hannover, Mainz, Nuremburg

2009-10: Werder Bremen, Leverkusen, Dortmund, Stuttgart

2008-09: Stuttgart, Hertha Berlin, Hamburg, Dortmund

From that group of sides, Hertha Berlin were relegated last season, Hamburg avoided the drop by just one place, Stuttgart are this season in 12th position and Mainz and Hannover are stuck firmly in mid-table. Werder Bremen, meanwhile, linger just two points above the relegation playoff place.

There is also Hoffenheim to consider. In 2008-09 they shocked the league by leading the table at the midway stage of the season and went on to collapse somewhat and finish seventh. This season, they are likely to be relegated.

A season of relative success in the Bundesliga by no means guarantees itself as a platform for future improvement.

Part of the reason is the "poaching" problem. If a player has a particularly standout campaign then it is inevitable that bigger clubs will come calling, be it Bayern Munich or a team from abroad. This makes it difficult for growing clubs to maintain consistency and even if they receive a shed-load of cash—see Marco Reus' transfer from Moenchengladbach to Dortmund as an example—if they do not reinvest it wisely, even standing still becomes an issue.

Another possible problem is that the second tier of teams does not possess capable enough squads to cope with the twin demands of domestic and European football. The big two have gone all the way to the final this season, but Schalke fell at the Round of 16 stage and Moenchengladbach fell in the third qualifying round even before the group stages begun.

In the Europa League it was a similar tale. Hannover, Leverkusen, Stuttgart and M'Gladbach all made it through the group stage but only Stuttgart made it past the Round of 32—before being thumped 5-1 by Lazio in the next round.

Bayern's excellent record in the Champions League of late means they are the second-ranked UEFA club by coefficient, but every other German side's inability to regularly compete in the competitions means that they are unable to maintain a consistent ranking—thereby giving themselves a tougher draw in qualifiers and group seedings, and therefore making it more difficult to achieve good results and, in turn, a good ranking next time out.

It's a vicious cycle, and one which is difficult to break. But not impossible, as Borussia Dortmund—the 31st-ranked team in the UEFA contingent by the coefficient rankings—have proven this season.

Indeed, only Schalke are the other German team who maintain a presence in the top 30 other than Bayern. In contrast, Spain have five sides, England have six and Portugal have four. Ukraine, France and Italy have three each.

There is of course the factor to take into account that not all sides put out their strongest team for Europa League matches to consider, but even so, it is difficult to make a case for the Bundesliga to be the best overall league around when there are so many conflicting apparent answers.

Is the cycle of the Bundesliga a self-harming one? Competition is good, undoubtedly, but if it is merely competition to be the "best of the rest" for a year, does it merely show that the top clubs are some of the best around, but the next group of sides are nothing more than mediocre?

And if so, is that really grounds to lay claim to being the best domestic division?

In terms of organisation, atmosphere, value for money and entertainment, not too many would argue with Germany being nominated as the best. The league, from a viewers' standpoint, have got it right, big time.

And when the two sides, Bayern and Dortmund, do battle at Wembley in May to contest the Champions League final, they'll have every chance to show the world just how many areas they have got it right in.

But amongst the celebrations might linger one more question: Bayern Munich's team famously houses plenty of players who are in turn supplied for the national team. They are the biggest club in the country, and the most successful. Many people will indeed make them favourites to win the final itself. But is it the lure of the club which keeps players at Bayern, or that of the league?

Several more international players still choose to leave the Bundesliga and move overseas for more competitive action, or perhaps more chance at winning trophies with different teams.

Mario Gotze's recently confirmed transfer means that the German Bundesliga will be keeping one more of tomorrow's stars in its confines for the foreseeable future, so perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the migrations that the likes of Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil have partaken in.

The discussion of which is the best domestic league is a fiery, raging debate which goes on and on, cycling every few years with the rise of a new power in the Champions League.

For the next few weeks, the Bundesliga can bask in the glory of being the only competing division with a vested interest in the Champions League final—while the likes of Bayer Leverkusen and, as things stand, Schalke 04 look on in envy and imagine that they might be there next season. Eintracht Frankfurt and Freiburg will be similarly hoping to remain in the top six for a taste of Europa League action themselves.

The question is, will they be able to maintain that level of performance and consistency, building over the medium term? Or is this just the latest instalment of the changing of the second-tier guard?



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