Although the Bundesliga is home to some of the world’s top footballing talent, it’s fair to say that the German top flight has not provided much in terms of a gripping title race over the past decade. However, with Bayern Munich vying for an eighth straight league title, the 2019-20 season promises to be a much more closely-contested affair than most of the ones preceding it. Having one realistic title contender apart from Bayern had almost become the norm, but this season has seen four or five clubs with a realistic shot at lifting the Meisterschale come the end of the season.
The narrative doesn’t end there - this season’s Bundesliga has seen a first-time winter champion in RB Leipzig, and only twice in the past nine years has the club leading the way at Christmas been reeled back in and overhauled. Unsurprisingly, it was Bayern and Borussia Dortmund who did that once to each other. In a season of unexpected events and its fair share of twists and turns, there have been some clubs that have performed well above expectations without really making the headlines. As such, here are three clubs who can legitimately be termed as ‘overachievers’ in the current Bundesliga campaign.
Freiburg has made it a habit of defying expectations year after year, achieving several commendable results despite operating on one of the Bundesliga’s more modest budgets. And so, while including the league’s perennial overachievers on this list might seem counter-intuitive, the team from southwest Baden seem to have found yet another gear this time around and find themselves firmly in the top half with a shot at a place in Europe next season. Freiburg offers an exemplary model on how a club their size should be run - financial stability, an excellent youth academy, and a loyal fan base that sells out every home game - they possess the lot, while an experienced manager and some extremely talented players only sweeten the pot.
A lot of Freiburg’s great performances over the past few years have to do with their manager Christian Streich. The 54-year-old is synonymous with the club’s success, having been at the club in various capacities since 1995 and at the helm of affairs since December 2011. During his tenure, Freiburg have twice reached the Europa League, which is why he kept his job following relegation in 2014-15, making him by far the longest-serving coach currently in the Bundesliga. He puts forward a philosophy of working for each other and putting the team first, which the Freiburg players have completely bought into, emerging as a close-knit unit. This togetherness, combined with Streich’s astute tactical knowledge that is reflected in their preferred 3-4-3 setup, is at the core of their impressive displays on the pitch
To go along with their exemplary structure and team spirit, Freiburg can also boast of some top talents. Luca Waldschmidt, for example, has been lighting up the Bundesliga with his goal-scoring exploits and has even broken into the German national side. Talents like Waldschmidt are backed up by hard-working players like Jonathan Schmid and Christian Günter, ever-presents in the Bundesliga and tireless runners on either flank. Nils Petersen, Bundesliga’s all-time leading scorer from the bench, is another one of their key players. This season, Freiburg has also benefitted from keeping their squad together over the summer, with no key first-team players departing. This is not by chance - Streich has a keen eye for talent as well as a knack for developing it, and has provided the German national side with a steady stream of internationals over the years.
However, this could be the final season that Freiburg retain their status of ‘plucky little underdog’. Streich’s men will be moving into a new 35,000 capacity stadium ahead of the 2020-21 season, which is a huge step forward for them. Even so, no one can deny that Freiburg have been one of the overachievers of the season and that they deserve a lot of credit for what they have managed to achieve.
#2 Union Berlin
The matchday experience at Union’s Stadion An der Alten Försterei is at par with the most lively atmospheres in the world, with the club’s incredibly loyal fans at the heart of it all. The Union faithful are literally prepared to bleed for their club, donating money raised from giving blood to save their club from relegation in 2004. A few years later, the same fans clocked up over 140,000 hours of voluntary manual labour as they renovated a terrace at their stadium at a time when Union were at risk of losing their league licence. This has forged a unique sense of community within the club, as the fans have been almost as integral to Union’s rise to the top flight as the players themselves. Their first game in the top flight might have been a 4-0 loss at the hands of RB Leipzig, but the occasion was a truly unforgettable spectacle - Union supporters held up placards of deceased loved ones with the inscription Endlich Dabei (Finally There) so that they could see their beloved team make it to the Bundesliga too. In fact, the deceased were even counted among the official attendance, as the cost of their tickets was paid by the fans.
However, Union is not just about sentiment - they are a smart footballing outfit as well. They recruited well over the summer, adding a mix of youth and experience to their squad. The likes of Neven Subotic, Christian Gentner, and Anthony Ujah add a combined experience of almost 700 Bundesliga appearances, four Bundesliga titles, and two DFB Cup wins, along with with (arguably) the more useful knowledge of how to battle the drop. Although Union play with unbridled passion, they have a solid defence at the core of their side which has proved notoriously difficult to breach. Their first-ever top-flight win was a 3-1 success over the much-fancied Borussia Dortmund, while a 1-0 victory over local rivals Hertha Berlin soon followed.
Before the season began, the Union CEO had made it abundantly clear that staying up would be a major achievement as relegation was the more likely result. However, the Bundesliga newcomers find themselves in 12th in the middle of February, above Hertha and just a couple of favourable results away from breaking into the top half of the table. If they can manage to continue in this vein till May, it would be a better debut top-flight campaign than anyone at Union could have ever imagined.
#1 Borussia Monchengladbach
Over 40 years have passed since Borussia Monchengladbach won the last of their five Bundesliga titles and the early signs this season pointed to them ending that drought in 2020. The Foals led the way in the German top flight for the majority of the first half of the season and remain firmly in title contention despite falling away a bit around the winter break. Smart recruitment, both in terms of players as well as the new head coach, seems to have been the key to their success, as the new arrivals have been at the heart of most of their positive achievements this season.
Following back-to-back Austrian Bundesliga title wins with RB Salzburg, Marco Rose arrived in Germany amidst a lot of interest. He seems to have fixed a number of issues that plagued Gladbach in the past, improving the side’s flagging goal-scoring record in the league while simultaneously turning them into a secure defensive unit. However, Rose’s party trick seems to be converting his side’s home ground into a fortress - Salzburg didn’t lose a single one of his 52 games in charge at home, and Gladbach are enjoying much-improved home form this season as well. Rose also seems to have brought a winning mentality with him, as Gladbach have already come from behind to win thrice thus far in the season, only managing the feat once in the entirety of last season.
The excellent form of their goalkeeper Yann Sommer is an added bonus - the Swiss international has missed just six league games over six seasons and boasts one of the highest save percentages among first-choice keepers this season. All of Gladbach’s signings over the summer have been successful too - Stefan Lainer joined Rose in coming over from Salzburg and has created a whole host of chances from the right, while Breel Embolo (signed from Schalke) and Marcus Thuram (son of Lilian, signed from relegated Guingamp in France) have combined with Alassane Plea and Patrick Herrmann in attack to devastating effect. Left-back Ramy Bensebaini, who arrived from Rennes, has also repaid the club’s faith in him, most notably by scoring a match-winning brace against defending champions Bayern Munich.
Even if Gladbach fall short of the title, their first season under Rose is already a success and an improvement from last season, and all signs point to exciting times ahead for the Foals.Published 16 Feb 2020, 16:34 IST