Will one of these four clubs be lifting the Meisterschale come season’s end? Illustration by ESPN
On Friday, football fans around the world will hear the familiar hymn of the Bundesliga once again, when champions Bayern Munich meet Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt to start the 2022-23 season. Coaches have swapped dugouts, players have departed, others have arrived with much fanfare, and the question of whether Bayern can be challenged for the title this year remains controversial.
Before the action gets underway, though, let’s look back at what you might’ve missed since the 2021-22 campaign came to a close in May, and dissect some of the biggest storylines worth following as the 2022-23 season begins to unfold.
Jump to: Better Bayern? | Talents remain | Coaching carousel | Who can stop Bayern? | Cinderella stories | Managing the schedule | What are the Americans up to?
Bayern have changed, and for the better
A disgruntled striker dominated the first few weeks of this summer, as Robert Lewandowski did not hide his intention to leave Bayern Munich. While Bayern and Barcelona negotiated a deal behind closed doors, fans were worried about the record champions’ prospects for the upcoming season. No glances at the history books are required to deduce how important Lewandowski had been to Bayern in recent years. He scored 98 goals in the past two seasons alone and was especially crucial as the team’s rescuing anchor if things didn’t go their way.
While Lewandowski eventually exited in July, Bayern’s hierarchy used that time to secure deals for the immediate future. With the signing of Sadio Mane, the German champions once again scored a real steal in the transfer market. Mane has been one of the Premier League‘s most exciting players for almost a decade. Without the Senegal international, Liverpool wouldn’t have been as successful as they were domestically and internationally.
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While Mane is not a like-for-like replacement for Lewandowski, the 30-year-old offers Bayern boss Julian Nagelsmann the chance to execute some of the tactical ideas he has had in mind since his arrival in Munich in 2021. First glimpses of the new Bayern team were visible in the German Supercup match against RB Leipzig, which Bayern won 5-3. Mane and Serge Gnabry played together up front and were almost impossible for Leipzig’s defence to manage, considering neither acted as an obvious target player and were free to drift around the attacking third, pressing relentlessly whenever Bayern lost possession.
The Supercup game also saw Nagelsmann bring on €67 million signing Matthijs de Ligt as well as the two Ajax academy graduates in Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui. Oh, and 17-year-old striker Mathys Tel from Stade Rennais has also just arrived in Bavaria, with Nagelsmann predicting that the young Frenchman could one day score 40 goals in a season.
Whoever thought that Bayern might go into decline after Lewandowski’s departure will be in for a surprise, because Bayern look better than they did last season.
There’s no talent exodus this year
While Bayern are always expected to leave their mark on the transfer market due to their financial might, the other 17 Bundesliga clubs usually suffer a dip in quality during the summer transfer window. Coaches and sporting directors have become creative in finding replacements and discovering new talent to fill the voids, but the fact remains that they’re often largely powerless to keep hold of their best players.
Arne Friedrich explains why Bayern Munich is hopeful that Sadio Mane can replace some of Robert Lewandowski’s production.
This summer was different, though. Erling Haaland has been the only major player who left one of the 17 non-Bayern clubs, with others opting against moves to England or Spain. Surprisingly, Christopher Nkunku, the highly touted Paris Saint-Germain academy graduate who was elected the Bundesliga’s Player of the Season for 2021-22, decided to extend his contract with Leipzig until 2026. Reports suggest that no buyout clause was included in his new contract.
Florian Wirtz, the 19-year-old attacking wizard at Bayer Leverkusen, also extended his contract — his running until 2027. The Germany international is recovering from a cruciate ligament tear, which might have influenced his decision to commit to Bayer for longer than initially planned. Many expected Wirtz to follow in the footsteps of former Leverkusen wunderkind Kai Havertz and go abroad rather quickly.
The extensions of Nkunku and Wirtz are a signal to the rest of the league and the continent: It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that every highly skilled player in Germany under the age of 25 has to go to Bayern, Borussia Dortmund or the biggest clubs elsewhere in Europe.
Still, some sides had to contend with the departures of key players. Union Berlin lost goal scorer Taiwo Awoniyi, and Mainz moved on from captain Moussa Niakhate. Both have joined Nottingham Forest, who seemingly have an appetite for Bundesliga players, considering the newly promoted Premier League side also signed Orel Mangala from VfB Stuttgart.
These three have been the exception rather than the rule in this summer’s transfer window, which is a welcome change for fans of German football.
The coaching carousel continues to spin
Coaches might start calling the day following the end of each Bundesliga season “Black Sunday,” because on that day (or the days immediately following), a few of them are usually shown the door. It was no different in 2022, with Markus Weinzierl (FC Augsburg), Adi Hutter (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Florian Kohfeldt (VfL Wolfsburg) being relieved of their duties soon after the campaign’s conclusion. A week later, Dortmund made it official that Marco Rose was no longer the head coach of the Black and Yellow.
Naturally, those clubs began their searches for new managers. Dortmund ended up reinstating Edin Terzic, the former assistant who acted as an interim coach before Rose was appointed in 2021. Gladbach appointed Daniel Farke, the former Norwich boss who had gone to Russian Premier League outfit Krasnodar in January and left shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. Hertha Berlin also looked to the east and brought back Sandro Schwarz, who had stayed in Russia until the summer, reaching the national cup final with Dynamo Moscow. Wolfsburg replaced Kohfeldt with former Bayern and Frankfurt boss Niko Kovac. Augsburg chose Enrico Maassen, the former coach of Dortmund’s reserve team, to step in for Weinzierl. Schalke 04 appointed Frank Kramer following their promotion, which had been achieved under Mike Buskens, who was not too fond of the idea of remaining head coach.
This marks the second consecutive summer in which the clubs swapped coaches en masse. The year prior, practically everyone looked worse after installing their new hires. Dortmund fetched Rose away from Monchengladbach, who signed Hutter from Frankfurt, who signed Oliver Glasner from Wolfsburg, who signed Mark van Bommel. Only Frankfurt had any noticeable success with their new manager, winning the Europa League in May.
Despite it all, though, the coaching carousel keeps spinning.
Niko Kovac returns to the Bundesliga, the former Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt manager now in charge of Wolfsburg after an 18-month spell in Monaco. Swen Pförtner/picture alliance via Getty Images
Can anyone challenge Bayern?
When one club wins 10 consecutive championships, it raises the question of whether anyone will ever put an end to their dominance.
A few weeks ago, some would have comfortably picked Borussia Dortmund as a viable challenger to Bayern Munich, but their chances have dropped dramatically, though, since Haaland’s exit. Their replacement, Sebastien Haller, was signed from Ajax to fill that physical center-forward role, but he will be out for several months receiving ongoing treatment for a malignant testicular tumour. Without their Haaland successor, the Black and Yellow might struggle to generate the necessary offensive output in the early going, which could mean the gap between them and Bayern is too great to make up.
The sad truth is that the remaining teams are unlikely in a position to challenge Bayern throughout the course of 34 matchdays. RB Leipzig might have significant name value in their squad, but there are justifiably question marks behind manager Domenico Tedesco’s tactical approach, as he focuses greatly on Nkunku as his target player in the final third. Leipzig also lack stability at the back, particularly when the team are forced to track back.
Leverkusen, the other team among Germany’s top four, have caused some excitement during the summer in light of the signing of 20-year-old Czech prospect Adam Hlozek, as well as Wirtz’s contract extension. However, what Bayer 04 did not manage to do is sign a much-needed anchor player for their midfield. They have been lacking that one stabilising element between defence and attack: Robert Andrich, Charles Aranguiz and Kerem Demirbay are undoubtedly gifted, yet they are better suited as sidekicks to a dominant midfielder.
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WEDNESDAY, AUG. 3
• Villarreal vs. Levante (1 p.m. ET)
• Real Betis vs. Zaragoza (1:30 p.m. ET)
FRIDAY, AUG. 5
• Frankfurt vs. Bayern (2:30 p.m. ET)
• Brugge vs. Zulte-Waregem (2:45 p.m. ET)
It wouldn’t be surprising if one of these three teams could keep up with Bayern during stretches of the season, but in the end, Bayern will likely prevail given their quality and depth. The record champions simply do not face the same issues as Dortmund, Leipzig or Leverkusen.
Will we see another Cinderella story?
It has become a tradition of the Bundesliga that each season at least one underdog climbs into the top third of the table, usually qualifying for continental competition and then disappearing again the next year due to the stress of the extra games in their calendar. Mainz, Augsburg and FC Cologne all have had outstanding years in recent memory, and last season saw Union Berlin and SC Freiburg both play well beyond their market value, earning places in this season’s Europa League as a result.
This season marks Union’s second straight season in Europe, but the Cinderella story of the team from the eastern part of the capital city could come to an end soon, given the departures of Awoniyi and Grischa Promel and the fact that manager Urs Fischer might not be able to reinvent his team once again. How the Swiss coach was able to tweak things enough to prevent his side from becoming predictable for the first three years following Union’s promotion was commendable enough; to do so a fourth time is unlikely.
Moreover, Union and Freiburg’s performances might suffer from playing in three competitions simultaneously in a year with a particularly condensed schedule thanks to this winter’s World Cup in Qatar. The two sides likely won’t be in danger of relegation, but slipping back into mid-table is a realistic scenario.
This raises the question of whether any other team might be able to fit into Cinderella’s glass slippers this year. It could end up being one of the fallen giants that makes a surprising impact and returns to the sharp end of the table.
Schalke have just been promoted back to the Bundesliga. The 1997 UEFA Cup winners were part of the league’s elite for many years, but mounting debt and financial constraints caused the club’s hierarchy to offload most of the team’s best players until 2020. Coupled with a series of ill-advised managerial appointments, Schalke were doomed to experience the ultimate embarrassment: relegation to the 2. Bundesliga, where the Royal Blues spent one year.
This team is nowhere near as strong as past Schalke sides, which would make a run towards European places somewhat of a miracle, but perhaps now that there is so much less pressure on the club, they can suddenly become overachievers.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
How will everyone contend with the winter break?
Three decades ago, fans of Bundesliga clubs knew exactly what to do between the holiday season and the end of January. As the league had implemented a lengthy winter break to give everyone some rest — and to pay tribute to the fact that under-soil heating has not yet been installed in every stadium — supporters streamed into indoor arenas and watched indoor football. Later, the Bundesliga adjusted its schedule and shortened the winter break to two weeks.
As the World Cup in November will affect the schedule of practically every league in Europe, we will see another temporary alteration and Bundesliga teams in particular will have to deal with an incredibly condensed timetable. Those who are also competing in international competitions will not get any break until November. Once the World Cup is concluded on Dec. 18, the league won’t restart immediately, instead waiting until Jan. 20. This means a return to the old lengthy winter break, and traditionalists have called for the temporary reinstatement of the “Hallenmasters,” a tournament crowning Germany’s indoor champions. The German FA hosted the tournament in various iterations between 1987 and 2001, with Borussia Dortmund being the record winner with four titles. The final “Hallenmasters” was decided in a penalty shootout between SpVgg Unterhaching and Dortmund, as the small club from the Munich suburbs beat Dortmund 5-4.
If you’ve witnessed those tournaments, you probably remember them fondly. If you haven’t, let’s hope you’ll get an opportunity to watch something similar in 2023.
What are the Americans up to?
Finally, a look at the Bundesliga through the lens of the United States. This summer has seen Tyler Adams leave Leipzig and Chris Richards depart Bayern for Crystal Palace, but Germany remains home to plenty of intrigue for followers of the USMNT.
Giovanni Reyna has become something of a phantom in Dortmund. Everyone is aware of the gifted midfielder, but we have not seen him on the pitch in some time. After a promising start to the 2021-22 season, Reyna was sidelined by a muscle injury until February. He made his return, even played for the national team, but then was injured again in April. Even though Dortmund afforded him extra time to recover and return to full fitness, he still missed 34 games through injury last season, which has raised questions about Reyna’s resilience.
Kasey Keller and Sebastian Salazar debate Borussia Dortmund’s expectations for Gio Reyna.
The 19-year-old is still not ready to be selected for the matchday squad for Dortmund’s season opener and will need more time before he can be a reliable option for Terzic. Regardless of Reyna’s injury woes, Dortmund remain convinced of his qualities. Once he returns to the pitch, he might collide with Marco Reus, as both are best suited for the No. 10 role. Reus possesses the bonus of being the team captain, but Reyna is a pillar of the future. In any case, we should see more of him at some point this season, but patience is needed.
The same can be said for Ricardo Pepi. The Texas native signed with Augsburg for a transfer fee of $20m in January, shortly before his 19th birthday. Most fans in Germany had not heard of the striker beforehand but were curious what this hyped American could bring to the table. Sadly for him, he was a non-factor during his first few months in-country. Pepi made four appearances in Augsburg’s starting XI and was brought on as a substitute seven times, scoring no goals in 475 minutes of total playing time.
Maassen, Augsburg’s new manager, also seems to view Pepi as an alternative from the bench. He brought him on after 74 minutes in the DFB-Pokal game against fourth-division side Lohne, replacing Andre Hahn. While Augsburg’s two-striker system offers Pepi the chance to earn more playing time, he has to prove he’s able to compete in Germany’s top flight.
Patience might be the key quality most American players in the Bundesliga have to show this year. Joe Scally, right-back for Borussia Monchengladbach, has found himself on the bench more often than on the pitch in preseason.
What could give him hope is that he was featured in Borussia’s starting XI against Oberachern in the Pokal. Gladbach have two right-backs in their squad: 19-year-old Scally and the much more experienced 29-year-old Stefan Lainer. Normally, Lainer should remain first choice, but if the Austrian slips, Scally should be there to take over the spot. Scally’s advantage is that there is no considerable pressure on the young American. Gladbach want to help him progress so that he becomes a long-term option.
Jordan Pefok‘s situation is quite different. When Awoniyi, who had scored 20 goals across competitions in the previous season, decided to leave Union Berlin, he left some rather large boots to fill. Union chose Washington, D.C.-born Pefoke (who’s going by Jordan Siebatcheu in Germany) as Awoniyi’s replacement.
The American, who grew up in France and possesses Cameroonian roots, had scored 22 goals for Young Boys in the Swiss league last season and put himself on the radar. Pefok and Awoniyi have similarities in stature and physicality, and it seems Union would like him to play an identical role. Pefok started the season by scoring his maiden goal for Union in their hard-fought win over Chemnitz in the first round of the DFB-Pokal. There is certainly more to come from the newcomer — who will be on the pitch Saturday, as the Bundesliga goes into its 60th season.