Sports

A Quick Guide To The Bundesliga As It Returns To Play This Weekend

Life as a sports fan has been awfully tricky over the last couple of months. Obviously the No. 1 priority everyone has is staying safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time, it’s been weird going from multiple games across a number of sports happening on a daily basis to absolutely nothing.

Slowly but surely, a few things have returned. Baseball in Korea, for example, has gotten off the ground in recent weeks, and while those games air stateside in the wee hours of the morning on ESPN every now and then, it’s still something fun to watch. The same goes for various eSports leagues, some of which had shortened hiatuses but are back up and running.

The world of soccer has been impacted on a number of levels — leagues paused, while major international tournaments were pushed to next summer. There is, though, a light at the end of one of the myriad of tunnels, as Germany’s Bundesliga is slated to resume this weekend. The same goes for the country’s second division, the aptly named 2. Bundesliga.

We won’t worry about the second division for now, in part because the top level of German football is perhaps the most entertaining soccer league on earth. When comparing it to American sports, Bill Connelly of ESPN compared it to Big 12 football, citing “points and offensive aggression” as qualities shared by both leagues.

“Best way I can put it is, it never feels like the ball is in the middle third,” Connelly told Uproxx when asked why the league is so much fun. “It feels like it’s in more dangerous areas more frequently. And teams are good enough in counter attack that there’s constant racing up and down. And more goals, of course. It’s a young, optimistic style, and it’s aesthetically pleasing.”

Basically, the Bundesliga is the best entry point into soccer for people who want to get into soccer but have no idea where to start. And there might not be a better time than this weekend, given the lack of anything else in the world of sports. As such, we tossed together a very brief guide to get you prepared for the coming weeks of Bundesliga action, which kicks off on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. ET and runs through Monday afternoon stateside.

What does the title race look like?

The single-best title race in major world football right now is in Germany. Liverpool all but won the Premier League. PSG all but won Ligue 1 before the year was called. Real Madrid and Barcelona are battling for La Liga for the 10,000th year in a row. Serie A is a fun two-team race between Juventus and Lazio.

In the Bundesliga, four teams — Bayern Munich (55 points), Borussia Dortmund (51), RB Leipzig (50), and Borussia Mönchengladbach (49) — are within six points of one another, with Bayer Leverkusen (47) in shouting distance with nine games remaining in the campaign. This is, admittedly, a touch misleading, as Bayern may have been playing the best footy of any club in the world when things stopped back in March. By 538’s Global Club Soccer Rankings, the Bavarians are just a hair below Manchester City for the title of the world’s best, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone saying the English giants were playing better heading into the shutdown. Among Europe’s five-best leagues, only PSG (a statistical outlier due to the weakness of their league) and City (see the last sentence) were better in expected goal differential.

Having said all of this, the Bundesliga is weird. Bayern have to play all three of Dortmund, Gladbach, and Leverkusen before the campaign is decided. Ryan O’Hanlon, over at ESPN, explained that Leipzig has an easier path than Dortmund to upending Bayern. Gladbach, while good, just might not have the horsepower to have too much to say here, while it would take a miracle for Leverkusen to make much of a jump. Still, the overwhelming favorite is Bayern. They are that good.

So should I just watch Bayern?

Of course not! Yes, tune into Bayern, because they are magnificent — there are tons of big names, but in my opinion, pay special attention to Alphonso Davies, a Canadian teenager who might end up being one of the best players in the world in the next few years and is dominating despite playing fullback, which is not his natural position. They also have Robert Lewandowski, who has been among the best strikers in the world for years and has taken his game to a new level this campaign, and David Alaba, who is on here because I adore him (he moved to center back from fullback earlier this year and is one of the best in the world at the position already). But the thing with the Bundesliga is it is so much fun that any random match you turn on is almost certainly going to be worth your time.

Example: The first slate of fixtures on Saturday, which kick off at 9:30 a.m. EST, include Dortmund-Schalke and Leipzig-Freiburg. We can forget Freiburg for a moment, as they’re not particularly great, but in a way, they are the perfect first foe for Leipzig, which boast gobs of young talent, are one of the most tactically flexible sides on earth, and have the second-best goalscorer in the league in Timo Werner. Schalke are a fine side — they sit in sixth and are one of the league’s more conservative bunches — but this is a rivalry fixture against Dortmund, football’s chaos agents who attack relentlessly and oftentimes leave their defense wide open. An example from earlier this year:

That sounds fun!

It is!

You seem to really like these three teams.

Personally, I am not a particularly big Bayern fan for reasons we won’t get into, but yeah, they’re all fun, and you’d probably enjoy watching them, although it is certainly plausible that all three play a little more conservatively in their first match or two considering the amount of time they’ve had off.

Talk to me about Mönchengladbach and Leverkusen.

Sure. Gladbach are an extremely solid side, one that did hit a bit of a rough patch in league play before things went on hiatus — they accrued 15 of a possible 27 points in the nine matches before the league was suspended, which is OK, just not quite what you want when you’re fighting for a top-4 spot, is all. Still, their underlying numbers are good, as they’re third in the league in expected goal differential and, despite their lack of a ruthless goalscorer in the likes of Lewandowski, Werner, or Dortmund’s Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho, are also third in non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 minutes. A pair of talented Frenchmen, Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram, are very much worth the price of admission.

Leverkusen, meanwhile, was in the midst of some scintillating football in the lead-up to the hiatus. They had taken 22 of a possible 27 points, which included a 4-3 win over Dortumund. While their best goalscorer is German forward Kevin Volland you should make it a point to watch Leverkusen because of their precocious midfielder Kai Havertz, a 20-year-old ace who has the potential to lead the next generation of German footballers.

It seems like there are a lot of good young players in Germany worth watching, Bill.

There are, voice in my head making the other part of this dialogue! Just among players 22 and under, the aforementioned Havertz and Thuram are tremendous, Bayern’s Davies is going to be a superstar and is in the midst of one of the most impressive rises we’ve seen recently, and moving down the table, plenty of clubs have entrusted major minutes to youngsters — Schalke’s Weston McKennie and Ozan Kabak, Wolfsburg’s Xaver Schlager and Josip Brekalo, Koln’s Sebastiaan Bornauw, etc.

The clubs that best handle youngsters, though, are Dortmund and Leipzig, both of which are factories for developing talent and flipping them for major money. Dortmund might have two of the three-best youngsters on the planet attacking in English ace Jadon Sancho, who is 20, and Haaland, who is 19, joined in midseason, and has all the makings of someone who will be mentioned as the best player in the world. Beyond them, 20-year-old Frenchman Dan Axel Zagadou and 21-year-old Moroccan Achraf Hakimi are fixtures in their defense, while 17-year-old American Giovanni Reyna has broken into the side as a reserve. Leipzig’s list of youngsters is also quite impressive: 20-year-old Matheus Cunha (Brazil), 21-year-olds Tyler Adams (United States) and Dayot Upamecano (France, he is insanely good in defense), along with 21-year-olds Amadou Haidara (Mali), Nordi Mukiele (France), and Christopher Nkunku (France).

You mentioned a few Americans. Christian Pulisic broke out in Germany, right?

He did!

Is he still there?

No he’s at Chelsea, but he was at Dortmund.

Ah!

It’s fine! Over the years, Germany has become a destination for all sorts of talented youngsters, and a number of Americans have carved out roles in the league. Pulisic is the best recent example, but that was the case before him, too — Landon Donovan’s professional career, for example, started at Leverkusen.

Currently, the Americans generating the most buzz are McKennie (a very solid midfielder for Schalke who is a fixture for the national team), Adams (Leipzig, had been injured but is a ball of kinetic energy in the midfield or at fullback), and Reyna (he’s 17!). Make it a point to watch all of them, but especially Adams, who could end up snatching the title of the world’s best American from Pulisic sooner rather than later, which says more about Adams than Pulisic.

They’re hardly the only Americans in the league, though. John Brooks (you might recall) is a stalwart in defense for Wolfsburg and is the national team’s best defender when healthy. Former national teamers Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson ply their trade for Eintracht Frankfurt and Gladbach, respectively. Düsseldorf’s Alfredo Morales is a tenacious midfielder, Josh Sargent’s had an up-and-mostly down campaign for Werder Bremen but might be America’s striker of the future, and while he is injured, the national team’s No. 1 keeper, Zack Steffen, plays for Düsseldorf on loan from Manchester City.

Alright, I’ll tune in. What’s the schedule look like?

Here are this weekend’s fixtures with television information, all times are ET:

Saturday, May 16

Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke, 9:30 a.m., FS1
RB Leipzig vs. Freiburg, 9:30 a.m., FS2
Hoffenheim vs. Hertha Berlin, 9:30 a.m., Fox Soccer Matchpass
Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Paderborn, 9:30 a.m., Fox Soccer Matchpass
Augsburg vs. Wolfsburg, 9:30 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach, 12:30 p.m. FS1

Sunday, May 17

Cologne vs. Mainz, 9:30 a.m., FS1
Union Berlin vs. Bayern Minich, 12 p.m., FS1

Monday, May 18

Werder Bremen vs. Bayer Leverkusen, 2:30 p.m., FS2

Very good, anything else I need to know?

Sure, real quick, here’s how testing is gonna go. As ESPN explained, players and staffers will get tested twice weekly, via nose and throat swabs as to make sure the likelihood of false positive results are reduced. Clubs are staying in isolated areas with the hopes of keeping players from contracting COVID-19, and if players or staffers test positive, they’ll go into quarantine. Also, as you can guess, stadiums will be empty, which is an unfortunate necessity, as atmospheres in Germany are perhaps the best in the world.

This all seems weird and like things could backfire pretty easily.

Yup!

Is it gonna work?

I have no idea, but I’ll certainly be watching on Saturday morning, and if the league can resume without hitting and major bumps in the road — the biggest “if” in all of sports right now — do not be surprised if other leagues get back onto the pitch sooner rather than later.

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