Though we still have almost three-quarters of the season to play, it’s fair to say that the 2022-23 Bundesliga campaign has so far provided a level of intrigue and excitement that we rarely see from a topflight so often ridiculed for its predictable nature at the top.
Neither Bayern nor Dortmund lead a division currently headed by remarkable underdogs Union Berlin. RB Leipzig – DFB Pokal winners and the best side in the second half of last season – have shockingly fired manager Domenico Tedesco after a stuttering start to the season.
And Robert Lewandowski, winner of the last 5 Bundesliga golden boots, has seen his remarkable goal-scoring standards taken up by the unlikeliest of heroes from the WeserStadion, Niclas Füllkrug. With 23 matchdays still to go, almost everything is possible and open for change. But for now, let’s look at the tops and the flops in this year’s wildly unpredictable campaign.
This article is an adaptation from Adam Khan’s German Football Newsletter. Want Bundesliga & Bundesliga 2 updates throughout the entire season? Subscribe here
The Biggest Overachievers
Numerous player exits, a minuscule budget, and a heavy European fixture list all added to the expectation that Union Berlin would regress back to Bundesliga normality this season, but against all these odds, Die Eisernen have somehow taken it up yet another notch.
FC Bayern, and the remaining 16 Bundesliga outfits, can’t keep pace with Urs Fischer’s remarkable overachievers. Though they may not be playing the most attractive football in Europe, Union have hit upon a winning formula that seems to stump all who encounter it.
A deep defensive block, an extreme focus on transition moments, and an unparalleled chance conversion have made Union a challenging prospect to crack since Urs Fischer’s appointment. Style alone, however, cannot account for the fact that a club with the second-smallest revenue stream in the Bundesliga is somehow leading the pack with more than a quarter gone.
Rather, it’s Fischer’s impressive ability to get the most out of his squad that has allowed Union to fly so high. Despite losing their top-scorer, starting goalkeeper, and vice-captain over the summer, Die Eisernen have not needed to spend big on the transfer market. Instead, they have largely found their replacements from within the squad already present at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei.
Sheraldo Becker is the best example, scoring 6 goals in 11 games this season after managing just 7 in his first 60 topflight appearances, but the Dutchman is far from an isolated case. The current Union squad is littered with players who have grown from bench warmers into key starters, or have slowly worked their way up from the lower leagues.
The Biggest Underachievers
After comfortably qualifying for the Champions League with their best points-tally in over a decade, fans of Bayer Leverkusen were predictably high on manager Gerardo Seoane heading into his second season at the helm.
The Swiss manager’s attacking tactics evolved into the perfect match plan for a youthful Leverkusen outfit, and the fact that almost the entire squad remained in place over the summer transfer window was considered a key advantage compared to the pretty significant rebuilds underway at Bayern and Dortmund.
Even the transfer window was generally well-received. Amongst stark European competition, Leverkusen won the signature of Adam Hložek – the biggest talent in Czech football. And of course Callum Hudson-Odoi finally got his much-anticipated Bundesliga move from Chelsea after signing a season-long loan in the final hours of the window.
A Leverkusen attack that had scored a club-record 80 goals in the previous season now had two more stars to add to its ensemble, while Seoane seemed to be able to stabilise the shaky defence in the final stretches of the previous season – conceding only 8 goals in the final 10 matchdays.
What could go wrong then ahead of the competitive start in the DFB-Pokal? Just about everything… with an embarrassing defeat to 3rd-tier SV Elversberg seeing Leverkusen fly out of the first round of the cup for the first time in over a decade.
At the time it looked like an early season floundering, but the troubling 4-3 defeat soon proved to be only the precursor for the horrors which were yet to come. With the so-reliable Patrik Schick losing his goal-scoring touch, and the entire defence prone to capitulation, Bayer Leverkusen ended September in the relegation zone – a shocking fall from grace for a side dazzling Europe mere months earlier.
A Champions League defeat to FC Porto last week was the final straw for the Leverkusen bosses, and in Gerardo Seoane’s place arrived Xabi Alonso – a bold appointment for a club undeniably in a relegation battle.
In his first competitive fixture, Leverkusen triumphed 4-0 against Schalke, before losing to Porto, Eintracht and drawing 2-2 to Wolfsburg, but the former FC Liverpool (2004-09), Real Madrid (2009-14), and FC Bayern midfielder (2014-17) has a long road ahead to return a side desperately out of form into some semblance of the title-contender they hoped to be ahead of the season.
If you had told anybody at this point last season that Niclas Füllkrug would be the top scorer in the Bundesliga you would have promptly been given directions to the nearest insane asylum. Yet, such has been the meteoric rise of the 29-year-old forward.
After failing to find the target in the first 10 Zweite Bundesliga fixtures last season, the former Hannover 96, Greuther Fürth, and 1. FC Nuremberg forward finally sparked into life following Ole Werner’s managerial appointment in December.
In 19 matches, Füllkrug shot Werder Bremen to promotion with 15 goals and 5 assists, forming a formidable duo with strike-partner Marvin Ducksh that would earn them the nickname Die hässlichen vögel – “The Ugly Birds”.
It’s not hard to see why Niclas Füllkrug and Marvin Ducksch have earned such an uncomplimentary nickname. Europa League qualification, rather than a Hugo Boss advert, will be in their sights for the remainder of the season.
With a tremendous goal-scoring appetite, and a renewed self-confidence after 3-seasons riddled with knee injuries, Füllkrug has returned to the top-flight as a new player. In 11 matches, the once-written-off forward already has 8 goals and 2 assists – only 4 fewer than he managed in his last 3 Bundesliga campaigns combined.
Bar Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski, Kylian Mbappé, Harry Kane, Aleksandar Mitrović, Neymar and Jonathan David, no player has scored more goals in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season than Füllkrug, and the calls for him to earn a maiden call-up to the German national team are becoming increasingly hard to resist for head coach Hansi Flick.
Since Miroslav Klose’s international retirement in 2014, Germany has been searching for a true number nine with an insatiable goalscoring appetite. One would not expect Füllkrug to go on and become the top goalscorer in World Cup history, but he could just provide a potential X factor in Die Mannschaft’s quest for a 5th world title.
Falling by the Wayside
There are quite a few candidates for this rather undesirable category. Patrik Schick has seen his form fall off the cliff. The Czech international has gone from being the pre-season favourite for the golden boot to a wasteful penalty box forward who has scored just 3 goals from 45 shots in all competitions.
Anthony Modeste is another name that’s hard to look past. The Frenchman was unstoppable for FC Köln last season, but has looked lost in Edin Terzic’s BVB setup. A 95th-minute equaliser in Der Klassiker has spared himself the misfortunes of ultimately being our selection, but the jury is still out on whether he can ever be integrated into a side with the on-ball dynamics of Dortmund.
In the end, though, no out-of-form centre-forward needs to worry about earning our label for the flop of the campaign, as instead, it is a goalkeeper who deserves these questionable plaudits. Lukáš Hrádecký, an establishment in the Bundesliga with over 230 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt, has become the symbol of Die Werkself’s tragic decline.
A slip in possession v Bayern, an awful misjudgment in the Champions League, and a comical red-card v Dortmund are just a handful of the unforced errors which have underpinned a horrid season for Bayer Leverkusen’s Finnish captain.
Leverkusen’s Sporting CEO Simon Rolfes has tried to take the pressure off the 32-year-old in recent weeks – “He’s not the only one to have made mistakes recently. He has to believe in himself despite the errors. Lukáš has the quality to show that,” -but it’s hard to argue with the wealth of evidence highlighting a goalkeeper on the decline. Perhaps, Bayer 04 should have reconsidered giving the veteran goalkeeper a 4-year extension in August.
— Bayer 04 Leverkusen (@bayer04fussball) August 30, 2022
The Rookie of the Year
Optimism was high after the summer transfer window in the Bundesliga, and the early performances displayed from the rookies have only confirmed this sentiment. Randal Kolo-Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt), in particular, looks like a star in ascendance.
His 1v1 dribbling skills are arguably the best the division has to offer, and he has been able to immediately turn such raw attacking instincts into tangible output with a league-high 5 assists. A first senior call-up to the latest France national team camp is probably the biggest endorsement one can give, but it should not be overlooked that his early performances are keeping both Rafael Borré and Lucas Alario on the sidelines.
The former was integral to lifting the Europa League trophy last season for Eintracht, while the latter has long been heralded as one of the most underrated forwards in the Bundesliga – scoring a goal every 139 minutes across 5 seasons in Leverkusen.
The fact that Frankfurt have lost just one of the 7 matches Kolo-Muani has started in the Bundesliga is obviously a factor, but even more significant is ju how well the former Nantes forward is able to link up and bring into action the technical attack around Daichi Kamada, Jesper Lindström, and Mario Götze.
Only Jamal Musiala has equaled Kolo-Muani’s 8 goal-creating actions at this point in the season – a statistic highlighting any of the two actions directly preceding a goal – in the Bundesliga, while on the continent, not a single one of Kolo-Muani’s fellow French internationals have outperformed him in this indicative metric for creative impact on the game (below).
The Young Talent
Speaking of Jamal Musiala (FC Bayern Munich), it’s hard to not mention him in a piece detailing the highs and lows of the Bundesliga season. The 19-year-old super-talent has not only become a routine Bayern starter, but he has arguably been the Rekordmeister’s most influential attacker over the opening 11 matchdays.
His 6 goals and 5 assists make him the most effective scorer in the Bayern squad, but his influence on Nagelsmann’s side extends far beyond what he is bringing to the final third. As we saw in the 2:2 draw vs BVB, Musiala is a constant outlet in possession, capable of wriggling out of intense opposition pressure and playing the game at a tempo he dictates.
Only Sadio Mané has received more progressive passes amongst the Bayern squad, but even the Senegalese international isn’t able to keep up the pace when it comes to Musiala’s ability to carry possession forward with unprecedented ease.
Jamal Musiala has a unique ability to master tight spaces and wriggle past opponents. Probably the best comparison is the one and only Lionel Messi.
The Team of the Season (so far)
As always, there were numerous tough decisions across just about every other position. Vincenzo Grifo, Christopher Nkunku, Michael Gregoritsch, and Marcus Thuram are all notable attacking talents, but fitting in another forward looks like an impossible task.
Perhaps Jude Bellingham can also feel hard done by for not earning a call-up in midfield, but he’s saved his best performances for the UEFA Champions League, and it’s about time that Nicolas Höfler earns some praise for his peerless consistency.
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By: Adam Khan / @XxAdamKhanxX
Featured Image: @Juanffrann – Martin Rose / Getty Images