Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig: Young squads for old men
One advantage to an 18-team league is you can start a little later than divisions with 20 clubs and enjoy an extended summer holiday. Unfortunately, die Mannschaft ‘dis-sed’ that advantage with an underwhelming performance at the World Cup in Russia. Rather than soaking up the sun in Mallorca, hiking through the Black Forest or taking spa treatments in Baden-Baden, German football fans renewed their Gladem prescription, pulled the shades in the bedroom and curled up in a fetal position under the duvet for another fortnight.
At last, however, the Bundesliga season arrived. Bleary-eyed, fuzzy-minded fussball lovers emerged from their pharmacological-induced hibernation with new hope for their respective clubs.
Not much changed during their sedation. Despite Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben advancing further beyond 30 and young Kingsley Coman suffering an ankle injury courtesy a horror tackle from Nico Schulz, die Roten are expected to extend their league dominance for a seventh season. Bayern’s medical staff ruled Coman out for several weeks but the club still rolled to a 3-1 victory over Hoffenheim in the Friday night season launcher. Goals came from the usual suspects: Thomas Mueller, Robert ‘my teammates suck but I’ll stick around another season” Lewandowski and Robben.
Last season’s runners-up, Schalke, endured a rude beginning at Wolfsburg. Die Konigsblauen levelled terms 20 minutes after going down a man thanks to Matija Nastasic’s red card. Domenic Tedesco’s side celebrated rescuing a point with five minutes remaining in the 90. It was too soon. Daniel Ginczek found a winner for the home side four minutes into stoppage time.
The logjam in Bayern and Schalke’s wake in 2017/18 was five teams deep. Four points separated third-place Hoffenheim from Stuttgart in seventh. Along with Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig cluttered in the middle. The two clubs are going through similar transitions. They’ll meet today with an opportunity to compare notes.
Walking the same road
Dortmund are a long-standing Bundesliga side but endured financial difficulties in the noughties. They dipped as low as 13th in 2007/08. Jurgen Klopp’s arrival the following campaign reversed their course. The Gengen Pressen master delivered consecutive league titles in 2011 and ‘12, panicking Bayern into raiding his squad.
After two second-place finishes, continuing departures took their toll. After a disappointing 2014/15 campaign, Klopp left himself.
Thomas Tuchel staged a mini-revival then feuded with club hierarchy. The Peters, Bosz and Stoger, dragged the young team through the 2017/18 campaign. Bosz couldn’t work the same magic that carried Ajaz to the 2017 Europa League final. Stoger pulled a lost campaign from the fire but his conservative style didn’t mesh with the club’s style. Coming into this season, the board sought an experienced manager to put the club back on its path.
RB Leipzig are a new club, entering their tenth season. Founded by the entrepreneurial Red Bull energy drink corporation but known as RaisenBallsport Leipzig for anti-commercial purposes, the side rose steadily up the German football pyramid, securing promotion to the Bundesliga in 2015/16.
In their debut campaign, the east German club surprised everyone by flying out to an early, then extended, lead in the table. Red Bull gives you wings, indeed. In the end, Bayern clipped those wings but the club proved it wasn’t a fluke in 17/18. Although less confrontational than Tuchel at the Westfalenstadion, Ralph Hassenhuttl decided he too was unhappy and took his leave of Red Bull Arena after finishing fifth in his second go-round. Like BVB, the club decided it needed a seasoned hand at the helm to get the club trending upward again. Leipzig didn’t look so far afield, however.
A country for old men
Ralf Rangnick managed die Bullen to their top-flight promotion. He’d been their Sporting Director since 2011. After the one season, he hired Hassenhuttl, freeing him to focus entirely on his responsibilities as Sporting Director again. When his coach resigned, Rangnick rehired himself just for the current season. He did so after recruiting 1899 Hoffenheim’s young boss, Julian Nagelsmann for the 2019/20 season.
Before joining Leipzig, the 60-year-old managed 12 Bundesliga seasons. He’s best known for his success at Schalke but also toiled for five seasons with Hoffenheim. His history with the club can only add to his appreciation for the 31-year-old Naglesmann’s work. Until the new man arrives, Rangnick should be able to keep them in the European places. He’s also recruited former NY Red Bull coach Jesse Marsch as his assistant. The club’s ownership isn’t afraid to move its various pieces around the board.
Dortmund’s brain trust doesn’t play Red Bull [and City Football Group’s] global game. Nevertheless, President Reinhard Rauball and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke share their rivals’ ambitions. They want to become German and European champions while remaining fiscally responsible, even profitable in their player movement.
With a predominantly young squad, BVB found their own 60-year-old in Lucien Favre. The Swiss spent the past two seasons doing a rather Nice job in Ligue 1. He put them in the Champions League with a third-place finish in 2016/17. The club made few additions despite the added fixtures. Les Aiglons slipped to eighth last term. His most notable achievement, however, was coaxing strong, consistent play from Mario Balotelli.
Powered by youth
If he can do that, Favre should be able to work with rising talents such as Christian Pulisic and Jadon Sancho. To keep matters in balance on the pitch, he recruited Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel from Chinese Super League outfit Tianjin Quanjian. The 20-year-old came for a bargain €20 million. He paid immediate dividends by sending Dortmund’s DFB Pokal tie with Greuther Furth into extra time with an injury-time equaliser. Marco Reus provided the winner.
Whether die Borussen hired Favre to consolidate their Bundesliga status while seeking their own wunderkind for the dugout remains to be seen. Meanwhile, he must open the campaign against fellow sexagenarian Rangnick, who’ll throw his own youthful cadre into the fray. The difference on the day, perhaps the season, could be Witsel’s arrival versus Naby Keita’s exit. Rangnick lacks a veteran presence in his squad.
Both clubs should be in the European frame. If one is going to trouble Bayern, however, the smart money must be on Dortmund.