Robert Lewandowski (above)
Where, in 2013-14: Borussia Dortmund
Where, in 2014-15: Bayern Munich
Why: The Polish international, the best forward in Germany, finally moved to Munich after a prolonged dalliance with the club
How much: Free
Instead of taking Bayern’s money a year ago, Borussia Dortmund elected to let Robert Lewandowski walk, the same way they’d seen Mario Götze walk to the Allianz Arena a year before. In that time, Dortmund reached another Champions League semifinal and pushed for the German Cup, but also finished a distant second to Bayern in the Bundesliga. Again. The club took a stand against its league’s despots, but to what end? The trophy shelf looked the same as it did before.
For Pep Guardiola, Lewandowski has been the predictably perfect fit, providing a class around goal and control of the ball that not even the departed Mario Mandžukić’s intensity could offset. The 26-year-old has 16 goals and four assists in 28 league appearances, chipping in another five goals in Champions League – the same number his two replacements in Dortmund (Ciro Immobile and Adrián Ramos) have mustered this Bundesliga season.
Where, in 2013-14: Hertha Berlin
Where, in 2014-15: Borussia Dortmund
Why: BVB decided multiple lottery tickets was the way to go
How much: $15 million
A team with Borussia Dortmund’s restraints couldn’t hope to bring in a Lewandowski-level replacement, so it decided on a multi-pronged approach. In addition to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who the club already had on the books, Italy’s leading goal scorer Ciro Immobile was brought in, as was Hertha number nine Adrián Ramos. With 27 goals over the two previous seasons, the Colombian international seemed like a safe enough bet. Surely his production would persist, playing with the likes of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Shinji Kagawa.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where a sentence like that is written with any sincerity. As mentioned above, Ramos has struggled in the wake of Lewandowski, scoring only six goals in 28 all-competition appearances. For a player who also doesn’t set up goals (only two assists), the production makes for a huge disappointment. The drop off from Lewandowski to the sputtering Immobile-Ramos combination is one of the main (but not only) reasons Dortmund won’t return to Champions League.
Where, in 2013-14: Bayern Munich
Where, in 2014-15: Real Madrid
Why: Stalled contract negotiations; glimpse of brighter lights
How much: $34 million
Kroos’s contract was a subplot for much of the 2013-14 season. Late fall rumors in the German press depicted the club unimpressed by the then-23-year-old’s demands, with links to the typical places (Manchester United, most prominently) completing the other side of the transfer drama. By spring, it was clear Kroos would move on, destined for one of the few places world-class Bayern stars target: Real Madrid.
Though the price was high for a player with one year left on his deal, and midfield injuries have forced Carlo Ancelotti to ride Kroos into the ground, the 25-year-old’s metronomic precision in the middle of El Real’s formation immediately quelled doubts festering from Xabi Alonso’s departure. His formational flexibility and stylistic complement to Luke Modrić helps create a midfield balance that feels pleasant, in so far as a team that tear through anybody for four goals can be pleasant. His 10 assists across all competitions are 10 times more than Alonso provided last season (we’ll let you do the math).
Where, in 2013-14: Bayern Munich
Where, in 2014-15: Atlético Madrid
Why: Pushed out by Lewandowski; brought in to replace Costa
How much: $30 million
Diego Costa was such a perfect fit for the mentality Diego Simeone instilled, finding a replacement was always going to be difficult. But when Mandžukić’s name was linked to Atlético in the wake of the World Cup, there seemed to be a collective “Yeah, that make sense” from the world transfer market. Hard working, physical, intelligent if not necessarily technically elite, the Croatian international represented a type of middle class Costa. Along with Antoine Griezmann, Alessio Cerci, and Raúl Jiménez, Mandźukić might actually improve Atleti’s attack.
That hasn’t happened – Costa’s presence has still been missed – but Mandžukić has been almost exactly what you’d expect. While Griezmann has become the team’s obvious scoring star, now up to 22 goals in the league, Mandźukić has quietly put up 20 goals across all competitions. And as evidenced by the cut he took during the team’s last meeting with Real Madrid, the 28-year-old still isn’t afraid to get bloodied in the name of the cause.
Marc-André ter Stegen
Where, in 2013-14: Borussia Möchengladbach
Where, in 2014-15: Barcelona
Why: The Víctor Valdés era had to end sometime
How much: $16 million
Ter Stegen’s connection to Barcelona had been so persistent for so long, it was little surprise when word leaked late last season that he would be moving to the Camp Nou. The real surprise came later, when Luis Enrique convinced Barça to bring in a second number-one caliber keeper. Now, as Claudio Bravo threatens goalkeeping marks in La Liga, few remember that job may have been ter Stegen’s if it wasn’t for an early season injury.
Instead, the 22-year-old has been the team’s cup goalkeeper, a position that could prove beneficial in the long run. Ter Stegen had been Gladbach’s starter since he was 19, and in that sense, he’s never had a chance to experience a true apprenticeship. While players like Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas show that being an apprentice can be overrated, ter Stegen could also emerge from this a stronger player, having learned from Bravo as well as that technical staff that had coveted him for so long.
Where, in 2013-14: Hamburg
Where, in 2014-15: Bayer Leverkusen
Why: Time to step up the Bundesliga ladder
How much: $21 million
Sidney Sam’s switch to Schalke could have presented a problem for a Bayer team that looked so balanced with the Germany winger offsetting Son Heung-Min on the other side, but four days after the 27-year-old departed for Schalke, Bayer had a younger, more intriguing attacker to add to its mix. Coming off an 11-goal season with Hamburg, it was time Çalhanoğlu moved to the next level.
The 21-year-old’s response has been an 11-goal, seven-assist season that has left few missing Sam (who has yet to score his first goal for Schalke). While the numbers are similar to those Sam put up in his last season at the BayArena, many of the young Turk’s goals have been been worth of weekend highlight reels, which his age, gifted skill on daed balls and superior passing giving Bayer fans reason to think Stefan Kießling’s wane can be offset by the likes of Çalhanoğlu, Son, and Karim Bellarabi (average age: 22.7).
The threat didn’t come cheap, though, and Çalhanoğlu may yet have to justify his price, but for a player who came into the season best known for being on the wrong end of a gun incident with the Turkish national team, 2014-15 has provided something else to put at the top of his CV. Çalhanoğlu is one of the best young players in the Bundesliga, one who has played a key role in a squad that could finish in the top four.