Stylish play from “plastic” challengers can’t cure the Bundesliga’s fatalism

So you’ve heard about Bayern Munich, and what the Bavarian titans are doing to the Bundesliga? Vacuuming up the league’s best players. Hiring the brainiest guy in soccer, then letting him pull all kinds of tactical stunts. The club’s paid off all its stadium debt and now is now stacking money higher than the Allianz itself. It’s as if Bayern’s tap-dancing in golf shoes on the Bundesliga’s helpless mug. Just think of the puncture wounds when Dortmund star Marco Reus arrives this summer.

Now, these are all semi-true statements (except the last one, which is just metaphorically semi-true), but they say less about FC Bayern’s success the weird fatalism that’s seeped into German soccer. That feeling has always surrounded Bayern’s success, but after two years of FCB running away with league titles, fans entered this season more convinced than usual that it was going to happen again.

Bayern has been playing along, opening up a seven-point lead at the top after 13 rounds. Although that span’s bigger than the same gap at this stage last season (four points ahead of Leverkusen), it’s also not as large as it was two years ago, when Bayern were nine points clear of Dortmund. The club’s demolished a few foes, but it’s also drawn with the good-to-very good likes of Schalke and Gladbach. Last week, it nearly dropped points to an insipid Hertha Berlin.

So what’s different this year? It’s the teams trying to close the gap. People are freaking out because too many of the clubs in the chasing pack are just the wrong kind of club.

Fans across the Bundesliga didn’t love Dortmund just because it played attractive soccer, though that helped. They thought the Schwarzgelben were going to be the league’s white knight. If a club that nearly went bankrupt and relied upon cult support from locals rather than multi-million-euro partnerships with Audi and adidas could wrestle Bayern to the mat, anything was possible. But now that Dortmund is dead last, it’s clear that BVB’s not that club.

At the moment, Bayern’s closest challengers are VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, its opponent on Saturday. A lot of German fans refer to these as “plastic clubs” – a diss that hits at a lack an organic structure and teams that draw support from corporations or tycoons instead of communities. The clubs buy their way to success through the use of space-age polymers and tricky aerodynamics, the thinking goes, treating soccer teams as if they were race cars.

There’s a lot wrong with that picture — I’ll unpack it next week — but for now, it also paints a harsh portrait of the two would be contenders, teams that share one pleasant characteristic. By any measure, they’re a thrill to watch.

Esbjerg fB v FC Salzburg - UEFA Europa League

If you haven’t seen Leverkusen this season, maybe skip the umpteenth Man City versus Everton match of your life on Saturday and tune in to see them visit Bayern. The team’s style under coach Roger Schmidt (above) can be described as “uptempo” in much the same sense as could Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount University basketball teams of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Which is to say Leverkusen’s preferred speed is so much faster than its opponents’, it seems to be playing a different game altogether.

Michael Caley has written an excellent statistical analysis of Leverkusen’s tactics. He describes the unusual speed at which Bayer generate shots, an approach which feeds off a preternatural doggedness in recovering balls they’ve lost.

It sounds a lot like what longtime Leverkusen captain Simon Rolfes discussed in an interview with the Talking Fussball podcast earlier this season, something which hints Schmidt’s plans are coming together.

“With Jupp Heynckes as coach we had a lot of ball possession; that’s no longer our goal,” said the holding midfielder, referring to the coach who crowned his two-year tenure at Leverkusen with a runner-up finish in 2011.

“Normally the number six is the introducer of offensive play – he gets a lot of touches. This year it’s really different – now we try to play really fast, right from the central defenders up through to the strikers, and then we press forward. The number six plays really close to the strikers and if the frontline loses the ball, we attack it directly.”

Leverkusen tries to get the ball back right away if possible, he said, so it can start its next attacking move in the final third.

“This system is a lot more offensive,” he concluded. A lot.

VfL Wolfsburg v Borussia Moenchengladbach - Bundesliga

A bit less attack-happy, but still quite tasty, is Wolfsburg. The Wolves don’t share Leverkusen’s shoot-first tactical philosophy, but they do press like hell. It’s resulted in a team that’s second in the league in goals, is conceding less than once per game, and has the league’s leading set-up man in Kevin De Bruyne.

Take this Saturday’s Lower Saxony derby (versus Hannover 96) to re-acquaint yourself with the rosy-cheeked Belgian. You probably remember his goal against the United States this summer in Brazil. Hell, he would probably be a regular fixture in your nightmares were it not for a certain 16-save performance from Tim Howard. Back in the Bundesliga, young Kevin has continued to lighting it up, racking up nine assists in 13 league games, plus another three in Europe.

And while he’s only scored one in the league so far, that doesn’t mean he’s not good for the odd screamer. Certainly not.

Now that De Bruyne has been piling up consistently stellar performances on the pitch, his somewhat swollen head off it seems less objectionable, even kind of refreshing. Sure, he showed up to an interview this week with Kicker wearing a sweatshirt with a giant ‘KDB’ screenprint across the chest, but he was smart enough to endear himself to fans by saying he hoped to see out his contract at the club, which runs through 2019.

Even better, De Bruyne refused to concede this year’s title to Bayern.

“I always try to be first,” said De Bruyne. “Second place would be great, but maybe Bayern will stumble.”

Yeah, it doesn’t sound like much, but in a league where everyone seems ready give up the title, even meager hubris is welcome. Bayern may be destined for the title, but it’s nice to see at last two teams are maintaining a pursuit.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: Roger Schmidt during a match between Esbjerg fB and FC Salzburg on Oct. 3, 2013 (Philipp Guelland/EuroFootball/Getty Images); Kevin De Bruyne of Wolfsburg is challenged by Christoph Kramer during a match between VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Moenchengladbach on Nov. 30, 2014 (Boris Streubel/Getty Images).

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