Bundesliga 2021-22 takeaways – Bayern Munich’s early peak, USMNT stars, Erling Haaland era ends, Leipzig leaps forward
The offseason of 2021 exemplified so much of what we’ve seen from the Bundesliga through the years. Quite a few of the more well-regarded coaches in Germany played musical chairs — Borussia Dortmund took Marco Rose from Borussia Monchengladbach, which took Adi Hutter from Eintracht Frankfurt, which took Oliver Glasner from VfL Wolfsburg, etc. — as many of Germany’s more ambitious clubs cannibalized each other.
Meanwhile, Bayern Munich simply identified one of its biggest threats (in this case, RB Leipzig), took its manager (Julian Nagelsmann) and two of its best players (Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer), and cruised to another league title.
The Bundesliga forever boasts tight, dramatic races for European positions and usually features a knock-down, drag-out relegation battle, as well. The ticket prices are affordable, the atmospheres (now that crowds are back) are incredible, the beer is tasty and the style of play is fast and aggressive. The league has everything you could possibly want — except a title race.
Bayern has won 10 league titles in a row, mostly by comfortable margins. Ten is a lot! It matches what Dynamo Berlin accomplished in East Germany in the 1980s, and unlike Dynamo, Bayern doesn’t (allegedly) have the backing of the secret police.
The streak has prompted plenty of “Is Bayern’s success bad for the Bundesliga?” think pieces in recent days.
On one hand, it’s hard to make the case that Bayern’s success is, in a vacuum, bad for the league; they’ve also won two Champions League titles and reached four other semifinals during this run.
The Bundesliga would be worse without one of the most consistently strong teams in Europe.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt if Bayern had to deal with more domestic adversity.
Borussia Dortmund is stuck in a loop of being one of the 15 or so best teams in Europe but never one of the top five or six. RB Leipzig is building depth and talent but has yet to make a serious, 34-match run at the champs. Loads of potential powers (Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Monchengladbach, Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt) never quite get all the arrows pointed in the same direction, while others (Schalke 04, Hamburg, Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart) have spent most of their recent seasons stuck in neutral (at best). Add in Bayern’s undying competence and you get an undying title streak.
Still, every season is its own unique entity, even when the champion remains the same. Let’s look back at the main storylines of the 2021-22 Bundesliga campaign.
Bayern and the art of peaking at the right time
Bayern heads into the final two matchdays of the season with a 12-point cushion atop the league, and it’s easy to see why. They attempt more than twice as many shots as their opponents, they dominate on set pieces and they start and finish far more of their possessions in dangerous positions. And even when their lose, they probably should have won: On average, their expected goals (xG) differential in losses this season has been a jarring +1.2 per match. Among teams in the Big Five leagues, only Liverpool (+1.5) can top that.
Even the best teams deal with peaks and valleys; however, as dominant as Bayern have been, it’s clear they peaked early this season.
– Bayern vs. Stuttgart: Sunday, 11:25 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+
– Leipzig vs. Augsburg: Sunday, 1:25 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+
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You could make a solid case that Bayern was the best team in Europe over the first half of the season. They had suffered a shocking blowout loss to Borussia Monchengladbach, their bogey team, in the DFB-Pokal, but they had laid waste to their Champions League group, beating Barcelona, Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv by a combined 22-3 over six matches. Bayern spent November and December trading the No. 1 ranking with Manchester City in FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings. The 34-year-old Nagelsmann was cruising in his first year in charge of Germany’s biggest club.
Then injuries kicked in. Joshua Kimmich and Alphonso Davies both missed extended time with lung (Kimmich) and heart (Davies) issues stemming from COVID cases. Leon Goretzka missed four months with a hip injury. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer missed a month after knee surgery. Midfielder Corentin Tolisso played some of the best ball of his Bayern career, only to miss most of 2022 with a torn muscle.
As one might expect, glitches soon appeared. Bayern gave up at least two goals in three of its first five matches after the winter break and could only draw with FC Salzburg in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie, before blowing Salzburg out at home.
Their defense rounded back into form once Neuer returned. But in part because of midfield issues, the offense suffered a dip, scoring only one goal in four of six league matches (a ghastly slump by Bayern’s standards) and then scoring only once in 180 minutes against a packed-in Villarreal in the Champions League quarterfinals. Granted, that was a bit unlucky — Bayern generated 3.1 xG over the two legs — but they still gave up a late counterattack goal to Samuel Chukwueze and lost the tie, 2-1.
Bayern are now third in the SPI rankings. They are still excellent, of course, and they have enjoyed another Bayern-esque season: Robert Lewandowski has 49 goals in all competitions, Thomas Muller has 21 assists and Bayern’s trio of elite wingers (Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane, Kingsley Coman) has combined for 38 goals and 26 assists. But while playing at an incredibly high level is great, when you do it determines the number of trophies you bring home. Bayern will finish Nagelsmann’s first season with just one.
RB Leipzig: the best team of 2022
In the end, Bayern’s raid of RB Leipzig did just enough damage. It lost not only Nagelsmann, Upamecano and Sabitzer (who hasn’t done much in Munich) but also centre-back Ibrahima Konate to Liverpool. And despite a series of astute moves of their own — acquiring forward Andre Silva (Eintracht Frankfurt), midfielder Benjamin Henrichs (AS Monaco) and defender Mohamed Simakan (Strasbourg) and also bringing young centre-back Josko Gvardiol back from a loan with Dinamo Zagreb — there was just enough change to prompt a slow start.
Manager Jesse Marsch came over from Leipzig’s sister club in Salzburg, and his attempt to make RBL a bit more full-throttle, combined with the turnover in defense, led to an extended run of defensive breakdowns. RBL began the season with three losses in four league matches (including a 4-1 trouncing by Bayern), lost their first three Champions League matches and then suffered a three-match losing streak in late November. They replaced Marsch with Domenico Tedesco on Dec. 9 and entered the winter break in 10th place in the league, 21 points behind Bayern and closer to the relegation zone than a top-four spot.
Here’s the top of the table since the winter break ended and the Ruckrunde (as the second half of the Bundesliga season is called) began:
RBL’s title ambitions were over early in 2021-22, but even despite a shoddy performance over the past week — they sandwiched a win over Rangers in the first leg of the Europa League semifinals with costly league losses to Union Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach — they have been the best team in the league since the calendar flipped to 2022. They’ve risen back into the fight for a top-four spot with a series of resounding wins — 4-1 over Mainz, 3-1 over FC Cologne, 6-1 over both Hertha and Furth, 4-1 over Borussia Dortmund, 3-0 over Hoffenheim.
Christopher Nkunku has continued to enjoy a breakthrough campaign (he has combined 31 goals with 16 assists in all competitions), Silva has eight goals in all competitions since the start of the year and RBL have made the most of their relegation to the Europa League, advancing to within 90 minutes of the finals with relative ease. (They hold a 1-0 advantage over Rangers heading into the second leg of the semis.)
This version of RBL might have given Bayern a stiff and lasting challenge had it made an earlier appearance. Better yet, Bayern probably won’t be looking for a new manager this offseason, and the transfer rumor mill suggests Bayern is looking more at raiding Ajax for players this time — Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui, perhaps Sebastien Haller — instead of RBL. Granted, Nkunku also has been the subject of transfer rumors, and we’ll see what comes of that (especially if they miss out on a Champions League place), but the odds of RBL fielding its best team ever in 2022-23 are solid.
A quiet end to the Erling Haaland era in Dortmund
Last May, we got a fleeting glimpse of something special. Eliminated from the Champions League in the quarterfinals and seven points out of fourth place in the Bundesliga with just seven matches to go, Borussia Dortmund found fifth gear. They won those seven matches, plus a DFB-Pokal semifinal against Holstein Kiel, by a combined 25-7 and surged to third place. With the opportunity to win their first trophy since acquiring forward Erling Haaland 16 months earlier, they walloped RB Leipzig 4-1. Haaland and winger Jadon Sancho each scored twice.
The Haaland era will almost certainly end this summer, and last season’s DFB-Pokal trophy will end up the only Haaland-related hardware in the case. Manchester United paid a transfer fee of €85 million for Sancho, and BVB spent most of the 2021-22 season trying to get — and keep — its first-choice XI on the pitch. Haaland missed more than three months with various injuries, defenders Emre Can, Mats Hummels, Manuel Akanji and Dan-Axel Zagadou combined to miss more than eight months, and American teenager Giovanni Reyna played only 649 minutes — barely more than seven matches — in all competitions.
Reyna’s two goals and 23 chances created in those 649 minutes certainly suggest he was well on his way to a massive season, but without Haaland or Reyna, manager Marco Rose had to rely heavily on veteran Marco Reus and newcomer Donyell Malen. BVB failed to make it out of the Champions League group stage for the first time in four years, and they then suffered a defense-optional upset at the hands of Rangers in the Europa League. They eked out enough close wins in league play — their 1.69 points per game in matches decided by one goal is second to only Bayern — that their top-four status was never really in danger, but four losses to RBL and Bayern assured that they couldn’t mount much of a title push, either.
Be it favorite Manchester City or some other suitor, someone will trigger Haaland’s release clause and procure his services in the coming weeks. By most accounts, BVB have excellent plans for what to do with the money they receive, arranging to bring in defenders Nico Schlotterbeck (SC Freiburg) and Niklas Sule (Bayern) and, potentially, Salzburg attacker Karim Adeyemi. Star midfielder Jude Bellingham should be around a bit longer, and getting Reyna healthy would be like adding another world-class young attacker via the transfer market. If they see kinder treatment from the injury bug, Die Schwarzgelben could enjoy themselves quite a bit more next season. But that won’t automatically change the lingering disappointment of earning one trophy in two years of Haaland.
Leverkusen’s forward factory keeps producing
After a sixth-place finish in 2020-21, Bayer Leverkusen rebounded to make a sustained charge at a Champions League berth this season. They have spent most of the season in the top four, and FiveThirtyEight’s SPI still gives them a 93% chance of finishing there.
Gerardo Seoane’s squad doesn’t press at the standard of most high-quality Bundesliga squads, and they are both one of the best teams in the league at scoring on set pieces and one of the most disastrous at allowing set piece goals. On average, they allow as many shot attempts as they take. But this trade has worked out well for them, because the players attempting their shots are much better than what most opponents can offer.
The trio of Patrik Schick (26), Moussa Diaby (22) and Florian Wirtz (18) has combined for 41 goals and 22 assists this season. That only becomes more impressive when you realize that Shick missed two months with injury and Wirtz has been out since mid-March with a torn ACL. When all three have been on the pitch, Leverkusen has averaged 2.0 points per game, a second-place pace; when at least one is missing, they’re at a mid-table 1.5 points-per-game pace.
Leverkusen has one of the brightest young rosters in the league: In addition to Diaby and Wirtz, they are on the precipice of a Champions League bid thanks, in part, to contributions from fullbacks Jeremie Frimpong (21 years old), Mitchel Bakker (21) and Piero Hincapie (20), center-backs Edmond Tapsoba (23) and Odilon Kossounou (21), and attacking midfielders Amine Adli (21) and Paulinho (21).
They have more “If they can keep this base roster together, look out” potential than anyone besides Borussia Dortmund. But as with BVB, actually keeping their core together long enough to reach full potential has been an issue. Does that change this time around?
The Bundesliga remains USMNT-friendly
Despite Reyna losing his age-19 season to injury, there was plenty to keep up with in the Bundesliga if you are a fan of the United States men’s national soccer team. Stalwart old veterans like John Brooks (Wolfsburg) and Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt) continued to play roles, and Julian Green returned to the league after leading Greuther Furth to promotion.
You might be more interested in the youngsters, however. The United States has quite a few of them.
• Joe Scally (19) went from solid full-back prospect to Borussia Monchengladbach starter almost overnight. He will finish the season with around 2,000 Bundesliga minutes.
• Center-back Chris Richards (22) took a loan from Bayern to Hoffenheim and recorded 1,302 minutes before suffering an ankle injury in early April.
• Forward Ricardo Pepi (19) rode a hot finishing streak to a €18m transfer to Augsburg in January. He has proved excellent from a pressing standpoint but has yet to score.
• Green’s Furth teammate, midfielder Timothy Tillman (23), has enjoyed a bit of a breakout, creating 26 chances with two assists and proving active on both flanks.
My 10 favorite players (non-Bayern edition)
A Bundesliga Best XI team would likely feature at least four to five Bayern players, but let’s be honest: You know all about the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich & Co. already. Outside of Bayern, there have been plenty of reasons to watch the Bundesliga stateside. Let’s talk about the ones who caught my eye the most in 2021-22.
1. Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig. Still only 24, Nkunku had shown massive promise in his first two years in Leipzig, recording 12 goals and 22 assists in all competitions. This season, playing in a more central role in attack, he erupted. He has reached “everyone in the stadium holds their breath when he’s on the ball” status.
2. Jude Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund. It can be difficult to judge a midfielder with stats alone, but let’s just say that (A) the 18-year-old passes the eye test with flying colors, and (B) he has recorded the most touches, the most ball recoveries and the third-most chances and assists for the second-best team in Germany. That seems pretty good.
3. Taiwo Awoniyi, Union Berlin. A longtime member of the Liverpool loan army, Awoniyi impressed the club enough in a 2020-21 loan spell to bring him in on a permanent transfer. Good call. He has scored 13 goals in Urs Fischer’s vertically minded attack and has helped put the small club back in contention for another spot in Europe.
4-5. Nico Schlotterbeck and Christian Gunter, Freiburg. Only Bayern and RBL have allowed fewer goals this season than Christian Streich’s squad, and this duo is a major reason. The Dortmund-bound Schlotterbeck is a top duels-winner who has pitched in four goals (three from set pieces), and Gunter has been solid in defense while leading the team in both assists and chances created.
6. Josko Gvardiol, RB Leipzig. It’s been so impressive watching the new RBL back line slowly grow in confidence throughout the season. So shaky in transition early on, the Red Bulls have allowed more than one goal just twice in their past 16 matches. The 20-year-old Gvardiol is a wall in defense, and he is increasingly reliable in buildup play too.
7. Filip Kostic, Eintracht Frankfurt. A Bundesliga stalwart for nearly a decade, the 29-year-old is an old-school risk-taker. For three straight seasons now, he has created at least 79 chances for teammates while completing under 70% of his passes. He tries to make things happen and succeeds enough that you forgive him for the miscues.
8. Moussa Diaby, Bayer Leverkusen. The left-footed 22-year-old has played mostly on the right this year, and the inversion has looked great on him: He has combined 12 goals with 11 assists, and if Leverkusen does something particularly pretty in attack, odds are good that he was heavily involved.
9. Patrick Wimmer, Arminia Bielefeld. An absolute top player in transition, the 20-year-old has recorded more ball recoveries than any other forward or attacking midfielder in the league, and he has registered five assists from 32 chances created, mostly in fast-break situations.
10. Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund. Injuries and constant transfer rumors have left the impression that he has had one foot out the door all season, but that’s due far more to circumstance than to him. There are still few more exhilarating things in soccer than watching him explode into full gallop when BVB are transitioning into attack.
Bundesliga change is on the horizon
While Thomas Muller (32) and Manuel Neuer (36) remain elite players for Bayern and will almost certainly end their respective careers in Munich, other members of their 2020 Champions League-winning core have begun to look for new challenges. Thiago left for Liverpool in 2020, David Alaba joined Real Madrid in 2021, and if rumors are to be believed, Barcelona has conjured up enough cash — or, more accurately, they have figured out how to take on even more debt — to catch Lewandowski’s eye. (It’s conceivable that, with his contract set to expire in 2023, winger Serge Gnabry also could begin to look elsewhere.)
Lewandowski has been the best goal scorer in the Bundesliga for a decade and should have won the (cancelled) Ballon d’Or for his efforts in 2021. Be it Sebastien Haller or someone else, Bayern will almost certainly replace him with another high-quality finisher. But Lewandowski and Haaland have been the primary faces of this league for the past two seasons, and it appears increasingly likely that both will be in other leagues this fall. That doesn’t have to automatically be a bad thing, but it will definitely be different.