The 2019-20 Bundesliga season was the first major European league to start and end after the coronavirus delays. After the restart, the excitement in Germany didn’t cease as relegation and European spots went down to the final day, and Bayern Munich couldn’t stop winning on their way to an eighth straight title. Starting with the champions, this article will highlight some of the best and some of the worst of this year’s Bundesliga. Alas, no mention of SC Freiburg as they finished just outside the European places after an impressive season.
The Champs: Bayern Munich
Fourteen weeks into the 2019-20 Bundesliga season, Bayern Munich’s streak of seven straight titles looked in jeopardy. After losing back-to-back games to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, lifting the Mesiterschale seemed a mere fantasy. However, newly appointed manager Hansi Flick’s changes started to take root and wash away the bad taste of disastrous managerial appointment Niko Kovac. Bayern went undefeated in the next twenty matchdays winning nineteen and drawing one to clinch their 8th straight title.
The aforementioned managerial switch from Kovac to Flick is rightly singled out as the major turnaround for Die Roten. Bayern appeared static and ineffectual under Kovac, but under Flick they returned to an aggressive possession play. Their tactics resembled Guardiola’s Bayern teams, heavily utilizing midfielders Kimmich and Thiago, the latter being the critical piece in Pep’s squads. Once again, the defending champions had their swagger back and the results followed. In addition to the Bundesliga, Bayern won the DFB Pokal and are favourites to win the Champions League. Time will tell if Flick can duplicate their 2012-13 treble-winning season.
The Surprise Team: Union Berlin
Union Berlin sealed their surprise promotion in rare fashion. They defeated Vfb Stuttgart in the relegation playoff, a feat only achieved five previous times since it was implemented in 1981-82. With their promotion, Die Eisernen became the first side from former East Berlin to play in the 2019-20 Bundesliga season. Arguably the smallest team, history and budget-wise, in the Bundesliga, Union wasn’t given much of a chance to survive.
Manager Urs Fischer guided them to safety with largely the same setup he had used in the 2. Bundesliga. The changes came in how they approached the higher quality teams. They played tons of long balls, exemplified by their league-leading 27.2 aerials won per game. With the space created by long balls, they relied on holding up play and often brought their attack from the left, utilizing top-goal scorer Sebastian Andersson. It was largely effective in keeping them in games against the big sides but produced results against lower sides. They were assured of safety in the final month of the season by picking up 3 wins and 9 points versus three teams who were related or finished below them in the table. An incredible run to stay up and assure another exciting season in the Bundesliga.
The Disappointing Team: Schalke 04
The reciprocal to Bayern’s torrid streak to finish the season is Die Königsblauen’s miserable slump along the same timeline. After fourteen weeks, David Wagner, a Jürgen Klopp disciple, seemingly washed away the bad taste of last season’s flirtation with relegation and their 14th place finish. Sitting fourth and in a Champions League spot, the historic side looked ready to return where it rightfully belonged after a season adrift. Yet it was not to be as Schalke won only two games the rest of the season. They captured a measly 9 points from an available 41 after the winter break.
What contributed to their turn in form? Injuries decimated their backline, controversy plagued their goalkeeping situation, and strikers couldn’t score to save their lives. However, the simplest explanation is that other teams figured out Wagner’s 4-4-2 scheme, which has been a departure from his normal, Klopp-like 4-2-3-1 setup. Combined with the aforementioned factors on the field, plus off the field ownership issues, it was a perfect storm of failure. It’s a sad situation for them, further compounded by a newly imposed salary cap. The new policy and committing to Wagner are signs of financial and leadership stability. It might take years before Schalke are great again.
The MVP: Robert Lewandowski
If there was ever a reason to lament the cancelling of the Ballon d’Or, it is because Lewandowski was destined to win it. Despite losing out on the European Golden Show to Lazio’s Ciro Immobile by two goals, Lewandowski scored an insane 34 goals in 31 league games. Combined with his 11 goals in 6 Champions League games and 7 in the DFB Pokal, “The Body” has accumulated 52 goals in 44 competitive matches. An insane tally for the Polish superstar and a clear example of his status as the best striker in the world.
Lewandowski is arguably the greatest beneficiary of Hansi Flick’s November 2019 takeover as Bayern manager. Thomas Müller’s sharp eye for a great pass reopened to the tune of 21 Bundesliga assists, 16 after Flick took over. Lewandowski scored on 8 of Müller’s assists, the most between two teammates by 3 over Gnabry and Lewandowski.
If you watch all of his goals from this season, what stands out is the diversity of goals scored. What separates Lewandowski from most other strikers is he is not a one-trick pony. He heads strongly and accurately, he takes authoritative penalties and can score from any angle and from anywhere in and around the 16-yard box. The prime example of his versatile goal-scoring is in the Champions League game against Red Star Belgrade. He scored 4 goals in 14 minutes and every one was different. His first was a penalty. The second was a cross he stabs into the net with the bottom of his foot. His third was a pinpoint header from another cross. His last was a dribble through defenders and into the bottom right corner. Watch it here to get a quick rundown of what makes him so unique.
The Best of the Worst: Sebastian Schonlau, SC Paderborn
SC Paderborn finished last in the Bundesliga for the second time in five years. After yo-yo-ing from the top flight in 2014-15 to 3. Liga and back this season, they hope to stabilize in the 2. Bundesliga. A defensive staple of the team, despite their bottom-of-the-table finish, is central defender Sebastian Schonlau. After starting the season injured, Schonlau put in some impressive defensive performances.
Boasting good ball skills and excellent defensive instincts, Schonlau finished top of the Bundesliga in clearances per game (5.7) and in the top five for tackles per game (2.8). At 25 years of age, he probably will not command a lot of attention from Bundesliga squads, but his impressive season could mean a move. He’s been a Paderborn player his whole career, so it seems unlikely. Most likely, he will be one to watch on ESPN+ as 2. Bundesliga viewing rights have now transferred to ESPN.
The Worst of the Best: Lucas Hernandez, Bayern Munich
Lucas Hernandez was bought for a staggering 80 million Euros from Atletico Madrid to help an ageing backline. However, after a string of not-so-great performances and an unfortunate injury, Hernandez was replaced by the Bundesliga Rookie of the Year, Alphonso Davies. He has publicly stated he wants to fight for his position after gaining fitness. But Davies blossoming under Hansi Flick seems to have doomed him to a secondary role. Bayern is usually the squad to take advantage of expensive players needing a home–Phillipe Coutinho and James Rodriguez, for example–but Hernandez might need one if Davies continues his growth and form.
Young Player to Watch: Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig
Many European football fans already know about young sensations Kai Havertz, Jadon Sancho, and Rookie of the Year Alphonso Davies. However, few might know anything about another young star-in-the-making, RB Leipzig’s midfield maestro Christopher Nkunku. The young Frenchman logged a masterful 2019-2020 season, finishing tied for third in assists behind Thomas Müller and Jadon Sancho. Likewise, he finished 4th in Key Passes per game (2.3) and chipped in five goals.
Nkunku is not a full-time starter on par with where he finished statistically. Surprisingly, in the second part of the 2019-20 Bundesliga season, he often came on as a sub. Yet he still put in stellar performances in limited minutes. As he continues to grow into the game, the 22-year-old could potentially be the next Bundesliga midfield player to attract the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. Bet on the former-PSG product turning heads in 2020-21 and starting almost every game. Stars Sancho and Havertz are likely to leave their respective teams this shortened summer. Nkunku stands next-in-line to be the next big thing in their place.