The 53rd Bundesliga season ended in predictably dramatic fashion. There were tears of joy and anguish, exhilarating moments of tension that shared the prizes at the final moments. There was even the perennial FC Bayern München championship party, which included the customary beer showers for the winning coach – in this case, Pep Guardiola, who concludes his three-year stint in Germany.
But Bayern – without discrediting an outstanding, however, expected title win – wasn’t the only tale of the campaign. Battles for Champions League places and for survival continued right until the final minutes of the season. Bayer 04 Leverkusen and VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach will compete in Europe’s top competition, while VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96 have been relegated to the second division.
Story of the season: The rise of SV Darmstadt 98 and FC Ingolstadt 04
Securing their Bundesliga status for another season, the achievements of Darmstadt and Ingolstadt, the two newly-promoted sides, were particularly impressive.
Dirk Schuster’s side were widely expected to return to the second tier within a year. The Lillies had the lowest budget and certainly had the least quality when it comes to individual players. Defensively, they were solid and on the road, they picked up points against most of the top clubs including Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. At the third attempt in their history, Darmstadt have secured back-to-back seasons in the Bundesliga.
Meanwhile, Audi-supported Ingolstadt carried the means to compete in the Bundesliga, after securing their first-ever promotion to the Bundesliga. The work of Ralph Hasenhüttl was apparent given how tactically astute Ingolstadt looked from the first week of the season. Hasenhüttl has been rewarded with a move to RB Leipzig this summer, while the Bavarians let ex-Karlsruhe coach Markus Kauczinski take charge.
Underachievers: Stuttgart and SV Werder Bremen
Going into the last game of the season, Werder Bremen and Stuttgart, two sides to win the Bundesliga in the last 12 years, stared at relegation. Eintracht Frankfurt, another stallion of the Bundesliga, were similarly embroiled in the battle to beat the drop. Bremen’s dramatic 1-0 win over the Eagles keeps the Northern Germans in the top flight, while Frankfurt must navigate through a playoff.
For Stuttgart, though, they will contest in the 2.Bundesliga next year, suffering the second relegation in the club’s history. It’s an astonishing collapse from Jürgen Kramny’s side given they were on the fringes of European football in spring. Stuttgart, however, have won one game from 12 and lost their last six games, while others beneath them have recovered in time for the run-in.
Both Werder Bremen and Stuttgart should be top-half sides in the Bundesliga, based on the budget and outlay of the clubs. Stuttgart’s demise though has come over the last five years through mismanagement in the boardroom. Kramny, who replaced Alexander Zorniger in autumn, won’t be the coach next season as the managerial merry-go-round continues at the Mercedes-Benz Arena.
Relegation is a blow to Stuttgart – and they will feel the financial effects quickly. But it’s also a chance to rebuild and start something fresh. If the Swabians sort out management issues, and develop the likes of Timo Werner and Timo Baumgartl, a quick return is certainly on the cards.
Player of the Season: Henrikh Mkhitaryan
League champions Bayern rightly boast a number of standout performers from this campaign. Leaner, sharper and stronger, Robert Lewandowski started the season in blistering form. Thomas Müller contributed to the scoring fronts. Arturo Vidal was the catalyst for a treble push in the second half of the campaign. Meanwhile, Joshua Kimmich and Douglas Costa impressed at different points in the season.
But for sheer consistency of performance and end-product, Borussia Dortmund’s masterful Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan takes some beating. The 27-year-old, whose deal is up in 2017 and hasn’t confirmed his intentions, scored 11 goals and assisted 20 in 31 league games. His assist tally is only matched by VfL Wolfsburg pair Kevin de Bruyne (last year) and Zvjezdan Misimovic (2009) who also created 20 goals.
If there was a player who illustrated the change in Dortmund style under Tuchel, Mkhitaryan represents that. He’s perceptive and clever, boasts brilliant awareness of what is going on around him and has the technique to match in key situations. Perhaps it’s circumstance, but had the Armenian been playing for Real Madrid, Man United or Bayern, he’d rated as one of the best players on the planet.
Who will be happy with their season?
For the majority of Bundesliga sides, there’s no title-party, nor moments of nail-biting, hair-raising tension. Of all the top European leagues, the Bundesliga has perhaps the biggest middle batch of clubs who generally yo-yo between relegation and Europe.
Six weeks ago, Roger Schmidt’s future at Bayer Leverkusen was reportedly under threat. Out of Europe with a timid display against Villarreal and outside of the European spots for next season, the Werkself’s turnaround has made it a season of success for Schmidt. Leverkusen won eight out of nine games, gradually returning to full strength along the way following a horrendous injury crisis mid-season.
With Javier Hernandez scoring 17 league goals, Julian Brandt netting in six straight games, and Charles Aranguiz returning, there is once again cause for optimism at the BayArena. If Leverkusen can address persistent injury problems, then a push for second place next season isn’t out of the picture.
Similarly, Borussia Mönchengladbach ended the season powerfully, winning 13 of 15 at home to secure the fourth Champions League slot. The Foals, bottom of the league having lost their first five games, swapped Lucien Favre for Andre Schubert early on, and the latter has steered Borussia to a second successive season in the Champions League.
Elsewhere, 1. FSV Mainz 05 have punched well above their weight this season, and Martin Schmidt’s side will play European football next season. Hertha Berlin will be in Europe, as well, despite giving up a top-four slot with a terrible run of form in the final months of the season. 1. FC Köln and Hamburger SV, ninth and 10th in the table, will be delighted just to have avoided a relegation scrap.
Joint-bottom when 28-year-old Julian Nagelsmann took charge, the talented young coach has led TSG 1899 Hoffenheim to survival with several weeks to spare. Nagelsmann, who favours bright, attacking football, will be a fascinating figure to observe next season, when given a fresh slate to perhaps build a side capable of competing for Europe.