Bundesliga Five Bundesliga teams you should care about besides Dortmund...

Five Bundesliga teams you should care about besides Dortmund and Bayern

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Even if you don’t follow German soccer or the Bundesliga, you’ve probably heard that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are running away in the title race with 19 points separating BVB from the teams battling for 3rd place. As too often people think of the Bundesliga title as a one or two horse race, which it is, and assume that therefore it’s not exciting enough, we’ll try to dispel that second notion and examine 5 other teams that are worth watching.

Hertha BSC are the surprise team of this season, sitting in 3rd place after a last-minute appointment of head coach Pál Dárdai saved their Bundesliga campaign last season – finishing 15th and avoiding the relegation playoff by one goal. General Manager Michael Preetz, himself a standout Bundesliga player with over 500 appearances and 177 goals, would do his best to improve the squad over the summer, after having added the likes of Salomon Kalou, Per Skjelbred, Genki Haraguchi, and Marvin Plattenhardt for a combined €4 million in the summer of 2014. Never a big spender due to a tiny budget, BSC offloaded gigantic forward Sandro Wagner to Darmstadt (where he has scored a whopping 12 goals – a figure more improbable than Leicester City winning the Premier League), but unlike the season before, where they made a combined 20 million for selling their two best strikers in Adrian Ramos (to Dortmund) and Pierre-Michel Lasogga (to HSV), the former Bayern player’s free transfer to the newly promoted SV 98 caused relief, not uproar. The biggest summer signings were the relegated Freiburg’s hard-running midfielder, Vladimir Darida, Nürnberg youngster Niklas Stark for a combined €7 million. Mitchell Weiser left Bayern on a free transfer in search of playing time, while Vedad Ibisevic had worn out his welcome at VfB and came on a loan. Several youth players were also added, but Hertha’s failure to “break the bank” during the transfer window meant that even an optimistic preview was hoping for a 12th place finish. What they got was a remarkable season, where despite taking the fewest shots in the Bundesliga – nine per match – and losing their first choice goalkeeper Thomas Kraft in October to a shoulder injury, Hertha have collected 49 points from 29 matches and have arguably been the best team not named Bayern or Dortmund.

Dárdai, himself a Hertha legend, having been at the club since 1997, deserves some serious Coach of the Year votes, for turning around a group of unexciting players and bringing an ethos of youth and hard work to the squad. John Anthony Brooks, Mitchell Weiser and Niklas Stark and the excellent LB Marvin Plattenhardt have meshed into a solid defensive unit that concedes the fifth fewest goals, despite ranking in the 9 to 12th range in terms of advanced defensive shot metrics . Backup goalkeeper Rune Jarstein, a veteran of 180 career Bundesliga minutes was basically flawless until his recent terrible performance against Gladbach, which saw his 75% save percentage drop to 72% (70 being the league average) – a mark that ranks him 6th. Their midfield has transformed into a hard-working, dynamic unit, led by Vladimir Darida, who has led the Bundesliga in distance covered 14 of 29 matchdays! This gif by Dustin Ward of Statsbomb tells the story between the mostly counterattacking midfield of last season, and the more possession based one of 2015/16 – green means more completions – red fewer.


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Goals and luck are the last missing ingredients for the Berlin side: Salomon Kalou, never mistaken for a clinical finisher now has 14 goals on 48 shots for a 29% conversion rate – double that of an excellent season by a striker at the age of 30! By comparison, Harry Kane is at 16% and Jamie Vardy is at 24%! The other striker, Vedad Ibisevic, 31, has also contributed 9 goals on a 17% conversion rate. They are the Bundesliga’s great outlier, running 15 goals above expectations – Michael Caley’s XG model had them scoring 24 goals, when Hertha were on 37, while they conceded just 27 compared to the model’s 29 in late March. So to recap, take a rugged manager in his first full season, hit on all your cheap offseason signings, get your backup goalie to have his career defining season, outperform metrics by 15 goals, have two 30-year-old journeymen forwards score over 21 goals on a ridiculous conversion percentage and install a great work ethic and you get the German version of Leicester City. The only difference perhaps is that unlike in the BPL, the big teams in Bayern and BVB have been exceptional, but Hertha, recent form (losing to Gladbach and drawing with the already relegated Hannover) notwithstanding should still have enough left in the tank to hang on to the Champions League spot.

Borussia Mönchengladbach (BMG, Gladbach, the Foals) – have some strong ties to Hertha, as the team started their 5th  season under former Hertha manager and Dárdai mentor Lucien Favre. The Foals were coming off a miraculous season in 2014/15, eventually finishing third in the table and qualifying for the Champions League, ahead of Leverkusen. With 26 goals conceded all season, their defense was their foundation on which their offense was able to build, scoring 53 times and playing some wonderful football. Previews were right to expect them to challenge for the 3rd or 4th spots, as they have never finished below 8th in 4 seasons under Favre. So, you can imagine the shock when on September 20th, the Swiss  coach/savior walked away, “no longer being able to find solutions” after five straight losses and zero points. Much like Hertha, Gladbach also promoted their youth coach, André Schubert, who has completely revamped this team to a rousing success. Under Schubert, Gladbach have gathered 45 points from 25 matches, scoring 57 goals (the same as Bayern and 3 more than Dortmund) and conceding 35. Gladbach have been the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team of the Bundesliga, as they are the best home team in that span with 34 pts in 13 games, but have collected just 11 pts from 12 away matches. There are five key reasons for the success under Schubert, who like many interim coaches following an established coach leaving, will sometimes unintentionally and accidentally get credit for several things he should not. Regardless, here are some of those things: 1. Infusion of youth, 2. Stabilization of the defense, 3. The re-emergence of Raffael (who has followed Favre to 3 different clubs in his career), 4. Dynamic midfield play and the suffocating press that demolished Bayern in a 3-1 victory, ending the Bavarians’ unbeaten streak, and 5. Just plain old luck in the form of outperforming statistical models, such as XG models, are all legitimate. Let’s delve into those five reasons a little deeper to examine the connection between them and explain Borussia’s turnaround in more detail.

Schubert has been impressive since his hire as Gladbach’s manager. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

In the 3-0 loss to HSV (not exactly an offensive juggernaut with a total of 35 goals in 30 games), Gladbach had a center back combination of 35-year-old Martin Stranzl (a club legend retiring at the end of the season) and 34-year-old Roel Brouwers – both Favre favorites, who helped Gladbach climb out of the relegation zone years ago -start with 26-year-old Tony Jantschke in a central defensive midfielder role. Jantschke’s atrocious back pass to goalkeeper Yann Sommer was famously intercepted by HSV’s Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who rounded the keeper for his first; then strolled in to finish a corner (who were the two veteran central defenders marking?) for 2-0. It’s worth noting that Lasogga’s two goals in that game represent 33% of his total output and he has basically been unable to score and has lost his starting place in the Hamburg XI to three different strikers. Since then, that combination of Gladbach defenders has never played together, and only Stranzl and Jantschke got a couple of starts in between them, as Schubert turned to his young players. Andreas Christensen, a 20-year-old central defender on loan from Chelsea, who only played in 2 of the first 5 games is now second on the team in minutes played behind Lars Stindl (discounting the goalkeeper) with 2430, and more importantly has been the 6th best defender in the league according to Squawka. His 6ft 3in frame makes him a great asset in the air, and with 87% pass completion – better than Mats Hummels – he is among the league leaders in distribution. He leads the team in clearances and is second to Granit Xhaka in interceptions with 2.6 a game, and as a bonus he has shown off his offensive skills by scoring 3 goals.

In the center of midfield, Mahmoud Dahoud, with a grand total of 450 Bundesliga minutes prior to this season has become the wunderkind of the Bundesliga. He has gone from a youth player with a 600k Euro value to the target of every major club in the world, with figures in the 25 to 30 million pound range! The recently turned 20-year-old is a true midfield maestro, a strong defender, and willing tackler, who is also capable of running 12-13 kilometers. In addition, Dahoud is blessed with sublime technique and great vision, as you can see from this excellent scouting video. With 4 goals and 7 assists already in 1800 minutes, those younger, more athletic versions of Andres Iniesta comparisons do not seem so strange.

Dahoud and Christiansen, along with 19-year-old right back Nico Elvedi, a versatile right/center back who cracked the rotation in November and has started 12 games in the spring, Gladbach have rejuvenated their defense. Schubert famously started a 3 man backline against Bayern, with Elvedi lined up as a right back and getting an assist in the 3-1 victory that shocked the Bundesliga. And as you can see from this astonishing image of all their different partnerships in the center, it has been a long strange trip. It has not always worked, as Gladbach have conceded 47 times in just 30 games and players like Martin Hinteregger are seemingly cursed with scoring own goals–two on the season in 650 minutes–while Julian Korb has lost his starting job to Elvedi and Nico Schulz, the left-back brought in for 4 million Euros from Berlin over the summer has not been able to displace Oscar Wendt.


gladbach clean


Predicted XI
Predicted XI


Most often used XI
Most often used XI

From the above pics, one can see the massive turnover that has taken place this year for Gladbach, whose defense and midfield were overhauled through an injection of youth by Andre Schubert, who deserves some serious coach of the year votes.

If we praised youth earlier, an equal amount of it should go to Raffael, the Brazilian star of Gladbach, who, at 31, is having the season of this life. With 13 goals, 10 assists, he and Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Dortmund are the only two members of the double-digit goals and assist club. Sure, a 22 percent conversion rate (anything above 14 is considered excellent for an attacking player) has helped matters, but guys his age should not be getting better. His 49 chances created and 83% pass accuracy are remarkable, when you take into account that he has been the furthers Gladbach player up the pitch all season, despite his slight built. Never one of the quickest or the strongest players, the Brazilian’s outrageous technique and first touch have allowed him to see things a split-second faster than any player on the pitch, and his finishing rivals the elite strikers in the league. His football radar – a visual overview of some key advanced statistics provided by @FussballRadars – shows a world class player.


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Finally, lady Luck has been on the side of the Foals, all season, though the BMG fans would probably scoff at that notion, given the first 5 fixtures. According to Footyintheclouds, they have the best conversion rate of the Bundesliga with 16% further evidenced by taking only the 9th most shots in the league and scoring the 3rd most goals with 59. Michael Caley’s advanced statistics had them scoring THIRTEEN more goals than their expected goals model in late March, with a whopping twelve players having scored 3 or more times!

So,when we look at their season in total, this team has come so far and has ironically met expectations after one of the largest and most entertaining rollercoaster seasons in recent memory.

Despite a brutal remaining schedule, with Bayern, Bayer and the surging Hoffenheim this weekend their next three opponents, they will probably finish in one of the spots between 4 & 6, since Hertha have just as tough a schedule, and Schalke can always be relied upon to mess up.

Mainz are another strong candidate for all kinds of most improved honors, as this modest club, valued at just 71 million Euros per Transfermarkt and with a budget around 30 million are enjoying a superb 2015/16 campaign and flirting with Europe. The 05ers, as FSV Mainz are known finished in 11th place the year before and were probably better known for producing Jürgen Klopp of Dortmund and now Liverpool fame. They were the epitome of German small club modesty in the transfer window: sell high on young talents, or players with outstanding seasons and replenish them on the cheap. Thus, Mainz simply could not match Schalke’s big offer for 21-year-old star midfielder Johannes Geis, while the 14 goals of Shinji Okazaki were off to Leicester City, netting the club 23 million euros in the process.

It is hard to think of anything less luxurious and more German than to “blow” their transfer funds on a Japanese and a Swiss player, but that is exactly what Mainz did. They spent just 13 million on incoming players, with unknown 22-year-old Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto coming for a shade under 3 million Euros from Tokyo FC, a club with a market value of 17 million Euros. Their biggest splurge was 3,6 million on Fabian Frei, a Swiss midfielder coming over from the Swiss league. Donati and Bussmann, two outside backs came for 1 million each and young Colombian forward Jhon Cordoba arrived on loan from Granada for just 600k.  The fact, that they got Leon Balogun and Danny Latza from Darmstadt for free were just the tiniest of icing on a very frugal cake.

The coaching situation was in a turmoil, after one Thomas Tuchel (perhaps people have heard of him) left. Kasper Hjulmand was brought in and guided, or shall we say crashed, FSV to a 1st round loss in the cup against lowly Chemnitz and 14th place in February, when former mechanic turned manager Martin Schmidt took over and righted the ship to a respectable 11th place finish. Most previews had them finishing around the same spot.

So, what happened?


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Well as you can see from their season progress image, since Matchday 13 they have not been lower than 11th and have been as high as 5th. With 3 of their remaining 4 games against teams in the relegation zone (Frankfurt, HSV and Stuttgart) a home finale against Hertha (who have a 4 point lead on Mainz but will face Bayern, Bayer, and the always tricky away team Darmstadt in Berline) could be a chance to leap BSC and grab the 4th spot. But before such speculation it’s worth taking a quick look a few of the factors that have catapulted this small budget team into the Bundesliga’s elite.

  1. The strong foundation of the club, that has produced two great coaches in the 20 plus year career of Christian Heidel. Heidel is one of the most respected Bundesliga sporting directors and has announced his decision to leave to take over at Schalke, a club with 10 times the membership (136000 to 14000) of Mainz. He wasted little time in firing Kasper Hjulmand, when the Danish coach’s possession based approach was failing miserably, even though he himself hired him after an impromptu player scouting trip resulted in discovering and bringing in the coach of Football Club Nordsjælland. For more on Heidel’s track record, I recommend these two articles from Bundesliga.com and BundesligaFanatic.com.
  2. Martin Schmidt deserves all the credit in the world, for saving the team last year and turning them into a tough defense with an efficient, unselfish, counterattacking offensive gameplan that still continues to surprise teams 30 games into the season. His squad management has been impressive, as Mainz feature no fewer than 7 quality defenders, who have conceded the sixth fewest goals in the Bundesliga with just 39. His 4-2-3-1 formation, used 27 times this year,works because the double pivot of Julian Baumgartlinger, Danny Latza (and sometimes the aforementioned Fabian Frei) are among the league leaders in tackles (Baumgartler is no.1 with 3.7 per game) distance covered (Latza is in the top 5 every weekend seemingly). They also offer something going forward, as Baumgartlinger has picked up his two career Bundesliga goals this year, while Latza has accumulated 30 key passes, the same or more than Arjen Robben, Shinji Kagawa, Thiago or Karim Bellarabi – all established Bundesliga stars or superstars.
  3. The formation also allows the wide players and the central attackers to shine and here Mainz’s next man up philosophy has really shined. Yoshinori Muto scored 7 goals, all before December and is now out for the season after reinjuring his knee in April after his first injury in February. Jhon Cordoba took his place up top and has scored 4 goals, including the game winner against Bayern along with leading the league in drawing 3 fouls per game. Yunus Malli started the season on fire and scored 8 times before December and was the winter break’s transfer darling with Borussia Dortmund reportedly among the favorites to sign the Turkish central attacking midfielder. In the Rückrunde, he has been anonymous save for a two goal outburst against Leverkusen in late February. So while he and Muto carried the team in the first half, others were required to pick up the slack: Alongside Cordoba, Jairo Samperio who was mostly a substitute last year developed into a scary winger (perhaps a lite version of Riyad Mahrez of Leicester) with 7 goals and 5 assists, with all seven goals coming on the road. Pablo de Blasis and Christian Clemens have each chipped in with 4 and 5 goals respectively, with two braces accounting for all 4 goals in a recent win over Augsburg.
  4. Loris Karius, the 22-year-old goalkeeper, is approaching his 90th game in the Bundesliga and is among the best in the league. His 75.4 save percentage, a love for semi-clothed pics and Mainz’s stellar play have all played a part in landing him in some juicy transfer rumors to the Premier League.
  5. Last but not least, there is the element of fortune, as evidenced by some advanced stats, courtesy of the Challengers Podcast,  in Mainz’s success: A 13% team conversion rate for and and 8.6% against gives them a net rating of 4.4, the third best margin in the league behind Hertha, Bayern and Gladbach, while 33% shooting (5 points above the league avg of 28%) and scoring a goal on every 8 shots (league avg is 10) and conceding one on ever 11 shots (league avg is 9.5) explains how a team with a negative 102 shot differential – meaning they have taken 303 shots and allowed 405 can succeed so effectively. As of late March, when Mainz stood at 35 goals for and 33 against they were slightly outperforming their expected goals total of 31.5 and 35 respectively.

In conclusion, there is a lot to be excited about with a club that has built itself the right way and under the leadership of Christian Heidel created a successful and sustainable model. With Heidel leaving for Schalke and given the departures of Tuchel and Klopp to bigger clubs, there has to be some doubt about the future of Martin Schmidt. The potential sales of stars such as Karius, Malli and Jairo could leave the club in a precarious position, but at this point one would be hard pressed to bet against them rebounding from it.

It is not a widely-known fact outside of Germany, but Schalke 04 are actually Germany’s second most popular club, with 136 thousand members, nearly 11 thousand more than their local rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Yet, as teams with large budgets are wont to do, the Royal Blues have failed to spend smartly. The club is valued at 200 million Euros and supported by a large and loyal fan base, so seeing them in 7th place with a -2 goal difference with four games to go is a tremendous disappointment. With their mix of experienced world-class players, World-Cup winner Benedikt Höwedes, Joel Matip, who is joining Liverpool as per Jürgen Klopp’s request and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – 29 goals in 2011/12’s Bundesliga they should be doing better. Schalke also has a famous youth academy producing young stars, or as in the case of Choupo Moting, Geis, poaching them from smaller teams like Mainz – the midfield quartet of Leroy Sané, Leon Goretzka, Johannnes Geis and Max Meyer are all under 22 and widely regarded as the German national team’s present/future. Yet, as mentioned above, after a great start to the campaign, Schalke have only recently begun to climb out of the hole they put themselves in November through February. Crashing out of the Europa League in convincing fashion (0-3 on aggregate) to Shakhtar Donetsk, came on top of getting beaten twice by Gladbach (once in the German Cup) losing to Mainz, Werder, Augsburg and getting thrashed by 3 goals at the hands of Cologne and Wolfsburg – perhaps it’s easier to understand why coach Andre Breitenreiter has been on the hot seat. In addition, the Royal Blues have already appointed Mainz’s former sporting director Christian Heidel to take over next season, and the rumors of a new coach (former Gladbach manager Lucien Favre and current Augsburg coach Markus Weinzierl for 5 million Euros) are in full effect.

For more on the managerial mess, Raphael Honigstein’s Guardian article is recommended for reading, if one is into the Kardashian level ridicolousness of the reality show that has been Schalke off the field this year. Highlights include: sporting director Horst Heldt losing it at a reporter who asked 5 questions to coach Andre Breitenreiter about his job security in the first few minutes of a pre-match interview with the coach almost walking out.

Leroy Sane has been touted as one of the World’s brightest young prospects. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

On the pitch, Schalke have not been much better, with the former Paderborn coach seemingly showing little tactical awareness. In the Bundesliga, they mainly play two formations, lining up 16 times in a 4-2-3-1 that Mainz do so well, and 10 times in a 4-4-2. In stark contrast to Mainz, nothing that Breitenreiter has tried has worked consistently, with 18 players playing over 500 minutes. Scoring has been a major issue for the Royal Blues, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar entering a different phase of his career and collecting just 9 goals – including one penalty – and taking just 2 shots per game – those are all the lowest numbers of his 5 year Schalke careeer. Franco di Santo was the big offseason pick-up, signing for 6 million Euros from Werder Bremen, but has been miserable, with just 2 goals in 1300 minutes and earning the dubious honor of worst forward in the Bundesliga’s fall season. Despite a league average 28% shooting percentage, Schalke are the 6th worst teams with 11.21 shots needed to produce one goal. That is just stupefying when you consider the attacking talent of Leroy Sané, Max Meyer who have combined for 11 goals and 9 assists but have often been inconsistent performers, accused of selfishly dribbling (Sané) or disappearing in games (Meyer). The winter additions of Alessandro Schöpf and Younes Belhanda provided a quick spark at first, with 4 goals in February and none since, but came at the expense of playing time for Leroy Sané, whose form suffered. Recently, Breitenreiter has shunned those two and reinserted Sané, but the mercurial 20-year-old has only scored once (in the Revierderby against Dortmund) since January.

Even more inexplicably, the coach has experimented with some strange formations using two right backs and two left backs and playing a 3-5-2, with RB Junior Caicara and LB Sead Kolasinac in an advanced wing position. Perhaps the tactical immaturity can be chalked up to the 42-year-old manager’s inexperience: in his 2 years at Paderborn, a club who has spent exactly one season in the Bundesliga in 2014/15, Breitenreiter was mostly concerned with getting results out of a scrappy small team fighting against relegation. Managing a club with the pedigree, resources, talents and egos that are at Schalke is an altogether different animal, but management should deserve the blame for hiring him and putting him in that situation. In typical Schalke fashion, they are attempting to solve the problem by throwing money at Mainz’s sporting director Christian Heidel and betting that his over 20-year track record can bring results to Gelsenkirchen.

Bayer Leverkusen are a small club in terms of the membership (just 11th in that category) but have been a perennial Champions League participant or contender in recent Bundesliga history, finishing 5th or better in 5 straight seasons.Historically sponsored by pharma giants Bayer (aspirin) – though recently the club has attempted to be more self-reliant and make money from selling its own players- Leverkusen have a modest following but a decent sized budget at 65 million Euros and are valued at 213 million. They are not afraid to spend, as this offseason, die Werkself – their nickname, as the team was founded by Bayer workers – brought in Chilean Copa America winner Charles Aranguiz from Internacional in Brazil and more notably Javier Chicharito Hernandez from Manchester United for 13 and 12 million respectively. Their 3rd straight season of signing a talented youngster from Hamburg continued, as 19-year-old defender Jonathan Tah (who has since made his national team debut!) followed free kick maestro Hakan Calhanoglu (2014) and Heung-Min Son (2013), whose play Tottenham fans are enjoying this year when he is healthy.

Tah‘s 7.5 million and Admir Mehmedi’s rescue from relegated Freiburg for 8 million and getting 11m Euro tough-tackling central midfielder Kevin Kampl from Dortmund meant that Bayer had shelled out 50 million and were presumably ready to challenge Bayern and the Kevin de Bruyne-less Wolfsburg for the title. Previews and predictions picked them for a clear top 4 finish and perhaps some Champions League progress if the draw broke right. And why not? Last season, former Paderborn manager Roger Schmidt (read this great profile by Raphael Honigstein) has turned Leverkusen into a swashbuckling, hyperaggressive press machine that gives opponents fits and tells them THOU SHALL NOT PASS!


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Their attack would be buoyed by taking a chance on Chicharito and pairing him (or Mehmedi) up with Bundesliga veteran Stefan Kießling and supported by the speedster Karim Bellarabi and a midfield consisting of EPL target Lars Bender, World Cup winner Christoph Kramer, and the aforementioned Kampl, Aranguiz, Calhanoglu trio. That’s a young, but experienced core for players in the 22-26 range ready to take this team to the next level. The defense was strengthened not only by the signing of Tah, but Andre Ramalho – RB Salzburd and Kyriakos Papadopoulous from Schalke and with Bernd Leno’s expertise in goal they looked to be in good hands.


season_progress2
season_progress2

The season started with two quick and expected wins over Hannover and Hoffenheim, but was followed by a couple of 3-0 thrashings from Bayern and Dortmund and an embarrassing loss to newly promoted Darmstadt and die Werkself were in 13th place after just 5 matches. A couple draws and a famous 4-3 win over Stuttgart brought Bayer up to 6th, but narrow losses to Wolfsburg, Cologne and Hertha saw them go back to 8th place before finishing the fall season by trouncing Gladbach 5-0 and Ingolstadt 1-0. Tied for 5th place with Schalke on 27 points and 25-20 goal difference was certainly not a bad result, but the process to getting there was often secondary to the results. Chicharito becoming a worldwide phenomenon with his 11 goals (44% of the team’s total) in that span was amazing, but his goals were masking a couple of deeper lying issues:


Poor build-up play.
Poor build-up play.


The press isolates the center of midfield.

A defense that at 1.17 goals conceded per match looked better statistically than it did on the field, allowing goals in bunches in several games. Bernd Leno, the 23-year-old German international in goal, widely considered to be one of the best goalies not named Manuel Neuer was so disappointing that he was outside of the top 10 in the German Bible of soccer rankings called Kicker in the “Blickfeld or rearview mirror” category and when you look at what he did against Augsburg it’s easy to see why:

That previously mentioned strong midfield failed to materialize, as injuries to Aranguiz (who would only make his debut in April) and captain Lars Bender – missing 6 months after going down with an ankle injury – decimated the central midfield, while Bellarabi and Calhanoglu combined for a measly 4 goals and 5 assists on below 5 percent conversion rates.

The Rückrunde’s promising start, boosted by taking revenge on Darmstadt and holding the mighty Bayern to a goalless draw, saw Leverkusen in third place, until the turning point of the season against Dortmund. In an intense and evenly contested match, referee Felix Zwayer and head coach Roger Schmidt became involved in the controversy of the year, as the coach protested the position of the free kick awarded to Dortmund, which ended in an Aubameyang goal. Schmidt argued the call so vociferously that he was sent to the stands by the referee, who was attempting to diffuse the situation (as they are taught) by getting Kießling to relay the message to his manager. When Schmidt refused to leave the touchline, Zwayer promptly suspended the match for 9 minutes, until the Leverkusen coach finally left. Schmidt was eventually fined and suspended for 3 games. You can view the incident here:

The team lost that game and hit its lowest point in early March after a 3-1 loss to Mainz and at 4-1 blowout by relegation candidates Werder under Markus Krösche and was heading for a club record 4th straight defeat, down 3-0 to Augsburg. The injuries kept coming: first Chicharito, then Kevin Kampl broke his leg, then Kramer and Kießling went down. And that’s just the midfield and the attacking players, -at one point, Hakan Calhanoglu was playing as a CDM – while Ömer Toprak, who emerged as a great partner for Tah and was instrumental in holding Lewandowski scoreless, also got hurt along with veteran RB Roberto Hilbert. All the signs were pointing towards Leverkusen reaching a point of no return and imploding, with many calling for Roger Schmidt’s head. And then something happened in the second half, as die Werkself mounted a comeback with 3 goals in the last 30 minutes and tied the game 3-3. Since then, the team has won 5 straight games with 14 goals scored and zero conceded. It has all been clicking for Bayer: Bernd Leno has gone 573 minutes without allowing a goal, Julian Brandt, a 19-year-old mega talent has scored in 4 consecutive games, Bellarabi has collected 3 goals and 5 assists and Chicharito added 2 more to take his tally to 16 goals on the year. Andre Ramalho has put in three rock solid performance alongside the consistently excellent Tah, and Tin Jedvaj (20 y.o.) or Benjamin Henrichs (an actual attacking midfielder at 19) were excellent at right back, with Henrichs notably getting his first Bundesliga start against Stuttgart and completely erasing Filip Kostic who was terrorizing the league with 4 goals and 5 assists in the Rückrunde up to that point.

With the emergence of Brandt and Bellarabi’s return to his 12 goal form last year, Hernandez is no longer the only attacking threat that team’s can easily neutralize. With Bernd Leno’s massive second half improvement, he now ranks second behind Manuel Neuer in clean sheets on the season, and a solid defense, this team looks poised to hang on to the bronze. With 51 points to Hertha’s 49 and six points clear of the 5-7 bunch of Gladbach, Mainz and Schalke die Werkself could knock Schalke out with a win this weekend at the Veltins Arena, before doing the same to Hertha and Gladbach in the next two weeks. One thing is for sure, if they blow it, they only have themselves (and not Felix Zwayer, sorry Roger!) to blame.

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