Generally speaking, German football is a reliable mirror of the most efficient and effective style of the day, which has meant a lot of different things through the years. In the 1970s, it meant building from the back and playing an approximation of Netherlands’ Total Football, only with a bit more physicality and counter-attacking. This approach, and the otherworldly skill of players like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller, led to a European Championship in 1972, a World Cup title in 1974 and a European finals appearance in 1976 for Germany (plus three straight European Cup titles for Bayern Munich).
In the 1980s, it meant something far more cynical. Despite a lack of similar star power, the Germans finished third at worst in seven of nine European and World Cup tournaments from 1980 to 1996, and for most of that run, their play was marked by hard fouls and a level of pragmatism that even their Italian neighbors weren’t sure about.
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When that style proved outdated into the 1990s — in short, when everyone else stopped using a sweeper and started relying more heavily on possession and speed and finesse — Germany began to look tired and old. And by the early 2000s, the country as a whole seemed to go back to the drawing board.
What it emerged with benefited the entire soccer world. And it’s something you will get to enjoy on ESPN+ for all of the coming season in the U.S.
Germany has, over the past decade and change, charged forward with a wonderfully optimistic style of play. It works, too. The national team finished in third place at worst in six straight major tournaments from 2006 to 2016. Jurgen Klopp perfected his Gegenpressing approach at Borussia Dortmund at the turn of the decade, nearly conquered Europe with it, then finally did just that at Liverpool at the end of the decade.
Bayern Munich got thumped a few times by Klopp’s BVB, adapted with their own pressuring and high-possession style before winning the 2013 and 2020 Champions Leagues (and every Bundesliga title in between). The national team looked tired and old once again by 2018, but the country and their home league had set quite a bar for other countries to try to clear nonetheless.
To watch the Bundesliga in 2020 is to watch football seemingly without the ball ever stopping in midfield. One team puts itself in decent scoring position, and then — poof! — the ball’s in scoring position on the other end. If you don’t believe me, believe the numbers.
– Seven Bundesliga teams averaged at least 1.85 expected goals (XG) per match in 2019-20. Only one other European Big Five league — Italy’s Serie A — had more than three such teams
– Fourteen Bundesliga teams averaged more than three combined goals (for and against) per match. Serie A was the only other league with more than three
– Ten Bundesliga teams created at least 10 chances per match or averaged at least five shots on target. Serie A was the only other league with more than five in either category
– These are good shots, too: Nine Bundesliga teams averaged at least 0.13 XG per shot. The Premier League and La Liga were next in line with six each. The similarly high-volume in Serie A? Zero
– Thirteen Bundesliga teams averaged more than 99 possessions per match. France’s Ligue 1 was the only other one with more than three
The Bundesliga has established an idealism to which other leagues can only aspire. Ticket prices remain middle class-friendly, the play is aspirational and sometimes risky, and when a club has a bright young talent — on either the roster or the coaching staff — they put them to work. RB Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann is 33 years old and just led the team to the Champions League semis. And even if it cannot eventually afford to keep Nagelsmann, the odds are good that your own favorite club’s decision-makers are watching German soccer to find both their next manager and next big signing.
The league lost RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz, Borussia Dortmund’s Achraf Hakimi (via loan) and Schalke 044’s Weston McKennie this summer, and it still boasts more prime young talent than any other league. BVB still have Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho (for now), Gio Reyna, Jude Bellingham and Dan-Axel Zagadou.
RB Leipzig still have Christopher Nkunku, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, Dani Olmo and Tyler Adams. Bayern still have Alphonso Davies and Tanguy Nianzou. Schalke still have Suat Serdar. And on and on.
The league does indeed have a bit of a Bayern Munich problem at the moment, with the Bavarian giants having won the league eight straight years, but in fairness, Europe has a Bayern problem, too, right now. The Bundesliga champs didn’t drop a single point in rolling to the 2020 Champions League crown, winning all 11 of their matches with a 43-8 scoring advantage.
You know German fans have it good when you see how hard they will fight to keep what they’ve got. They rage against clubs with any semblance of sugar daddy influence, like RB Leipzig or TSG Hoffenheim. They vociferously protect their 50+1 rule, which keeps corporate influence in check (but also sometimes creates unmanageable “too many cooks” situations). They don’t appreciate when their games are moved from Saturday at 3 p.m.
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This holds the league back to a degree — higher ticket prices and more schedule-shuffling for television mean more money, after all, and a sugar daddy could do wonders for clubs like Hamburg (stuck in the second division due to constant backroom drama), Hertha Berlin or any Berlin club for that matter. But the league still boasted two Champions League semifinalists in August and has, per EloFootball.com, four of the top 20 teams in Europe. And when fans are allowed to return to the stands, you will witness some of the most intense rivalries in sport: BVB vs. Schalke, Borussia Monchengladbach vs. 1. FC Cologne, Bayern Munich vs. basically everyone.
The Bundesliga boasts intensity, optimism and lots and lots of vertical attacking. Love it, and it will love you back.