The German Bundesliga, one of Europe’s big 3 professional football leagues, has been anything but collectively dominant in European competitions over the past decade. Although Bayern Munich won the UEFA Champions League in 2019-20, the days of Bayern and Dortmund squaring up in a European final as they did in 2013 appear to be over. This past year Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were both knocked out of the UEFA Champions League in the quarter-finals, with Leipzig failing to make it past the Round of 16.
For a league that currently holds fourth place in the UEFA club coefficient rankings and bears three teams regularly recognized as the very best in the world, Bundesliga teams could have been expected to thrive to a greater extent than they managed in 2020-21. In fact, in recent years only Ligue 1 clubs have a worse record of collective appearances in the latter stages of European competitions between the top five leagues in the world.
It’s all well and good to have a single major representative in the closing stages of the toughest European club competition (usually Bayern Munich) but the true strength of a top tier football league lies in the competitiveness of more than one team in continental competitions.
Spanish clubs plying their trade in La Liga have demonstrated this on numerous occasions in the past decade, with several memorable all-Spanish semi-finals and finals in recent years. The Premier League meanwhile failed to have a finalist in the Champions League for the best part of the last decade until Liverpool’s rise in 2018. But now the Brits have found themselves back on track, with four semi-finalists and three finalists between the two competitions in 2020-21. An all-English Champions League final is set to take place in a few weeks time between Chelsea and Manchester City, two clubs that have been far and away better than the likes of Dortmund, Leipzig and Bayern this season. But it’s not the only time in recent years that the Brits have occupied both places in a European final. Liverpool edged out a fiery final against Tottenham back in 2019; the same year that Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Arsenal battled it out in the Europa League. So if Germany wants to get themselves onto the level of England and Spain, what needs to change?
Poaching of top talents
It sounds obvious to say, but the quality of the teams in Germany’s top flight (Bayern aside) is something that tends to seperate them from the elite clubs in Spain and England. This quality is consistently reduced by the poaching of players from clubs not named Bayern Munich. Bayern themselves, who thrive in Europe unlike any other top team, have benefited from their continued success by being able to poach top talents from their league rivals. This has included the likes of Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski arriving from Borussia Dortmund over the years, Leon Goretzka and Manuel Neuer coming from Schalke, and now Dayot Upamecano and manager Julian Nagelsmann from Leipzig.
Not only does the ease in which die Roten recruit players benefit their continued success, but it tends to simultaneously weaken their competitors. Dortmund have generally recruited well, replacing Lewandowski with Aubameyang for example; but others have been less successful. Schalke never managed to replace Goretzka or Neuer, and eventually became the worst team in Bundesliga history. Dortmund and Leipzig also have their top talents frequently poached by other teams across Europe, such as Ilkay Gundogan or Timo Werner, both of whom look set to take part in a UEFA Champions League final this year.
This means that the only team able to compete a the highest level is Bayern Munich, and that the quality simply isn’t there from most other German teams. Perhaps a policy change is necessary, or perhaps a mindset change is needed instead. Aubameyang for example left Dortmund for Arsenal, a team that has fared significantly worse domestically and about the same in European competitions. The likes of Ousmane Demble, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze hurt their career aspirations by moving to bigger clubs, and likely would have fared better and achieved more success if they had simply stayed put. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and VFL Wolfsburg are right up there with some of the biggest clubs in the world, and need to start being treated as such.
German football teams are known for their intense gegenpressing, technical quality, and high-functioning tactical management. However, in true physical strength, only Bayern Munich have managed to match the English and Spanish teams pace for pace. Atletico, Real Madrid and all of England’s big clubs play in a very physical way. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach and Leipzig have tended to be bullied in the latter stages of European competitions in recent years, inevitably eliminating them from the competitions. This may change in the near future, with two physical teams in Eintracht Frankfurt and VFL Wolfsburg destined to claim a place in Europe this season. However, the physicality still needs to be backed up by the quality, to which those teams may be lacking.
There were many moments in Borussia Dortmund’s quarter-final match up against Manchester City in which the Black & Yellows could have taken control and won the tie. But Edin Terzic’s men ultimately crumbled under the pressure and never fully looked as though they truly believed they could pull it off. Making it far in Europe requires a sense of fearlessness – the type that Jose Mourinho teams had when they won the Champions League. Football is a funny game in which the giants can be beaten by the minnows. In clubs like Dortmund and Leipzig, the footballing world has two clubs that are anything but minnows. But these teams simply don’t go into knockout fixtures with the sense of belief that they can truly pull it off, and often have half an eye on resting players for weekend matches in the Bundesliga. There’s not the same level of focus and attention to the competition that English and Spanish teams give, and the imposter syndrome takes over.
Further, the likes of Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, as talented as they are, are often loaded with young talents just making their way in the game. These are often the best players on the team (i.e. Sancho, Haaland, Upamecano, Werner, etc.), but they lack the necessary experience to get a top level team over the line. In Porto and Inter Milan, Jose Mourinho had heaps of experience in his ranks, even if they didn’t have the same quality as other European sides. That experience is key to success, no matter how talented a team’s young players might be. In the end, inexperience breeds fear, and fear brings forth playground blunders.
With all of these reasons in mind, it may be quite some time before we witness an all-German final in a European competition. The English and Spanish sides may continue to dominate instead, with Bayern Munich the only team truly capable of contesting for either trophy. Like everything in football it will be very difficult, but not impossible. If Borussia Dortmund can keep hold of the likes of Sancho and Haaland for another year and Leipzig’s recruitment is good this summer, perhaps all of that could change.