On May 25th, 2013 Bayern München defeated Borussia Dortmund 2 – 1 in the Champions League final on Wembley’s hallowed turf. It was the first time in the history of Europe’s premier cup competition that two sides from the German Bundesliga had contested the final. Fast forward to 2018 and only a single Bundesliga side made it to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
This is indicative of what can be perceived as a downward trend of German teams’ success in European competitions that has been especially evident in the 2017/18 season. The one exception being the hegemon of German football, Bayern München, who remain very much in the group of Europe’s elite football clubs. This article will assess the Bundesliga’s performance in European competitions over recent years and examine the factors have led to league failing to provide stronger sides as representatives.
Too Much Strength at the Top
Since 2013 and that famous night in Wembley one German side has dominated both domestically and in European football. Bayern have reached the last 8 of the Champions League every year since and have won the league each year as well. The Bavarian giants are unquestionably the best side in the league, but this may have also harmed how German teams perform on the international scene. Domestically Bayern have the pick of the bunch, able to attract the best domestic talents in the league who, perhaps rightly, see the club as their best chance inside Germany to achieve European success.
This is nothing new of course as successive Bayern sides have been built off the work of others. In the late 80s Lothar Matthäus and Stefan Effenberg were pinched from a very strong Borussia Mönchengladbach side. The captain of their multiple league and Champions League winning side of the early 2000s, Oliver Kahn, came from the now third division Karlsruher SC.
More recently it has been Borussia Dortmund who have provided the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels. Dortmund’s own curve has been consistently downwards from their 2013 final appearance to their ignominious ejection in the 2017/18 Europa League to Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.
The process will continue into the coming season as rising German star Leon Goretzka has already agreed a move from Schalke while Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt has also been a long-term target. Both of those sides are likely to compete in the coming seasons for European places so the next generation of German sides in Europe will be weakened.
Too Little Consistency in the Pack
The statistics also appear to confirm the theory that performances have been slipping over recent years. The league as a whole is now ranked as the fourth best in the coefficient rankings, down from second just two seasons ago. Additionally, since the all-German Wembley final only 4 Bundesliga sides have reached the last 8 of the Europa League, a competition often seen as an indicator of a league’s strength in depth. Spain in comparison has had more than double as many.
Arguably though the record of German sides compares well with other major European leagues as Italy has had as many Europa League quarter finalists and England one fewer in the same time period. But simply looking at the raw numbers hides the wildly divergent performances of German sides in European competitions. Bundesliga sides have often struggled to back up one good season with a second in which they participate in a European competition. The last 2 seasons have seen the 7th placed German side fail to make the group stages of the Europa League. In 2017/18 Freiburg lost to Slovenian minnows NK Domzale with Hertha Berlin losing out to the albeit more established Danish side Brondby a year earlier.
The 2017/18 season provides a sobering case study. Aside from Bayern the two other German representatives managed a total of just 2 wins between them. In the Europa League the three representatives of the Bundesliga just 4 between them. Borussia Dortmund became the first side to finish third in a Champions League group without a single win, before exiting the Europa League at the last 16 stage with just 1 win under their belt in the campaign across two European competitions in 10 matches.
Too Many Barriers for Sustained Success
Among the 13 sides to have represented the Bundesliga at European level in the last five seasons, 5 have spent subsequent seasons fighting for league survival. The Bundesliga simply cannot offer the monetary incentives needed for sides to spend big in the season after they qualify for Europe. Of the 7 sides to have qualified for European competitions in 2017/18, 3 spent less than €15 million before the start of the campaign and results were equally as modest.
Many sides find that competing in Europe can be more of a curse than a blessing. FC Köln have spent much of the 2017/18 season at the foot of the table following a 5th placed finish the season before. FSV Mainz have been involved in relegation battles in both campaigns following their 6th place in 2015/16. Those are just two examples of many. With such a high turnover of clubs qualifying for Europe and the seeming dangers it brings, attracting players is never easy and the higher workload often fatigues the existing squad.
Conclusion and Outlook for the Future
Many would argue that such a variety of sides representing Germany at European level is evidence of a vibrant league and an absence of the established dominance of a few sides found in the English and Spanish top flights. While that may be true it does not hide the fact that the Bundesliga could be harmed in the long term. With the exception of Bayern, if sides cannot find sustained success then the league could end up with fewer places on offer.
Paradoxically while Bayern continues to do well the Bundesliga’s coefficient ranking is protected, but they also significantly weaken sides in order to maintain that dominance. Regardless, after the clear under performances of the 2017/18 campaign, warning bells should certainly be ringing.
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