Raphael Honigstein looks back on the best of the 2015-16 Bundesliga campaign in Germany and offers up a glimpse of what could happen in 2016-17.
"That was possibly the best messed-up season we've ever had," Bayer Leverkusen CEO Michael Schade joked after the final game on Saturday, a 3-2 win over Darmstadt. The Werkself had won seven out of their last eight league matches to qualify directly for next year's Champions League group stage and made a mockery of their "crisis" in March, when a touchline ban for coach Roger Schmidt coincided with poor results and stirred a media debate about the trained engineer's suitability for the role.
Funnily enough, the same bittersweet feelings about 2015-16 are prevalent among all four teams at the top of the table, and undoubtedly at Hertha BSC as well. Pal Dardai's men were in third spot so long that a seventh place finish (following a rotten run of two points from their last eight games) felt like a serious disappointment. Before the campaign, getting into the last Europa League slot would have been considered an unlikely triumph in the German capital.
It's a game of perspective as much as results. Bayern Munich were once again thwarted in their attempts to win the European Cup under Pep Guardiola, a hefty blow that took quite a bit of shine off their historic fourth consecutive Meisterschaft. Their dominance since Borussia Dortmund's double in 2012 is the best example of the law of diminishing returns: the more they win, the less it's appreciated. In the Catalan's final season, the Bavarians came closer than ever to being invincible, conceding only 17 goals (a new Bundesliga record) and losing only twice, but even if they conclude the campaign with a DFB Pokal win on Saturday (against Borussia Dortmund, who else), there'll forever be an asterisk attached to the Guardiola era. They couldn't quite do it in Europe.
Neither could Dortmund. Their Europa League quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool hurt the Black and Yellows more than most people imagine. The Westphalians were desperate to become one of the handful of clubs that have lifted all three European trophies, and the nightmarish evening at Anfield probably played at least a small role in convincing Mats Hummels that his thirst for silverware will be more easily quenched at his boyhood club, Bayern, instead. Thomas Tuchel's men were outstanding through most of the season, scoring goals for fun with attacking football of the highest level, but they too will come to regret not maximising their potential if they lose the Cup final in Berlin.
Fourth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach have fewer reasons to wonder what might have been; the Foals can be proud of overcoming the considerable obstacles of coach Lucien Favre's defection five games into the new season and a slide all the way down to the bottom of the table. They're now back into Europe's top competition again. Their concerns have more to do with the future. The club is still not entirely convinced that coach André Schubert is the right man for the job.
FSV Mainz 05 once more proved themselves one of the smartest clubs in Germany, getting into Europe with a sixth-place finish under Swiss coach Martin Schmidt. Schalke 04, who just beat them to fifth, want to be a lot smarter, which is why they've hired Mainz general manager Christian Heidel to oversee a reboot. André Breitenreiter won't be part of the new Royal-Blues; Markus Weinzierl, who defied gravity for the umpteenth time to keep FC Augsburg up, is expected to succeed him.
Hard work and strong tactical identities ensured the survival of newly-promoted Ingolstadt and Darmstadt but after flirting with disaster one time too many, VfB Stuttgart, the 2007 champions dropped down after 40 years in the top flight. In Hannover 96, another traditional club bit the bullet and we might yet lose Eintracht Frankfurt, too: Niko Kovac's men face off against 1. FC Nürnberg in the relegation play off this week.
And they said Robert Lewandowski wasn't a Pep Guardiola player. Bayern's No. 9 scored 30 goals in the league to become the most prolific foreign player in league history. The 27-year-old could have had one more in the last game of the season, against Hannover, but let Mario Götze's ball trickle over the line. "He needed that," Lewandowski said.
That thoughtfulness marks out Poland's finest as the rarest of breeds: he's a selfless striker, willing to do plenty of "unseen" work in aid of his teammates but prolific in front of goal all the same. Bayern boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge made a point of singling him out for praise at the championship party, stressing how happy the club were to count him among their ranks.
Most disappointing player
Schalke 04 had high hopes when they signed the €6 million Franco di Santo from Werder Bremen in the summer. The former Chelsea and Wigan player scored 13 goals in 2014-15, many of them spectacular, but he never found similar form for the Royal-Blues. Two goals in 25 matches is all he mustered. Worse still though, was a lack of application in training and during games. Towards the end of season, Breitenreiter had stopped including the Argentinian in his match squads altogether. Di Santo might well find himself surplus to requirements under the new regime and move on to his seventh club in nine years.
The 20-year-old holding midfielder, Julian Weigl, was bought for a mere €2.5m from 1860 Munich in the summer. No other club in Europe's top five leagues will have done a better deal than Dortmund last summer. Weigl has played with a maturity well beyond his years in Thomas Tuchel's team, setting the pace, breaking up opposition moves and starting attacks with a quiet, understated elegance. Against 1. FC Köln on the last day of the season, he even broke the Bundesliga record for most touches in a game, playing the ball 214 times. Next stop: an international breakthrough at the Euros in France.
The "Lilies" of Darmstadt 98 had the smallest budget of the league (€15m), a ramshackle stadium that last saw a new lick of paint in the 1980s (when Darmstadt last graced the top flight) and, by popular consensus, no hope to stay up with their good old fashioned hoof-ball approach. But Dirk Schuster's men battled hard and ran more, they kept it tight at the back and stood tall up front where captain Aytac Sulu's headers (seven goals) and Sandro Wagner (14 goals) did the business.
"The eighth wonder of the world," Marcel Heller called his team's survival.
There were fine overhead kicks from Franck Ribéry and Thomas Müller, wonderful strikes from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but the best of the bunch must be Robert Lewandowski's volley to make it five goals in nine minutes as a sub in the 5-1 win over Wolfsburg.
Dortmund's 0-0 v Bayern was certainly one of the best goalless draws you'll ever see, a tactical battle of two football super brains with plenty of action inside the two boxes. Werder's 6-2 win over Stuttgart might not have delivered quite the same level of sophistication but eight goals in front of a heaving Weserstadion made more than up for that. The win for the northerners also proved hugely important: it kick-started Werder's revival and accelerated Stuttgart's demise.
Prediction for next season
Bayern to win the Champions League under Carlo Ancelotti, naturally. Dortmund will either win the league or the DFB Pokal while every single player and Tuchel gets linked with a move to the Premier League on a weekly basis. Leverkusen will do well in the Champions League. RB Leipzig, the bete noire of German football, will put noses out of joint and play good stuff to finish in the top half of the table.