Bundesliga Season Preview Part Two: Bayern and the contenders hoping to topple them

VAVEL UK takes a look at eight of the teams who could lift the Meisterschale at the end of the season. And the one that probably will.

After a long wait, the Bundesliga finally makes its return this summer and it will be a welcome relief for German football fans after the failure of the Germany squad at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Many will be wondering if this is the season that someone finally manages to topple the supremacy of Bayern Munich. The rest will laugh off such delusions. But even if the status quo at the top remains, there’s European places to be won and the dreaded drop to be avoided.

Following on from part one, the second part our season preview, we take a look at the champions Bayern as well as the rest of last season’s top half finishers – Schalke 04, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig, VfB Stuttgart, Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Bayern Munich

Last season: 1st

Manager: Niko Kovać

Pre-season friendlies: Paris Saint-Germain (3-1 W), Juventus (2-0 L), Manchester City (3-2 L), Manchester United (1-0 W), FC Rottach-Egern (20-2 W), Hamburger SV (4-1 W)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 1-0 win vs SV Drochtersen/Assel

Opening game: Home to Hoffenheim (24 August)

Transfers in: Leon Goretzka (Schalke), Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps, arrives January 2019)

Transfers out: Tom Starke (retired), Niklas Dorsch (1. FC Heidenheim), Fabian Benko (LASK Linz), Felix Götze (FC Augsburg), Douglas Costa (Juventus), Arturo Vidal (Barcelona)

Bayern’s Bundesliga rivals smelt blood after their indifferent start to last season, but the decision to replace Carlo Ancelotti with the legendary Jupp Heynckes was just what their campaign needed. In what felt like no time they caught up with early leaders Dortmund and stormed into an unassailable lead at the lead, winning a sixth-successive Bundesliga title at a canter.

No matter how much anyone tried to convince him otherwise, Heynckes was never going to stay, and Kovać comes in as a lower-key appointment, but nevertheless still one that ticks all the boxes. The victory over his old side Frankfurt in the DFL-Supercup suggested that Bayern will be ruthless once more in their attempts to stave off any competition. As well as Sven Ulreich did in cover, they also have a fully-fit Manuel Neuer to call on once more.

There are glimmers of hope for everyone else, albeit with caveats. Goretzka is the only new addition to an aging side, but Serge Gnabry and perhaps even Renato Sanches will offer extra vigour following their loans away. Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski struggled at the World Cup, but if they struggle they still have Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry et al to salvage them. Jérôme Boateng may still leave, but maybe he’s on the wane anyway. And even if they do falter, they have a habit of getting it right when in matters.

Schalke 04

Last season: 2nd

Manager: Domenico Tedesco

Pre-season friendlies: Southampton (3-3 D), Hebei China Fortune (3-1 W), Schwarz-Weiß Essen (1-0 W), Erzgebirge Aue (1-0 L), Angers SCO (1-0 W), Fiorentina (3-0 W)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 2-0 win vs 1. FC Schweinfurt 05

Opening game: Away at VfL Wolfsburg (25 August)

Transfers in: Mark Uth (Hoffenheim), Salif Sané (Hannover 96), Suat Serdar (1. FSV Mainz 05), Steven Skrzybski (1. FC Union Berlin), Omar Mascarell (Frankfurt/Real Madrid), Hamza Mendyl (LOSC Lille)

Transfers out: Goretzka (Bayern), Luke Hemmerich (Aue), Coke (Levante), Pablo Insua (Huesca, loan), Bernard Tekpetey (SC Paderborn 07), Benedikt Höwedes (Lokomotiv Moscow), Max Meyer (Crystal Palace), Thilo Kehrer (PSG), Donis Avdijaj (Willem II)

The appointment of Tedesco last summer, with only a few months in charge of second-tier Aue on his CV, was a bold one for Christian Heidel, especially after the failure of Markus Weinzierl. Not everything that Tedesco did pleased the fans, not least the freezing out of Höwedes, whilst the football wasn’t always pretty, but he took a club in the doldrums back into the Champions League, finishing as Vizemeister behind Bayern.

Die Königsblauen will have their eyes on consolidation. Losing Goretzka was a blow, perhaps losing Meyer and Kehrer was too, but Weston McKennie looked ready to step up to fill the void in midfield, whilst elsewhere Tedesco has additional options to call up on, even if none of their new signings look enough to end the hegemony of Bayern just yet.

The return of UEFA Champions League nights at the Veltins Arena, but could prove very demanding for a workmanlike squad. Tedesco will need to prove that he wasn’t just a one season wonder, and this year could be much tougher if their rivals are able to sustain a stronger challenge. Long-term though, the key could be keeping faith in the model that worked so well last year.

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim

Last season: 3rd

Manager: Julian Nagelsmann

Pre-season friendlies: Queens Park Rangers (2-2 D), QPR (3-0 W), SC Heerenveen (8-2 W), Chievo Verona (5-0 W), SC Eibar (1-1 D), Eibar (3-1 L)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 6-1 win vs 1. FC Kaiserslautern

Opening game: Away to Bayern (24 August)

Transfers in: Leonardo Bittencourt (1. FC Köln), Vincenzo Grifo (Gladbach), Ishak Belfodil (Standard Liège), Joshua Brenet (PSV Eindhoven), Kasim Adams (BSC Young Boys)

Transfers out: Uth (Schalke), Eugen Polanski (released), Joshua Mees (Union Berlin), Benedikt Gimber (FC Ingolstadt 04), Marvin Schwäbe (Brøndby IF), Bruno Nazário (Atlético Paranaense, loan), Baris Atik (Dynamo Dresden), Philipp Ochs (Aalborg BK, loan), Robert Zulj (Union Berlin, loan)

During the early part of the last campaign it appears that Hoffenheim would struggle to match the top four finish of the previous season, yet once they were unburdened by the pressures of European football, Nagelsmann’s side kicked on, and ended up outdoing themselves in finishing third, reaching the group stage of the Champions League for the first time as a result.

They handled the losses of Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy, then the loss of Sandro Wagner and now they have to do without Gnabry, with all four playing at Bayern. Uth has gone to Schalke too, but they still have Nagelsmann to lead them, even if it’s just one more year before he joins Leipzig, and it’s easy to see players like Bittencourt and Grifo fitting into his system.

Could they finish in a Champions League place yet again though? If you keep losing and replacing your best players, that success can only last for so long, even if they are talking of gunning for the title. Europe could an even greater toll this time around, so it will be hard, but one feels Hoffenheim would still be happy with a finish in the top third of the table and another of European football for whoever has the difficult task of replacing Nagelsmann come 2019.

Borussia Dortmund

Last season: 4th

Manager: Lucien Favre

Pre-season friendlies: Austria Wien (1-0 W), Manchester City (1-0 W), Liverpool (3-1 W), Benfica (2-2 D), Stade Rennais (1-1 D), FC Zürich (4-3 L), Napoli (3-1 L), Lazio (1-0 W)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 2-1 vs SpVgg Greuther Fürth (AET)

Opening game: Home to Leipzig (26 August)

Transfers in: Marius Wolf (Frankfurt), Marwin Hitz (Augsburg), Thomas Delaney (Werder Bremen), Eric Oelschlägel (Bremen II), Abdou Diallo (Mainz), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid, loan), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)

Transfers out: Roman Weidenfeller (retired), Dominik Reimann (Holstein Kiel), Gonzalo Castro (Stuttgart), Mikel Merino (Newcastle United), Sokratis (Arsenal), Felix Passlack (Norwich City, loan), Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham United), Erik Durm (Huddersfield Town), André Schürrle (Fulham, loan)

Dortmund will be hoping that a new season will bring new beginnings as they start their league campaign this weekend under new manager Favre. The Black and Yellows had a up and down season last year as they started their campaign under Peter Bosz but he was sacked due to a poor start to the season with Peter Stöger taking over as manager until the end of the season.

Dortmund will be hoping that Favre, who done a fantastic job at OCG Nice, will take them closer to the Bundesliga table this year as they finished a full 37 points off champions Bayern Munich last season. It's been six years since Dortmund last won the title under Jürgen Klopp and their fans will be hoping that they will run Bayern closer this season than they have done in the past few seasons.

The thing though they will have to be careful with is that there has been a huge turnover of players in the summer and it may take time for them all to settle playing together but Favre is sure to get the best out of his players like he has done for much of his coaching career. So now it's time to sit back and watch how things work out at Dortmund this season.

Bayer Leverkusen

Last season: 5th

Manager: Heiko Herrlich

Pre-season friendlies: SV Rossbach-Verscheid (7-0 W), Sportfreunde Siegen (3-0 W), Wuppertaler SV (2-0 W), Fortuna Sittard (2-0 W), İstanbul Başakşehir (1-1 D), Al-Wahda (1-0 W), Valencia (3-0 L)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 1-0 win vs 1. CfR Pforzheim

Opening game: Away to Gladbach (25 August)

Transfers in: Paulinho (Vasca da Gama), Mitchell Weiser (Hertha BSC), Lukas Hradecky (Frankfurt), Thorsten Kirschbaum (1. FC Nürnberg), Isaac Kiese Thelin (RSC Anderlecht, loan)

Transfers out: Vladlen Yurchenko (released), Stefan Kießling (retired), Marlon Frey (released), Niklas Lomb (SV Sandhausen), Bernd Leno (Arsenal)

Could this be Leverkusen’s year? It’s a question that seems to be posed at the start of every season, and it’s one that will be asked again this year. The talented trio of Leon Bailey, Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt are primed for something special, and Leverkusen may never have a better chance at toppling Bayern before they get tempted away to ‘bigger’ clubs.

Around them der Werkself seem to have only strengthened too. The loss of Leno was inevitable, but they may have got an even better goalkeeper in Hradecky. The likes of Weiser and Paulinho add depth in key areas as well. Up front, Kevin Volland showed signs of his old self last year, whilst Lucas Alario will be more adjusted now to German football.

Herrlich has been an inspired appointment too. Despite his inexperience at the top level, he revived a team that was started to lose its way in the latter days of Roger Schmidt’s reign, and they were unlucky to miss out on a Champions League return. Breaking back into the top four is the minimum expected this time around, but until this squad inevitably gets broken up, surely the only way is up.

RB Leipzig

Last season: 6th

Manager: Ralf Rangnick

Pre-season friendlies: FC Grimma (7-0 W), ZFC Meuselwitz (2-2 D), Huddersfield (3-0 L)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 3-1 win vs FC Viktoria Köln

Opening game: Away to Dortmund (26 August)

Transfers in: Nordi Mukiele (HSC Montpellier), Marcelo Saracchi (River Plate), Matheus Cunha (FC Sion)

Transfers out: Naby Keïta (Liverpool), Fabio Coltori (released), Benno Schmitz (Köln), Vitaly Janelt (VfL Bochum), Agyemang Diawusie (Ingolstadt), Dominik Kaiser (Brøndby), Anthony Jung (Brøndby), Felix Beiersdorf (Meuselwitz, loan), Bernardo (Brighton & Hove Albion), Zsolt Kalmár (DAC Dunajská Streda), Philipp Köhn (Red Bull Salzburg), Omer Damari (Hapoel Tel Aviv), Elias Abouchabaka (Fürth, loan)

The second-place finish in their first Bundesliga was always going to be tough to match, but finishing sixth and achieving a place in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League was not a bad showing. Nevertheless, they were reluctant to renew the contract of Ralph Hasenhüttl, resulting in his departure once the season ended. Sporting director Rangnick, who also coached them in their promotion season, returns to the dugout before Nagelsmann arrives next summer.

Whilst off the pitch it is a season of transition, on the pitch little will change. They’ve had a year to prepare for Keïta’s departure whilst the rest of the key assets – most significantly Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner – remain in situ. Mukiele and Saracchi provide fresh option at full-back, especially with Bernardo leaving, whilst striker Cunha, despite his young years, has already seen plenty of action in the Europa League.

Rangnick will be looking for more consistency from his side, even if their high-octane style holds no secrets for the rest of the Bundesliga any more. More will be expected of Bruma and Jean-Kévin Augustin in their second seasons. Leipzig have a clear masterplan and most people will admit they are most likely long-term challengers to Bayern, even if they are being held back by financial fair play. There will be title races to come, one could even come this year, but this could just be another season of consolidation.

VfB Stuttgart

Last season: 7th

Manager: Tayfun Korkut

Pre-season friendlies: SSV Reutlingen 05 (4-0 W), FV Illertissen (3-3 D), SG Sonnenhof Großaspach (3-1 W), Sandhausen (1-1 D), Eibar (2-1 W), Başakşehir (3-1 W), Atlético Madrid (1-1 D), Real Sociedad (1-0 W)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 2-0 loss to FC Hansa Rostock

Opening game: Away to Mainz (26 August)

Transfers in: Pablo Maffeo (Manchester City), Borna Sosa (Dinamo Zagreb), Roberto Massimo (Arminia Bielefeld), Marc Oliver Kempf (SC Freiburg), David Kopacz (Dortmund U19), Castro (Dortmund), Daniel Didavi (Wolfsburg), Nicólas González (Argentinos Juniors)

Transfers out: Massimo (Bielefeld, loan), Jean Zimmer (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Ailton (SC Braga, loan), Jérôme Onguéné (Salzburg), Julian Green (Fürth), Daniel Ginczek (Wolfsburg), Matthias Zimmermann (Düsseldorf), Orel Mangala (Hamburg)

If sacking the highly-rated Hannes Wolf after hitting a rough patch wasn’t strange, then appointing Korkut, after a couple of high-profile failed roles, as his replacement certainly was. Yet Korkut and Stuttgart proved to be the perfect fit, with the 44-year-old providing them the steel they’d lacked on their return to the top flight, leading them on a run of form that almost lead to a place in the Europa League.

A flurry of interesting new signings, including Maffeo, Castro and the returning Didavi, without any significant departures is a promising sign for the new season. Kempf also helps to strengthen the defence, although he may struggle to start ahead of Holger Badstuber and Benjamin Pavard, whose stock has risen tenfold since the World Cup and seems likely to leave for Badstuber’s old club Bayern at some point.

The big question though is whether they can maintain that form over the course of the season. Pre-season form was promising, but the limp display in the defeat to Rostock in the Pokal is a concern. Up front, they could be reliant on an aging Mario Gómez to provide the goals, as except the departed  Ginczek, only Chadrac Akolo scored more than a couple last year. Provided that isn’t a major issue, expect them to consulate well this campaign.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Last season: 8th

Manager: Adi Hütter

Pre-season friendlies: Offenburger FV (7-1 W), Real Salt Lake (1-1 D), Philadelphia Union (1-0 L), SV Wehen Wiesbaden (6-2 W), Fürth (0-0 D), Empoli (2-0 L), SPAL (2-1 L)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 2-1 loss to SSV Ulm 1846

Opening game: Away at Freiburg (25 August)

Transfers in: Ante Rebić (Fiorentina), Frederik Rönnow (Brøndby), Carlos Salcedo (Deportivo Guadalajara), Nicolai Müller (Hamburg), Felix Wiedwald (Leeds United), Evan N’Dicka (AJ Auxerre), Lucas Torró (Real Madrid), Gonçalo Paciência (FC Porto), Allan (Liverpool, loan), Chico Geraldes (Sporting CP), Filip Kostić (Hamburg, loan)

Transfers out: Hradecky (Leverkusen), Wolf (Dortmund), Alexander Meier (released), Renat Dadashov (GD Estoril Praia), Leon Bätge (Würzburger Kickers), Aymen Barkok (Düsseldorf, loan), Omar Mascarell (Real Madrid/Schalke), Kevin-Prince Boateng (US Sassuolo), Max Besuschkow (Royal Union Saint-Gilloise, loan)

Last season was superb for the Eagles, but it could have been even better. The memories of beating Bayern in the DFB-Pokal final will last long in the memory, but at one stage they were in the race for a Champions League place, only for their league form to fall away when it was announced Kovać would take over at Bayern.

Hütter, fresh from winning the Swiss Super League with Young Boys, has taken over, whilst the retention of Rebić, following an impressive showing at the World Cup with Croatia, is another bonus. As well as Kovać though, they have lost three key players in Hradecky, Wolf and Boateng, as well as a club legend in Meier, however little he was involved last season.

The season has already started terribly though. After some indifferent per-season results, they succumbed to a heavy defeat against Bayern in the Supercup and they then became the first Pokal holders to be defeated in the first round in 22 years after losing to Ulm. When considering that they have to balance the demands of playing in Europe as well, the signs aren’t good, and Hütter will need a strong start if the hard work of the Kovać years isn’t to be reversed.

Borussia Mönchengladbach

Last season: 9th

Manager: Dieter Hecking

Pre-season friendlies: VfB Lübeck (2-0 W), SC Weiche Flensburg 08 (4-0 W), Real Betis (3-2 W), Bochum (0-0, won on penalties), FC Augsburg (2-1 W), Ingolstadt (1-0 L), Southampton (3-0 W), Espanyol (3-1 L), FC Wegberg-Beeck (5-1 W)

DFB-Pokal First Round: 11-0 win vs BSC Hastedt

Opening game: Home to Leverkusen (25 August)

Transfers in: Keanan Bennetts (Tottenham Hotspur U23), Torben Müsel (Kaiserslautern), Andreas Poulsen (FC Midtiylland), Michael Lang (FC Basel), Alassane Pléa (OGC Nice)

Transfers out: Janis Blaswich (Heracles Almelo), Christofer Heimeroth (retired), Raúl Bobadilla (Argentinos), Grifo (Hoffenheim), Kwame Yeboah (SC Fortuna Köln), Jannik Vestergaard (Southampton), Ba-Muaka Simakala (Roda JC Kerkrade)

The Foals were hoping for better last season, and if not for an improvement in form at the end of the season, they would have finishing in the bottom half of the table. Hecking’s side looked dreary at times, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the coach depart in the summer. He has stayed though, and Max Eberl has worked to give him a more rounded squad to work with.

The most important signing is no doubt that of Pléa, the out-and-out striker that Gladbach have lacked in recent seasons, given the deep-lying tendencies of Raffael and Lars Stindl, and general ineffectiveness of Bobadilla and Josip Drmić. With the departure of Vestergaard, Lang’s arrival should allow Nico Elvedi, or perhaps Tony Jantschke (as was the case against Hastedt) to partner Matthias Ginter at the heart of defence.

One can’t help but get the feeling that after the Favre years, and the initial flourish under André Schubert, Gladbach have been overtaken by other sides like Leipzig and Hoffenheim. A return to the top four might be a lot to ask for, but they are in a better position this year to challenge for a return to Europe, with anything less likely to leave the question marks hanging over Hecking.