As per usual, there were a number of key results across the Bundesliga this weekend. Strugglers Arminia Bielefeld and Mainz 05 picked up vital points in their fights for survival, while fellow relegation rivals Hertha Berlin and 1. FC Kӧln were less fortunate as they lost to Borussia Dortmund and Union Berlin respectively. The top four remained unchanged, with Bayern Munich winning comfortably against Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg demolishing Schalke 04 5-0, and RB Leipzig drawing 1-1 at home to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Here are three takeaways from Matchday 25.
Bielefeld’s decision to sack Uwe Neuhaus begins to pays dividends
The dismissal of Uwe Neuhaus, who had guided Arminia Bielefeld back to the Bundesliga for the first time in 11 years, came with great shock and anguish from many fans of Die Blauen. With the lowest budget in the league, Neuhaus' rugged style of play had earned his side many plaudits, and Bielefeld survived for much of the season by grinding out draws and the occasional win, usually by a 1-0 scoreline. He was replaced at the start of the month by Frank Kramer, whose managerial experience laid almost entirely in youth football.
Since arriving in Bielefeld, the 48-year-old German has brought notable improvement in both style of play and results. Kramer has gotten four points out of his first three games, with Sunday's win against Bayer Leverkusen being the most impressive performance by far. One criticism that could be aimed at his predecessor was a lack of ability to develop younger talent, with Hertha Berlin loanee Arne Maier being the main example of this. The midfielder has featured in every game under Kramer - having been often left out under Neuhaus - and has looked like an impressive prospect.
His side took a commanding 2-0 lead against Leverkusen and held on even after being pegged back, thanks in large part to heroics from Stefan Ortega, to secure their first win of the Rückrunde. It was the manner of the victory that signalled hope for Bielefeld, as they appeared far more free-flowing and assured going forward, which hasn’t always been the case this season since they had only scored 18 goals in the 24 matches before Sunday. Whether it’s simply the ‘new manager bounce’ or the beginning of a new era that keeps Die Blauen in the Bundesliga remains to be seen, but the signs are surprisingly good so far.
The pursuit of Europe is all but over for Gladbach
Friday evening’s 3-1 defeat to FC Augsburg was Borussia Mӧnchengladbach’s sixth loss in a row in all competitions, and it may have brought an end to their ambitions to play in Europe next season. Not being represented in either continental competition would be a disaster for Die Fohlen, who qualified for the knockout rounds of this year’s UEFA Champions League. Now sitting in 10th, Gladbach find themselves seven points adrift of 6th place Bayer Leverkusen, who occupy the last Europa League berth, and 11 points behind 4th place Eintracht Frankfurt, which goes to show how far they have fallen.
There is no smoke without fire, of course. The announcement of Marco Rose's departure in the summer has undoubtedly played a role in Die Fohlen's downfall, but they have looked unconvincing for most of the season anyway, so there is only so much blame that can be placed on the manager. Part of their rancid run can just be put down to a bit of bad luck - before this game, six of Gladbach's seven defeats were by a one-goal margin, the only exception being a 3-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund on opening day. Even against Augsburg Die Fohlen might understandably feel aggrieved to not get anything from the game, having registered an expected goals (xG) of over 3 compared to FCA’s 1.36.
It's the inability to consistently create and then convert chances from open play that has been their main issue, and it also goes some way to explain why they have been losing so many matches by such fine margins. Captain Lars Stindl is the top scorer for Gladbach with 10 goals, but five of those came from penalties. Behind him is another midfielder in Jonas Hoffman with five, and three of those were from the spot as well. Marcus Thuram is the striker with the most goals to his name, but he's only scored four in 20 appearances, and his form has notably declined this season compared to last. Perhaps the only good news for Marco Rose and Die Fohlen is that they face Schalke 04 next weekend.
Unlikely candidates for Europe refuse to give up
Before the start of the campaign, Union Berlin and VfB Stuttgart were seen as relegation candidates, with the latter having only been promoted from the 2. Bundesliga in unconvincing fashion the previous season. However, with just nine games remaining, Berlin sit in 7th, and Stuttgart are only one place and two points behind them, pitting both firmly in the hunt for European qualification.
Union have been significantly boosted by Max Kruse's recent return to the starting lineup, as he had missed over three months due to injury. The German's impact was crucial versus Kӧln, as he converted a penalty to grab his eighth goal of the season. It was also his 19th Bundesliga career goal from the spot in 20 attempts, with the only blemish coming in the reverse fixture earlier in the campaign. Berlin's captain Christopher Trimmel then scored the winner, which was his first Bundesliga goal in 54 appearances. Arguably the most notable thing for Union is that this was their first ever top-flight victory when trailing at half-time, which says something about the strength of their character and the confidence that they have built up over the course of this season.
Stuttgart’s spectacular campaign continued as they triumphed in the Baden-Württemberg derby against TSG Hoffenheim, thanks in part to Saša Kaladžić, who scored for a seventh game in a row to draw level with Fredi Bobic's club record set back in 1995/96. Pellegrino Matarazzo’s youthful side have impressed many with their attacking fluidity and defensive stability, but a huge amount of credit also needs to go to sporting director Sven Mislintat (Arsenal's former head of recruitment) for compiling a squad of mostly unproven players who have flourished at the highest level.
For both Berlin and Stuttgart, it would not be an undeserved icing on the cake if their efforts in the league this year were rewarded with European football next season.