There is an awful lot to be said about the Bundesliga. The football is entertaining, most teams are capable of beating each other on any given day, the variety of talented young players (and even managers) is unmatched in Europe’s top leagues, and the atmospheres and extremely-dedicate fans complete the overall experience.
Yet, not everything is well in German football. Bayern Munich’s dominance of the title is unrelenting, Germans teams are struggling to compete in Europe, traditional big clubs are being left behind by the ‘new money’ of teams like RB Leipzig, not to forget the off-the-field problems, such as fan antipathy towards authorities such as the DFB and the slow creep of commercialisation that seems to grow by the month.
Focusing though on the quality of the football and the league's teams, it is, in some ways, stagnating. There are many plausible explanations - Bayern’s financial and commercial power is beyond what any other club can achieve; Bundesliga clubs are routinely being raided for their best talent by Premier League clubs every transfer window; maybe even the 50+1 rule, as cherished as it is, is holding back clubs from kicking onto the next level.
But there is another explanation – maybe not as significant as the others, but it is still relevant. Incredibly, 16 of the teams playing in the Bundesliga this season were also in the top flight in 2009-10, eight seasons ago. Only ten other clubs have had the chance to play in it, most eventually going back to where they came from within a couple of seasons.
With the same old teams making up the composition of the league, has this affected the quality of the league as time has progressed?
The same old sides make up the Bundesliga’s core
Of the teams playing in the Bundesliga today, only FC Augsburg and Leipzig were not a part of that 2009-10 season, playing in the league for the first time in 2011 and 2016 respectively. Die Fuggerstädter are in fact the only side to make their Bundesliga debut in that time to last more than two seasons, although Leipzig, currently fifth, will surely join them in that feat at the end of the current campaign.
Of the 16 teams that were in the top tier back then, 10 have played in every Bundesliga season since, whilst of the six sides to have tasted relegation and come back up, only 1. FC Köln needed more than a season to do it. Eintracht Frankfurt, SC Freiburg, VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96 all bounced back from the 2. Bundesliga, whilst Hertha BSC have done it twice.
The other two teams to take part in 2009-10 were 1. FC Nürnberg and VfL Bochum. Der Club survived a relegation play-off (against Augsburg) at the end of that season and stuck around until 2014. If not for the controversial existence of the team based in Leipzig, they could well have been back by now, after finishing third behind them in the 2. Bundesliga in 2015-16. As for Bochum, they went down in 2010 after a four-year stay, and have remained in the second tier ever since.
Other than the six sides already mentioned, no other club has remained in the Bundesliga for more than two years over this period. 1. FC Kaiserslautern – traditional mainstays but absent since their 2010-2012 stint – FC Ingolstadt 04 and SV Darmstadt 98 both managed two years, whilst FC St. Pauli, SpVgg Greuther Fürth, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Eintracht Braunschweig and SC Paderborn 07 all went straight back down following promotion.
This has seen a core, maybe even a clique, of sides consistently making up the majority of the Bundesliga. They vary from the big boys of Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, fallen giants such as Hamburger SV and Werder Bremen, plus smaller but efficiently run clubs including TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and 1. FSV Mainz 05.
Most of the seasons since 2010 have seen 15 of the same 16 sides playing in the top flight at any one time. Only in 2012-13 did just 14 make an appearance – it is surely not coincidence that this was the season following Hertha’s loss in the relegation play-off (more on that in a moment) – whilst in 2014-15 the same 16 were all present as well.
Play-off has a funnelling effect
Compare that with the Premier League, although do bear in mind that the Bundesliga has two less teams. Only half of the 20 teams from 2009-10 are there in 2017-18, eight of which have stayed up throughout. The turnover can be seen by the fact that 28 clubs have gone up to and/or down from the Premier League in this period, compared with just 18 from the Bundesliga.
The main reason for this is the fact that, generally, only two teams have come up and down from the Bundesliga, as opposed to three. This is because in all but one of the seasons we’re looking at, the side that finished third-bottom in the Bundesliga has won the relegation play-off against the third-placed 2. Bundesliga team – that being Düsseldorf, who beat Hertha in 2012. Nürnberg are the only other 2. Bundesliga team to win the play-off since it was re-introduced for the 2008-09.
As a result, there a valid case to make that the gap between Germany’s top two tiers is not an insignificant one. Further evidence of this can be seen at how quickly teams relegated from the core of 16 bounce straight back up, just as Stuttgart and Hannover did last season, even if they didn’t always have everything their own way in the second tier.
However, if additional sides were given the chance to compete in the Bundesliga, they could have surprised us. After all, they can’t all go straight down. Had Karlsruher SC not suffered play-off heartache at the hands of Hamburg in 2015, for example, they could easily have set up camp in the top flight for an extended stay, rather than see the team disintegrate and drop into the 3. Liga, as has actually been the case.
Similarity, Torsten Lieberknecht’s Braunschweig could have been a breath of fresh air in their second crack at the Bundesliga this season, if they had gone up instead of VfL Wolfsburg surviving. In fact you can even see a few similarities between them and Burnley, flying high in the Premier League at present after a couple of failed attempts at the top flight.
As it is, we’ll never know. Instead they have lost some key players, and they have inevitably succumbed to the ‘relegation slump’ that seems to so frequently impact the sides that do miss out through the play-off. This can be held out as an example of why they weren’t good enough to go up anyway, but invariably players get picked off and the ones that are left are dispirited.
Fallen giants allowed to stagger on
With less renewal and fewer clubs coming up that are capable of challenging the old guard, the deadwood has been allowed to gather in the league. Whilst teams like Mainz, Wolfsburg and Augsburg threaten to join this group, Hamburg and Bremen are the two most obvious examples.
The decline of Hamburg has been a sad one. They won three Bundesliga titles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a European Cup in 1982 to boot. Whilst they didn’t always live up to their status as one of the biggest club in Germany, one might have expected them to build on regularly qualifying for European competition during the 2000s, even reaching the semi-finals of the old UEFA Cup in 2009.
Instead, they have spent much of the past few years flirting with relegation and being stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, never going down but rarely threatening a return to their former glories. In a league where three teams regularly go down, they would surely have had their comeuppance by now but instead they have allowed to stagger on, never learning their lessons, still being riddled by financial problems and boardroom in-fighting.
They sit 17th in the table at the winter break of the current campaign, a place below Bremen, who have suffered a similar fall of grace in recent times, albeit with the odd flourish such as their unlikely surge towards the European places at the back end of last season, having struggled immensely earlier in the campaign.
It would be a tragedy if the Bundesliga were to lose both of these northern powerhouses at the end of the campaign, as unlikely as that probably is. Between them they have missed just one Bundesliga campaign ever – when Bremen briefly dropped to the second tier in the early 1980s – and at a time when there are concerns smaller ‘plastic’ clubs (Leipzig and Hoffenheim particularly) are usurping the Traditionsvereine with big fan bases, their loss would be keenly felt.
A chance to rebuild and an antidote to complacency
However in relegation comes a chance for staggering clubs to rebuild and come back stronger. Of the sides to go down and come back up since 2009, excluding Stuttgart and Hannover who only returned this season, they have all since qualified for the UEFA Europa League, although only Frankfurt have got as far as the knockout rounds.
In all cases though, the clubs have always looked refreshed and capable of challenging at the right end of the table, even if Leipzig remain the only recently-promoted side to have reached the top four over the past four years.
However, other clubs who are part of the ‘core’ we looked at earlier would then find themselves pushed harder, not allowed to rest on their laurels. Look, for example, at how Schalke 04 and Bayer Leverkusen have rebounded after lurking at the wrong end of the table last season.
Whilst those struggles were as much down to complacency as anything else, plus the fact that the mid-table of the Bundesliga is so congested anyway, it shows that clubs can respond when given such a wake-up call.
If a greater variety of clubs were given a crack at the Bundesliga, more could prove more than worthy of their place, forcing the more complacent clubs to either up their game or go down. The clubs that did go down would then have to face up to their problems in order to return to the Bundesliga, or fear declining further and ending up in a state like Kaiserslautern and 1860 Munich, fallen giants with no immediate prospect of returning to the top table.
With the talent and innovation we see in the Bundesliga, a freshening up of the teams competing in it could really be a shot in the arm to an already vibrant league. Sure, it won’t solve all of the league’s problems, not by a long way. But maybe three teams going down automatically, with three coming up, could organically produce the next big rival for Bayern.