There are many knock-on effects of such a short pause between seasons and even though the Bundesliga enjoyed a more civilised rest period than many – two-and-a-half months without league action almost seems like a luxury in these frantic times – it hardly feels as if German football has been away. When Bayern Munich raise the curtain, as is tradition for the champions, on 2020-21 on Friday night against Schalke, it will have been 26 days after they celebrated being the champions of Europe for the sixth time late into the Lisbon night.
Bayern’s majesty is fresh in the memory and their shadow looms over the Bundesliga longer and larger than ever before. If the results were dizzying, with the treble secured with 29 wins and a draw in the last 30 matches of the season, then their style was even more so. Hansi Flick’s enormous impact produced Bayern’s best football post-Guardiola with a group of players largely of an age to grow together and create a dynasty.
Bayern are in a similar position, to an extent, to the one Real Madrid were in 2017 – Champions League winners and Europe’s outstanding side that looks almost impossible to improve upon. There are justifiable questions about squad depth (“it is clear we have to add more,” Flick said this week) and the decisions to not make the loans of Ivan Perisic, Philippe Coutinho and Álvaro Odriozola permanent speak loudly of mixed recent transfer market success. The arrival of Leroy Sané to supplement an already formidable attacking arsenal does, however, suggest that any suggestion of Bayern falling short in the attempt to snare a ninth straight Bundesliga crown would have to be an act of self-sabotage.
Re-enter then Uli Hoeness, now honorary president having retired from active service, but still never short of a publicly expressed opinion and, it is clear, someone you’d rather have safely inside the tent facing out. A television appearance on Sport1’s Doppelpass show was as untimely as it was memorable, as he blasted David Alaba’s agent, Pini Zahavi, as a “greedy piranha” before expressing his opinion – which he casually admitted he had no evidence of – that Thiago Alcântara may have agreed terms with Liverpool and Manchester United, but that both clubs were withholding transfer bids to drive his price down nearer to the deadline.
Alaba and Thiago have less than a year left on their contracts and the futures are matters of some delicacy, with Hoeness’s high-profile intervention far from ideal. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge seemed to have gradually reconciled himself to the departure of Thiago – Alaba’s exit would be something else, however. The Austrian is coming off a career-best season at centre-back and, as one of the team’s most vocal players, has also been hugely responsible for Alphonso Davies’s stunning development. Bayern cannot afford to lose him.
One wonders just what Borussia Dortmund, the most likely challengers, can afford. Their image as Europe’s brightest young things will linger for a while yet, with Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho (at least for now) and Gio Reyna leading the charge. Jude Bellingham, signed at some expense (€25m) and fanfare (Dortmund sent four cars to collect him from the airport when he arrived to confuse journalists), has made an immediate impact and his goal in Monday’s 5-0 DfB Pokal stroll at Duisburg made the English midfielder the youngest first-team goalscorer in the club’s history at 17 years and 77 days, beating Nuri Sahin’s record by five days.
Yet a club does not sign Mats Hummels, Emre Can and now Thomas Meunier – and their considerable salaries – to content itself with patronised inertia. Lucien Favre is in the final year of his contract and short of producing some real fireworks domestically or continentally it is hard to see how his stay might be extended. Maintaining Favre in the post is not a million miles away from Bayern going into last season with Kovac: there is no obvious immediate upgrade, but the coach would struggle to survive a start to this season that mirrored the last one.
If Bayern and BVB were not the top two, it would be a big surprise. The identities of the teams who will take the remaining European places are more open to interpretation.
Despite their run to the semi-finals of the Champions League, RB Leipzig may be vulnerable to abdicating their place in the top four. Rather than herald a future reign of success, their end of their adventures in Europe suggested there might be a firm ceiling to their buy at mid-level and develop model. They will miss Timo Werner, and one wonders how long the ambitious Julian Nagelsmann will be sated. Leipzig may come to regret not permanently signing Patrick Schick, the striker who shone on loan from Roma and who has now joined Leverkusen. The latter will challenge again for the top four with a good squad, even after the sale of Kai Havertz. If Peter Bosz can sort out their defensive lapses, they could be in business.
Marco Rose, having made a huge impact in his debut season at the helm of Borussia Mönchengladbach, has the advantage of stability. All his major players have stayed and he has added Hannes Wolf, who starred for him at Salzburg before hitting injury trouble at Leipzig. They look well set for a Champions League spot again.
The effects of Covid linger over the rest of the league. Schalke have had to make the most drastic cutbacks and have tempered down expectations of even qualifying for Europe this season, raiding the bargain basement for Vedad Ibisevic and Gonçalo Paciencia. Teams like Cologne, who are still in the thick of reconstructing their squad, may be even harder to form a true impression of what they can achieve this calendar year.
The season’s biggest unknown is how much of the campaign will unfold in the presence of the Bundesliga’s greatest asset: its fans. Clubs, including Leverkusen, Cologne and Gladbach had a nominal 300-strong support for their Pokal matches last weekend – exceptionally relocated to the Bundesliga clubs’ stadiums this year with lower-tier sides unable to meet strict hygiene protocols. “A drop in the bucket, when you know what [kind of atmosphere] is possible here,” as Köln captain, Jonas Hector, put it.
There were bigger crowds elsewhere with 10,000 – around a third of Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion’s capacity – watching third-tier Dynamo Dresden hammer Hamburg on Monday. Tuesday brought news that fans will be present on the season’s opening day, with crowds capped at 20% of capacity on a six-week trial run. Some of the country’s most prominent ultra groups are pledging not to go while crowds are limited, with alcohol, away fans and standing all off the menu.
“If you play without fans for six months, something dies,” Hans-Joachim Watzke, the Dortmund CEO, said. Bringing back fans in limited numbers, he added, “is combining courage and prudence” . Given the challenges of recent months, those dual qualities will be essential on and off the pitch.