If you thought Pep Guardiola had a tough act to follow when picking up from Jupp Heynckes’s historic treble-winning season in 2013, spare a thought for Julian Nagelsmann. As he takes the reins at Bayern Munich, who are seeking an unprecedented 10th straight Bundesliga title, he must follow on from a mini-era when Hansi Flick won a flurry of titles with genuinely thrilling football, almost the best of Heynckes and Guardiola rolled into one.
Make no mistake, Nagelsmann’s record is extraordinary for a man who turned 34 last month, having taken Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig into the Champions League, reaching the last four with the latter in 2020. Yet Bayern is different terrain and much less forgiving, even for a born-and-bred Bavarian who slept under a Bayern duvet cover as a child. There is no immediate threat of a lack of patience – the champions paid €25m to spring Nagelsmann from his deal at Leipzig and awarded him a five-year contract.
The new man does have a lack of time to get his ideas across, with key players such as Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer arriving back late from the Euros before Friday’s start to the campaign at Mönchengladbach.
Nagelsmann’s teams draw from a wide, morphing tactical palette, which represents a change from Flick’s singular approach. He will need his trusted centre-back from Leipzig, Dayot Upamecano, to lead with the defensive cornerstones David Alaba and Jérôme Boateng (a Flick favourite) having left, though a backline that leaked an uncharacteristically high 44 goals in last season’s Bundesliga needed a repurposing, if not a repopulation.
Bayern promise to be different from what they will look like in a year or two. Riding out any rough patches offers the possibility of high rewards down the line, with a relatively young squad revolving around Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka looking as if it should suit a youthful new coach.
The opportunity is there for any could-bes to take advantage of a slow Bayern start, though whether they are in shape to do that – as has so often been the question with Bayern’s potential challengers in recent seasons – is open to question. That may be even more germane after a summer of upheaval, with seven of last season’s top eight bringing in a new head coach.
Borussia Dortmund have been going through pre-season without a credible defence to speak of and, with injury concerns persisting over Mats Hummels and Dan-Axel Zagadou (the talented 22-year-old Frenchman may not even play this side of Christmas), high-quality reinforcement at centre-back should be a priority if their season is not to descend into another salvage effort.
Further forward, the early signs under the new coach, Marco Rose, are promising. Donyell Malen, signed from PSV Eindhoven, is the nominal replacement for Jadon Sancho but it isn’t a like-for-like situation, with the Dutchman long since having moved inside to become a second striker. Malen, also 22, could fit in well partnering Erling Haaland in the 4-4-2 that has worked for Rose in pre-season, and we could see the teenager Youssoufa Moukoko, 17 in November, could link with the Norwegian in a similar role.
The system also has the advantage of moving Marco Reus to the tip of a midfield diamond, where he has flourished in pre-season, earning praise from Flick, now Germany’s coach. The surprising return of Axel Witsel during the Euros is a boost to Rose, giving an essential pillar of Dortmund’s midfield a head start on his return from an achilles injury that scuppered his second half of last season. The blossoming of his partnership with Jude Bellingham should stand them in good stead.
Leipzig, where the American Jesse Marsch has arrived from Red Bull Salzburg, are a little harder to read. The best young defence in Europe has lost Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté (to Liverpool) and there is every chance the captain, Marcel Sabitzer, will follow having entered the final year of his contract and having caught Bayern’s eye.
Marsch, a canny tactician and excellent communicator with Bundesliga experience, will need time but does have a huge upgrade up front with the signing of André Silva, who scored more Bundesliga goals than anyone apart from Lewandowski last season.
The race for Champions League places should be entertaining. Wolfsburg did brilliantly to nail a top-four spot last season under Oliver Glasner, but Mark van Bommel has replaced him as coach and had an inauspicious start in the German Cup at Preußen Münster, where they won 3-1 but used a substitute too many, which is likely to mean they booted are out of the competition.
Glasner has gone to Frankfurt, where Eintracht will lean on Rafael Borré and Jens Petter Hauge – two forwards with little track record at the top end of the European game – to fill the considerable hole left by Silva. They went out of the Cup to third-tier Waldhof Mannheim on Glasner’s debut, but they were knocked out of the competition by Ulm (fourth tier) in 2018 and still reached the Europa League semi-finals.
The former Frankfurt manager Adi Hütter has replaced Rose at Borussia Mönchengladbach – keep up at the back – and could be aided by a flat transfer market, which looks like enabling him to hang on to Marcus Thuram and the midfielder Florian Neuhaus.
Of the teams that just missed the top four last season, Bayer Leverkusen promise a lot under Gerardo Seoane after his glorious spell at Young Boys and there is plenty of forward talent to suit him even after the exit of Leon Bailey to Aston Villa.
In the capital, Hertha are basing their hopes of upward mobility on familiar names with Pal Dardai back as coach and Kevin-Prince Boateng also coming home. Whether Boateng and his fellow signing Stevan Jovetic can stay out of injury trouble could condition a lot of the story of their season.
Their neighbours, Union, are readying themselves for a first European campaign. Surprises could spring from Stuttgart, superbly put together by their sporting director, Sven Mislintat, and Mainz, improved under coach Bo Svensson.
At the other end of the table, it will be hard to top last season’s relegation battle that claimed giants Schalke and Werder Bremen. Köln just escaped – they are another with a new man in charge, Steffen Baumgart – and will lean on returned local boy Mark Uth to steer them away from the lower reaches. Promoted Bochum and Greuther Fürth may battle it out with Arminia Bielefeld (who lost the influential Japan midfielder Ritsu Doan) and Augsburg around the bottom three.
What will mean most, regardless of results, is the widespread return of fans, with up to 50% capacity expected in stadiums for the opening fixtures, depending on regional guidelines. They are the Bundesliga’s greatest asset, suggesting 2021-22 will be the colour version of 2020-21’s black and white. With any luck, it will be the vivid backdrop for some unpredictability in the opening weeks.