What the top Bundesliga clubs will be doing in this summer's transfer window
There's a widely held perception that the Bundesliga's appeal has been severely diminished by Bayern Munich's dominance over the past three years. One UK newspaper, which fundamentally misunderstood the minimal impact of financial fair play rules on a division that neither wants nor allows club takeovers by rich owners, even went as far as blaming UEFA president Michel Platini on the "ruination" of the league. Yet the bare facts speak quite a different language.
Average crowds of 43,500 per game made the Bundesliga the most-visited football league in the world once again. Domestic TV figures were up for both terrestrial highlights programmes in 2014-15 compared to the season before, while pay TV channel Sky Deutschland grew their customer base to a new high of 4.2 million. The value of international TV rights is expected to break the €200 million barrier for the first time next year.
That's still not a patch on the Premier League international rights, estimated to be worth around €1.3 billion from 2016, to be sure. But considering that foreign broadcasters only paid a paltry €15 million to show the Bundesliga in 2004, the rise in earnings from overseas over the past decade has been quite remarkable.
The flip-side to the increased visibility of the German top flight is that many clubs, most notably in the financially buoyant Premier League, have woken up the potential of Bundesliga-based players. Their relatively low value, professionalism and excellent footballing education have made them prime targets, and we could well see an influx of German or German-based players like in the mid-1990s, when internationals like Jurgen Klinsmann, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Steffen Freund, Dietmar Hamann, Christian Ziege and Markus Babbel (among others) pitched up in England.
At the same time, the creme de la creme of the Bundesliga have been remarkably unwilling to heed the call of the pound sterling in recent years. It's still early in the summer, but here's the latest state of play of the ins and outs (confirmed or otherwise) in the top German division.
The champions have signed Stuttgart keeper Sven Ulreich as backup for Manuel Neuer, meaning that Pepe Reina is on his way out. Mitchell Weiser joined Hertha BSC on Thursday morning after his contract at the Allianz Arena was not renewed. Weiser had put in some decent performances as a right-back at the end of the season but it wasn't enough to convince the Bavarians that he was quite Bayern material.
The search for a right-back continues, as do the attempts to sign a winger as cover for the injury-prone duo of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Raheem Sterling was briefly considered, but neither the asking price nor the player's wage demands made that a viable option. Bayern might turn to Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann but he too is rather expensive.
Bayern's frustration in the market reflect their reluctance to pay more than €50 million for an established star like Angel Di Maria and their doubts about gambling on players with the potential to make the step up, like Southampton's Sadio Mane or the supremely talented but inconsistent Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim. A way out of that impasse could arrive via a look at France, and Lyon's Nabil Fekir, where prices are much more realistic.
As far as departures go, Bastian Schweinsteiger's future has become a hot debating point. There are rumours in Munich that the Germany captain might be tempted to move abroad in the summer but the veteran midfielder has also managed to make uncertainty work in his favour in the past.
It seems more likely that he seeks a contract extension at Bayern beyond 2016 rather than a move to a different league in the season before his last international tournament with the national team. The club ruling out a move for Borussia Dortmund's Ilkay Gundogan has strengthened the case for him staying as well, especially in view of Xabi Alonso's age.
Wolfsburg are determined to avoid a repeat of the 2009-10 season, when they came third in the Champions League group stage and lost their way in the league as well. Max Kruse, a €12 million arrival from Borussia Monchengladbach, will strengthen the attack and the Volkswagen-owned club are still pursuing the option of selling Dutch striker Bas Dost to make room for Mario Mandzukic. It would be a serious upgrade but sporting director Klaus Allofs has cited the limitations placed on them by financial fair play considerations.
As far as other possible Premier League targets are concerned, there's little to no chance that the financially well-supported runners-up will contemplate either the sale of holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo or star performer Kevin De Bruyne, who is close to agreeing to an improved contract that will keep him in Lower Saxony for at least one more season. There's an acceptance on the player's behalf that he will be better served as a guaranteed starter in the league and in Europe at Wolves rather than fight his way into a squad where he'll be just another name.
New coach Thomas Tuchel has privately ruled out selling any players before training restarts next month. The 41-year-old wants to see whether he can turn around last year's disappointing recruits, Ciro Immobile and Matthias Ginter, whose proposed move to Gladbach has been vetoed by BVB. The young manager is also conscious of the fact that Dortmund's extensive Europa League commitments -- they start their campaign on July 30 -- will require a deep squad.
Midfielder Sebastian Kehl has retired, while Gundogan is very likely to be sold unless he's adamant about running down his contract. It's a risky strategy, considering his ambition to start at the Euros in France. Since Dortmund's incentivised players' contracts don't leave them out of pocket significantly after missing out in the Champions League, it's not unlikely that they will continue with their policy of letting only one first-team player leave each season. That could mean Gundogan.
In addition, Tuchel might find that a number of squad members have become too fragile physically and therefore look for a more extended clear-out. Right-back Lukasz Piszczek looks most at risk in that respect, but he's not the only one.
Like Bayern, Dortmund have already secured the services of a new goalkeeper in Freiburg's Roman Burki. The Swiss stopper is expected to challenge Roman Weidenfeller for the top spot, with Mitchell Langerak's position coming under pressure. But once again, Tuchel will have the last word.
The Royal Blues would love to unload Kevin-Prince Boateng, whose chronic knee problem and attitude issues have stopped him from performing consistently. Schalke don't have to sell any other players after the departure of Christian Fuchs to Leicester and can continue to count on the services of much-coveted World Cup winner and captain Benedikt Howedes.
They would be powerless to stop Julian Draxler leaving if somebody paid the €45.5 million release clause for the German international, however. Thankfully, the 21-year-old has hinted at his preference to rediscover his best form under new S04 coach Andre Breitenreiter having endured a difficult, injury-ravaged season.
Borussia Monchengladbach have once again shown that they're one of the sharpest operators in the business, picking up Hannover 96 captain and box-to-box specialist Lars Stindl for only €3 million (release clause) and pacy striker Josip Drmic for €10 million from Bayer Leverkusen. Hannover have also lost Spanish forwad Joselu to Stoke City for €6.5 million. The Real Madrid B team graduate has pace and good finishing ability, but might take time to adapt physically to the Premier League.
Mentioned above, Firmino is reportedly also a target for various English sides. The Brazilian international, a second striker or playmaker, was outstanding for Hoffenheim in 2013-14 but dropped a notch in the last campaign.
While his agent Roger Wittmann has talked up a move to the Premier League, it's worth remembering that he also ruled out the sale of Luiz Gustavo (who wanted a move to Arsenal) only to transfer him to Wolfsburg later that summer in 2013. If Man United are really in for him, he'll be more of a squad player and it would make more sense for him, career-wise, to opt for a slightly smaller club in terms of squad quality.
Later in the window, it would be a surprise if there weren't at least attempts to go for Leverkusen winger Karim Bellarabi and Stuttgart centre-back Antonio Rudiger. Both will be command lower fees than after the Euros in France, but will also naturally wary to scupper their chances with the national team by seeking a new challenge now. Watch this space.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.