Bayern supremacy, Dortmund revival, Chicharito's goals headline Bundesliga
As the Bundesliga season reaches the winter break, Raphael Honigstein looks back on the highlights and lowlights so far and suggests what might happen next.
The season so far
The first half of 2015-16 hasn't deviated too much from the wider, familiar story of recent years. At the very top, Bayern Munich have again been in a class of their own under Pep Guardiola. The Catalan's hunger to win every single game remains undiminished, and so is his team's: it was striking to see Bayern throw men forward with almost reckless abandon in the dying minutes of the match vs. Eintracht Frankurt, all in order to avoid their first draw of the season after 10 wins in a row.
Borussia Dortmund, reinstated as one of Europe's best attacking sides under Thomas Tuchel, did their best to keep up but couldn't quite go the distance. Tuchel's first months in charge have been a triumph of many small tweaks, on and off the pitch, nevertheless.
Below them, Champions League teams Bayer Leverkusen (fifth) and Wolfsburg (seventh) struggled to find consistency, while Schalke 04 (sixth) showed signs of improvement under new coach Andre Breitenreiter without being fully convincing. All three of them are further away than ever from challenging for the title.
The only top side satisfied with their achievements below Bayern and Dortmund are Borussia Monchengladbach, even if they got to fourth place in the most unusual way. Lucien Favre, the architect of their renaissance, jumped ship after five defeats on the bounce; his successor, Andre Schubert, couldn't stop winning and took the Foals all the way from last place to the top again.
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In midtable, clever Mainz (eighth) continue to outperform relative to their wage bill with Martin Schmidt in charge; and 1.FC Koln (ninth) are having a solid season under Peter Stoger; as are, at last, Hamburger SV and Bruno Labbadia (10th). The wider trend of small teams doing well at the expense of some of the more traditional teams is once again reflected by the good starts of Ingolstadt and Darmstadt to life in the top flight, as well as Augsburg's remarkable recovery after a difficult start and fixture congestion due to their first-ever participation in the Europa League.
With the minnows doing so well, there's no cushion that will save the likes of misfiring Frankfurt (14th), VfB Stuttgart (15th), Werder Bremen (16th) and Hannover 96 (17th) from the drop. They're all in a lot of trouble, alongside TSG Hoffenheim (18th), whose travails weren't expected. Whether Huub Stevens can steer them to safety with his pragmatic tactics remains to be seen.
There's been only one truly big surprise: nobody could have foreseen Hertha BSC finishing the calendar year in third place. Pal Dardai's men have decent goal scorers in Salomon Kalou and Vedad Ibisevic, decent midfielders (Vladimir Darida) and a serviceable defence; but as a collective, they've been incredibly tricky to beat and at the same time freakishly efficient up front. Can they keep it up after the winter break? It's hard to back them in light of the quality of the teams immediately below them in the table, but being able to dream about a second outing in the Champions League after 1999-2000 should be considered a fantastic achievement in itself.
Best player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Borussia Dortmund
Easy: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has made another huge jump in terms of development. The Gabon striker has scored 27 goals in all competitions, 18 of them in the Bundesliga. Aubameyang, still only 26, has thrived under the more considered build-up of Tuchel; he can time his incredibly fast runs between defenders better and doesn't need to chase as many balls into the channels. The results of this "less is more" approach have been nothing but spectacular.
Most disappointing player: Arturo Vidal, Bayern Munich
Arturo Vidal has struggled to adapt to life at Bayern, but he's only been disappointing in terms of his own ability. Gladbach's Josip Drmic, however, has been a flop in absolute terms. There's just no way around it. One goal and only three starts raise suspicions that the usually infallible Foals sporting director Max Eberl might have got it wrong, for once.
Best signing: Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Bayer Leverkusen
In a year in which the whole of Europe were looking for wide players, Bayern did extremely well to get in Douglas Costa (Shakhtar Donetsk) and Kingsley Coman (Juventus) for relatively little money. Leverkusen recruiting Javier Hernandez was even more of a masterstroke. The Mexican has scored 19 goals in 25 matches across all competitions and also put his club on the map in the Americas. All for €11 million.
Hertha, as mentioned above, as club performances go. German FA president Wolfgang Niersbach resigning after revelations about Germany's 2006 World Cup bid was a huge shock to the system, Guardiola telling Bayern he's off in the summer less so. Newly promoted Ingolstadt and Darmstadt have done better than anticipated.
Best goal: Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich vs. Wolfsburg
Dortmund scored a number of superbly crafted team goals but Robert Lewandowski's volley, his fifth strike in nine minutes, in the 5-1 victory over VfL Wolfsburg was the outstanding individual effort.
Best game, Bayer Leverkusen 4-3 Stuttgart
With the home side coming back from being down 2-0 and 3-1 to get an 89th-minute-winner via Admir Mehmedi was the most spectacular game, followed by the helter-skelter 3-3 draw played out by Hoffenheim and Gladbach.
Prediction for the rest of the season
Dortmund will win the Europa League in the final against Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool. Bayern Munich will win the Champions League final against Manchester City. Leverkusen will win the DFB Pokal. Hertha will finish in the Europa League, Werder and Hoffenheim will go down.
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.