The funny old game in the Bundesliga
Two weeks ago, when Schalke's stupendous season was the subject, a reader who calls himself (or herself) "ab8623" left this comment:
"Could you please explain why Bundesliga teams are so funny. I know managers change, but in no other league do teams change positions so much in different seasons. There are some exceptions, like Villarreal, but the Bundesliga has more of this fluctuation. Why so?"
It's a good question. As I type this, the top four teams in the league are Bayern, Schalke, Leverkusen and Dortmund. Last year, they were Wolfsburg, Bayern, Stuttgart and Hertha. In 2008, the first four places went to Bayern, Bremen, Schalke and Hamburg. That makes nine different clubs who are or have recently been there or thereabouts. Looks like all you have to do in order to compete is just wait until it's your turn.
One explanation for this is the lack of money in the Bundesliga. Apart from Bayern, no club can afford a squad that is deep enough to allow for the physical and mental rigours of playing both in Europe and domestically.
This means clubs that have been rewarded for a good league season with a place in Europe are likely to be punished the following season by the double-duty curse. Take Stuttgart and Wolfsburg, whose Bundesliga form suffered for many months, or Hamburg, struggling since the winter break. Those three clubs have been overtaken by Leverkusen, Schalke and even Dortmund, all of whom didn't have to cope with midweek distractions under European floodlights this season.
Naturally, it's not just about the lack of money and resultant lack of quality players. There is also a psychological effect. No matter how often they may tell the press that the league is their bread and butter and that they are totally focused on Saturday's game against Nextdoor Rovers or Downtheroad United, many players quite understandably find it hard to switch from European glamour to domestic mundanity.
Hertha are an obvious case in point, as the club somehow appeared to not properly concentrate on the Bundesliga during the season's crucial first months and then probably woke up too late.
You have to have a lot of experience on the European stage to avoid all these pitfalls, and currently only Bayern, probably Werder and to a much lesser extent Hamburg have it.
Unless you simply buy players who know their way around the continent, there's a vicious circle lurking here, as the way to gather European experience is by playing in Europe - which then hurts you in the Bundesliga, reducing your chances to qualify for Europe.
Our recent league history suggests that such a vicious circle does indeed exist. It may be the price we have to pay for our inability to produce a second really big club - a Juventus to Bayern's AC Milan, a Barcelona to Bayern's Real Madrid, a Chelsea to Bayern's Manchester United - which competes in Europe every year.
However, "ab8623", there is something else that strikes me as "funny" about the Bundesliga clubs, at least this year. And for this second phenomenon I don't have such a ready-made explanation. I'm talking about the fact that a club's fortunes do not only radically change from one year to the next but within a single season. These days, most sides either have a purple patch or a very bad run. Somehow, the middle ground is disappearing.
Take Leverkusen, who remained unbeaten between July and February and then suddenly lost four games out of five. Take Bremen, who didn't lose a game for 14 weeks, then lost five games in a row, then went unbeaten for eight weeks again. Take Hannover, who were a completely normal mid-table club until Robert Enke's death in November, then embarked on a horrible winless streak that featured nine defeats in a row and lasted into March.
Take Hertha, who suffered through 16 Bundesliga matches without a win, then did perfectly okay and played like a completely normal mid-table club (four wins, four draws, five losses). Take Stuttgart, who won only two of their first 16 league games, then won no less than 11 of the next 14. Take Hoffenheim, who won seven games between August and November - and then won only two more in the next six months.
Also, many teams have had at least one streak of historic or close to historic proportions. At one point, Bayern won nine Bundesliga games in a row, which tied a club record. In February and March, Bremen won three away games in a row, which tied a club record. Dortmund collected six victories on the trot between November and January, almost tying the club record, which stands at seven (set last year).
And Hertha have now gone 14 consecutive home games without a win and are closing in on the league record (it stands at 15 and was, of course, set by Tasmania Berlin in 1966).
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe my perception is clouded and all of this is actually quite normal. But for many fans this has been a season in which the question was not whom you play - but when.
In November, Cologne were beaten 4-0 by Hoffenheim, who were very much an in-form team then, while Cologne - to mention another almost historic streak - were threatening to set a record for fewest goals after the first half of the season by scoring just once in eight weeks of league football. (Naturally, that one goal was netted against a team on an even worse streak, Hertha.)
But on the Saturday just past, there was never really any question Cologne would get their revenge and easily defeat Hoffenheim at their own ground. At least that's what people told me who've watched Hoffenheim these past weeks and months. You just know a team mired in a slump when you see one, they said. (Hoffenheim have won only one home game since October. Naturally, that lone victory came against a team going through their own barren spell, Hannover.)
Which leads me to another reader's comment. "What has happened to Hoffenheim this season, why so lacklustre?", wrote "luckycusp", adding: "I just don't like the second season syndrome explanation."
Well, maybe I'll have some more insight next Sunday, when the team plays here in Dortmund and I've had a chance to view them up-close.
Until then I just have to assume it's the season-of-the-streaks syndrome.