This time last year, there was a great deal of head-scratching, soul-searching and general panic across German football after the country’s clubs collectively crashed out of Europe.
And as crashes go, it was spectacular. Bayern Munich were humbled by eventual winners Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund’s naivety was exposed by finalists Tottenham Hotspur while Manchester City barely broke a sweat in their 10-2 obliteration of Schalke. The fourth German side in the Champions League, Hoffenheim, finished bottom of their group without a single win.
There was Teutonic trauma in the Europa League too. RB Leipzig ended up third in their group behind Celtic while Bayer Leverkusen were embarrassed by Krasnodar in the last-32. Only Eintracht Frankfurt kept the German flag flying with a thrilling run to the semi-finals.
What’s more, only six months earlier, the German national team had experienced the ultimate debacle in Russia. And a few months later, Bayern Munich overturned a nine-point deficit to win a seventh consecutive Bundesliga title.
The inquest had well and truly begun. German football had been left behind. German clubs could never catch up with their English counterparts. The Bundesliga was no longer competitive. It was time to scrap the 50+1 rule and open up German football to investors.
Sancho, Haaland, Hakimi: youth prospects at Dortmund
Young players and coaches
But what a difference a year makes. There’s a long way to go yet, of course – not least the second legs – but the Bundesliga’s six representatives on the international stage are all in strong positions following first-leg victories, particularly in the Champions League.
Young talent, progressive coaching and a vibrant fan culture were all on show, while the Bundesliga even has a genuine title race. Perhaps German football isn’t completely doomed after all?
In Dortmund, Erling Haaland showed the rest of Europe what they’re missing with two more goals against Paris Saint-Germain. The Norwegian teenager has 12 in eight games for his new club, his exploits have already begun overshadowing those of Jadon Sancho who has 16 goals and 18 assists to his name this season.
In West London, Serge Gnabry and Alphonso Davies provided a glimpse of what the future could look like at Bayern Munich as they tore Chelsea apart. Gnabry’s brace took his personal tally to six goals in two games in the English capital, having already scored four in Bayern’s dismantling of Tottenham in the group stage.
In between, there had been a clash of styles on the touchline too as RB Leipzig outplayed Spurs. The scoreboard read 1-0, but it really could have been more as 32-year-old Julian Nagelsmann’s attacking style contrasted sharply with 55-year-old Jose Mourinho’s more conservative philosophy.
The next generation: Julian Nagelsmann
Commendable fan culture
Off the field too, German supporters showed the way forward with colorful displays and, more importantly, an awareness of some of the bigger issues affecting football fans.
Ahead of kick-off against PSG, Borussia Dortmund’s ultras produced a spectacular display covering three stands of the Westfalenstadion. It was the second such choreography in the space of five days at a total cost of over €37,000 ($40,000), money the ultras are raising themselves.
Chelsea fans from the independent “We Are The Shed” group also produced a display of their own at Stamford Bridge, banners reading “Our city, our stadium” poking fun at a Bayern display ahead of the 2012 Champions League final.
But all the attention was on the away end where Bayern Munich supporters continued their campaign against high ticket prices in UEFA competitions. They had coughed up £55 (€65) for their tickets. Many of them only pay €145 for their Bundesliga season tickets.
RB Leipzig fans made a similar point at Tottenham last week, briefly interrupting play with toilet rolls, although the irony of fans of a Red Bull club protesting against an unpopular development in modern football didn’t go unnoticed.
Twenty’s Plenty: Bayern fans protest
Still a long way to go
Indeed, while traditionalists may be tempted to see Bayern and Dortmund’s first-leg wins over Chelsea and PSG as victories for adherents to German football’s 50+1 rule over Russian and Qatari-owned clubs respectively, the same can hardly be said for RB.
Domestically however, Leipzig are also playing a major role in the Bundesliga’s rollercoaster title race this season, the financial backing and corporate structures provided by Red Bull enabling them to challenge Bayern in a manner few other more conventionally run German clubs can.
Of course, that still may not be enough come May when Bayern are parading an eighth consecutive title around Marienplatz. Or indeed come March after PSG, Tottenham and Chelsea mount spectacular second-leg comebacks to send their opponents the same way as Borussia Mönchengladbach: out.
Even off the pitch, Gladbach ultras spent last weekend doing their best to undermine legitimate criticisms of Dietmar Hopp and Hoffenheim.
So it’s not perfect and it would be a stretch to claim total victory over the evils of the modern game just yet. But so far this season at least, with their promotion of young players and coaches on the pitch and their engaged, active supporters off it, German clubs are striking a pretty decent balance.