The festive season is a treacherous period for football clubs, full of false dawns, unsustainable hopes and problems in wait once the tinsel has been packed away and reality re-establishes its grip.
Looking ahead, there will surely be some high profile winners and losers in 2018.
AC Milan do not have their problems to seek, on behalf of their instability on an off the field.
In Spain, Atletico Madrid look over-reliant on their charismatic coach Diego Simeone and his ability to work further miracles with an exposed squad at an unfamiliar new stadium. PSG too, have hitched their star to one man, in this case, Neymar Junior. And that is a lot of eggs in one basket.
In Germany, the champions Bayern Munich go into the winter break 11 points clear of the Bundesliga’s chasing pack. Under veteran coach Jupp Heynckes, nine domestic league wins out of ten tells its own story. But another procession to the title for Bayern may ultimately prove to be more negative than positive.
My guess is the that the immediate future (next 2–3 years) might not be especially vintage for The Bundesliga and by extension its top team Bayern Munich.
The reason is a lack of depth of competition in the league and a lack of the kind of real top level finance required to compete with the Spaniards, the English and PSG for players.
The Bundesliga: The good, the bad and the boring
In almost every respect Germany’s Bundesliga is a massive success. Its advocates rightly boast about the league’s strong average attendance bolstered by low ticket prices that make the games accessible to all.
Then there’s the fact that the league is set-up to promote home-grown talent all the way to the national team and world domination.
German fiscal prudence has created a culture of relatively low debt and sustainability that is based on genuine fan engagement and local support.
It sounds like a panacea, and it is for the fans in the rocking stadiums. But as a TV spectacle, The Bundesliga is increasingly poor fare.
Firstly, there’s the issue of competition. The Bundesliga is typically at best a two horse race, dominated by Bayern who have brooked up their position in the last few years, by consistently raiding BVB Dortmund for their emergent stars, weakening their rivals in the process.
In 2015, Bayern set the record for the earliest league win, wrapping things up on the 28th fixture of the 34 matchdays.
Last season, under the unfairly maligned Carlo Ancelotti, the champions fulfilled the brief in just 33 games. It is stat that suggests that Bayern are pulling further away, with every passing season.
And a league without competition is neither good for business nor good for Germany’s Champions League pretensions.
As with say Celtic in Scotland, the paradox of short term positives in terms of domination must be weighed against the likelihood of longer term stagnation in a weak league.
Post-Bosman, competition broadly comes down to finance.
The Bundesliga currently earns about 70 Million Euros from international TV rights.
But if you consider the fact that England’s Premier League currently earns about 864 million Euros per year from international television rights you can see where the gulf lies.
In Spain’s La Liga that figure equates to 753 million Euros annually. So, the big two leagues really are out on their own.
Fan Ownership: Be careful what you wish for
If you are asking if the hard-won democracy of The Bundesliga generally has been attained at the price of a compelling TV spectacle then I’m moved to agree. If you suggest that Bayern’s big fish in a small pond monopoly will ultimately kill the Bundesliga’s competitiveness, then I think it already has.
I am not a proponent of fan-ownership models in the UK or indeed the 50+1 rule in Germany. The Bundesliga rule is designed to ensure that each club’s rank and file members retain overall control of the voting rights, protecting clubs from the influence of external investors.
I won’t pretend that my personal view is anything other than a reflection of my preference for a benign dictatorship model of ownership. That is ownership that means football people making football decisions. My answer isn’t impartial. So, please bear that in mind.
Make no mistake, there are some things German football does well. Very well.
Firstly and above all their support of the national team allows Germany to benefit from a context that is simply superb for developing current and future international players by giving them exposure and high level game time at the earliest opportunity.
Secondly, the fan experience is superb.
But the downside is that the clubs themselves are not as competitive in terms of battle hardened prime-age experience, at the Champions League level. And domestically Bayern are typically a long way ahead in a Bundesliga lacking strength in depth.
Basically The Bundesliga is a very, very good development league but it lacks mature stars of the kind that cost top money in transfers and wages – and get armchair fans hooked.
The proof of the pudding is that, from memory, there have been 14 knock out European ties played between Bundesliga and La Liga sides since 2014. And the Spanish sides gave won every single one of them.
As per France, The Bundesliga lacks the strength in depth of La Liga.
In Spain there are usually the big two, Atl Madrid, a side like Sevilla or Valencia and then 3–4 others that are Europa League standard teams like Celta, Atl Bilbao, Villareal and usually one other in the frame.
The Bundesliga has a long midtable but really only two consistently good teams in Bayern and Dortmund.
And this season Dortmund are nowhere (third) in a league table where just 11 points split Schalke in second spot and SC Freiburg in 13th.
Dortmund have called time early on the experiment with Dutch coach Peter Bosz, after a 12-game winless run. Bosz’s replacement Peter Stöger is not a name to set the pulses racing, either.
Inconsistency: The price of inexperience
As the Germans as a football nation concentrate on developing players for the national side it means that their club sides’ week to week form will fluctuate when young teams feature. And that adds to an unpredictability of form and momentum, that is more of a turn-off than a source of intrigue. There’s a sense that results are conditioned ‘on the day’, and that is a characteristic you’d associate with both youth football and low grade fare.
However, saying all that, in mitigation, Real Madrid in particular have been a paragon of consistency in the Champions League recently. And they are perfectly set up to play ball dominating German sides. It is no surprise that Los Blancos’ star-studded roster have done most of the damage to the list of Bundesliga casualties since 2014.
Nonetheless it is a form of cruel and unusual domination that emphasises the relative quality, relative status, relative finance and also the depth of competition in both countries’ leagues.
And here is the rub. With everything fans would want in place on paper in Germany (stability, democracy, a great stadium experience), the reality in practice is that it has created a competition that pales in comparison to other less well run ‘TV leagues’.
If you add in that Real Madrid factor (in terms of Real’s style of play) then really you have a perfect storm for Spain dominating Germany in European club competitions on a very uneven playing field.
But there is some significant signs of hope for the longer-term viability of The Bundesliga.
Can Germany get the last laugh?
Though financially Germany lags a long way behind Spain and England in current times. It is no means a given that this situation will prevail in perpetuity.
And Germany will ultimately get its revenge if the hype bubble bursts anytime soon in La Liga or The Premier League.
Indeed, by living frugally now, Germany might be very well set up at a future date at both club and international level.
For the moment though The Bundesliga is operating at a level of competitiveness beneath La Liga and The Premier League and the spectacle of German football on TV is suffering in comparison.
In the short term the Bundesliga and Bayern might have to take a few steps back before they can take a true step-up again.