The Bundesliga's newest members will all struggle to avoid relegation this season
With the Bundesliga having three newly promoted teams - 1. FC Köln, SC Paderborn, and Union Berlin; the latter enjoying their first season in Germany’s top flight in club history - there must be a surprise squad among the newcomers, right?
Of course, no RB Leipzig-esque scenario is likely. None of these three teams has the financial striking power and grandiose club infrastructure of the energy drink-fueled footballing factory of Die Roten Bullen. But a post-promotion season like Fortuna Düsseldorf enjoyed last year, with a solid league finish in tenth place, with surprise victories against big teams like Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, should be possible for one of these three promoted teams - considering the tiny margins between the mid-tier teams and relegation-battling squads in the Bundesliga in recent years.
Er, not so much. Even though Union Berlin recorded a truly remarkable upset-win over Dortmund on matchday three, the league standings after six games played are rough. Big time. The three promoted teams can be found in the four bottom spots, with a combined record of two wins, three draws and thirteen defeats.
So… Are Paderborn, Union and Köln all doomed? Are the three newcomers early-season locks for the two relegation and one play-off spot? And even if this is the case, which players seem to have Bundesliga staying power? Let’s take a look.
It’s hard not to fall a teeny-tiny bit in love with Die Eisernen, ‘The Iron Ones’ - glorious nickname: check. Union play their home games at the also very gloriously named Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium by the Old Forester’s House), which shockingly only houses 22.000 fans - even though the stadium noise easily rivals that of your average fifty-thousand-seater. There’s a real liveliness to the East-Berlin club and its surroundings.
After a false start against RB Leipzig (0-4 thrashing), Union showed against Dortmund that in their own home, they can supercede their individual talent level, and make life pretty tough for superior opponents with a very direct, counterattacking playing style, well-worked set pieces, and a lot of intensity in their defensive teamwork. But the 3-1 stunner against Die Borussen has been the sole highlight so far: Union has only grabbed one point from the other five league games, and its defense just doesn’t look good enough to compensate for the lack of individual star power on the ball.
In the last match, a deserved 1-2 home loss against Eintracht Frankfurt, manager Urs Fischer swapped in defensively-minded midfielder Manuel Schmiedebach for one of the strikers, with Union switching their 4-4-2 formation into a more solid 4-1-4-1. But even with this conservative adjustment, the defensive issue remained the same for Union: they have trouble pressing the build-up of their opponents at the highest level, with opposing teams finding the final third with frightening ease.
Striker Sebastian Andersson has scored three of Union’s six goals so far, and the 28-year old Swede’s underlying numbers look rather tasty thus far.
Way-too-early verdict on Union: the team defense looks too vulnerable to give the attack a fighting chance
After a four year stay at the highest level between 2014 and 2018, Die Geissböcke (The Billy Goats - German football clubs know how to do nicknames, folks) did not eff around in the 2. Bundesliga last season, scoring a whopping total of 84 goals in 34 league games, en route to a second-level title.
In the Bundesliga this season, not much seems left of Köln’s attacking prowess of last season. New manager Achim Beierlozer has traded in last year’s 3-5-2 formation for a conservative version of Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 system. Even though the new playing formation also offers spots for two strikers, there seems to be no significant role carved out for Simon Terodde. The 31-year old goal scorer netted 29 times in last year’s 2. Bundesliga campaign, scoring once every 85 minutes. But, Terodde seems to have suffered the same fate as he did at VfB Stuttgart in 2017, getting marginalized because there’s just no room for the somewhat immobile striker in the relegation-fighting starting squad, a year after finishing as the second-tier topscorer. Beierlozer prefers the physical duo of Anthony Modeste and Jhon Cordóba up top, in an effort to combine the team’s high-pressing style in defense with a direct, long ball-oriented approach in possession.
As you can see in the plot above, Köln have had a lot of trouble with creating a credible semblance of offense. In fact, they haven't managed to accrue more than one xG in a match since the opening game of the season when they brought home a whopping 1.01.
With left-back Jonas Hector and goalie Timo Horn, Köln still have two established club stars. Somewhat pricey summer signing Ellyes Skhiri also seems to possess the qualities to enter this elite category sooner rather than later. The Tunisian 24-year old has displayed the same nice mix of passing range and ball-winning skills that earned him a 6 million euro transfer at Montpellier in Ligue 1 last year. Skhiri is also the player most responsible for Köln’s sole win this season, at Freiburg. He provided a deft assist to Anthony Modeste for the tying score with an in-swinging cross, and lashed home the 1-2 in stoppage time after a long dribble.
Way-too-early verdict on Köln: if they find some form of attacking punch, they should survive
SC Paderborn 07
Admittedly, Paderborn’s Benteler-Arena truly looks like the most unimaginative off-brand stadium in each edition of FIFA. But I can personally vouch for the Paderborn-experience - a result of my very football hipster-esque hobby of visiting lower-tier German teams at the end of each summer on trips with my dad. Paderborn meets all the high standards for stadium beer, bratwurst and all-around friendliness that Bundesliga teams have to meet - seriously, go visit Bundesliga (or lower league) games when in Germany, y’all; it generally ends up being a delightful experience.
Me sacrificing an entire paragraph to defending the cuisine and ambiance of its starter pack stadium, kind of gives you a hint what I think of their chances of staying up this year. In attack, Paderborn have been really decent.
But a cash-strapped underdog has to be able to prevent opposing offenses to some extent to have a form of staying-power in a top league. And even though Paderborn employ a pretty, zippy counter-attacking playing style, with two fast strikers and two pacey wingers in a 4-4-2 formation which lends itself to brave efforts in pressing opposing build-ups, their defensive output after the pressing stages simply doesn’t look worthy of the Bundesliga. Paderborn have only limited one opponent to one goal thus far (Wolfsburg, 1-1), and have a paltry goal difference of 1-6 after the seventieth minute, when their attackers have been worn out by all their hard work chasing down opposing build-up play.
Despite being willing defensive workers, when the team gets broken down, they REALLY get broken down. Paderborn are by far and away the worst team in the league when it comes to the average xG/shot conceded.
On the bright side, Paderborn do have Jamilu Collins who scored an absolute belter of a goal last weekend against Bayern
Seriously, look it up.Bbut the Nigerian left-back has done more than score one wonder goal to impress the scouts. Paderborn signed Collins as a free agent in 2017, after he had been toiling in anonymity in the Croatian league for five seasons. At the age of 25, Collins seems to be a very intriguing prospect for mid-tier clubs in top leagues who are looking for a wing back on the left flank: his speed, stamina, dribbling and crossing all look very good so far. Even if Paderborn drop down at the end of this season, they will make a hefty profit when they sell Collins.
Way-too-early verdict on Paderborn: the attack is entertaining, but if that defense doesn't grow a spine it won't matter