Who are the stealth MVPs of the Bundesliga's best teams?
As we approach the two-thirds mark of the Bundesliga season, an everyone-is-in-the-race kind of start at the top half of the league table has boiled down to a five-horse title race. Bayern München, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Borussia Mönchengladbach and even (yes, I know) Bayer Leverkusen all have at least some shot at becoming champs.
We’re all familiar with the seasons that the absolute stars of these teams are having, with Robert Lewandowski and Timo Werner’s seemingly bottomless bags of goals and the emergence of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho as bona fide superstars as most illustrative examples.
But what about the unsung heroes of these top clubs? Well, those guys get their moment in the sun in this here article. May we present the Stealth MVP’s 0f Germany’s five best squads.
Bayern München: Thomas Müller
Oh yes, we did the Thomas Müller ‘dance’ this year.
Like. Every. Other. Freaking. Year.
When will we stop putting too much value on aesthetically pleasing skills in attackers? Yes, Müller is not the most graceful player that German football has ever spawned - not by a mile. But, c’mon. Look at this.
Oh, you think he's more of a midfielder now? Just. Look. At. This.
Reinstating Müller as a full time starter has been - besides employing Joshua Kimmich as a defensive midfielder on a permanent basis - one of interim manager Hansi Flick’s biggest moves at the Bayern wheel. In twelve leagues under Flick’s guidance, Müller has contributed big-time with five goals and ten (!) assists. He has done so as one of the attacking mids, and as a false right-winger. Müller is still one of football’s space-seekers, who knows how to get to good shooting positions. But the thirty year old Bayern-lifer is also still one of the best defending attackers out there, and plays a big role in the middle phase of his team’s play in possession.
RB Leipzig: Konrad Laimer
The role of defensive midfielder in Leipzig’s high-octane playing style is a tough one. Where box-to-box energizer-bunny Marcel Sabitzer gets to do the glamour work in midfield, his countryman Konrad Laimer might be even more important for the success of this squad.
That Laimer doesn’t boast the tidiest of passing numbers, has to do with Leipzig’s extremely vertical style of play. The Austrian midfielder needs to get the ball up the field, to the speedsters up front, as quickly and directly as possible. And he does so in impressive fashion. Laimer is the iron-lunged type you’d expect in Leipzig’s engine room in midfield, but has a surprising amount of skill when he’s on the ball.
But Laimer shines most when the opposition has the ball. He forms the backbone of Leipzig’s wild press. When the front four (or five) is going all-out to win the ball back or hurry the opposing build-up high upfield, Laimer’s there to cover the spaces that open up behind those ‘pressing missiles’.
Borussia Dortmund: Dan-Axel Zagadou
Admittedly, Dortmund’s defence is still not good. But it is improving, big time. This is Dortmund’s defensive team radar from the start of the season until mid-November, when they got walloped at Bayern München (4-0), and followed that disappointment by slipping up at home against lowly Paderborn (3-3).
These defensive woes forced Lucien Favre to switch systems. The 4-2-3-1 formation got swapped for a 3-4-2-1 shape. The extra centre-back has helped.
With an extra slot opening up in the backline, Dan-Axel Zagadou has snagged his chance in recent weeks. The gargantuan (6 foot 5, at minimum) French youngster might have stood out in a negative sense in the 2-1 win against PSG in midweek, with his whiffed tackle attempt rolling out the red carpet for Kylian Mbappé to assist an undeserved Neymar equalizer. But besides this slip-up, the twenty year-old has been an excellent addition to the Dortmund starting lineup.
Zagadou is weirdly speedy for someone his size - not unlike a certain striker in his squad - and also adds some much-needed ‘oomph’ to the Dortmund backline with his aerial prowess. But Zagadou might be an even better addition on the other side of the ball. Against PSG, the team that never gave him a fair shot at first-team minutes when he was a major talent in the Parisian youth academy, Zagadou demonstrated once again that he’s extremely comfortable in possession. This might not be a shocker, but: an NBA-sized, left-footed, silky-smooth passing and athletically gifted athlete at centre back is pretty hard to find. This Dortmund squad contains some freakish talent up and down the roster.
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Nico Elvedi
Let’s take a look at the defensive heat map Borussia Mönchengladbach this season.
You see that? Opponents clearly chose to attack the right-hand side of Gladbach’s backline. This has something to do with the excellent performances of Die Fohlen’s centre-back on the left side of the defence. Nico Elvedi is slowly but surely making his case for the title of best centre-back in the Bundesliga.
That Elvedi is a very solid player on the defensive side of the ball, was already a known fact in and around German (and Swiss) football. But that the right-footed centre-back - who’s mobile enough to have 57 senior appearances at full-back in previous seasons - is a crucial pawn in Gladbach’s build-up from the back from the ‘wrong side’ (left) of the 3+1 structure that his team uses, has been a wildly impressive development to watch.
Bayer Leverkusen: Kevin Volland
Sure, creative and skillful talents such as Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, Moussa Diaby and Nadiem Amiri each have a rosy footballing future ahead of them. But take one guess which player in Die Werkself (‘The Workman’s Eleven) has been involved in the most goals this season? Hint: it’s the same dude who led the team in combined goals and assists in 2018-19 and 2017-18. Hot take: it’s pretty weird that Kevin Volland hasn’t logged a national team minute since 2016.
Volland, who can also contribute as an inverted winger on both flanks or as a second striker, shines in a pretty complex role as the frontman in Peter Bosz’ playing system. He’s responsible for the first wave of pressure in the Bosz-press when the opposition has the ball, and drifts wide and towards midfield in possession, to pose opposing centre backs questions in their marking scheme. He does all this, and consistently gets good shots off. Volland is good, y’all. Real good.
How many more years will he have to keep doing this until he's no longer eligible to round out our stealth MVP list?