Back to business
The first season I started to seriously follow the Bundesliga was also my first experience of the winter break. As an Englishman raised on the fast and furious Christmas and New Year period -- a stretch of games that frequently made or broke a club's season -- the notion that you'd take this time off was incomprehensible. I looked upon a six-week league lay-off with mute horror.
This season, the break is more like a month, and while I would never want to see a "winterval" in England, as a Bundesliga fan I enjoy the sense of anticipation that comes with the impending return to action. (And the first game back? A potential thriller between Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayern Munich at 2.30 p.m. ET on Friday afternoon.)
For fans, it's like a season reboot, and for some clubs, an opportunity to build on their pre-break successes, while others try their best to put the season's first part behind them.
Very much in the latter category is Felix Magath, coach of Vfl Wolfsburg. Since its magnificent first-ever title win under Magath in the 2008-09 season, the club has struggled to live up to the standards set by Edin Dzeko, Grafite and Zvjezdan Misimovic, all of whom have since moved on to new clubs. Magath also departed in an attempt to work the same magic at FC Schalke, but both coaches since -- Armin Veh and then, Steve McClaren -- could find only reverse gears, finishing eighth in 2009-10 and worse the following season.
When Magath returned just under a year ago, the Wolves were in the relegation zone. In fact, it took a herculean effort to extract themselves from the drop zone, largely thanks to the goals of the Croatian Mario Mandzukic (eight in the Wolves' final seven games of last season).
Last summer, Magath ditched the Brazilian Diego, former playmaker at Werder Bremen, and set about reinforcing his squad, hoping that the $27 million spent on striker Srjdan Lakic, utility midfielder/defender (and new club captain) Christian Trasch, center back Marco Russ, defender Patrick Ochs and even veterans like midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger in the summer would give Wolves fans grounds for optimism. And yet, Wolfsburg has been pretty awful this season: nine defeats in 17 games, and just four points from a possible 27 away from home. While it is not in deep relegation trouble (yet) sitting in 12th, Wolfsburg is nowhere near where a club with its resources should be, and as such, Magath has worked very hard in the transfer market again this January to get the club from Lower Saxony back on course.
So far, eight players (at an estimated cost of $35 million) have arrived to strengthen both defense and midfield. Of great interest are the 22-year-old French midfielder Giovanni Sio, signed from FC Sion, and Swiss international Ricardo Rodriguez from FC Zurich (not cheap at $9.5 million). Meanwhile, Czech international defensive midfielder Petr Jiracek, whose Champions League exertions for Viktoria Plzen earned him a $5 million transfer, joins the Brazilian center back Felipe Lopes (signed from Portugal's Nacional) with a mandate of fixing Wolfsburg's woeful defense: 34 goals conceded in 17 games before the break. For no other reason than to see how Magath integrates his new signings into the team, Wolfsburg will be worth keeping an eye on down the stretch.
Despite all Magath's transfer shenanigans, probably one of the biggest transfer stories of the winter break is one that is yet to happen, but may decide who will be playing in the Champions League, next season at the very least.
Even casual observers of the Bundesliga would have heard the name Marco Reus. The 22-year-old German forward has been the story of the season so far, though the raw statistics (10 goals, one assist in 15 appearances) don't do justice to his impact on Borussia Monchengladbach and its success so far in 2011-12.
If you haven't seen him yet, know that he is every inch the modern forward, comfortable playing in any position along the front end of a 4-2-3-1 formation and blessed with prodigious skill matched only by his intelligence and supreme confidence. Inevitably, a player like that doesn't stay at a club as relatively small as Gladbach for too long -- he will leave at the end of the season for his boyhood club, Borussia Dortmund, which did very well to beat Bayern Munich for his signature.
And yet, closer watchers of Die Fohlen will tell you that they're not a one-man team, and many will be wondering if 20-year-old Patrick Hermann can grow into the playmaker role while Reus plays out his remaining contract. This time last year, Gladbach was bottom of the table, and few people would have argued against it being relegated come May 2011. And yes, one year later, Gladbach is in fourth place and dreaming of the Champions League. If any single individual is responsible for this, it is the coach, Lucien Favre.
The Swiss manager took over the club on Valentine's Day 2011 with an almost impossible task: rescue the club. It took a relegation playoff with second-division Bochum to save Gladbach, but saved it was, and Favre insured that the momentum gained from that extraordinary run at the back end of last season (seven wins, three draws, four defeats in the last 14 league games) continued in 2011-12.
The most notable change he made was in goal. The 19-year-old Marc-Andre ter Stegen was promoted to first-team goalkeeper and has kept seven clean sheets in 17 games. Ter Stegen is a native of Monchengladbach and his passion for the club -- along with his maturity -- is as important to Gladbach's success as Reus' goals, Juan Arango's seven league assists and the poised Dante in the heart of defense.
Another advantage for Gladbach is the run-in to Euro 2012, as many rivals at the top of the table have players in the German national team. With Die Mannschaft among the favorites to win the tournament, as they get closer to the end of the season, growing concern regarding injuries may come into play. This disadvantage for the bigger clubs -- if it exists at all -- will affect Bayern Munich the most given the sheer number of Bayern players looking to make the national team trip to Poland in June.
From back to front, Bayern Munich carries the hopes of an expectant Germany. Not only does it have German national team players in Manuel Neuer, Holger Badstuber, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mario Gomez, but the Bavarians are expected to win the Bundesliga title, the German Cup and, if the double was not enough, get to the Champions League final (which they happen to be hosting). With these multiple challenges facing them, the second half of this Bundesliga will be glorious for the Munich club, but whether it is glorious success or glorious failure remains to be seen.