It’s common to talk about the Bundesliga as something of the hipster darling of European football. It’s well-run, has great fans, affordable ticket prices, and is generally defined by a fast, attacking style that should delight any neutral or soccer novice that watches.
But when you take a second look at the Bundesliga it also has a unique problem that separates it from the other members of Europe’s big four: While there is at least a modicum of parity at the top of La Liga (between Real Madrid, Barcelona, and occasionally Atletico or Valencia), the Premier League, and Serie A, the Bundesliga is increasingly a one-team show with everyone else competing for Champions League places and the honor of finishing second behind behemoth-side Bayern Munich. To illustrate the point, let’s consider the financial numbers. The shock departures of Germany’s two best managers after Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Lucien Favre, is largely the result of these harsh financial realities.
If you look at the Deloitte report published in January 2015, here is the gap in 2013-14 revenue between the top two teams in each of Europe’s top four leagues:
- Spain: €64.9m
- England: €104.4m
- Italy: €29.6m
- Germany: €226m
And it gets worse: If you look at this percentage wise, the picture is even uglier.
- Spain’s second richest club, Barcelona, made 88% of what the richest club, Real Madrid, made.
- England’s second richest club, Manchester City, made 80% of what the richest club, Manchester United, made.
- Italy’s second richest club, AC Milan, made 89% of what the richest club, Juventus, made.
- Germany’s second richest club, Borussia Dortmund, made 53% of what the richest club, Bayern Munich, made.
One more fact—here is the breakdown by nation of how many teams crack the Deloitte top 20:
- Spain: 3 (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico)
- England: 8 (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Everton)
- Italy: 4 (Juventus, AC Milan, Napoli, Inter Milan)
- Germany: 3 (Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke)
- France: 1 (PSG)
- Turkey: 1 (Galatasaray)
If you look at England, Manchester United has a clear advantage financially, but Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal aren’t far behind. Plus when you add in Manchester United’s front office incompetence… well, the other three members of the new big four have a shot. Plus there are four more financial elites in the league (as well as a host of decent midtable sides) that can keep things interesting, even if they’ll never challenge for a title and only rarely push for a Champions League place.
Spain and Italy aren’t as diversified, but Real Madrid and Barcelona are close enough in financial stature to keep the title race somewhat interesting plus Simeone’s Atletico is more than capable of challenging them both. And in Italy we may be seeing cracks in the foundation at Juventus as the club is struggling to adjust to life post-Tevez, post-Pirlo, and post-Vidal. With Paul Pogba expected to leave next summer, the good times may be coming to an end in Turin. And while Juve appears to be slipping, both Milan and Inter appear to have arrested their precipitous decline and are now climbing back toward respectability. Roma and Napoli are also solid clubs capable of keeping pace with a diminished Juventus.
But Germany doesn’t have anything like that level of competition. You’ve got Bayern Munich, earning nearly double in annual revenue what Dortmund and Schalke make. And as the Champions League pot grows and Bayern’s international brand grows alongside it you should expect to see that financial gulf grow. Indeed, when you consider how quickly Dortmund fell from Champions League contender to Europa League challenger (and how ‘Gladbach figures to do the same this year) there is little reason to think that these financial issues will go away.
And this brings us back to Klopp and Favre. Both are genius managers who elevated struggling sides by developing unique, hard-to-stop tactical systems that allowed their clubs to punch above their weight. Yet both had to cope with managing teams that had clearly inferior financial resources relative to bigger rivals. For Dortmund that richer rival is Bayern Munich who now has the two best Dortmund players in recent memory in their squad and would likely have the third (Marco Reus) were it not for Reus’s loyalty to his hometown club. (If rumors are to be believed, they’re also lining up Klopp himself to replace Guardiola whenever the nomadic Catalan decides to exit.)
Favre, meanwhile, faced even longer odds since Dortmund, Wolfsburg, and Bayer Leverkusen also command far greater financial resources than his Monchengladbach side. That’s why most of the great players Favre has coached at ‘Gladbach are now with one of those clubs. Dante is now at Wolfsburg after a mixed spell at Bayern Munich. The aforementioned Reus is with Dortmund. Last season’s midfield star Christoph Kramer is back at Bayer Leverkusen and actually was only with ‘Gladbach via a two-year loan. Star striker Max Kruse is also now at Wolfsburg. Looking abroad, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is now at Barcelona. And if you think other ‘Gladbach stars like Granit Xhaka and Patrick Herrmann aren’t going to do the same thing within a year or two should they continue to improve, you’re kidding yourself. Indeed, if anything the market for Xhaka at least figures to go well beyond Germany as elite defensive midfielders are always in demand at top Champions League clubs. Clubs like Arsenal and perhaps even Chelsea or Manchester City would have no difficulty finding a place for Xhaka in their midfields.
The broader issue here is that the Bundesliga has a problem—the financial reality of German football is such that it is impossible for smaller clubs to build themselves into a challenger to Bayern Munich. Dortmund, Bayern’s richest rival, put together a remarkable run but were still powerless to stop Bayern from poaching Goetze and Lewandowski. And despite initially making some brilliant acquisitions to replace departed stars (other key players like Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa also moved on to larger clubs) their luck eventually ran out as most of Klopp’s final big signings, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ciro Immobile, and Adrian Ramos most notably, never came remotely close to hitting their predecessor’s level. (Though it is worth noting that Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, another Klopp signing who at times has looked out of his depth, are both looking world-class under new boss Thomas Tuchel.)
Maybe this is OK. After all, the Bundesliga still is one of the best-run leagues in Europe and is great fun to follow. Some English fans are even traveling to Germany each weekend to support a Bundesliga club rather than staying at home for the Premier League. But it isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where promising young managers look instead to England as a place to hone their skills before securing a big move to a Champions League club. In England there are four clubs with a reasonable shot at the title and who, in most cases, can hold onto their best players even when other clubs come calling. Past those four, there are a half dozen additional clubs that have the financial means to attract international-level talent due to the Premier League’s growing financial advantage. In Germany there is one club that can attract and hold onto world-class talent. Every other Bundesliga manager else is left picking over what Bayern Munich and, increasingly, any number of English sides have deemed not good enough for their own use.1)An English team in the Europa League just signed a key player from a German team that has been a regular fixture in the Champions League. If the game is rigged like that, you can’t blame managers for thinking twice about playing.
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|1.||↑||An English team in the Europa League just signed a key player from a German team that has been a regular fixture in the Champions League.|