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Bundesliga Season Review: A Striker for All Seasons

Robert Lewandowski earned his place in history, while managerial turnover leaves many open questions for teams at the top of the table in Germany

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

If you avoided the Bundesliga this season and glanced only at the final table, you would be forgiven for thinking that it had been business as usual. You’d be wrong, but forgiven. Bayern Munich secured a ninth consecutive title, followed by RB Leipzig in second, and Borussia Dortmund in third, but there was so much more to the 2020-21 campaign.

The absence of supporters was felt acutely in the Bundesliga, where fan culture is an integral part of what makes the league unique. There were no huge tifos, pyro displays, or protests against the sport’s governing bodies. Eerily empty stadiums left us to imagine what it might have sounded like during Bayern’s 8-0 demolition of Schalke in September, or after Robert Lewandowski’s record-setting goal on Saturday. So, herzlich willkommen, as we take a trip through the Bundesliga season.

Player of the Year: Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich

It has to be, right? Lewandowski scored his 41st goal of the season in Bayern’s final match, breaking Gerd Müller’s 49-year-old single-season record. It would seem deliberately contrarian to give this award to anyone else, but that doesn’t mean other players aren’t worthy of consideration.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada and Filip Kostić were a joy to watch. They combined for 26 assists and were integral to one of the best Eintracht sides in years. If not for a slip-up against Schalke in the season’s penultimate match, Eintracht would have qualified for the Champions League, which would have been their first appearance in Europe’s top club competition since 1960.

Other shout-outs go to their teammate André Silva and Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, whose tallies of 28 and 27 goals, respectively, would’ve been far more newsworthy had it not been for Lewandowski. Elsewhere, Maximilian Arnold enjoyed probably his finest season to date for Wolfsburg, which qualified for their third Champions League in club history; Jadon Sancho’s form for Dortmund since Christmas has been otherworldly; Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Müller had fine seasons at Bayern; but the top honor can go only to Lewandowski.

He broke Müller’s legendary 40-goal record in the 90th minute on Saturday, converting a rebound after Leroy Sané’s attempt was saved by Augsburg goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz. Lewandowski responded to his scruffy, desperate goal—his 10th attempt in the game, as his teammates were doing their part to help him break the record—with relief as much as joy. His achievement is even more impressive considering he played in just 29 games this season. Bayern rarely reached the fluidity and dominance we’ve grown accustomed to from them—they conceded 44 goals, their highest total since 1995-96—but another title was never really in doubt.

Spirit of the Year: Silas Wamangituka, VfB Stuttgart

Rightly crowned the Bundesliga Rookie of the Year, Silas Wamangituka epitomized Stuttgart’s return to the Bundesliga after their one season in the second tier. The 21-year-old Congolese forward was one of Sven Mislintat’s first signings as Stuttgart’s sporting director in 2019, arriving from Ligue 2’s Paris FC.

Wamangituka burst onto the Bundesliga scene and took defenders by surprise, much as die Schwaben did this season. Both player and club have been fun to watch, with Wamangituka’s individual highlight being a solo goal against Mainz, when he collected the ball on the edge of his own box and dribbled the length of the field before cutting into the box to score.

Wamangituka’s importance to Stuttgart was apparent after he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in March—Stuttgart lost five of their last seven games without him (they lost only eight of their 27 league games with him). A ninth-place finish marks a positive Bundesliga return for Stuttgart, who bore no resemblance to the side that was relegated in 2019.

Manager of the Year: Urs Fischer, Union Berlin

Much like the Berlin winters, this decision was tough. The depth of quality coaching in the Bundesliga rivals any league in world soccer and there were many nominees for this honor. Mainz’s Bo Svensson and Borussia Dortmund’s Edin Terzic each took over midseason and have saved their respective clubs from disastrous seasons. Mainz was second from the bottom with six points after 14 games when Svensson, a former Mainz player, took charge. They went on to take 33 points in their remaining 20 games, delivering the best second half to a Bundesliga season in the club’s history, bettering previous Mainz managers like Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. Terzić spared Dortmund missing out on the Champions League, and therefore a summer of intense transfer speculation, while delivering a German Cup. It’s a remarkable transformation, given that he was in the stands cheering the team as a fan and scout 10 years ago. Dortmund’s had a rocky season, but Terzić has more than delivered, making Marco Rose’s imminent arrival from Borussia Mönchengladbach a little bit awkward.

Other notable mentions must go to Oliver Glasner taking Wolfsburg to the Champions League, Christian Streich making Freiburg’s quiet mid-table finish seem normal, and Pellegrino Matarazzo turning Stuttgart into one of this season’s best stories. For those hyping Jesse Marsch’s Bundesliga arrival next season, don’t forget Matarazzo, the American manager already succeeding in the Bundesliga.

However, the award has to go to Urs Fischer. What he’s done at Union has been nothing short of extraordinary. The Swiss coach guided Union to the top flight for the first time in their history in his first season in charge in 2018-19. Last season’s 11th-place finish seemed miraculous for the club in Berlin’s Köpenick district, but they did even better this season, finishing seventh and qualifying for European competition for the first time in 20 years.

With such success comes harsh realities. Clubs with greater resources than Union struggled domestically while competing in European tournaments—just ask Gladbach—but die Eisernen have been on a textbook fairy tale journey under Fischer. Just two years after entering Germany’s top flight, fans may also be welcoming some of Europe’s legendary clubs to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei next season, just over a decade since fans helped renovate it.

Game of the Year: Union Berlin 3, Eintracht Frankfurt 3

“Was für ein Spiel!” yelled the commentator as Eintracht’s André Silva scored his second goal in 10 minutes, tying the game after Robert Andrich and Max Kruse had given Union a 2-0 lead inside six minutes in the German capital. Union entered the game in fifth place, though they benefited from a relatively soft opening schedule. After sharing the points with Eintracht, Union went on to lose to Hertha in the Berlin derby, then picked up five points against Bayern, Stuttgart, and Dortmund. Kruse’s wonderstrike in the final 10 minutes against Eintracht drew another “Was für ein Spiel!” And what a game it was, one that seemed to solidify the belief that Union were for real.

Biggest Surprise: Wolfsburg’s Goal Difference

Yeah, I could have gone for Stuttgart, Union, or the fact that Hertha managed to burn through over $170 million in transfers and four managers in the past two years before asking Pál Dárdai to save them from the drop. He succeeded and celebrated by smoking a cigar during a television interview. But, let me nerd out a little because it’s time to fire up the Wolfsburg-plus-20-goal-differential air horn for only the second time since they won the league in 2009.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but the specter of former coach Dieter Hecking’s brow looms over Wolfsburg much like the Volkswagen chimneys and another coaching icon, Felix Magath. Hecking oversaw the club’s last foray into the plus-20 GD promised land and it seemed current coach Oliver Glasner—much like Bruno Labbadia and Andries Jonker before him—would fall short of that mark. However, Wolfsburg scored seven goals in their final three games, finishing with a plus-24 GD while qualifying for the Champions League. They’ve been good under Glasner the past two years, but he’s expected to leave the club, leaving many questions ahead of next season for die Wölfe.

Biggest Disappointment: Bayer Leverkusen

Accumulating 28 points from their opening 12 games, Leverkusen faced Bayern on Matchday 13. Patrik Schick gave Leverkusen a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute and everyone looked around to see who would say it first: Would this be the year that the club—having recently sold Kai Havertz to Chelsea—finally gets rid of that cruel nickname.

Narrator’s voice: No, it would not. Lewandowski equalized before halftime and netted a 93rd-minute winner that derailed Leverkusen’s season. They won two of their next 10 in the league, exited the Europa League after losing both legs against Young Boys, and Peter Bosz was fired after the 3-0 defeat away at Hertha in March. His replacement, Hannes Wolf, managed to steady the ship—Leverkusen lost only to Bayern and Dortmund for the remainder of the season—but finishing 26 points behind Bayern, in sixth position, after such a strong start will go down as a real disappointment for die Werkself. However, Lars Bender being allowed to score a penalty before his retirement on the final day of the season did provide a nice moment to the end of a tricky year.

Biggest Question This Summer: What Will Next Season’s Top Four Look Like?

If Glasner does leave Wolfsburg, all of this season’s top six will have new managers next season, with Adi Hütter’s move to Gladbach making it seven of the top eight. Another key factor will be player transfers: Bayern expects to have a high turnover, while Dortmund are rumored to be keeping Sancho and Haaland, so next season’s battle at the top of the table could be the most exciting in some time. Let’s hope that it’s accompanied by those tifos and pyro displays from fans we’ve missed so much.