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Thursday, July 7, 2022

Is there a Bundesliga title race between Dortmund and Bayern Munich this season?

Despite losing Haaland to injury, Dortmund are one point behind Bayern. Friedemann Vogel/EPA.

Bayern Munich have only played 13 Bundesliga fixtures this season, but they have scored four or more goals in half of them. Julian Nagelsmann’s team have claimed emphatic wins over Hertha Berlin (5-0), RB Leipzig (4-1), Bochum (7-0), Bayer Leverkusen (5-1), Hoffenheim (4-0) and Union Berlin (5-2), making them the top scorers (41 goals in 12 games) in the German top flight by some distance.

However, the points distance between the Bavarians in top spot and Borussia Dortmund in second place isn’t so great, with just one point separating the two rivals. Bayern Munich have been so dominant in so many matches that it feels somewhat surprising that they don’t have a bigger advantage at the top of the table.

For all that Bayern Munich have caught the eye with some of their attacking play, their defence has been vulnerable at times. This was certainly the case as the defending German champions suffered a 2-1 defeat to Augsburg and in the shock home loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in early October.

This has opened the door for Dortmund to mount an unlikely title challenge despite concerns over inconstancy at the Westfalenstadion. Marco Rose’s team are in the midst of a transition with Erling Haaland also sidelined through injury for the rest of the year, yet they are still hanging on to the coat tails of their fiercest rivals.

If the current pattern continues over the course of the full season, there will be a title race at the top of the Bundesliga for the first time in a number of years. The number of emphatic victories produced by Bayern Munich will only count for so much if they trip over their only feet every so often, as they have done with defeats to Eintracht Frankfurt and Augsburg.

And yet there remains a sense that Bayern Munich will accelerate away from the rest of the competition as they tend to do. Next month’s match against Borussia Dortmund will give them the chance to open up a wider gap at the top of the Bundesliga. Defeat, however, would raise some questions about Nagelsmann’s side.

As recently as last month, there was a debate within German soccer over the damage Bayern Munich’s dominance was doing to the Bundesliga. A top-of-the-table clash between the Bavarians and Bayer Leverkusen resulted in the defending champions scoring five, making a mockery of the idea that the title could end up anywhere other than the Allianz Arena this season.

With RB Leipzig in a fallow year following the departure of Nagelsmann at the end of last season and Rose still getting his feet under the desk at Dortmund, it seemed unlikely that Bayern Munich would be challenged for a 10th straight Bundesliga title. They remain the favourites, but there have been some cracks in their recent performances.

At RB Leipzig, Nagelsmann used a back three to keep his side strong in defence when the wing backs were given so much freedom to get forward. Now at Bayern Munich, he still likes his wide defenders to offer width and provide an attacking outlet (see Alphonso Davies), but has stuck with a back four which sometimes leaves the Bavarians vulnerable.

Nagelsmann could shift his side into a back three to address this, but the result could stifle Bayern Munich in the final third where they do their best work. Kingsley Coman or Serge Gnabry are flexible enough to be utilised in the right wing back position to keep them in the team. However, there’s a balance to the side that Nagelsmann runs the risk of disrupting.

Dortmund’s challenge could be turbo-charged by the return of Haaland. The Norwegian had scored nine goals in just six Bundesliga appearances before injury sidelined him. His firepower could be enough to push Rose’s team ahead of Bayern Munich. It’s somewhat impressive that Dortmund have managed to stay this close to their rivals without their best player and top scorer.

There’s no doubting Bayern Munich boast the strongest and deepest squad in German football right now. At their best, they are better than any other side in the Bundesliga. They might even be the best team in Europe on their day, with Nagelsmann one of the sharpest tactical thinkers around. But their lapses are mounting and there are only so many that can be absorbed before a genuine title race is called at the top of the Bundesliga table.

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