While it is not unusual for one or two teams to upset the odds or disappoint, for pretty much everyone to either outperform expectations or fall well short is extraordinary. None more so than Borussia Dortmund, who go into the winter break ten points clear.
Dortmund were braced for a year of transition, having made the decision to rely heavily on youthful talent – theirs is the youngest starting eleven in the league. They lost their first and last games of their opening 17, but in between they managed 14 wins and a draw while studiously avoiding any title talk.
Mario Götze, 18, and 22-year-old trio Kevin Grosskreutz, Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer all made senior Germany debuts in 2010 and the only place where a lack of experience perhaps told was in the Europa League, where they fell in the group stage. “Overall we have had a very successful and educational first half of the season,” said midfielder Nuri Şahin.
An even bigger upset has arguably been the rise of 1. FSV Mainz, who began with seven straight wins and have never fallen away as pundits suggested; they go into the new year in second. Amidst the carnival atmosphere, Thomas Tuchel had built a strong side with experience in defence and a promising forward line.
Tuchel has rotated his squad, giving every player a part of the success.
“In 17 games we’ve got 33 points,” the coach said. “That’s almost two per match, a very good ratio. My boys have gone into every match like it is their last: it’s the only way they can perform at the top.”
They are not the only surprises at the top. Hannover 96 are fourth, two points behind Mainz, while Freiburg, Eintracht Frankfurt and 1899 Hoffenheim are also in the top eight. All are reaping rewards for stability: Hannover coach Mirko Slomka’s job was not questioned even after a German Cup exit at fourth-tier Elversberg; Eintracht did not panic when they had only three points after five games.
On the other hand, expected challengers Hamburg, VfL Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen, VStuttgart, Schalke and Bayern Munich are lagging. Stuttgart, unbeaten in the Europa League, are second from bottom and on to their third coach of the season in Bruno Labbadia.
Meanwhile, last season’s big two are in the obscurity of mid-table. Bayern have made their worst Bundesliga start ever and, while now up to fifth thanks to Mario Gómez’s goalscoring form, are 14 points behind Dortmund. Critics are split as to whether their woes are down to post-World Cup fatigue, injuries to Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben or the team lacking hunger after so much success last term.
Schalke coach Felix Magath brought in 13 players in the summer “to prepare the team for the Champions League”. They have made the round of 16, yet in the Bundesliga they were down at the bottom until a recent upturn lifted them to tenth. They and Bayern will need much more if they are to overtake Dortmund in spring.