Technically, the 2022-23 Bundesliga race does not begin when RB Leipzig hosts Bayern Munich in Saturday's DFL-Supercup (stream LIVE, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+, US only). But symbolically, it kind of does.
Let's review. Bayern, the 10-time defending league champion, has managed to bring in major talent in this transfer window, but they also lost the best centre-forward in the world in the process. Meanwhile, the rest of last year's top four has either brought in exciting talent as well (Borussia Dortmund) or has actually kept its most exciting players in town for another season (RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen).
Bayern could be ready to roll to another title in Julian Nagelsmann's second season in charge. Caesars Sportsbook gives the champs -500 betting odds, equivalent to an 83% chance, while FiveThirtyEight's projections, typically rather conservative at the beginning of a given season, still give them a 71% chance. (RBL has odds equivalent to about 8% from both the books and 538.) But on Saturday, we might learn a thing or two about the challenges the champs could face.
What last season taught us
Plenty has changed, but here are three relevant takeaways from last year's Bundesliga statistics:
RBL topped the table in 2022. Here is the top of the league table for the second half of last season, or Ruckrunde.
1. RB Leipzig: 36 points (+27 goal differential)
2. Bayer Leverkusen: 36 (+21)
3. Borussia Dortmund: 35 (+18)
4. Bayern Munich: 34 (+20)
5. Union Berlin: 30 (+4)
Injuries and plain-old iffy form rendered Bayern rather mortal in the new calendar year, particularly in midfield, and that remained the case even after their surprising Champions League quarterfinal elimination against Villarreal. Because they had built a nine-point lead at the halfway point, they were able to fend off any serious challenges and clinch the league title with three matches remaining.
But each of last year's other top-four finishers looked as strong as the champs for most of the home stretch. Can any of them parlay that into a full-season success?
(Probably not. But please keep reading.)
Christopher Nkunku was the best player in Germany. Lewandowski remained the best goal scorer in the Bundesliga, but Nkunku, playing as often as not as a left-centre forward alongside Silva, took his game to a new place. In 52 matches in all competitions, the 24-year old combined 35 goals with 16 assists from 90 chances created. All three figures were the best on the team.
RBL began the season in dreadful fashion, losing three of their first four league matches and heading into the midseason break both in 10th place in the league and already eliminated from the Champions League. But Domenico Tedesco both stabilized their defense and further unlocked Nkunku's potential -- 20 of his 35 goals came after the break -- and reaped the benefits. RBL won the DFB-Pokal, its first major trophy, and reached the semifinals of the Europa League before an upset loss to Rangers.
Bayern was vulnerable in transition. Here are last year's goal differentials in what I call transition possessions: possessions that (a) start outside of the attacking third and (b) last 20 or fewer seconds.
1. Bayer Leverkusen: +0.65 per match (0.94 scored, 0.29 allowed)
2. RB Leipzig: +0.47 (0.76 scored, 0.29 allowed)
3. Bayern Munich: +0.26 (0.68 scored, 0.41 allowed)
4. Borussia Dortmund: +0.24 (0.76 scored, 0.53 allowed)
Granted, Bayern was only "vulnerable" in that it didn't rank first, but while it flashed plenty of brilliance in quick attacks, opponents were able to catch it out of position in defense. More to the point, both RBL goals during Bayern's 3-2 head-to-head home win in February were scored in transition possessions. Thus far, all of RBL's key transition players -- Nkunku, fellow forward Andre Silva, winger Dominik Szoboszlai, wingback Angelino -- return for 2022-23.
(Were these three takeaways all Leipzig-friendly? Absolutely. Virtually every other statistic was Bayern-friendly, so it was difficult to take anything useful from that.)
Meet the "new" Bayern
Bayern's key departures (stats in all competitions):
FW Robert Lewandowski (Barcelona): 4,005 minutes, 50 goals, six assists from 51 chances created
DF Niklas Sule (Borussia Dortmund): 2,519 minutes, 216 ball recoveries
MF Corentin Tolisso (Lyon): 1,071 minutes, three goals, three assists from 24 chances created
DF Omar Richards (Nottingham Forest): 577 minutes, 40 ball recoveries
MF Marc Roca (Leeds United): 455 minutes, five chances created, 35 ball recoveries
FW Sadio Mane (Liverpool): 3,939 minutes, 23 goals, two assists from 66 chances created
DF Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus): 3,692 minutes, three goals, 173 ball recoveries
MF Ryan Gravenberch (Ajax): 3,110 minutes, three goals, six assists from 38 chances created, 200 ball recoveries
DF Noussair Mazraoui (Ajax): 2,691 minutes, five goals, four assists from 41 chances created, 188 ball recoveries
FW Mathys Tel (Rennes): 81 minutes, one chance created
MF Konrad Laimer (RB Leipzig): 2,435 minutes, five goals, six assists from 30 chances created, 176 ball recoveries
At first glance, it seems Bayern has done an incredible job of improving last year's primary issues -- transition defense and midfield depth -- while potentially seeing its greatest strength diminished a bit.
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The biggest occupier of football headlines in Bavaria in recent months was, of course, Lewandowski's departure for Barcelona, as losing him means losing the surest attacker in the sport. To be sure, Bayern still boasts a bounty of attacking talent -- new addition Sadio Mane, annual Bundesliga assists leader Thomas Muller, wingers Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman, teenage mini-Muller Jamal Musiala and, when the club deems him ready, the 17-year old Tel. But the center of gravity has certainly changed and, while you can come up with a list of potential replacements for most positions on the pitch, there aren't many 50-goal scorers in the world.
"Lewandowski was a big part of the team," left-back Alphonso Davies told ESPN during their preseason U.S. tour. "[He was] a goal-scoring machine. You give him the ball in the air, on the ground, and he'll finish it for you. He's gonna be missed, but I'm sure Julian [Nagelsmann] has a plan in his head."
"There are not so many world-class strikers around," Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn told ESPN, but as one does in the preseason, Kahn attempted to spin a potential negative into a potential positive: without Lewandowski, Bayern can attempt to become less predictable, too. "I think in our team we have so many options, so many possibilities. Additionally, when you look at Julian Nagelsmann, he's a very [tactically] savvy coach, he has many thoughts in his mind. We are very flexible, so this could be hard for our opponents."
Having Mane certainly won't hurt. A key member of Liverpool's brilliant squad from recent seasons, the 30-year old has certainly proven capable of filling at least part of both the goal scoring and leadership gaps Lewandowski left behind. "He's a calm guy, a down-to-earth, humble guy," Davies said, "but on the pitch you can tell he's a leader. He wants the ball. He tackles like a defender." He has played primarily as a winger, but one assumes he might occasionally take on a more central role in Munich.
Still, 50 goals left town with Lewandowski, and all of the new additions combined for 34 last season. There remains a gap to fill. "I think we have to score [more] as a team," Muller said. "We have to put it maybe on different shoulders, but maybe also the static of our game on offense will change a little bit. Maybe we score 10 goals less in the season, but maybe we have a different style of play."
If Bayern indeed needs to throttle back and become a bit more defensively sure, Nagelsmann could have the pieces for that. Bayern addressed two immediate weaknesses by raiding Ajax: Mazraoui gives Nagelsmann the sort of full-service right back (or right wing-back) that didn't really exist on the roster last season, while the 20-year old Gravenberch is one of the most complete young midfielders in the world, capable of filling in for either of Bayern's stellar central midfielders (Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka).
De Ligt, who joined from Juventus, was a particularly interesting addition: more of a want than a need. Even without Sule, Bayern still had a potentially strong back three of Lucas Hernandez, Dayot Upamecano and Benjamin Pavard, but Bayern was intrigued by both his leadership ability and his availability. While Bayern's overall defensive numbers were sound, moments of vulnerability in transition were indeed costly, particularly against Villarreal in the Champions League. Addressing that by adding the expensive but well-regarded 22-year old was appealing.
"He's very young, but he has the ability to lead a team," Kahn said. "I think our opponents scored too [many] goals against us. I was a goalkeeper -- I don't like 4-3 or 5-4. The audience likes it better; not me."
"[De Ligt] is a big boy," Muller said. "I think we can expect a lot."
Both Lewandowski's official departure and de Ligt's arrival happened rather recently, and Bayern may need an adjustment period before reaching full steam. Regardless, Saturday's matchup with RBL will give us a good indication of where it is right now.
Continuity in Leipzig
RB Leipzig's key departures (stats in all competitions):
DF Nordi Mukiele (Paris Saint-Germain): 2,438 minutes, two goals, four assists from 21 chances created, 176 ball recoveries
MF Tyler Adams (Leeds United): 2,060 minutes, 140 ball recoveries
GK Josep Martinez (Genoa on loan): 270 minutes, -1.0 goals prevented (per StatsPerform)
FW Ademola Lookman (return from Leicester City loan): 2,351 minutes, eight goals, six assists from 42 chances created, 154 ball recoveries
FW Alexander Sorloth (return from Real Sociedad loan): 2,247 minutes, eight goals, one assist from 30 chances created
GK Janis Blaswich (Heracles Almelo): 1,980 minutes, 2.4 goals prevented
MF Xaver Schlager (Wolfsburg): 1,166 minutes, one assist from six chances created, 111 ball recoveries
MF Ilaix Moriba (return from Valencia loan): 1,197 minutes, one assist from six chances created
MF Konrad Laimer (rumored to Bayern): 2,435 minutes, five goals, six assists from 30 chances created, 176 ball recoveries
DF David Raum (Hoffenheim): 3,029 minutes, three goals, 11 assists from 88 chances created, 217 ball recoveries
The transfer window doesn't close for another month, so we don't yet know if Laimer will still be sporting a Red Bull logo for this coming season -- Nageslmann, his former RBL manager, has expressed a strong desire to acquire his rights, but the club is attempting to hold onto him for one more season -- or if RBL will complete a move for the brilliant Raum. Regardless, one key name did not appear on the departures list above: Nkunku's. The 2021-22 Bundesliga player of the year signed a new contract with the club through 2026 and while one assumes the sport's richest clubs will try even harder to sign him next summer, he will be in Leipzig for 2022-23.
Silva is now more familiar with his new confines; he finished with just 17 goals in all competitions in his first season with Leipzig (he had 29 for Eintracht Frankfurt in 2020-21), but 14 of those came after a slow first three months. Plus, RBL still boasts the talents of both veterans Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg and fun, younger attackers like Szoboszlai and, potentially, Sorloth or Lookman. Like Bayer Leverkusen, RBL can call on both raw talent and continuity this season, which could make them Bundesliga contenders if Bayern's adaptation period is longer than expected.
Even Bayern would admit it: The Bundesliga deserves an awesome title race
"I would like the Bundesliga to keep their best players, that's for sure," Coman told ESPN, "because the harder the battle, the better the win. We always want the teams to be as good as possible, and I don't enjoy easy wins."
Though due in large part to the club's own strength and consistency -- strength you wouldn't want to remove from the equation if you're the Bundesliga -- it's definitely difficult to see Bayern's 10-year league title streak as anything but a negative for the league.
This issue has been a frequent topic of conversation in this and every offseason during Bayern's streak, and while higher-ups have discussed any number of potential solutions. Some, like Kahn, have even expressed support for getting rid of the league's celebrated 50+1 ownership model.
"[50+1] is not a disadvantage for Bayern Munich, it's an advantage," he said. "But we are talking about the competition. What can we do in the German Bundesliga to try to have more competition for the championship? If you win 10 times in a row, we must talk about some changes and if you maybe abolish 50+1, so investors can have the majority [voting rights for a club], maybe that could change the system.
"It would be to our disadvantage, but we are very open because we need competitive balance in the Bundesliga."
In the meantime, the best possible outcome for the league is to retain its key, non-Bayern stars. Indeed, RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen have done just that, and after topping Bayern in the Ruckrunde, no less. Borussia Dortmund lost Erling Haaland as expected this offseason but made some exciting additions -- FC Salzburg's Karim Adeyemi, Freiburg's Nico Schlotterbeck and Bayern's Sule (plus Ajax's Sebastien Haller, who is out indefinitely after the discovery of a tumor).
It seems all three of these contenders could improve, as could clubs like Borussia Monchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt, who both beat Bayern last season (and, in Eintracht's case, won the Europa League) but underachieved in league play. But if Bayern also improves, that will only mean so much. Plus, Bayern will require more than improved talent: it will also require an improved mentality.
"When you come and you see that [Bayern can] win eight games in a row, then just lose one and everyone will be really mad," Coman said, "you're like, 'Okay, this is high level, and this is why they are there. This is why they can win 10 times the Bundelisga in a row and keep doing it.'"
We will at least get a hint of whether 10 times in a row becomes 11 times on Saturday in Leipzig.