Compressed Bundesliga table is costing historically significant clubs
Inequality might be rising globally, but not in the Bundesliga. The gap, results-wise, between the haves and have-nots has become much smaller this season. By this stage of the 2013-14 season, a whopping 51 points separated league leaders Bayern Munich from bottom team Eintracht Braunschweig. In the current campaign, the gap has shrunk to 39 points.
Another way to look at these figures is to say that the convergence is simply down to Pep Guardiola's team being 10 points worse off this season. But the bigger picture supports the theory of a more thorough shift. In 2013-14, the top half of the table had a combined 391 points after 24 matches and the bottom half 208, a difference of 183 points. This season, the first nine teams have 348 points while the other nine have 217 points, a difference of 131 points -- that's a 28 percent swing.
The fact that there's much more volatility, more movement in the table, is best illustrated by Borussia Dortmund's roller-coaster ride. After finishing 2014 joint-bottom, four wins in a row have seen them rocket up to 10th place, only eight points adrift of a Champions League place.
Down in the relegation zone, the struggling teams are all still close enough to escape the drop with a good run. That's encouraging news, especially for big clubs like Stuttgart (18th), Hertha Berlin (14th) and Hamburg (15th), who didn't expect to find themselves in that much trouble -- again, in HSV's case -- and probably find it harder to adapt to the pressures and specific demands of the basement compared to more experienced survivors like Freiburg or Paderborn.
The downside to running in a closely balanced field is that it's also much easier to fall behind. Twenty-seven points, the ridiculously low tally that enabled Hamburg to contest the relegation playoff last May, will certainly not be enough to avoid going down this time. Paderborn, who are currently in possession of the playoff lifeline, have notched up 23 points already, with 11 more matches to go.
So what's happening here? The disparate makeup of the nine sides in the bottom half doesn't make it easy to devise a broad narrative. Money is a factor, of course. Three of the four "smallest" clubs (Freiburg, Mainz, Paderborn) are all up against it. Augsburg, however, are the outliers of this group. Markus Weinzierl's boys are having another sensational season and are currently sixth.
Stuttgart and Hamburg shouldn't be anywhere near the drop zone if you take their wage bill into account. Their plight is not exceptional, though. Every year, two or three traditionally big clubs get sucked into the relegation maelstrom. Even Dortmund looked like they could sink a few weeks ago.
Part of the reason for that is pure statistics. Germany has the smallest league with only 18 teams, so differences are less pronounced and fewer matches played also increases the impact of luck. While Bayern spend approximately 13 times as much on player wages as Paderborn (200 million euros vs. 15 million), spending twice to three times the money as your opponents seems to have a negligible effect. Frankfurt (whose wage bill approaches 34 million euros, for example), can't presume to sit ahead of Paderborn or Augsburg (20 million euros in wages) in the league, their relative advantage is seemingly too small in absolute terms.
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Dortmund, in case you're wondering, pay approximately 73 million euros in basic wages, but their contracts are heavily incentivised. Hamburg have the fifth-highest wage bill, at around the 46-million-euro mark. Stuttgart pays the sixth-highest wages at 42 million, but all that money hasn't been able to insulate them from failure.
Two things come together at this point. Too many of the big boys have simply used their finances inefficiently, wasting money on players, transfers and agency fees. The smaller teams can't make those mistakes without disappearing; they've survived or even thrived on being smarter and getting more out of their limited resources by better coaching. Theirs is a story that's being played out all over the corporate world: as smaller, more streamlined organisations, they are forced to innovate and can move quicker than oil tankers like HSV, who live on past glories. Mismanagement in many big clubs and very good management at most of the smaller clubs have created an equilibrium behind the handful of consistent performers at the top of the table. If you're a club like Hannover 96, you can play in Europe one year and face a relegation battle the next. You just don't know.
It's no coincidence that both HSV and Stuttgart point to the under-performance of their key strikers as the main reason for their travails. Pierre-Michel Lasogga, the main man up front for Hamburg, has been beset by injuries while Vedad Ibisevic, Stuttgart's most reliable goal-getter in recent years, hasn't scored in 15 months.
What that tells you is that both these teams are collectively not good enough to cope with such a loss, that the importance of key individuals outweighs that of the system in place. The smaller clubs, by contrast, have understood that the key to progress is not buying one or two expensive players but to ensure collective performance levels that can be sustained regardless of the odd injury or misfiring forward.
In an ideal world, you have both: good players and a good system that makes the sum greater than its parts. Bayern and Dortmund, their troubles notwithstanding, have it. Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg could have it. Borussia Monchengladbach are getting closer. Schalke are not.
The equilibrium I described makes life much tougher for aristocrats like HSV and Stuttgart but it also explains why the vast majority of German football supporters (and the clubs) believe that financial fair play regulations are a good thing, not a protectionist measure devised by the elite. For them, "living the dream" doesn't entail being bought by a sheikh or Russian oligarch -- Bundesliga regulations don't allow it -- but seeing their club pull away from the peloton of their own volition, through better scouting, better coaching and better all-around management.
This is what Dortmund have done in the course of the last seven years under Jurgen Klopp and sporting director Michael Zorc. In other words: clubs aspire to be the new BVB, not the new Hoffenheim or RB Leipzig. But first, of course, they have to stay up in the most competitive of the big four leagues in Europe. In Spain (43 points), Italy (48) and England (45), the gap between top and bottom is significantly larger.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.