Bailey shines, Heynckes' shock return, Cologne and VAR Bundesliga flops
With no Bundesliga football to look forward in the next three-and-a-half weeks, it's as good a time as any to pensively gaze into the rear-view mirror at the tumultuous events that have unfolded so far.
Connoisseurs of the German top flight will concur that while some things were entirely predictable -- Bayern leading the table; Hamburg's relegation worries; the resurgence of Schalke under new coach Domenico Tedesco -- the extent of upheaval at the two top clubs certainly wasn't.
Both Carlo Ancelotti and Peter Bosz did not last until Christmas at Bayern and Dortmund respectively. And strangely enough, there were even bigger surprises in store...
Here are the ESPN awards for services rendered (or not, as it happens) in the first half of 2017-18.
Best player: Leon Bailey, Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Who says there aren't any good players available in January? Bailey, who moved to Die Werkself for €14 million from Belgian outfit Genk in last season's winter transfer window, has truly hit his stride, playing with a composure and consistency that has left more prominent wingers in the shade.
The quick, powerful 20-year-old Jamaican, a friend of Usain Bolt, has netted six times in 14 matches to attract interest from near and far. Leverkusen will not sell him this January, but if Bailey continues to travel at the same lightning speed after the winter break, the BayArena might soon prove too small an environment to cope with his energy and brilliance. A true superstar in the making.
Best XI: Ralf Fahrmann, Schalke (unflashy and dependable); Joshua Kimmich, Bayern (up and down the right like a bullet train); Mats Hummels, Bayern (peerless); Naldo, Schalke (big last-minute goals galore); Philipp Max, Augsburg (the king of assists); Kingsley Coman, Bayern (an heir to Franck Ribery at last?); Naby Keita, Leipzig (a one-man midfield); Daniel Didavi, Wolfsburg (low key heroics); Leon Bailey, Leverkusen (see above); Robert Lewandowski, Bayern (always scores); Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dortmund (always scores -- unless suspended for lack of punctuality.)
Worst team: Cologne
You know things are bad when the German media start making comparisons with mid-60s minnows Tasmania Berlin, the worst-ever side to feature in the Bundesliga. The Billy Goats are unlikely to pick up fewer than the eight points (the equivalent of 10 in the current system) that poor old Tasmania mustered 42 years ago, but a total of six at the halfway stage doesn't bode well for their survival chances.
It's been a spectacular comedown since finishing in the Europa League places last year, and the loss of coach Peter Stoger and sporting director Jorg Schmadtke, the key men behind the club's success over the last four years, will hamper them in the future, too.
Biggest shock: The return of Jupp Heynckes
Bayern's fourth appointment of the 72-year-old was an act of desperation, an emergency measure designed to buy time before the board can agree on a successor. Heynckes has exceeded all expectations, however, uniting the dressing room and bringing back a sense of harmony and order where ill-disciplined had festered.
A run of 14 wins in 15 games in all competitions (before Wednesday's DFB Pokal game against Dortmund) has left the Bavarians hoping they might be able to keep him for another year.
Heynckes, alas, has ruled out an extension. Whoever does eventually succeed him will have a tough act to follow.
Biggest disappointment: VAR
It was supposed to bring balance and justice to German refereeing. Instead, it's been a mess. Some inexplicable mistakes by the men watching the games back in the VAR HQ in Cologne, coupled with a lack of transparency, technological short-comings (no sound; no offside calibration) and the constant moving of goalposts over the exact implementation by the referee have made even the staunchest proponent of the new tool re-assess their views.
Unless the scope for VAR can be defined in narrower, clearer terms and its implementation pulled off with far fewer glitches, German football is unlikely to recommend its wholesale adoption as things stand.
Hold on, let me just check with my supervisor about that last line. Mmmh. OK. Ah, I see. Alright then. So listen up: Having carefully reconsidered the matter, I can confirm that the last sentence will indeed stand. Read on.
Biggest mishap: Robin Zentner vs Borussia Monchengladbach
The Mainz keeper went viral with the finest air-kick ever seen: he mistook the white of the penalty spot for the ball and ended up playing a purely imaginary pass. Luckily for the 23-year-old, he found his bearings in time to prevent the Foals from scoring.
Biggest positive surprise: FC Augsburg
Many predicted a dire season for the Fuggerstadter, but Manuel Baum's men are much closer to the Europa League than to relegation after a superlative half of the season. Baum, a quiet, unassuming strategist, has emerged as a superb tactician, guiding his side to ninth place with flexible but always entertaining football, starring veteran Daniel Baier in midfield and Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason (11 goals).
In left-back Philipp Max (10 assists), Baum might have even unearthed a future Germany international who could solve Joachim Low's age-old problem on the left side of defence.
Baum has dismissed talk of qualifying for the Europa League insisting that his club and the competition would go together well, just like "AC/DC and German pop." Would the Champions League be better fit, perhaps? Augsburg are only four points adrift of fourth spot.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein