It's hard to imagine that a sizable number of Bayern Munich supporters would have been all too happy to trade in €35 million ($48M) buy Mario Gomez for Edin Dzeko 18 months ago. The Germany striker was very nearly sent on loan to Liverpool before the 2010/11 season but regained his form and composure to win over Louis van Gaal, his harshest critic. Under new manager Jupp Heynckes, the 26-year-old Gomez has improved even further. Gomez has not only scored 19 goals in 17 games for Bayern in all competitions but worked hard on his technique to become Europe's best orthodox center forward. His strike rate is even more remarkable if you consider the fact that he's playing without the support of a second striker and spends most of his time battling against two opposition center backs.
There was always a romantic element to president Uli Hoeness' unwavering support for Bayern's most expensive player: Hoeness has a soft spot for powerful center forwards in the mold of Dieter, his younger brother. Football's tactical evolution toward smaller, more versatile attackers threatened to pass someone like Gomez by but his brilliance might yet convince a few teams of the merits of an old-fashioned poacher -- and herald a new/old trend for the big, strong target man.
Michael Ballack's extraordinary career looked destined to end with a whimper not long ago. A serious of injuries made 2010/11 a write-off, and this campaign didn't start better. Bayer Leverkusen coach Robin Dutt hardly played 35-year-old in the opening games but Ballack's experience and eye for goal have emerged as key assets in recent weeks. He's scored two and provided three assists in the last five games; it's now captain Simon Rolfes' turn to find himself on the bench. Bayer needs to find more consistency to achieve its targets in the league and in Europe; Ballack, however, is already a big winner, regardless of the results.
Marco Reus was hardly a nobody before the start of the season, when a host of top clubs were already weighing up offers for the 22-year-old. His seven goals for Borussia Mönchengladbach this season have taken his profile to a whole new level, however. "Rolls Reus," as the tabloids call him, is the hottest young German property after Dortmund's Mario Götze and surely only a few months away from big move. A release clause of €18 million ($24M) no longer looks prohibitive; there aren't too many young players who are intelligent, fast and able to play in any position in attacking midfield.
In August, Thomas Tuchel became the German face of the leading soccer manager computer game. The 38-year-old Mainz 05 coach was widely seen as the next Jürgen Klopp -- a young, emotionally charged manager on the path to greatness. It's since all gone a bit wrong, unfortunately. As Mainz has struggled to replace high-profile departures such as André Schürrle (Leverkusen) and Lewis Holtby (Schalke), three wins in 12 games have left the club precariously close to the relegation places and an increasingly prickly Tuchel blaming the referees. "He's got the safest job in the league," said general manager Christian Heidel before 05's v Stuttgart. What he didn't say is whether Tuchel's job would be as safe in the 2. Bundesliga, the second division.
Only one dismissal so far (Michael Oenning at Hamburger SV) is nothing by Bundesliga standards. Fall usually brings more managerial casualties though, and Marcus Sorg, 45, will have to get results quickly to avoid the ax. His SC Freiburg are at the wrong end of the table even if Saturday's 2-1 win at Nürnberg has eased the pressure somewhat. Sorg's case is slightly helped by the fact that Freiburg has been playing pretty well, all told, but he will still have to pay the price if the board's gamble to keep striker Papiss Demba Cissé looks like bak-firing in the run-up to Christmas.
Former Chelsea sporting director Frank Arnesen was supposed to wake up Hamburger SV, the sleeping giant of German football, and overhaul the top-heavy, expensive squad with some clever signings. The 55-year-old instead fudged the decision about Oenning's removal during the summer and bought five players from the Chelsea reserves to plunge the club into a veritable relegation battle. "I don't underestimate [the Bundesliga]," Arnesen insisted this week. "That only happens to people who have no clue and no experience. I have a clue and experience, too." New manager Thorsten Fink will probably steady the ship in weeks to come but so far, Arnesen has done nothing to justify his reputation as a shrewd international operator, nor his high salary.
Jupp Heynckes (Bayern), Mirko Slomka (Hannover) and Lucien Favre (Gladbach) have all done fantastic work in getting the best out of their squads but Stale Solbakken is this correspondents' manager of the season -- so far -- for turning the eternal head-case that is (was?) 1.FC Köln into a highly organized, functioning collective. The pressure-cooker environment in Cologne will make continued success difficult -- it won't take long before supporters and the media start dreaming about the Champions League -- but nothing seems beyond the cool customer from Kongsvinger. Köln were extremely unfortunate to lose 3-2 away to Werder Bremen on Saturday.
Schalke 04 has one of the best strike forces in the league in Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan and Raul. They have a decent midfield and rather good defense. They should, by rights, be contenders for a Champions League place. You still have to give credit to Huub Stevens for stabilizing a side, however, who were suffering grave hangovers from Felix Magath's buying sprees and from the resignation of Ralf Rangnick. The Royal Blues look the league's third-best side after Bayern and Dortmund and are likely to finish accordingly.
In descending order of awfulness:
1. Sotiros Kyrgiakos, Wolfsburg. The Greek defender has continued where we left off in Liverpool. His record reads 1-1-5 in seven games but the numbers can't convey the extent of his ineptitude.
2. Ilkay Gündogan, Dortmund. Not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination but the midfielder has been lacking the brain and know-how to replace captain Nuri Sahin.
3. Michael Mancienne, HSV. What was Arnesen thinking?
In ascending order of excellence:
3. Moritz Leitner, Dortmund. The 18-year-old has gone from playing in the second division with 1860 to starting in central midfield for the champions in the Champions League.
2. Mohammed Abdellaoue, Hannover. The 26-year-old Norwegian of Moroccan descent no longer lingers in the shadow of team mate Didier Ya Konan. A fast, clever, hardworking striker.
1. Lars Stindl, Hannover. The 23-year-old midfielder has played every game this season and scored a wonderful goal against Kopenhagen in the Europa League. He looks certain to upgrade his career from also-ran to secret star. At least.