The Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga return this weekend, the first of the major European leagues to do so. There will be a full schedule of behind-closed-doors matches in Germany, as some of the world’s biggest names get back to work.
There will be a Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke on Saturday, Bayern Munich’s trip to face Union Berlin on Sunday, and a Monday night special between Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen too. Basement battles, European tussles and, naturally, the odd mid-table dead rubber will all be featured.
In the UK, BT Sport has announced that all games will be televised live, with a bumper audience anticipated.
But it’s not just supporters who will have a close eye on events. Clubs, managers, agents, scouts, medics, broadcasters and executives all have reason to tune in.
Here, Goal explains why England will be watching Germany so closely in the coming days and weeks…
We’ll start with the most obvious, shall we?
As Premier League clubs continue to debate the merits of a June return, and as the UK government continues to offer mixed messages and little by the way of reassurance, their German counterparts have been well ahead of the curve for some time.
The last Bundesliga fixture, between Borussia Monchengladbach and Koln, was played on Wednesday March 11, just two days after the last Premier League game took place, Leicester’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa.
But while German football, and indeed German society, had already begun to prepare for the impact of Covid-19 – Gladbach vs Koln was played behind closed doors – the English game was a lot slower to respond. Indeed, had Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta not tested positive on Thursday March 12, it is likely that an entire round of games, with supporters present, would have taken place that weekend.
Germany, like most nations, has been heavily affected by coronavirus. There have been close to 200,000 cases but, unlike the UK for example, they have been able to keep the fatality rate relatively low, with fewer than 8,000 deaths so far.
Widespread testing, greater availability of ventilators and intensive care beds, and clearer government communication have all played a part. Germany was able to begin relaxing its lockdown measures last month, and the return of professional football was confirmed by Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 6.
There has been some opposition – some German states had argued for a longer quarantine period while supporter groups have protested against the idea of ‘ghost matches’ – but generally the progress has been smooth, if anything can be in these times.
Meanwhile, the Premier League remains as divided as ever…
The safety measures
The biggest issue surrounding football’s return has been that of player safety. In England, several Premier League players have expressed concerns, but we can expect club doctors and fitness staff to be liaising closely with their Bundesliga colleagues as they look to assuage such fears.
Nat Phillips, on loan from Liverpool with 2. Bundesliga side Stuttgart, explained the measures being taken by German clubs in an interview with the Reds’ official website this week.
Phillips said: “When we first went back [to training], it was small groups so we’d arrive at 15 or 20-minute intervals with three or four of the players that you were training with; standard social distancing, maintaining two metres apart even around training.
“We all got our own parts of the dressing rooms, so there was only ever four or five players in one dressing room at a time. The sessions, there was no contact, it was mostly technical work, whereby you wouldn’t be coming into close contact with each other at any point during the training.
“We had our temperature checked every morning as we arrived at the training facility. You took your kit home, and drove to and from training in your kit. So you didn’t spend much time at the ground and when you did you still maintained distance from each other, even on the training pitch.”
Teams returned to full-contact training across Germany last week, with players tested for Covid-19 up to four times a week. Dynamo Dresden, bottom of 2. Bundesliga, were the first club to announce positive tests for players; their game away at Hannover, scheduled for Sunday, has been postponed while the squad is placed under a two-week quarantine.
The rest, though, are scheduled to go ahead. Teams playing away this weekend - including Stuttgart, who are at Wiesbaden – have been isolating in hotels with no contact with anyone outside of the football club. Players who travel to training together in cars are instructed to wear masks and gloves, with general social distancing still encouraged away from the training pitch.
For Premier League clubs, the question is how effective these measures are, and whether they can be implemented, logistically speaking, in this country. There has been good dialogue and information sharing between medical staff which should, in theory, aid the process if, or indeed when, the English game returns.
The transfer targets
One of the biggest uncertainties surrounding football – and there are a few – surrounds the future of the transfer market.
Clubs across the world have seen their revenues decimated by the coronavirus shutdown, and with fans unlikely to be allowed into stadiums for many months yet, and the expectation that both broadcast and sponsorship income will suffer, a swift recovery is unlikely.
The expectation, then, is that there will be a significant drop in spending. Several sources have told Goal they are anticipating one of the quietest transfer windows on record, with free transfers and loan signings at the top of the agenda for most clubs.
Still, some will continue to track long-term targets. Manchester United and Chelsea had, pre-Covid-19, put in plenty of work with Dortmund star Jadon Sancho, while Liverpool were widely expected to move for striker Timo Werner, whose RB Leipzig team-mates Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate and Marcel Sabitzer were also attracting interest from England.
Others, such as Bayer Leverkusen pair Kai Havertz and Leon Bailey, and the Werder Bremen attacker Milot Rashica, have also been watched by Premier League clubs.
With traditional ‘face-to-face’ scouting off the table for the time being, and with the off-field circumstances providing a real test of character, fitness and mentality for players, there will be plenty of work for UK talent-spotters to do.
The loan players
In recent seasons, Germany has become one of THE places for young, upcoming British footballers to learn their trade. Sancho was something of a trailblazer, with his example followed by the likes of Reece Oxford (Augsburg), Ademola Lookman (Leipzig) and Rabbi Matondo (Schalke).
Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea have all sent players on loan to the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga.
Chelsea have Ethan Ampadu, the Wales international, at Leipzig, although the 19-year-old had made only three league appearances prior to Covid-19. It will be interesting to see if the former Exeter youngster can feature more regularly in a side that still harbours title ambitions.
Liverpool, too, will hope that both Marko Grujic (Hertha Berlin) and Taiwo Awoniyi (Mainz) can get more game time. Grujic had dropped out of the starting XI for Hertha prior to football’s suspension, but with new coach Bruno Labbadia promising a clean slate for all, the Serbian midfielder will hope to get his chance.
Awoniyi, meanwhile, has endured a frustrating season with Mainz, making only six appearances. Liverpool also have the aforementioned Phillips, hoping to secure promotion to the Bundesliga with Stuttgart.
Those three are not expected to become first-team regulars at Anfield, but Liverpool hope they can showcase their talents to potential suitors – whether on loan or on a permanent basis.
The same might be said for Jonjoe Kenny, on loan at Schalke from Everton. The England Under-21 full-back has made a good impression in Gelsenkirchen, making 26 appearances, and having recently turned 23, could face a make-or-break summer in terms of his Toffees future.
Everton may also be interested to see how former players Lookman, at Leipzig, and Anthony Evans, who joined the Bundesliga’s bottom club Paderborn in January, fare.
So, what will it all look, sound and feel like? We know that clubs will be allowed to play games in their own stadiums, albeit without supporters present - although Monchengladbach have come up with a novel scheme that allows fans to purchase a cardboard cut-out with their own face on, which will then be placed in the stands. More than 12,000 have been sold, at a cost of €19 each. The proceeds will go to local charities.
Elsewhere, we know that all games will be televised, and that broadcasters will not attempt to artificially add atmosphere out of consideration for fans – although it is understood that Sky Germany may offer a ‘crowd noise’ option for viewers.
They have already agreed to some free-to-air matches, the aim of which is to allay fears that fans might gather in bars or public spaces to watch games.
Saturday’s derby between Dortmund and Schalke, which would usually attract a crowd of more than 80,000 at Signal Iduna Park, is seen as the first big test as to whether fans are ready to respect social distancing guidelines, though Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert says there is “no suggestion” that supporters would risk their own safety by congregating at stadiums, whether to support or protest.
Either way, for other leagues hoping to restart – in particular the Premier League – it will be fascinating to see just how ‘ghost football’ looks, how it sounds and how it feels.
It’s football, yes, but not as we all know it. Not now, and not for a good while, one suspects.