Sports broadcaster Gary Lineker once famously said, “Football is a simple game: Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans always win.” That isn’t particularly true at the international level anymore — Germany hasn’t made it to even the quarterfinals in its past three major tournaments — but a version of it remains true within Germany.
The Bundesliga continues to be an incredibly fun and entertaining league, with lots of goals, huge and boisterous crowds (bigger, on average, than those in the Premier League), and plenty of plot twists and down-to-the-wire races when it comes to top-four finishes or relegation. And at the end, Bayern always wins.
Bayern Munich took its 11th straight Bundesliga crown on Saturday with a down-to-the-wire 2-1 win in Koln, but the outcome was the only normal thing about the race itself. Bayern and Borussia Dortmund took turns stumbling to the finish line, and BVB came into the final matchday needing only a home win over Mainz to end Bayern’s streak and take its first title since 2012. But Mainz took an early 2-0 lead, and while Dortmund was able to come back and secure a draw, it wasn’t enough. Bayern tied Dortmund on points and beat Dortmund on goal differential.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
The Bundesliga’s final matchday was an absolute roller coaster, with every match mattering in one race or another and a number of them involving late plot twists. And while it happened in wild and unexpected fashion, Bayern’s title meant that four of Europe’s Big Five leagues saw extremely familiar title champions. Bayern has indeed won every Bundesliga since 2012, Manchester City won its fifth Premier League title in six years, Paris Saint-Germain won its ninth Ligue 11 in 11 years, and while Barcelona won its first LaLiga title in four years, the idea of a Barcelona title is never going to feel particularly unfamiliar.
Only Napoli’s Serie A win was particularly surprising at the end of the day, but the journeys each of these five teams took to their respective titles were still awfully intriguing and worth reflecting on.
Here are five defining moments that helped decide each Big Five race.
How Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga
Aug. 20: Werder Bremen 3-2 Borussia Dortmund
It’s hard to talk about this title race without focusing primarily on BVB’s blown opportunities. Bayern finished with its worst league point total in 14 seasons, all but begging someone to overtake it. Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn and director of football Hasan Salihamidzic were sacked following such a shaky run, and it’s not hard to see why. Borussia Dortmund needed just one more point to put Bayern out of its misery, but that point never came.
This match was one of a couple of spectacular blown chances. BVB led recently promoted Bremen 2-0 at home with 88 minutes gone but allowed three goals in six minutes and suffered a shell-shocked defeat.
It was the start of a particularly fragile run for the Schwarzgelben: Over the next 13 matches, they would manage just 19 points. They lost their last two before the World Cup break and found themselves nine points back of Bayern in sixth place. Only a last-second goal and home draw against Bayern kept it from being even worse.
October-November: Bayern pounds six opponents by a combined 24-5
The Bavarians endured their own shaky run early on, going winless in a four-match string and blowing a late lead in Dortmund. But in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, the champs were absolutely spectacular. They hung five goals on stingy Freiburg and six on both Mainz and Werder Bremen, winning six in a row to surge to the top of the table at the break.
Eric Choupo-Moting and Serge Gnabry each scored six goals in this run, and newcomer Sadio Mane began to find strong form too, scoring twice with three assists. Combined with its typically impeccable Champions League form — Bayern won all six of its group stage matches, winning four matches against Inter Milan and Barcelona by a combined 9-0 — it appeared all was once again right in Bavaria.
Per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings, Bayern entered the break with a 93% chance of winning the Bundesliga and a 24% chance of winning the Champions League, the highest of anyone.
April 1: Bayern 4, Borussia Dortmund 2
Bayern was a bit fortunate when it came to injuries and health in Dortmund. When BVB newcomers Karim Adeyemi and Sebastien Haller both played, the team averaged 2.54 points per game, a pace that would have easily won the league. But they only both played in 13 of 34 matches. Haller missed the entire first half of the season while being treating for testicular cancer, and when he returned, BVB found fifth gear only for Adeyemi to get hurt and miss time instead.
Spurred by Haller’s return, though, BVB came out of the World Cup break in spectacular form, winning its first eight league matches of 2023 by a combined 22-7. Bayern stumbled a bit too, and by March 1, the teams were tied at 46 points. When Bayern hosted BVB on April 1, it had just panic-fired manager Julian Nagelsmann in favor of Thomas Tuchel.
The champs were as vulnerable as they could possibly be, but an early howler from BVB goalkeeper Gregor Kobel prompted an easy Bayern win and gave it the league lead once more.
April 15: Stuttgart 3, Borussia Dortmund 3
It’s hard to top the agony of allowing three goals in six minutes, as BVB did against Bremen early in the year, but this one came close. With Bayern stumbling in the aftermath of their head-to-head win, Dortmund once again had an opportunity to seize control and took an easy 2-0 lead over Stuttgart, which also lost a man to a first-half red card.
Stuttgart scored twice in five minutes to shockingly tie, but Giovanni Reyna’s goal in the second minute of stoppage time appeared to save the day for BVB … nope! Silas Katompa Mvumpa scored in the seventh minute of stoppage time, and Borussia dropped two unforgivable points.
May 27: Jamal Musiala happens
Somehow, the race still wasn’t over. Bayern allowed a late goal in a draw to Hoffenheim and turned 1-0 leads into shocking 3-1 losses against both Mainz and RB Leipzig down the stretch. To win the title, Bayern needed a win over Koln and needed BVB to drop points against Mainz. Bayern got both … eventually. Up 1-0 in the 80th minute, Bayern handed Koln a penalty when Gnabry handled the ball in Bayern’s box. Dejan Ljubicic converted, and it looked like Koln had saved Dortmund’s party.
Jamal Musiala, Bayern’s youngest starter and steadiest player, had other ideas.
JAMAL MUSIALA SCORES AND BAYERN ARE BACK ON TOP OF THE LEAGUE 🤯 pic.twitter.com/rDEE8ksIEt
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 27, 2023
The 20-year old’s masterful strike gave Bayern the lead, and for once, Bayern wouldn’t relinquish it.
How Napoli won Serie A
July: Napoli signs Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Kim Min-jae
After a run of bridesmaid finishes during Juventus’ nine-year title run — Napoli finished either second or third six times in the seven seasons from 2012-13 to 2018-19 — the Azzurri had fallen to seventh in 2019-20 before renewal began. They took a big swing in signing Lille’s Victor Osimhen for a club-record €70 million in the summer of 2020, and they had already brought aboard soon-to-be regulars in fullback Giovanni Di Lorenzo, midfielder Stanislav Lobotka, center back Amir Rrahmani and goalkeeper Alex Meret the year before.
Midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa joined in 2021 too, first via loan then via permanent transfer. That was enough to bring Napoli back to the Champions League via third-place finish in 2021-22.
A nearly perfect summer, however, boosted Napoli into the stratosphere. Anguissa indeed signed full time, as did a useful left back (Mathias Olivera), but Napoli also signed what turned out to be one of Europe’s best defenders (Kim, from Fenerbahce) and most creative attackers (Kvaratskhelia, from Dinamo Batumi) for under €30m combined. Kvaratskhelia has contributed 14 goals and 14 assists in all competitions, and Kim turned in a brilliant performance in replacing Chelsea-bound Kalidou Koulibaly in front of Meret.
Koulibaly was a stalwart in Napoli’s defense for nearly a decade, and yet it is on pace to allow its fewest league goals since 2006 without him.
Sept. 18: Napoli 2, Milan 1
Osimhen has been incredible this season, scoring 28 goals with four assists in 37 total matches. He had a hat trick in a 4-0 win over Sassuolo in October, a brace in a huge 5-1 win over Juventus in January and three of Napoli’s five goals in its Champions League round-of-16 romp over Eintracht Frankfurt. But Napoli’s first defining league win of the season came without him.
Napoli had begun the season by beating Hellas Verona and Monza by a combined 9-2, and its 4-1 destruction of Liverpool on Sept. 7 certainly sent a message. But with Osimhen on the bench with a bicep injury and Kvaratskhelia mostly neutralized (one shot attempt, no chances created), and with defending Scudetto winner Milan on the front foot throughout (Milan attempted 22 shots worth 2.7 xG, and Meret made four humongous saves), Napoli got a penalty from Matteo Politano in the 55th minute and a gorgeous, glancing header from Giovanni Simeone in the 78th to manufacture an unlikely win in San Siro.
The teams had entered the match tied atop the table; Milan wouldn’t draw even again. (Of course, Milan would get its revenge in the Champions League.)
Jan. 13: Napoli 5, Juventus 1
Napoli took an eight-point lead into the World Cup break and had suffered only one defeat in all competitions — a meaningless matchday six loss to Liverpool in the Champions League group stage. Per SPI, its odds of winning the Scudetto were up to 68%, but we didn’t yet know how Napoli would respond to adversity.
… and then we found that out in January. After its first league loss of the year (1-0 to Inter on Jan. 4), Napoli ripped off eight straight wins by a combined 21-2, with the blowout of Juve easily the most impressive of the bunch.
– Marcotti: Why Napoli’s first title since 1989-90 meant so much
First, Osimhen scored off of a rebounded rocket from Kvaratskhelia. Then Kvaratskhelia scored via Osimhen assist. Juve made it 2-1 at halftime, but Kvaratskhelia assisted a Rrahmani goal on a corner and set up an Osimhen header to put the match away in the 65th minute. Eljif Elmas poured salt on the wound with a transition goal in the 72nd.
March-April: Inter takes one point from five league matches
Despite its success in UEFA competitions, Serie A only boasts two teams in the top 30 of the SPI ratings: Napoli and Inter. Inter has obviously proved its high ceiling in Champions League play, but a run at a second league title in three years never really got off the ground. Inter dropped four of its first eight matches, and while it had climbed back into second place by late February, any hopes of a spring rally died when its finishing left.
Inter suffered three 1-0 defeats (including one to relegation-threatened Spezia), a 2-1 loss and a 1-1 draw to Salernitana, and Napoli was able to cruise to the title despite downshifting and suffering some late blemishes.
April 23: Napoli 1, Juventus 0
The finishing touches. It was going to take a miracle for either Lazio (14 points back) or Juve (16, before its point deduction was reinstated) to steal Napoli’s title, and it became almost mathematically impossible after reserve Giacomo Raspadori knocked a low thudder past Wojciech Szczesny in the third minute of stoppage time.
How Barcelona won La Liga
November 2021: Xavi comes home
On one hand, it felt like a familiar act of desperation: When your club has lost its way, you bring in someone from your last golden era, whether he is qualified for the job or not. Having lost Lionel Messi months before, Barcelona had begun the 2021-22 season in dire form under Ronald Koeman; it was tied with derby rival Espanyol in ninth place when Barcelona brought in Xavi, its famed former midfielder, to lead the way. His only managerial experience to date had come with Qatar’s Al Sadd.
This was quite a step up, but as it turns out, he was the right person for the job.
Barca lost to Real Betis in early December then went 15 matches unbeaten, taking down Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid by a combined 8-2 in the process. Barca suffered some bumps late in the season, but youngsters like midfielders Pedri and Gavi were thriving alongside veterans like Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, and even with a questionable financial situation, it’s fair to once again consider Barca a league co-favorite heading into 2022-23.
July 2022: Barcelona signs Jules Kounde (among others)
Despite a bright, young roster, Barca went all-in on 2022-23, triggering a series of “financial levers” and leveraging future revenue in the name of acquiring win-now talent. It was downright irresponsible, frankly, and it did not produce the level of European success club president Joan Laporta had imagined: Barca was knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage for the second straight year then quickly crashed out of the Europa League, as well.
– O’Hanlon: What if Barcelona had made zero signings? (E+)
Any hope of recouping expenses on the sport’s biggest stage died quickly, but still, at least a couple of new additions reaped immediate dividends domestically.
Former Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski, for instance, provided an immediate goal-scoring punch, but Barca won this league title with defense. It allowed just 13 goals in its first 34 matches, thanks not only to stellar goalkeeping from Marc-Andre ter Stegen but also to conservative tactics and excellent back-line play from center back Ronald Araujo and fullbacks Alejandro Balde (another thrilling youngster) and Kounde, who came over from Sevilla in late July.
Kounde ended up playing more right back than center, which evidently wasn’t his preference, but there’s no question that it worked pretty well.
August-September: Robert Lewandowski scores a lot
It speaks to the 34-year-old’s dominance that he has scored 33 goals with seven assists in all competitions, and the overall reaction has basically been, He’s had a pretty decent year.
– Marsden: How Barcelona won LaLiga amid crippling financial issues
He battled a finishing funk in the new year, scoring in just one of eight matches from late February to late April, but his early-season prowess got Barca off to a bright start. He scored nine goals in a five-match winning streak, and despite a 3-1 loss to defending champ Real Madrid on Oct. 16, Barca held a five-point lead atop the table when the World Cup break arrived.
January-February: Marc-Andre ter Stegen makes 16 saves and allows one goal.
Barcelona has had the best defense in La Liga: first in goals and xG allowed, first in shots allowed per possession, sixth in xG allowed per shot. That particular level of defensive prowess is unsustainable — opponents attempted shots worth 28.9 xG in the first 34 league matches but turned that into under half as many goals — and we’ve already seen some regression in the past two matches.
There’s no denying, however, that ter Stegen has played the season of his life. His save percentage was 73.4% in league play from 2015-16 to 2021-22, but it was at 84.5% when Barca clinched LaLiga.
His absolute heater in early 2023 allowed Barcelona to win seven league matches in a row while scoring only 11 goals: it has won eight matches by 1-0 scores since the start of the new year.
March 19: Barcelona 2, Real Madrid 1
Barca’s lead was nine points with 13 matches to go when its ultimate rival came to Camp Nou. An early Araujo own goal dug Barca a hole, but two goals from unlikely sources — fullback Sergi Roberto and, in second-half stoppage time, midfielder Franck Kessie — gave them a comeback win and all but locked up the title.
For good measure, this was the first of four Real Madrid losses in an eight-match span, as the Blancos shifted their focus to the Champions League. That allowed Barca to wrap things up even quicker.
How Manchester City won the Premier League
July 2016: City hires Pep Guardiola
(OK, bear with me here.) The Abu Dhabi United Group’s takeover of Manchester City FC had already reaped dividends before the best manager in the world came to town. City had already won its first top-division title in 44 years in 2011-12, following it up with a smash-and-grab title two years later when Liverpool collapsed down the stretch.
Top-four finishes were the norm, and the acquisition had already changed the English landscape. City became an absolute dynasty, however, when Guardiola moved from Munich to Manchester.
After finishing third in his transition-year debut, the Sky Blues have finished first, first, second, first, first and first. Premier League champions averaged 86.8 points with a +51.1 goal differential in the 10 years before Guardiola arrived; City has averaged 93.0 and +67.4, respectively, in Guardiola’s five title seasons. The league might be catching up a bit (City has averaged 89.0 points in its past three seasons), but only a bit.
July 2022: Erling Haaland moves to Manchester
While a number of Premier League teams spent drastically more in transfer fees than what they brought in, City basically engineered a trade of sorts last summer, sending out Raheem Sterling (to Chelsea for €56m) and Gabriel Jesus (to Arsenal for €52m) and bringing in the 22-year-old Haaland from Borussia Dortmund for €60m.
Having such a singular focal point in attack certainly went against some of Guardiola’s stylistic principles, but considering Haaland has scored 52 goals in all competitions and that City is two wins away from England’s second treble ever, it’s safe to say City figured things out.
August-September: Liverpool wins two of its first 10 matches
Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have easily been the biggest thorn in City’s side of late. They won the 2020 title and forced City to play nearly perfect ball down the stretch to win in 2019 and 2022. When the season began, SPI gave City a 46% chance of winning the league, but Liverpool wasn’t too far behind at 30%.
However, the Reds never got off the ground in 2022-23. Despite signing a sparkly new goal scorer of their own over the summer in Darwin Nunez, they suffered a run of draws and a 2-1 loss to Manchester United to start the season; and after a 3-2 loss to Arsenal on Oct. 9 — giving up multiple goals was a major, recurring issue — they found themselves in 10th place, 13 behind City.
Liverpool would rebound a few times, but every rebound was followed by another funk (one point from four matches in January and February, two from four in March and April), and despite finishing the season on a nine-game unbeaten run, it fell just short of the top four. Liverpool will miss the Champions League next fall for the first time since 2016-17.
April: Arsenal blows back-to-back 2-0 leads
As it turned out, it wasn’t Liverpool that provided City’s biggest challenge; it was Arsenal, led by former Guardiola assistant Mikel Arteta. The Gunners hadn’t finished in the top four since 2016, and they suffered a late fade to finish fifth last season.
They began the season with a 2% title chance, per SPI. At the World Cup break, Arsenal’s title odds were up to 36%. And on April 1, they were at 51% following wins by a combined 11-1 over Fulham, Crystal Palace and Leeds United.
Arsenal had endured a poor February run (one point in three matches) and stood in first place, in control of its destiny. Then it watched a 2-0 lead after 28 minutes turn into a 2-2 draw at Liverpool. Arsenal went up 2-0 in 10 minutes at West Ham and suffered another draw. It had to score twice late to salvage a 3-3 draw at lowly Southampton, as well.
As one would expect by this point, City found fifth gear in this span. Following a frustrating 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest, City won its next seven matches by a combined 18-4. City’s title odds were up to 65% when Arsenal visited the Emirates on April 26. Arsenal needed a miracle.
April 26: Manchester City 4, Arsenal 1
No miracles here. Kevin De Bruyne scored in the seventh minute, and John Stones put City up 2-0 at halftime. The match was well in hand when Rob Holding scored a late consolation goal for the Gunners. Arsenal was undeniably a pleasant surprise this season, but it didn’t have the staying power to stick with City. No one does.
How Paris Saint-Germain won Ligue 1
March 2012: Qatar Sports Investments becomes PSG’s sole owner
It seems a bit cynical to suggest that the French title for 2022-23 was secured in 2012, but is it wrong? Of course not. PSG had won two Ligue 1 titles in its history before 2012, and it has won nine of 11 since, plus 21 other domestic trophies (six Coupe de France wins, six Coupe de la Ligue, nine Trophee des Champions). PSG has overwhelmed its league with pure cash.
Of the 22 largest transfer fees ever paid by a French club, 18 have been paid by PSG, 16 of those since 2012. The club shelled out a combined €400m for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe back in 2017 and 2018; the top 12 transfer fees spent by all French clubs not named PSG went for a combined €385.3m. (Seven of those 12 purchases came from Monaco, by the way.)
And these are just transfer fees; they don’t take into account things like Leo Messi coming over on a free transfer but taking a salary of €35m per year. QSI money hasn’t been able to buy a Champions League title, and PSG has somehow seemed as far away from that as ever since Messi arrived, but it removed about 90% of the suspense from domestic competitions.
May 2022: Kylian Mbappe re-signs
It was the biggest upset PSG has pulled in the QSI era, and it didn’t come on the pitch. For months, it seemed to most that Mbappe would likely be leaving for Real Madrid, his supposed dream club, when his contract expired in July. Real Madrid certainly seemed to think it was going to happen. Instead, he signed a new deal to remain in Paris with new financial terms and, supposedly, a bit more influence behind the scenes at the club.
– Why Mbappe committed to PSG over Real Madrid
Combined with some rejuvenation efforts in midfield — players like Angel De Maria (34 years old), Ander Herrera (33), Idrissa Gueye (32), Rafinha (29) and Julian Draxler (28) left, replaced by Vitinha (22), Nuno Mendes (20), Fabian Ruiz (26), Carlos Soler (25) and Renato Sanches (24) — it felt like a bit of a new day in Paris when the season began. That feeling certainly continued as PSG outscored its first six league opponents by a combined 24-4.
October: Marseille loses three in a row
After a second-place finish last season, Marseille tried its best to take a swing at the champs, spending €115m in transfer fees to bring in players like Braga’s Vitinha and Arsenal’s Matteo Guendouzi. Marseille pulled 23 of 27 points from its first nine matches too, doing its best to keep up with PSG. But Marseille’s margin for error completely disappeared in October, when it lost 2-1 to AC Ajaccio then suffered 1-0 defeats to both PSG and its biggest competition for second place, Lens. Marseille drew with Strasbourg too, meaning it was suddenly 11 points back and in fifth place at the start of November.
Over the past 23 matchdays, Marseille has equaled PSG’s 49 points, but OM was never able to make up for the damage done in October.
January-February: Lens follows a 3-1 win over PSG with one win in six
PSG’s biggest challenge came not from Marseille or Monaco or Lyon or 2021 champion Lille; it came instead from a Lens team promoted from the second division just a couple of years ago. Under third-year manager Franck Haise, Les Sang et Or lost only one of their first 20 league matches and rode goals from Lois Openda and Alexis Claude-Maurice to beat PSG on Jan. 1, moving within four points of the top of the table.
After a peak, however, usually comes a valley. Draws with Strasbourg, Troyes and Brest and tight losses to Nice and Lyon meant that Lens earned just six points in a six-match span. Even with PSG far from fifth gear, the lead over Lens expanded back to eight points. Lens has lost only once since, but that was too large a gap to overcome.
April 15: PSG 3, Lens 1
Lens’ lone loss of late was the proverbial six-pointer. Back to within six points of PSG, Lens needed to spring an upset at the Parc des Princes to make things interesting down the stretch. Instead, Abdul Samed got a red card in the 19th minute, and PSG scored three goals in 10 minutes (one from Mbappe, one from Vitinha, one from Messi) to put away an easy win.
Lens kept winning after that, but the opportunity was gone.