7. Eintracht Frankfurt
Another surprise…..oh what’s the point. Let’s just say that Frankfurt have had a very solid start to the season, punching way above their weight and collecting the scalps of the top two teams in the league, the only team to do so. That alone is pretty impressive for another club that is fighting the tag of relegation candidate. Two key factors contributed to Frankfurt’s good first half of the season; their defense and their star striker and leading league goal scorer Theofanis Gekas. Michael Skibbe’s team have the league’s fourth best defense but have had a hard time scoring goals (they are 13th in the league in that department). More striking is the fact that Gekas has scored 14 of Frankfurt’s 24 goals, roughly 60% of all their goals. If any team in the Bundesliga is dependent on one player it is Frankfurt with Gekas.
Eintracht went on an impressive 7 game unbeaten streak in October and November before losing 3 of their next 4 games. Just recently they have beaten both Mainz and Dortmund, which is telling of Skibbe’s work since taking over last year. The team is a lot more disciplined and organized in the back and unlike Freiburg and Hannover, both of whom are above them in the table, they do quite well against the “bigger” clubs in the league. That is arguably the greatest improvement made by Skibbe in his short tenure. To accomplish that, Skibbe modernized Frankfurt’s approach by switching to a 4-2-3-1, a formation that catered a bit more to Gekas while also remaining compact defensively.
Best performer:Theofanis Gekas. This is really the most obvious selection in the entire article. As mentioned already, few if any teams depend on one player as much as Frankfurt does on Gekas. Take him out of the equation and Frankfurt find themselves in the drop zone. Gekas is the type of striker that is a dying breed in the modern game, a traditional goal poacher in the Inzaghi mold, built with an inherent nose for goal and instinct for positioning. There is a lot to admire to the art of goal poaching and no one in the league has done it better than Gekas this season.
Biggest disappointment: Halil Altintop. Altintop was bought for Schalke for the sole purpose of adding goals to a team that had difficulties in that department. He played in every single game of the Hinrunde and has yet to score a goal while only assisting two. In all fairness, Altintop has been played as a left wing forward through most of the season but even by those standards he should have done better. Patrick Ochs, a traditional right back recently reinvented as a right wing forward has outperformed him by leaps and bounds under more difficult circumstances.
Question – Is Frankfurt a one-man team? Despite the collective improvement of the team and especially its defense, Frankfurt have been heavily reliant on one player. Aside from two occasions, every time Gekas found the back of the net Frankfurt won their match. On the other hand, Frankfurt have won only one match in which Gekas did not score. Moreover, Frankfurt have collected only 13 of their 26 points at home, meaning that they need to up their results in Frankfurt if they are to stay in the top half of the table.
8. 1899 Hoffenheim
Since their dazzling yet lopsided debut season Hoffenheim have been trying to shed their pretender nouvou riche status and claim a firm grip on the league and a European spot. There is an odd sense of consistency and steadiness about Hoffenheim. In their first season they finished 7th, not bad for a team just recently promoted. Last season they slipped to 11th place and so far they find themselves hovering just below a European spot, four points to be exact. For a team that played in the fourth division only ten years ago and participated in the domestic cup competition for the first time in 2003 their recent Bundesliga performances are great accomplishments. Of course, it is no secret that Hoffenheim have benefited from the financial support of German software entrepreneur Dietmar Hopp. What sets him apart from other football investors nowadays though is the fact that Hopp actually played in the club’s youth setup at one point so his stake is more personal than driven by bottom lines.
Hoffenheim started the season quite well, hovering in the top 6 throughout most of the Hinrunde until going on a winless streak right before the winter break. Until the end of the October, they lost only twice and sat comfortably in third place. Starting in November though, Hoffenheim’s form dipped, winning only 1 of their last 7 games including four consecutive draws. As a matter of fact, Hoffenheim are the draw kings of the league, tying more than anyone else (7). It is those draws that have held Hoffenheim back this season. If those draws would have been wins they would find themselves in second place.
Scoring goals has always been Hoffenheim’s biggest strength. Ralf Ragnick built a young, energetic, creative and talented side that thrives on a high tempo quick passing game. Hoffenheim have the league’s third best offense and a better goal differential than most teams sitting above them but the dropped points have cost them in the Hinrunde. To their credit, their goal scoring is distributed quite evenly across the team. They have several players capable of scoring goals, which gives them different outlets, and versatility on the pitch. Salihovic remains arguably the best set piece taker in the league while the attacking quartet of Ibisevic, Ba, Obasi and Mlapa are all interchangeable and good on the ball.
Best performer: Luis Gustavo. The 23-year old Brazilian originally started his career as a left back but has played mostly as a central midfielder for Hoffenheim this season. The continuous injuries to Tobias Weiss and the sale of Carlos Alberto last season necessitated this tactical adjustment. Fortunately for Ragnick, the change has paid off handsomely. Gustavo has exceeded all expectations so far and has been one of the players of the season. In fact, he has impressed so much that he attracted the interests of Bayern, a transfer that is almost sure to go down, if not in January then inevitably in the summer.
Biggest disappointment: Hoffenheim have been their own worst enemy this season, in particular, their own mental frailty. In most of their draws Hoffenheim took the lead only to fall behind and squander their chance to pick up 3 points. For all of Hoffenheim’s attacking bravado and adventurous style of play they lack the mental discipline to push them over the top. That is one of the reasons why Hoffenheim have failed to secure a European spot in the last two years. In their first year they finished on top of the league after half a season only to have an unprecedented collapse in the second half. Last season they lost much of their attacking impetus and scrapped to an 11th place finish. This year their mentality will be put to the test once again.
Question – Can Hoffenheim finally attain a European spot? Hoffenheim have the firepower to put most teams in the league to the sword and on a good day they can beat any team in Germany but the youthful exuberance may be a hindrance to their European ambitions. As a team, they may be too raw to handle the pressure that comes with such expectations. They have the youngest captain in the league in Andreas Beck and on average the second youngest team in the league. In the last two years their performance in the second half of the season diminished relative to the first so Hoffenheim have to outdo themselves in more ways than just one if they want to play their first season in Europe next year.
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