Really, the only question on the minds of FC Augsburg fans is “Will the team be in the top flight next season, or not?” That is what the second half of the 2011/2012 campaign boils down to. There will be no fighting for European spots, and even the team’s DFB Pokal competition is over. To be, or not to be, a top-tier club.
Augsburg’s Hinrunde performance ended with a in 17th place finish and with a 3-6-8 record. The last weeks of the Hinrunde saw them rise out of the league cellar, but they are only two points above last-placed SC Freiburg and are three points shy of avoiding Nürnberg outside the relegation zone which they also share with 1. FC Kaiserslautern. One’s judgement of the team’s first half not only depends on individual expectations, but whether one sees the glass half full or half empty.
To the optimist, Augsburg performed along the expectations set forth by Sporting Director Andreas Rettig, who back in May stated that “the relegation battle has begun” after Augsburg earned promotion. Rettig, who will be leaving the club in June, also stated that he expects Augsburg to be a “top 20” German club — and with the Bundesliga having only 18 berths, his visualized the club as a “bounceback” team between top-tier and 2. Bundesliga in the future. Perhaps not terribly inspiring, but a realistic expectation for a low-budget side that had very few players with Bundesliga experience going into the season.
Accordingly, an optimist would say that Augsburg did alright; getting a positive result in over half their Hinrunde matches, defeating 2nd place Borussia Monchengladbach and playing well against Bayern Munich until they succumbed in a 2-1 loss; and having only been “overwhelmed” in three matches — their losses away to Dortmund and Schalke, and their home loss to Leverkusen. Augsburg shut out opponents on four occasions in league play and made it to the 3rd round of the DFB Pokal where they lost to a more talented Hoffenheim side away, 2-1.
The pessimist would obviously see things quite differently. Only three wins in 17 matches? The second lowest amount of goals scored, and the second worst goal differential in the league? Only Sascha Mölders is in the top 35 scorers, tied with a multitiude of Bundesliga players on four goals, and no Augsburg player earned even three assists. In addition, the club was shut out five times in the Bundeliga this season. Not very inspiring.
The truth is probably somewhere between the optimist’s rosy view and the pessimist’s dismissal of Augsburg’s Hinrunde efforts. Coach Jos Luhukay has purposely played a more defensive formation than he utilized while in 2. Bundesliga, figuring that it would help the club hold off their more talented Bundesliga competition. That thinking has been somewhat successful, but with a dearth of legitimate goal-scorers on the club, some possible wins have probably ended as draws as Augsburg simply doesn’t score enough goals to win games without a superb defensive effort.
Mölders, midfielders Daniel Baier and Hajime Hosogai, along with midfielders/defenders Lorenzo Davids and Jan-Inger Callsen-Bracker were the only Augsburg players to have totaled over 1,000 minutes of playing time. Injury to veteran starting goalkeeper Simon Jentzsch limited him to 11 league games (although backup Mohamed Assif deputized reasonably well, allowing 8 goals in 6 matches and coming up with some huge saves). Midfielder Axel Bellinghausen, perhaps the best performer on Augsburg’s squad, has been sidelined with knee problems since the club’s 1-1 draw with Werder Bremen on October 21st.
Coach Lukuhay and Augsburg fans will get a quick foreshadowing of the club’s efforts to resist relegation early in the Rückrunde, as Augsburg faces fellow relegation-battlers SC Freiburg and 1. FC Kaiserslautern in its first two matches following winter break. These are two potential wins for a team that has yet to win back to back contests in the Bundesliga. After going their first eight Bundesliga matches without a win, Augsburg need to start off the Rückrunde right and get a win in at least one of these two matches, and preferably both.
The roster is not made up of young players. Goalkeeper Amsif and midfielder Akaki Gogai were the only players under age 23 who played a significant amount of minutes (over 500) in the Hinrunde. This is a squad of veteran 2nd division players, most of whom received their first sustained competition this fall in top-flight competition. One could reasonably expect a higher level of confidence and performance demonstrated by these type of players weathering their first Bundesliga storm and earning positive results in more than half their Bundesliga contests.
A crucial addition to the club for the Rückrunde thus far this winter has been the acquisition of Czech midfielder Jan Morávek on a six month loan from Schalke. The 22 year-0ld only played 145 league minutes in Gelsenkirchen this fall, but featured in 32 matches for Kaiserslautern last season while on loan, scoring 5 goals with 2 assists, and was a crucial part in their impressive 7th place finish. If Moravek can regain his form, he can provide the type of attacking skills and creativity that Augsburg have lacked on a consistent basis — and he’s already opened his Augsburg account with a goal in Augsburg’s 3-0 test match this week against SC Karlsruher. (Augsburg drew 1-1 with FC Ingolstadt in their first winter test match).
Young midfielders Moritz Nebel and Marco Thiede and forward Stephan Hain also saw time against Karlsruhe, indicating that Lukuhay may be interested in working them into the rotation. Perhaps even more importantly, forward Torsten Öhrl, who started the season on the sidelines with injury and only garnered 236 minutes of playing time, played against Karlsruher and also scored a goal.
Augsburg also extended the contracts of goalkeepers Jentzsch and Amsif, defenders Paul Verhaugh, Marcel De Jong and Gibril Sanko and midfielder/defender Jan-Inger Callsen-Bracker recently, giving those players a feeling of permanence on the club. More good news on the Augsburg injury front — Jentzsch is healthy again and has started both of the team’s training camp matches.
Going into the second half of the season, Augsburg have maintained a united front. Lukuhay would not be removed “even if the club lost every game” according to Rettig before the season kicked off, which fosters a sense of stability at the club. Possibly the biggest controversey surrounding the club is now resolved, as popular Augsburg striker Michael Thurk has moved on to 3rd Liga side FC Heidenheim. Lukahay’s decision to not utilize Thurk was a source of discontent among some Augsburg fans (and even inspired some disparing remarks concerning Thurk by club president Walther Seinsch). The only other players leaving the club this winter have been striker Patrick Mayer, who returns on loan to Heidenheim, and 32 year-old defender Uwe Möhrle, who has gone to Energie Cottbus after playing in nine Hinrunde matches for Augsburg.
So finally, will FC Augsburg be, or not be, in the top-flight Bundesliga next season? They do seem a team without controversy that can concentrate totally on the league since their elimination from the Pokal. Adding Moravek, and the healthy return of Hain and Öhrl, would seem to stimulate an attack too dependent on Mölders, and getting Jentzsch back from injury gives them depth between the posts, although the continued absence of Bellinghausen is disconcerting. After posting their first Hinrunde win, Augsburg earned 11 points in their following 9 games, a rate of 1.2 per match — applying that total to the remaining 17 season matches would garner them 20 points….giving them a total of 35, generally enough to forestall relegation. With SC Freiburg, Kaiserslautern, Nürnberg and Mainz also struggling, and VfL Wolfsburg far from safety while undergoing another roster makeover, I’m cautiously optimistic about Augsburg’s chances, although even gaining the 16th playoff relegation spot would provide a tough obstacle in avoiding relegation as the 2. Bundesliga playoff club would likely come from a group consisting of current promotion contenders Fortuna Dusseldorf, SpVgg Greuther Furth, Eintracht Frankfurt or St. Pauli.