Hinrunde Review: Augsburg’s Battle Against the Drop

Before we analyze Augsburg’s Hinrunde, let’s rewind 12 months to when Jos Luhukay’s side were second-bottom of the Bundesliga and second-lowest goalscorers in the league. As his successor, Markus Weinzierl, takes a look at the current table, he sees his team sitting second from bottom in the standings, with the second-fewest goals scored in the league. Of course, even though last season’s side started the new year with a defeat to Freiburg, a single loss in the following 10 matches helped them finish the campaign in 14th, eight points clear of automatic relegation. A similar turnaround this time is not impossible, but there are several factors that make it even less likely.

Most significant is of course the league table itself.  While the club’s 17th position is unchanged from a year ago (at that point they were sitting on 15 points, only three away from safety), this time they are stranded on nine points with a solitary league win, three points behind Hoffenheim in the relegation play-off spot , and 10 off a resurgent Wolfsburg in 15th.

Equally worrying is the fact that the club’s league ranking is not an unfair reflection of their season thus far – Augsburg are a team with problems in all areas. Naturally, with just 12 goals in 17 matches, a lack of firepower is at the top of that list, so let’s start up front. New signing Aristide Bancé scored goals in the Bundesliga during his previous spell at Mainz and was supposed to be the main goal threat, but so far has looked off the pace and out of his depth in the opening matches and has been restricted to substitute appearances since. Stephan Hain and Torsten Oehrl both had opportunities up front in Bancé’s absence but have seldom been more effective than the Burkina Faso striker was. The fact that the trio (Bancé, Hain and Oehrl) have two goals between them from just under 30 hours of playing time this season tells its own story.

The side have particularly struggled to score away from home, with their shoddy total of five goals the lowest in the league. In fact Augsburg have managed to take points off several of their relegation-battling rivals in Fürth, Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg and Nürnberg—but they only netted once in those four matches. If they are to climb to safety, finding match-winning goals against teams of that calibre during the Rückrunde will be essential. With that in mind, the return of the sometimes-maligned Sascha Mölders may prove significant. Mölders may not be the most clinical of finishers, the most technically gifted of players, nor even the hardest worker in the Augsburg squad, but since his return from injury he has scored four times in six starts and one sub appearance to put him top of the club’s scoring charts at Christmas. He will need to continue that rich vein of form into the second half of the season if FCA are to hang onto their top-flight status.

Another returnee, this time in midfield, will have a similarly important role to play. Korean international Ja-cheol Koo was one of the Bavarian side’s most impressive performers last term, but missed a large chunk of the Hinrunde due to a torn ligament. However, as well as providing a much-needed creative outlet, he has netted twice since his return. All five of his goals last season were scored in the second half of the season, so fans at the SGL arena will hope there is more to come from the former Wolfsburg man.

Despite their poor results, there have been some positives for Weinzierl to take from his team’s performances. Augsburg consistently make life difficult for their opponents with busy, concerted pressing, and, although the match ended in another defeat, anyone who saw their DFB Pokal match against Bayern Munich couldn’t fail to notice that spirit remains high. The team looked confident from the start, didn’t give up hope after falling behind and, while they are unquestionably one of the more direct outfits in the Bundesliga, at times they also demonstrated some slick passing. The problem throughout for Augsburg has been turning those occasional nice moves into clear-cut chances, and finishing them when they do: although they sit a surprising sixth in the table for chance creation, the fact that they have the highest percentage of shots from outside the area (49%) and the third-lowest pass success rate (76%) in the league is symptomatic of their inability to pick out the killer final ball.

Like any team in such a lowly league position at this stage (with the possible exception of Kaiserslautern last year), Augsburg also have issues to solve in front of their own goal and the manager would do well to analyze some of his own decisions. Midfielder Daniel Baier has been one of FCA’s more impressive performers going forward, but he has arguably not been put to use in the best way for his team. Often playing as one of two central midfield “number sixes”, his natural inclination to push forward tends to leave space in behind. A feature of Augsburg’s play this season has been too much room between defence and midfield, and often this comes down to the remaining Sechser being overwhelmed or simply beaten by a more skillful attacker. Weinzierl went a step further in the battle of the bottom two at Fürth, opting for Koo alongside Baier in the middle. In theory this was an attacking selection, but the end result was a reduction in the danger posed to the opposition by two of his more talented players, and the final score of 1-1 was not really helpful to either side.

Of course, the fact that Augsburg have the joint third-worst defensive record in the league is not purely down to problems in midfield. Bearing in mind that the highest-rated of their defensive players according to kicker is goalkeeper Mohamed Amsif (average mark 3.33), the defenders have not covered themselves in glory. Perhaps the most striking example of how things have gone wrong for Augsburg this season was the 3-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. By no means an easy match, but one that, on the balance of play, they could have gotten something out of. Having gone behind to an early Marco Reus wonder goal, FCA were the better side for long periods, finishing the match with more possession and shots than the reigning champions. One move in particular shortly before the break involved Dortmundesque passing, but Baier was ultimately denied by a strong save from Roman Weidenfeller. However, they couldn’t force an equalizer, and not long after half-time they fell further behind in embarrassing fashion: a long goal kick was allowed to bounce around 35 yards from goal by Sebastian Langkamp, who in the process left a gaping hole in central defence; all that was needed was a single touch by Mario Götze to play Robert Lewandowski in on goal for the kind of chance he rarely misses.

It was a goal that combined the type of individual errors that have plagued the team’s season with the positional problems already highlighted: whether you blame Langkamp for straying from his area, Andreas Ottl for not being in front of him to stop the danger, or Kevin Vogt for failing to fill in the gap at the back – there is no doubt that the goal should have been prevented through better defending. Thereafter, the home side should still have got themselves back into the game – the best chance of the match fell to Knowledge Musona, who hit the post from three yards – but instead they fell further behind. Bereft of passing options, Ottl was robbed in midfield and within seconds a backtracking and off-balance Langkamp had been nutmegged, allowing Reus to get his second of the match. Borussia Dortmund have taken apart some of the best teams in Europe, it’s true, but Augsburg made it easy for them. By the time Mölders’ header from a delightful Matthias Ostrzolek cross got them on the scoresheet, it was far too late.

Outlook for the rest of the season

Perhaps changes on and off the pitch will improve the club’s fortunes: the signing of US international defender Michael Parkhurst from Champions League new boys Nordsjælland looks a sensible one.  Harder to follow are the off-field alterations. After less than three months in the job, Jürgen Rollmann has been replaced as sporting director due to “irreconcilable differences”. The story behind the change remains unclear, but the new man, Stefan Reuter —who won the Champions League with Dortmund as a player—will hope to get some good business done in January.

As it stands, Augsburg’s chances of avoiding relegation look slim. But then, that was also the case this time last year. Of course, the signing of a top-class goalscorer in January would make a huge difference, but that seems unlikely. Bringing in Ji Dong-Won on loan from Sunderland is a relatively risk-free move that may or may not add goals, but is there anything Weinzierl can do to improve results with the players that were already at his disposal? Well, if there are lessons to be learned from the Hinrunde, he might be best off altering his 4-5-1 formation and allowing Baier the freedom to play as the more attacking of the middle three, with two sitters to protect the defence. If they can overload one wing as they did in the surprise 3-1 win over Bremen, the combination of the fit-again Koo on the flank and Mölders in the middle might bring them more success.

Stats courtesy of Bundesliga.de, WhoScored.com and Squawka.com.

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