2. Bundesliga Season Preview: Fortuna Düsseldorf Returns to the Desert

From the cellars of 4th division play, Fortuna Düsseldorf (F95) indefatigably climbed through the levels of German fußball, arriving in top flight play for the 2012/13 season. However, this long climb through the domestic wilds was short-lived, as Fortuna were immediately relegated to 2.Bundesliga after their 17th place finished in the big boys league.

For F95, the story was simple: the club couldn’t score enough goals in the Bundesliga. Fortuna finished 5th from the bottom with 39 goals, while allowing 57, equaling a goal differential of -18. Tellingly, F95 was dead last in shots (9.3) and shots on goal (3.1) per match in the Bundesliga. The club was a league leader, tellingly, in aggression, registering 76 yellow cards and 3 reds. (Aside: is it little wonder the club was a league leader in tackles made per match? A sign of technical inability?) This paucity of positivity for Fortuna was punctuated by only 7 wins during the 2012/13 campaign (2nd worst in the league), as the club was battered with 5 straight losses to close the year. Relegation quality, that.

Jens Langeneke and Andreas “Lumpi” Lambertz with the body language of relegation after Fortuna were relegated on the final day of the season. (Courtesy EPA)

Unfortunately, these results weren’t terribly surprising. In my 2012/13 season preview for the club, I predicted a relegation spot and goal scoring problems for the likable Fortunen and their “bootstraps narrative.” This prediction played out. I’ll miss them – we’ll miss them – in top flight play this year, but at least Andreas “Lumpi” Lambertz and company are not too far away as they return to 2.Bundesliga this season. Meanwhile, F95 will hope to replicate the quick returns to top flight play we’ve seen from Eintracht Frankfurt and, most recently, Hertha Berlin. However, with the likes Köln, Kaiserslatern FSV Frankfurt, and TSV 1860 Munich (and Union Berlin, perhaps?) jostling around for a top flight birth, Fortuna will be lucky to pull off the quick return.

Who’s Out?

Naturally, Fortuna had some turnover, which is typical after clubs are relegated. Here’s a list of the losses:

  • Norbert Meier (Manager). I was sad to see Meier let go, since he’s guided F95 since 2008 and led the club through multiple levels of German domestic leagues to their promotion to the Bundesliga. Of course, the decision to let Meier go is understandable after the disappointing relegation campaign for Fortuna. Meier finished his F95 career with a very solid 93-49-59 record (46% winning percentage).
  • Robbie Kruse (Forward). Arguably, the biggest loss. The Soccero (Australian National team) forward will be missed. In 30 appearances, Kruse scored 4 goals with 8 assists (club best). Kruse joined Bayer Leverkusen, as a replacement for the Chelsea-departed Andre Schürrle, so at least Bundesliga fans will see more of our favorite Soccero this upcoming season. 
  • Dani Schahin (Forward). The 24 year old forward led the club with 8 goals, including some early season heroics to lift the club to victory a couple times. He moves onto Mainz 05.
  • Johannes van den Bergh (Leftback). One of the team’s key passers, who operated along the left flank – F95’s strongest side of attack. Although he only had 1 assist, van den Bergh was heavily involved in getting the ball up the pitch with his passing, as his 39 passes a match was almost best on the club. He moves on to Hertha Berlin.
  • Others: Ken Ilsö (Forward), Robert Almer (Keeper), Ronny Garbuschewski (Midfield), Nando Rafael (Forward), Jens Langeneke (Centerback), Andriy Voronin (Forward, we never knew you … ), Robert Tesche (Midfield).

Who Stayed?

Surprisingly, a fairly large number – for a relegated club. However, this fairly low turnover is cold comfort, given that this core couldn’t keep the club in the Bundesliga to begin with. Here are the key (I’d argue) remaining players:

  • Fabian Giefer (Keeper). Started every match last season. A 3 saves per match keeper. (However, F95 on average gave up 14 shots a match last year.)
  • Adam Bodzek (Centerback). Started 29 matches last season. Led the club in fouls given. As expected from centerbacks these days, almost led his club in passes completed per match (38).
  • Andreas Lambertz (Midfielder). Dear “Lumpi”: heart, soul, fire, and hero of the club. Lumpi has journeyed with F95 since the cellars of the 4th division, making him the rare player to participate in at least 4 levels of domestic play in Germany. He doesn’t score many goals (1 last season) and may not be as skilled as others (he was a club leader in tackles and fouls given up), but he is everywhere on the pitch for F95 (e.g. his man of the match performance against HSV in November) – a player known for his ceaseless running. He also assisted 4 goals and completed 35 passes a match – one of the club’s best in both categories. Most importantly, he’s the leader of this club.
  • Axel Bellinghausen (Midfielder). The 30 year old veteran was, perhaps, a bit underwhelming in his role as left attacking midfielder (3 goals, 3 assists, 24 passes a match). With van den Bergh’s departure at Leftback, Bellinghausen will have a new companion on the left flank this upcoming season.
  • Oliver Fink (Midfielder). A serviceable veteran and attacking midfielder. Fink completed about 35 passes a game – the most involved attacker for F95. Oftentimes, he seemed to possess the greatest attacking awareness on this side.
  • Stelios Malezas (Centerback). The Greek defender was mundanely solid, certainly enough so for a bottom table side, like Fortuna. Malezas wins many of his aerial challenges, passes like you’d expect from a centerback, and didn’t make many gross errors as a defender. See? Boringly solid.
  • Tobias Levels (Rightback). The team leader in passes per match (39) when featured (he started 17 matches), who frequently worked the right flank with “Lumpi.” Perhaps not the most reliable defender in recovering his position though.
  • Leon Balogun (Rightback). Levels’ doppelgänger, who was featured when F95 used a 4-4-2 lineup. According to Squawka’s linear weights formula, his performance varied wildly week-to-week. However, he is the team’s leading challenger (very high success rates in all categories) and ball interceptor.
  • Stefan Reisinger (Forward/Midfielder). The 31 year old was F95’s mercenary striker last season. And relative to Fortuna’s poor offensive performance, he fulfilled his role, scoring 7 goals.

Who’s In?

Some interesting (but low-profile?) new faces join “Lumpi” and crew for the return to 2.Bundesliga:

  • Charlison Benschop (Forward): From Ligue 2 (French) side Stade Brestois 29, Benschop joins F95 after getting his footy legs in the Netherlands (RKC Waalwijk and AZ) and France. He only scored 5 goals (2 assists) last season for Bres and is considered a “high ceiling” type of prospect who has yet to deliver, but could have great potential. Notice his quick run up for this goal (81′) against PSG. He’s worth keeping your eye on.
  • Cristian Ramirez (Leftback): The Ecuadorian back is van den Bergh’s replacement. Ramirez comes to F95 by way of Independiente in Brazil. Fanfare (and Roberto Carlos comparisons) follow him. He’s known for his shutdown defending along the flank and was even given a trial by Borussia Dortmund, who wanted to sign him, but couldn’t because of age resistrictions. Think “high ceiling” again.  You can catch glimpses of him playing on Ecuador’s national side in this video.
  • Others:
    • Giannis Gianniotas (Midfield, from Aris [Greece])
    • Levan Kenia (Midfield, from Karpaty Lviv [Ukraine])
    • Heinrich Schmidtgal (Leftback, from SpVgg Greuther Fürth)
    • Christan Gartner (Midfield, from SV Mattersburg [Austria])
    • Dustin Bomheuer (Centerback, from MSV Duisburg)
    • Michael Rensing (Keeper, from Bayer Leverkusen)
    • Ben Halloran (Forward, from Brisbane Roar [Australia])
    • Muhammet Karpuz (Rightback, from F95 U19)
    • Robin Hller (Keeper, from F95 U19)
    • Ihlas Bebou (Forward, from F95 U19)
    • Timo Furuholm (Forward (Hallescher FC [Germany]).

What’s fun about the new faces is the mystery: who will emerge as a key piece for the club? Will it be one of the *bigger* signings, like Benschop or Ramirez (or even the now backup keeper Rensing from Leverkusen)? Or someone we know virtually nothing about so far? Regardless, Ramirez seems poised to make the biggest immediate impact, given the absence of van den Bergh at leftback. Meanwhile the battle for the starting forward spots is up for grabs with the exits of both Kruse and Schahin.

Line Up Ideas

Despite relegation, almost a whole starting XI worth of players from F95’s top flight squad remain, so given this core’s seasoning and knowledge of one another’s play, I don’t imagine the starting XI will change a whole lot – at first. However, manager Mike Büskens will have some choices to make, especially since most he’s having to replace most of the attack on top. Here’s a possible starting XI:

A possible (eventual?( starting XI for Fortuna.
A possible (eventual?) starting XI for Fortuna.

Lineups are very hard to predict, especially with a club like Fortuna – who’s had a decent amount of turnover since last season. For example, I’ll be surprised if Benschop starts on Week 1, given how recent his signing was; however, I expect him to be in the starting lineup eventually. Additionally, you can also imagine this lineup looking more like a 4-2-3-1 with Reisinger slipping back into the attacking midfield with a lone striker. Or there’s the mystery of who plays (defensive) left midfield. I only penciled Bodzek here (even though the right side is where he usually plays) because of his experience.

The New Boss

Mike Büskens takes over from Norbert Meier, who was dismissed after Fortuna’s relegation. Büskens, from Düsseldorf, played as a midfielder with the club in 1987-1992. Enjoying an 18 year career, Büskens journeyed around the Bundesliga, playing with Schalke, Duisburgh, and Schalke again as he concluded his playing career on their reserve side in 2004. When he retired, his managing career had already begun, as he became an assistant with Schalke in 2002. Remarkably, Büskens never played in fewer than 27 matches a season, as he symbolized durability and reliability.

Büskens managed Schalke’s reserve side and became interim manager of the first team in 2008. He repeated this interim role in 2009 as well.

Of course, Büskens next job was managing Greuther Fürth (2009-2012), leading the club to its first Bundesliga appearance. However, he was sacked in February as Fürth was already heading clearly for relegation.

Mike Bueskens, as Greuther Fuerth boss.

Prediction

Is there anyway Fortuna can transcend its offensive woes from the 2012/13 season? None that I see right now. I imagine F95 will struggle to score goals, even in 2.Bundesliga. After all, nearly the whole attacking is being remade. Perhaps a gem of an attacker is lurking amid the younger players (Benschop? Gerrit Wegkamp?); however, an attack cannot be built on hope alone. Yet contrasted with the defenses of top flight play, 2.Bundesliga defense will necessarily be friendlier for F95 as Büskens get his attacking options sorted out. Indeed, hearts in Düsseldorf must be slightly lighter after watching F95 take out Falcao and AC Monaco 3-2 in a test match. Wegkamp scored twice and Fortuna’s play looked fluid offensively (small sample size disclaimers apply, as usual).

On the other hand, I do expect the club to be even more solid defensively this season, which would only improve a pretty solid club defensively from a season ago. Despite relegation, there was very little turnover defensively, which will help with seasoning and chemistry, plus signings like Gianniotas, Bomheuer, and Ramirez look like upgrades. And we might see that defense alone (well, mostly alone) will keep F95 in the hunt within the relatively open play of 2.Bundesliga.

For the sake of a cute narrative, let’s go with this prediction: in a nailbiter season finish, Fortuna ties for 3rd, but has the better goal differential. Then it’s back in a promotion playoff. Get your pyros ready, folks! Who knows what happens next. (Worst case scenario? I can’t see this club finishing worse than upper mid-table – it’s too good defensively and too intriguing offensively.)

Mark your calendars: Fortuna opens the season on Monday (7/22) at home in the always raucous Esprit Arena against Energie Cottbus. Then on Sunday (7/28) it’s off to Köln for a big early-season clash with the Billy Goats. But the schedule doesn’t get any easier as Fortuna is home against the intriguing TSV Munich 1860 (8/9), then away at the cool kids Union Berlin (8/19). Firecracker of a start to Fortuna’s redemption campaign, eh?

 

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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