In our final installment of the generalized look at the upcoming Bundesliga season, we take a glance at six clubs that have bigger than usual question marks entering the season. FC Ingolstadt, SV Darmstadt and FC Augsburg all in the offseason lost the coaches who had lifted them up over the last years — a big deal for smaller clubs. Eintracht Frankfurt barely survived last season, narrowly edging 1.FC Nurnberg in the playoffs to remain in the Bundesliga under Niko Kovac, who won enough matches (four out of nine) after being appointed to keep Die Adler from automatic relegation. Additionally, we look at the two promoted clubs, SC Freiburg and RB Leipzig, who face the daunting task of competing at a higher level with rosters that are not much unchanged from last season 2nd division seasons.
It’s not that any of these six clubs are predetermined to fight relegation all season — on the contrary, any could push for the upper half of the table. But with the uncertainty surrounding these clubs, especially in terms of continuity, one expects that one or more will be relegated next May.
FC Ingolstadt – Markus Kauczinski will be the man guiding Die Schanzer in their second season of top flight football, replacing Ralph Hasenhüttl, their coach from October, 2013 who brought them promotion to the top-flight and kept them there. Gelsenkirchen-native Kauczinski, 46, began his coaching career in 1999 with Schalke’s U16s but has been with Karlsruher SC since 2001, rising from youth team coach to the leader of the reserve side, caretaker coach of the first team and finally becoming head of Karlsruher’s first team in 2012.
Die Schanzer have lost some big contributors from last season’s squad, including goalkeeper Ramazan Özcan, starter of 28 matches last season, left back Danny Da Costa and defender Benjamin Hubner, who started 30 times. The incoming crew is definitely not well-known to fans, with Frankfurt’s Sonny Kittel perhaps the only one with any name recognition. But Kauczinski will have holdovers Marvin Matip, a rock in central defense, creative midfielder Pascal Groß, expert penalty taker and leading scorer Moritz Hartmann (12 league goals), midfield stalwart Roger, strikers Dario Lezcano and Lukas Hinterseer. speedy Australian winger Matthew Leckie and goalkeeper Ørjan Nyland, who was the starter at the end of the season. Although FCI were one of the lowest scoring clubs in the league last season (despite earning nine penalty shots), their offense did improve in the second half of the season although they managed only 11 goals from open play during their ENTIRE league campaign. And if that continues, it will be a rough year for the Audi club, no matter how well their defense plays.
FC Augsburg – FCA have been the little Bundesliga engine that could since arriving in the first division, and grew in stature under Markus Weinzierl. But the much-admired coach has finally left for Schalke, with Dirk Schuster from Darmstadt in his place. The Fuggerstädter finished 12th last season after finishing a surprising 5th the year before, a drop that some would attribute to FCA’s first step into European football, in which they survived the group stage before winning respect despite being eliminated by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, eventual EL finalists, in a close knock-out series. FCA have lost two mainstays this summer from their time in Germany’s top flight, defender Ragnar Klavan and winger Tobias Werner, players who exemplified Augsburg’s ‘never say die’ attitude, but otherwise maintain the heart of their stable roster — midfielder Daniel Baier, captain and penalty taker Paul Verhaegh, goalkeeper Marwin Hitz, midfielder Caiuby, who had a fantastic season and striker-as-tank Raul Bobadilla, who can plow through a defense.
FCA haven’t added a lot in the offseason. Probably their most important move was inking last year’s loaned striker, Iceland’s Alfred Finnbogasson, to a permanent deal — the 27 year-old scored seven goals in only 14 matches. They did bring in a battle-tested backup to Hitz in former Bochum keeper Andreas Luthe and also signed attacking midfielder Takashi Usami, now 24, who had a taste of life in the Bundesliga with Bayern and Hoffenheim between 2011 and 2013 before returning to Japanese club Gamba Osaka. Usami earned his first senior cap for Japan in March, 2015 and has added 14 more, indicating that perhaps he has matured and will have a greater impact in his second stint in Germany.
The Fuggerstädter have made all the right moves over the last few seasons — now it’s up to Schuster to continue the process. He’s started off on the right foot, as FCA won their Round One Pokal match Friday over amateur side SV Ravensburg 2-0.
SV Darmstadt 98 – Former manager Dirk Schuster lifted the Lillies to back-to-back promotions, so that in two years they rose from 3.Liga to the Bundesliga. An amazing feat that got Schuster his new gig at FCA, and thus Darmstadt have brought in veteran German manager Norbert Meier to guide the club this season. Meier, a Bundesliga champion as a Werder Bremen midfielder, has previously guided five German clubs, and had particular success at Fortuna Dusseldorf and Arminia Bielefeld as far as his winning percentage went.
The Lillies were able to pretty much stay away from the relegation zone all last season, despite the league’s smallest home stadium and drawing more yellow cards than any league club but Eintracht Frankfurt. Unfortunately, Darmstadt have lost a great deal this summer besides Schuster– leading scorer Sandro Wagner, starting goalkeeper Christian Mathenia, and the effective left-sider Konstantin Rausch, along with loanee Luca Caldirola from the backline. The transfers in have been rather underwhelming, including well-travelled striker Sven Schipplock, Swedish defender Alexander Milošević and midfielder Laszlo Kleinsheisler, all on loan. Immanuel Höhn, from SC Freiburg, should help in central defense, but incoming goalkeepers Michael Esser and Daniel Heuer Fernandes have more often been backups rather than regular keepers. The Lillies retain such fine players as captain Aytac Sulu, a veteran defender who scores big goals, and winger Marcel Heller, but it will take all of Meier’s talents and focus to avoid the relegation zone this season.
Eintracht Frankfurt – Die Adler were dismal last season, scoring only 34 goals all season. What makes that amount even more stark is that they scored 12 of those goals in the first four matches of the season, leaving only 22 nettings over the remaining 30 league matches. Armin Veh’s return as Frankfurt coach was a disaster, and the club didn’t receive the usual immediate bump upwards in results when a coaching change occurs after Veh’s departure. But Niko Kovac, appointed on March 8, was able to guide Frankfurt to three wins in their last four Bundesliga matches of the season, enough, barely, to avoid automatic relegation. Eintracht Frankfurt also had a tough time with injuries last year, having the third most days lost per player of any club in the league. And perhaps because of that, and their desperate struggle to survive, they had the league’s worst disciplinary record.
Kovac will have a quite different roster to manage this upcoming season. Gone are eight players who earned starts last season, including longtime club veterans such as Stefan Aigner and Carlos Zambrano, while Marco Russ bravely hopes to make winter camp after undergoing surgery for cancer. Danny Blum and Branimir Hrgota are newcomers that should provide some depth behind the aging but still prolific Alex Meier, but Kovac will be relying on four players on loan to Frankfurt this season — Guillermo Varela, Michael Hector, Jesus Vallejo and Ante Rebić — to provide help. He will also look to Marco Fabian to have a big season. Fabian came to Frankfurt during winter break and showed flashes of real quality, but got caught up in the relegation chaos.
Kovac’ appointment last March marked his first experience as a head coach in club football, although he had experience coaching the Croatian national team. Guiding Die Adler to survival should give him confidence — hopefully he’ll have the players to keep Eintracht Frankfurt safe again.
SC Freiburg – The Breisgau-Brazilians are back, returning immediately after relegation by leading Germany’s second division with 75 goals scored last season. Fortunately, that also means that head coach Christian Streich is back in the Bundesliga. Streich has been with the Black Forest club in one coaching capacity or another since 1995 and took over as head coach of the senior squad during winter break of the 2011/2012 season. Streich’s openness, his ability to dispense with platitudes, along with his bicycle commutes to Freiburg’s Schwarwald Stadion, makes him well-liked. His ability to identify and develop young talents makes him well-respected.
As usual, Streich will have for the most part a roster that is devoid of big names except for striker Nils Petersen, a current German Olympian and a top-scorer in Bundesliga 2. And although Petersen has found scoring in the Bundesliga tougher, he’s scored 29 times in 91 first-division matches, a reasonable tally for a starting striker. Streich has also been able to coax 14 goals from ex-Hoffenheim midfielder Vincenzo Grifo since the 23 year-old joined Freiburg in 2015. As usual, Freiburg’s incoming transfers this summer consist of players who featured in Germany’s second division,a low profile group but nothing new in the Black Forest. Given the losses in talent that SCF have suffered over the years as their best players were poached mercilessly by bigger clubs, Streich’s team may be too thin to do much more than survive, but with Streich around and any reasonable amount of luck, they will do just that.
RB Leipzig – The inevitable has finally happened — the Red Bull-fueled club from Leipzig have staked their place in Germany’s top division. For many German fans, it’s as if the devil himself has joined the league, although instead of wearing Prada, this devil is adorned with two red bulls. Referring to the club as RB Leipzig is the Bundesliga’s quaint way of trying to disguise the obvious — this club has risen in the most non-traditional way, which infuriates so many.
But that only tells half the story. Ralf Rangnick, architect of Hoffenheim’s similar rise to the Bundelsiga a decade ago, is the man behind RB Leipzig’s escalation, and he could be one of the cover boys for the new German football exemplified by Germany’s international success. Germany as 2014 World Cup champions, as a national team that goes deep in every tournament now, as a U23 squad that reaches the finals of the 2016 Olympic — his influence is intrinsic to all that happening. Although as a coach Rangnick only has a Pokal trophy while with Schalke to show for all his work, his thinking continues to dominate modern German football through the many German coaches who have absorbed his theories and implemented them.
Rangnick won’t be on the sidelines for Leipzig this season, as he returns to the sporting director’s seat at RBL. The coaching role has been entrusted to former FC Ingolstadt coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, the Austrian who knows first-hand how a promoted club can survive its first-ever Bundesliga season. Leipzig’s new coach will have a talented squad to work with, albeit one with little first-division experience, excepting the likes of Davie Selke, Marvin Compper and newcomer Timo Werner. That lack of time at the top is probably the major obstacle facing Leipzig this season.
But even if they fail to survive this season and are relegated, they’ll be back and will eventually establish themselves as a solid Bundesliga side, like it or not. Certainly their rise to the Bundesliga will, in addition to all the other interesting club storylines, make this one of the most intriguing seasons in German football in quite some time, and no doubt we’ll all be paying rapt attention.