August 23, 2017

2017-18 Season Preview: 1.FC Kaiserslautern — Will It Ever End?

Basics

  • Name: 1.FC Kaiserslautern (1. Fußball-Club Kaiserslautern e.v.)
  • Nicknames: “Die Roten Teufel” (“The Red Devils”).
  • Founded: 1900.
  • Club colors: mostly red, white, and black.
  • Primary rivals: Eintracht Frankfurt (Südwest Derby).
  • Fan friendship: Werder Bremen (WHAT??) and Kilmarnock (Scotland).

Fritz Walter Stadion (aka “Betze”)

One of Germany’s hollowed football grounds, named after 1954 World Cup winning hero, Fritz Walter. Of course.

Capacity: 49,780.
2016-17 attendance: 448,262 (26,368 per match).

Trophies

  • German Champions (4): 1950-51, 1952-53, 1990-91, 1997-98.
  • 2.Bundesliga Champions (2): 1996-97, 2009-10.
  • DFB Pokal Champions (2): 1990, 1996.

2016-17 Finishes

2.Bundesliga13th with 41 points (29 goals scored, 33 allowed, -4 GD)

DFB Pokal: 1st round (Hallescher FC 3-3 1.FC Kaiserlautern — lost on penalties, 4-3)

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals:  5
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 4
Number of Matches drawn:  11
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 
6
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals:  6
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in loss:  1
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in draw:  3
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw:  2
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory:  (!)

Top Scorers in 2016-17

  1. (tied) Osayamen Osawe and Jacques Zoua: 6 goals.
  2. Marcel Gaus: 5 goals.
  3. Robert Glatzel: 4 goals.

Osayamen Osawe

Summer Test Results

Record: 3-0-2
Goals Scored: 20
Goals Allowed: 5

  • Wormatia Worms 0-5 1.FC Kaiserslautern
  • VfR Kaiserslautern 0-8 1.FC Kaiserslautern
  • FC Augsburg 2-0 1.FC Kaiserslautern
  • FK Pirmasens 1-7 1.FC Kaiserslautern
  • 1.FC Kaiserslautern 0-2 Derby County

Questions with an Expert:

I got in touch with Simon Johann, currently living in Australia and, as you can imagine dutifully suffering through the time difference torture to stay in touch with his dear Red Devils. Simon has been an FCK supporter for about 12 years, thanks to his dad, who’s supported the team since the 1950s (hello, Fritz Walter!). In 2013-14, Simon had the pleasure of personally attending 3 FCK wins in a row. When he’s not obsessively checking Der Betze Brennt or Transfermarkt for FCK news, he follows NHL, MLB, and Formula 1.

Keep an eye out for . . .

Lukas Spalvis and Gervane Kastaneer. Spalvis had 26 goals in 47 Danish top flight games between 2013 and 2016, however his progress has been slowed because of injuries – 242 days out with an ACL injury in 14/15 season and 299 days out in the 16/17 season with knee surgery and a muscle injury. If Spalvis is healthy, he could be the goalscorer FCK have lacked for the last several seasons.

Kastaneer is a left winger/striker who was a Dutch U20 international and now a Dutch U21 international, he only played 14 Eredivise games last season because of injury, but managed 4 goals and 2 assists in those games from the left wing and given FCK lost Gaus to Ingolstadt, expect him to see plenty of game time on the left wing, provided he can stay fit.

Terrace favorite . . .

Phillipp Mwene. He had a rough start to his FCK career and looked like he might not be cut out for 2.Liga level, but as the season progressed he developed into a top-tier 2.Liga fullback who showed good ability both defending and going forward, with an insane work ethic and a never give up type attitude. On top of this a guy who ended up being very, very reliable (Mwene played every single minute last season for FCK).

Player that should be driven to another club . . .

Daniel Halfar without a doubt. Honourable mentions to Jacuqes Zoua and Zoltan Stieber with their inflated wages and underperformance.

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

Stop playing Halfar and appoint a real captain.

Opposition player you despise . . .

Marc Schnatterer of Heidenheim. Constantly whines to the referee about every little thing, while flopping, and he has a knack of playing well against FCK (something like 4 goals 5 assists in the 6 games he’s played against us).

What will opposing sides underestimate?

FCK’s attacking potential. While last season was FCK’s second worst tally for goals for in their history (only the Bundesliga relegation season of 11/12 was worse), FCK have worked hard on tranfers this off-season to try and solve their attacking issues moving towards more technical attacking players opposed to just hard workers, likes of Atik, Spalvis, Kastaneer and Borrello all have the technical ability to be good additions for FCK and come in on the back of some good statistics with their previous clubs and with likes of Osawe and Osei-Kwadwo being pushed towards bench roles, FCK have plenty of pace to bring on off the bench too.

What are fans overestimating?

Kaiserslautern’s defence. Ewerton is a massive loss to the defence and he was without a doubt the best CB in the whole 2.Liga last season. And while signings of Correia and Modica are good defensive singings at the 2.Liga level on paper – both have had their troubles trying to stay injury free (especially Correia) so FCK could end up having to rely on Koch and Vucur at center back far more often then they should be. One being a young player who lost his center back spot last year and was pushed into a defensive midfield position and could have his head down because of a failed transfer to Freiburg this past off-season, and the other a guy who has never shown any consistency at 2.Liga level since signing for FCK 2 years ago.

Tip you’d give foreign fans visiting the Fritz Walter Stadion for the first time

Get tickets for the Westkurve, drink lots of beer and enjoy watching football from one of the best home ends in all of Germany.

Where will Kaiserslautern finish? . . .

Between 9 and 12. I do think FCK have potential to finish higher (especially with a couple more signings) but given the questionable injury records of several key players going into this season, I suspect they will be missing time at various points of the season and that will cause FCK to slip down into a mid to lower mid table position come May.

What is your standout Red Devils memory from last season?

When the season was finally over, and Kaiserslautern managing to stay up somehow.

When We Last Saw Them

Two fact should be established. First, Kaiserslautern really is a bad midtable side in Germany’s second division. Second, Kaiserslautern has lost its way, since being relegated in 2012. Since then, this storied Traditionsverein has seen many other sides, like FC Köln, Hertha Berlin, Eintracht Frankfurt, Eintracht Braunschweig, Dynamo Dresden, etc. pass it up by either gaining promotion or entering the top slots in the 2.Bundesliga.

Moreover, after the sucker-punch relegation playoff loss to Hoffenheim in 20103, the Red Devils have slipped further down the 2.Bundesliga pecking order. This last season saw Kaiserslautern reach a new low: a 13th place finish. The entire season was ugly:

Kaiserslautern never even hit mid-table last season. Source: Fussballdaten.de.

As you can see, Kaiserslautern never reached the top half of the table — for the entire season — and languished as low as 15th place after MD 29. Forget about promotion. This club is fighting for its 2.Bundesliga life. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

Kaiserslautern’s obvious culprit was its tepid attack. During 2016-17, FCK only scored 29 goals (only relegated Karlsruhe were worse) on 11.1 shot per match (2nd fewest in the league) and 3.4 shots on target (2nd fewest again). Simply put, Kaiserslautern didn’t generate enough scoring chances, nor did the club receive any ExG luck in terms of undeserved goals. The attack was awful. Zoltan Zieber was the only player to average more than 1 Key Pass per match (2.3); he was also the only player with more than 2 assists (4). More than goal-scoring problems, I’d argue that Kaiserslautern had scoring chance creation problems in its wing and midfield areas.

However, defensively Kaiserslautern put up great “surface”  numbers: it only conceded 33 goals (only Hannover conceded fewer with 32) — a tally that probably kept the historic club from getting relegated last season. Curiously, FCK gave up 13.4 shots per match (6th most in the league), which, given PDO and TSR logic, points to good luck defensively, rather than outright prowess. Nonetheless, the club was helped by consistency at centerback, where the Ewerton and Tim Heubach pairing started for two-thirds of the season, while the flanks were nailed down by the excellent Philipp Mwene on the right and Naser Aliji and Marcel Gaus on the left. Finally, the capable Julian Pollersbeck (a call up for the U-21 Euros German team) was solid as keeper.

Aspiration

Promotion. Kaiserslautern is a proud club with a deep tradition, and, much like a football-crazed place like Köln, expectations will always outstrip reality. Hence the supporters hope against hope for promotion, but probably know that midtable is the aspirational reality, given the talent level and experience on the club.

Let me put it this way: after least season’s results and the club’s offseason activity, there’s no reason to believe things have gotten markedly better for FCK.

Reality

Hovering just below mid-table. Look, the attack will move a bit toward the statistical mean after last season’s historically poor output. This fact alone will give the Red Devils a couple more points. Also, the club’s remarkable streak of 16 matches lost in row in which FCK concedes first and loses will most likely end this season. Hence another point of two.

But toss ahead the slightly good news. This club is currently coached the infamous Norbert Meier, who seemingly brings nothing but bad luck to clubs.

You know him. The headbutt guy.

His recent coaching record isn’t happy times: he oversaw a feckless Fortuna Düsseldorf during its one Bundesliga season in 2012-13, then coached Armina Bielefeld for a couple seasons between the 2.Liga and 3.Liga. Finally, last season we saw Meier’s Darmstadt win 3, draw 2, and lose 10 during the Bundesliga Hinrunde. And here we are. Let’s just say that he’s not an inspired hire for Kaiserslautern.

My guess is that he’ll be gone by Christmas, as the club treads water, looking for a more longterm solution and resteering the club philosophically.

The Boss

Aside from the headbutt and lackluster track record, I should say a bit more about Norbert Meier. First, his sides tend to play defensively in terms of formations and tactics — which, given FCK’s defensive record last year, might explain why the club thought he’d be a good bit. (Perhaps the reasoning is something like: Meier can make a good defensive unit elite enough to defend its way back toward the table top.)

Moreover, Meier’s overall coaching record is 54 wins 230 draws and 181 losses for a winning % of 40.78%. This record stretches back to coaching Borussia Mönchenglad’s reserve team in 1996 to the present day. Oh, and Meier scored 84 goals as a player back in the 1980s.

In my mind, Meier’s hiring signals Kaiserslautern’s belief that it’s still a side capable to rejoining the top echelon of the 2.Bundesliga, given Meier’s coach-as-caretaker-of-a-current-project role with more established sides. Not is, I wouldn’t call Meier a coach-as-rebuilder and trainer of young players. However, given FCK’s disappointing past two seasons, I can’t help but be skeptical of this belief. Kaiserslautern seems unwilling to hit reset and rebuild the club for a push up the 2.Bundesliga table a few seasons from now.

Philosophy

Well, from a big picture view, the club seems to think it can crack the 2.Bundesliga’s top slots. From a more granular level, the philosophy — given the club’s signings this off-season, seems to focus on simply increasing the number of goals scored this season, while maintaining the status quo on defense.

Furthermore, Kaiserslautern plays a relatively short passing game with a high pass completion rate (80%) stretched wide across the pitch. On the flip side, FCK’s width translates into a relatively high number of interceptions and steals defensively – Ewerton, Stipe Vucur, Robin Koch, and Tim Heubach were all standouts in this area. For example, Kaiserslautern ranked 4th in interceptions during 2016-17.

Plan B

Fire Meier. Then bring in a coach who specializes in youth development. (At an average age of 24 years old, Kaiserslautern has the league’s youngest squad.) As part of this overhaul, phase out Stieber, Zoua, Halfer, and Christoph Moritz, while featuring Osayamen Osawe, Robert Glatzel, and Lukas Görtler (just kidding!) more prominently.

Actually, why just make this Plan A?

After all, these German football is the land of perpetual youth. No country for old men.

Notable Transfers 

Out:

  • Jan Pollersbeck (HSV)
  • Marcel Gaus (FC Ingolstadt)
  • Florian Pick (1.FC Magdeburg, loan)
  • Tim Heubach (?)
  • Marlon Frey (Leverkusen, end of loan)
  • Sebastian Kerk (SC Freiburg, end of loan)
  • Ewerton (Sporting Lisbon, end of loan)

In:

  • Brandon Borrello (Brisbane Roar)
  • Giuliano Modica (Dynamo Dresden)
  • Marcel Correia (Eintracht Braunscweig)
  • Gervane Kastaneer (ADO Den Haag)
  • Benjamin Kessel (Union Berlin)
  • Gino Fechner (RB Leipzig II)
  • Baris Atik (TSG Hoffenheim, loan)
  • Lukas Spalvis (Sporting Lisbon, loan)
  • Marius Müller (RB Leipzig II, loan)

Strengths

If new signings Lukas Spalvis and Gervane Kastaneer can return soon, FCK could have a much improved attack — especially when you pair these two with the promising new loanee Baris Atik (attacking midfield).

With the veterans Mads Albæk and Halfar in the the midfield as well, ball circulation shouldn’t be a problem, hopefully allowing the likes of Atik and (to a lesser extent) Manfred Osei Kawdwo and Christoph Moritz grow together as a unit in terms of creating Key Passes.

In the meantime, cross your fingers that Osawe can actually deliver some goals until Spalvis is ready to take up the striker role in Meier’s 4-2-3-1 shape.

Weaknesses

Don’t be fooled by last season’s stalwart defending. This part of the pitch could be a problem for Kaiserslautern. Why? Both Heubach, Ewerton, and Gaus left in the summer, as did emerging keeper Pollersbeck.

Speaking of keeper, this position already looks like trouble. Loanee and current #1 Marius Müller made two errors leading to two Nürnberg goals during the season opener on Sunday.

Moreover, as Simon Johann pointed out already, new centerbacks Marcel Correia and Giuliano Modica are injured, meaning no matter how Robin Koch and his new centerback partner turn out, FCK will need months of time for consistently coordinated play in this area.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

Right now. Newly relegated and retooled Darmstadt visits on MD2, followed by an improved Fortuna Düsseldorf (away), and an always dangerous Eintracht Braunschweig (home). Finally, an away trip to the passionate fans of newly promoted Holstein Kiel looms next. I hate to say it, but these first matches of the season will place Kaiserslautern into a predetermined track for the rest of the season. Such things seem to happen to these big Traditionsverein. Call it the burden of narrative.

Verdict

11th place. The Hinrunde will a season of false hopes reveals, while the Rückrunde will feature a conversation among supporters about where this club is actually going. In the meantime, look for a slight bouce-back and midtable mediocrity to finish the season — with Meier long gone. Sorry, FCK. You deserve better, especially with your youngish roster.

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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 coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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