This season’s Bundesliga has been more attractive than previous seasons. From top to bottom, the league’s consistency of keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. Whether its RB Leipzig’s incredible feat of challenging for the title, despite appearing in the league for the first time ever, or 29 year old Julian Nagelsmann’s overabundance of tactical ideas driving Hoffenheim forward every week, or Pal Dardai keeping the Hertha ship afloat in a sea with monsters such as Dortmund and Leverkusen, or Peter Stöger’s sturdy Köln side growing in stature to be one of Bundesliga’s most efficient side nowadays, 2016-17 has been a season to remember.
Speaking of remarkable feats, however, it is Niko Kovac’s Eintracht Frankfurt who perhaps been the most refined team in the Bundesliga these past 12 months. Yeah boi, you heard it right: Kovac, the former Croatia and Bayern Munich midfielder, whose coaching philosophy might just be enough to melt your heart unless you have a “heavydirtysoul,” as Tyler Joseph (any teenage readers out there?) of Twenty One Pilots screams. The 45 year old charismatic coach, in every sense, is the right man to lead the formerly ugly Eintracht. When the Croatian coach arrived in the middle of last season, Eintracht had no real plans and were cruising to relegation.
As an Eintracht fan, I’m extremely happy to have Haris “I’m the motherfu*cking lord of this world” Seferovic on my side though. His goal did end up saving Eintracht from tasting Zweite Liga football this season. As the dire season, which already decreased the level of expectations, came to an end, in came Fredi Bobic (sigh!), who became the next Sporting Director for Eintracht, which is like awarding Meek Mill with 8 Grammys. The poor track record of Bobic along with Frankfurt spending just €3.30 (even lower than Darmstadt!!) million in the transfer market further lowered expectations; for example, Eintracht’s most expensive signing this season, Taleb Tawatha, has played just 18 minutes in the Bundesliga so far.
But as the proverb states: “Sometimes you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an Omelette.” Niko Kovac has figured out the core system of his team, by “cracking some eggs.” After Matchday 20, the Eagles are flying high in 3rd place — just seven points behind RB Leipzig. Die Adler also have one of the best home records in the league.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’m here to say nice things about the Eagles in this article. Yahno? Spread love as Valentines Day beckons. So let’s try and figure out how a refined Eintracht has taken the Bundesliga by storm this season!
Cracking the Loan Market
Despite spending just €3.30m on transfers, a total of nine new players arrived at Eintracht this season, five of whom joined as loan signings (six actually, if you add Andersson Ordonez, who joined in January from Barcelona, no, not that Barcelona!). Its almost extraordinary that almost all of the signings kinda worked out well for Niko Kovac’s side, especially Omar Mascarell and Jesus Vallejo.
Having played at clubs like Derby and the youth setups of Real Madrid prior to this move, Mascarell’s transition from a youth player to playing in one of Europe’s best league was pretty huge. However, he has proven all the doubters wrong so far. A midfielder filled with technical qualities, the 22 year old is now the key part of Eintracht’s midfield.
Jesus Vallejo is the other loanee from Real Madrid. The mop-headed defender joined Eintracht on loan from the European Champions following a loan spell in Real Zaragoza and has been making his mark ever since. The young defender has filled in for Marco Russ inexplicably well, and has perhaps been a better defender. Other decent new signings include Ante Rebic, Branimir Hrgota, Shani Tarashaj and Danny Blum, who have all undeniably boosted Eintracht’s depth.
World Class Defense
It’s almost unnecessary to say that the much improved defense has led to success for the Eagles this season. Credit should be given to Niko Kovac for revolutionizing a defense that conceded too many goals last season. The decision to improve the existing defensive players instead of bringing in new defenders from the transfer market has paid dividends for the Eintracht boss.
Dropping sub par defenders — such as Carlos Zambrano, Constant Djakpa, Aleksandr Ignjovski — has played a crucial part in the squad’s refinement. Additionally, a flexible 3-4-3 formation, which often changes to a 5-2-2-1, has been a boon for Eintracht this season. While some may argue, that the goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky deserved a lot of credit for Eintracht’s positive defensive results (even though I had picked Hradecky as the best GK in the league after MD 10 in one of my articles), it’s actually the defense in front of the Finnish keeper who does a sensation job of keeping away all the danger — an observation I picked up from this article by my colleague Abel Meszaros.
Jesus Vallejo’s proficiency, coupled with David Abraham’s sudden rise from death (much like Marvin Compper at Leipzig) have made the defense almost faultless at times. (Oh mein Gott!) Eintracht has conceded the least number of goals (15) this season by a club not named Bayern. At this stage last season, the tally was 25, which might seem fairly decent, because Eintracht’s actual fall began around MD 20.
Jesus Vallejo has been arguably one of Bundesliga’s best defenders this season. The 20 year old defender has made the 3rd most defensive actions in the league this season. He averages 1.9 tackles, 3.8 clearances and 3.1 interceptions per game, which is phenomenal. And oh! His passing accuracy reads at 86% too. If he keeps his development intact, I’m willing to call him as the loanee of the season! However, It’s David Abraham, who forms the main pillar of his side’s defensive stability. The Argentinian has been rated as the best defender for his side per Squawka.com. His actual role is to keep the stability intact, and also the offensive nature of his play, sometimes hands Eintracht an extra edge during games.
Michael Hector, to a lesser extent, has also been a good defensive outpost for the Eagles. despite him being sent off in his first two competitive games, Hector seems especially crucial when Eintracht has to defend against high-octane sides like Dortmund or Bayern.
Indeed, SGE have allowed only 188 shots this season, which is the 3rd best mark in the league. They have also conceded the 3rd least amount of shots on target (57) and have the 3rd least conversion rate against ratio (7%), meaning its opponents don’t find it easy to score. They also have only one goal conceded from outside the box. Funny thing is that Eintracht is the most ill-disciplined team in the league with 53 yellows and 4 reds in 19 matchdays. Averaging exactly three cards per game! But that’s probably down to the combative mindset coach Niko Kovac has instilled upon this newly reinvigorated Eintracht side.
Frankfurt’s work rate in defense under Niko Kovac has been phenomenal. But don’t be deceived! This might not necessarily mean that Eintracht are now a team who likes to park the bus in front of goal. (Making the second least number of blocks  offers support to the previous sentence). But of course, Frankfurt, previously being known for their free flowing, devil-may-care brand of attacking football, reflected by their nickname Launische Diva (“Diva from the Main”) has changed a lot under the Croat coach. While they may piss you off if your side gets too passive in front of goal (Dortmund, *wink*), Eintracht’s main strategy seems to be keeping the attacking momentum ticking for his side while also having an eye on defensive stability. This has been a prime reason for its impressive performance this campaign.
The identity of a team is often described by the quality of its midfield, and Eintracht have been stellar in this department during this season. As mentioned before, Omar Mascarell has been a wizard in the Frankfurt midfield so far, and along with the qualities of re-furbished midfielder, Makoto Hasebe, crafts a perfect duo. However, Szabocls Huszti, who recently moved to China as Kovac thought it was his last chance of earning more Euros in his already distinguished career, has departed after a successful Hinrunde with Eintracht.
Huszti was important part of Eintracht’s midfield. He left the Bundesliga having made 27 interceptions in 15 games. Evidently, the Hungarian midfielder forged an impressive partnership with Omar Mascarell, especially in pressing phases. As for Hasebe, the Japanese international has missed only two games this season. The 33 year old becomes a key part in the 3/5 at the back formation (Kovac tried a back 4 formation, but lost both games). Hasebe’s quality on the ball and concentration help Eintracht establish its game plan. Overall, Hasebe’s main role has been providing security for the defensive line.
Honestly, the midfield is the second line of defense for Eintracht Frankfurt this season, and its ability to press the opposition is extremely underrated. For example, here’s a couple of graphics illustrating their diligence in the middle (even against Bayern):
Its just about time I tell you that Eintracht have completed more interceptions than any other team in the league this season:
The number of interventions Frankfurt makes, in every game is phenomenal but even more, is their willingness to recover the ball, which is, almost, as good as RB Leipzig.
Now lets dip into some Omar Mascarell pool, shall we? Yes, he makes the second most number of interceptions than any other player in the league (a staggering 3.6 per game!!). He also averages a decent tally of 47 passes per game. Seven defensive actions per game(66 interceptions and 52 clearances in 18 games!) and a 4.2 tackles per game ratio also makes sense.
Also not to forget, the midfield has shaped into a fierceful bunch even without the services of Marc Stendera, the most valued player per Transfermarkt, prior to the season. The young German star is seemingly forgotten now with Marco Fabian taking all the responsibilities of his sides’ creative firepower. Fabian has the second most expected goals ratio in the team(4.11) and has already bagged three goals to his name but more importantly, he averages 1.6 key passes per game, something which was missing from the Mexican international last season.
Another improvement, stands as a pillar of Frankfurt’s development is the foundation of the offensive firepower. The extreme over-reliance on local Fussballgott Alex Meier got completely exposed last season, when the veteran striker got injured and Eintracht terribly failed to find a proper replacement. This season, even though, Alex Meier is still club’s top scorer this season, Frankfurt has been able to emphasize more on their attacking depth instead of depending upon one man.
Newer signings such as Branimir Hrgota, Ante Rebic and Shani Tarashaj have actually proven to be decent signings. Hrgota has featured constantly for Eintracht this season, scoring three goals in 15 appearances. While bulky attacker Ante Rebic has provided a regular threat for the opposition. Danny Blum’s unfortunate injury woes has kept him out on the sidelines, he does however bag an assist in his four Bundesliga appearances for SGE so far.
The offensive line is now much more compact thanks to all these newer signing. While they obviously, may not have the best attack in the league, their conversation rate of 11% show their efficiency in front of goal.
But wait, if the midfield is one of key sources for their defense, then how do they attack?! Welp, that’s where the flanks come into play. Especially, the fullbacks Bastian Oczipka and Timothy Chandler. Oczipka with the most touches than any other SGE player and Chandler, who has put in second most number of crosses in the league, construct a key source in Eintracht’s offensive lines.
Chandler’s 22 key passes are down to the 25 successful crosses out of 87 attempted ones. Down the right flank, the US international has put in the most number of key passes, two of which has resulted to goals. Chandler has been a very important man for Niko Kovac’s side, much like the Felipe Luis of Atletico, his dribbles down the flank drives a lot of attention. So much that even Travis Timmons was willing to crown him as the Yank of the season.
Bastian Oczipka, the other fullback has also undergone massive transformation under Niko Kovac. Even though he has a rather defensive responsibility compared to Chandler, his passes do create havoc in the final third. While his passing accuracy may not be great(75%), he has completed 50 interceptions down the left flank this season as well as averaging a key pass per game.
Apart from the fullbacks, some new faces such as Mijat Gacinovic, who kicked off his Bundesliga career in November 2015, is now a key figure in Frankfurt attack. As I like to call him as the ‘next Filip Kostic’ of the Bundesliga. 69% passing accuracy, 10 key passes and 3 attempted take-ons per game is enough to sympathize my point.
The Inestimable Philosophy
A stickler of manners himself, Niko Kovac’s all human approach(empathy is important, openness, honesty and an understanding for others,” he told Die Welt) has worked as a wonder for Eintracht Frankfurt. A combative approach and influential speeches like “You have to eat dirt!” has solidified a bunch of old and baffled squadron. Few months ago, he openly criticized the condition of the Commerzbank training compound as shambolic. As a result the club has vowed to build a new building for the first team.
“Consolidation” – was his official target before the start of the season. After 19 matchdays, Eintracht are now competing for a Champions League spot. However, Kovac is still unwilling to gaze at the stars and is firmly balancing his class warfare mood. All in all, it all adds up to a terrific 12 months of terrific rectification for Eintracht Frankfurt. The huge Traditionverein is finally looking like a real club under the guidance of a hard working Croatian mastermind.
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