SV Darmstadt 98’s Perilous Spiral into 2. Bundesliga’s Relegation Zone

Just 18 months ago, Die Lilien were preparing for their second consecutive season in the Bundesliga. But change was afoot from the outset when manager Dirk Schuster, the man responsible for Darmstadt’s double promotion, left for the greener pastures of FC Augsburg’ after FCA coach Markus Weinzierl took the job with Schalke. With  the season only weeks away Darmstadt scrambled to find a manager with their number one target being former Schalke and then Union Berlin manager Jens Keller who had experience in the Bundesliga. However, Darmstadt settled for veteran German coach Norbert Meier, who prior to taking the job with Die Lilien was in charge of Arminia Bielefeld as he helped them escape relegation from 2. Bundesliga the year before.

Last Season

Meier’s first game in charge of Darmstadt came in the DFB Pokal against Bremenliga side Bremer SV which saw the visiting Lillies take a resounding 7-0 victory with Antonio Colak bagging himself hat-trick. Darmstadt’s first Bundesliga outing was a road trip to Köln, which ended with the opposite result with Die Lilien hit with a 2-0 defeat in a game Meier’s side were dominated from the outset. They would return to winning ways in the derby with Eintracht Frankfurt, in a tense affair with Sandro Sirigu’s late winner giving Meier his first Bundesliga win since he led Fortuna Düsseldorf back in 2013.

But the wheels would come off the wagon for Darmstadt when they were hit for six by a rampant Borussia Dortmund side with five of those coming in the second half. The warning signs were there as Darmstadt would have to wait until matchday 8 for their second win of the season, when they defeated Wolfsburg at home. Darmstadt then faced a tricky test in the DFB Pokal against Astoria Walldorf and for a full strength side, they simply weren’t up to the task as Nico Hillenbrand’s 32-minute strike was enough to send Darmstadt packing.

That defeat in the Cup match became the catalyst for Darmstadt’s fall in the league with Norbert Meier’s side losing their next five league matches, including winnable ties with FC Ingolstadt and Hamburg at home. It was time to go for Meier, who was in charge for just 13 matchdays with Darmstadt, to date  the shortest tenure in the 59-year-old;s career. With three matchday remaining until the winter break, Youth coordinator Ramon Berndroth was given the opportunity to turn the ship around and give Darmstadt hope. However, like his predecessor Meier; Berndroth went out in straight sets with three defeats as Darmstadt failed to score a single goal.

During the winter break, Berndroth returned to his post as the Youth coordinator at Darmstadt as the club searched for fresh blood to rejuvenate the squad. Terrence Boyd and Sidney Sam, who had been deprived of game time at RB Leipzig and Schalke respectively, made the jump to Darmstadt on six-month loans. For the vacant coaching position, Darmstadt gave Torsten Frings his first managerial job. Frings had carved out a more than respectable football career in the Bundesliga with 402 appearances with Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich before ending his career in Major League Soccer with Toronto FC. Frings would then join Viktor Skripnik’s staff at where he was an assistant coach with Werder Bremen II before being promoted alongside the Ukrainian for the first team when Robin Dutt was fired just five matches into the 2014/15 season. That stint lasted 70 matches for Skripnik and Frings before being fired after a poor start to the 2016/17 season.

With Frings guaranteed a job until the season’s end, Darmstadt returned from the winter break bottom of the Bundesliga with just eight points, which at the time was a record. A draw against Borussia Mönchengladbach would’ve been a solid platform for progress had they not been smashed for six for the second time that season with Köln putting Darmstadt to the sword. Their was optimism around Darmstadt when they shocked the Bundesliga masses by upsetting Borussia Dortmund 2-1 to close the gap to Werder Bremen to 4 points. However, the joy would be shortly lived as Darmstadt would once again struggle as they won just once in a span of eight games which included costly defeats to fellow regulation strugglers FC Ingolstadt and Werder Bremen.

Torsten Frings

Darmstadt headed into Matchday 29 all but certainly relegated and with 2. Bundesliga football assured, Die Lilien played some of their best football of the season as they reeled off a defiant three game winning streak which included 2-1 wins to Schalke and at Hamburg whilst smashing Freiburg 3-0. Torsten Frings side then faced the daunting task of trying to get a result against Bayern Munich, a defeat would seal their relegation fate whilst a win and defeats to Hamburg and Ingolstadt would keep the dream alive. Ingolstadt faced Leverkusen took the lead on 72 minutes through Sonny Kittel before Leverkusen levelled the scores six minutes later through Kai Havertz. Hamburg and Mainz played a goalless draw leaving meaning Darmstadt’s result would count for nothing as they sunk to a 1-0 defeat to the Bundesliga champions and crashing out of the Bundesliga. Darmstadt would end the season with a defeat at Hertha Berlin and a respectable draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The Current Campaign under Torsten Frings

With Frings given a full preseason and the ability to bring in players, Darmstadt showed plenty of intent to return to the Bundesliga with the signings of former Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart midfielder Kevin Großkruetz and experienced striker Artur Sobiech who had left Hannover on a free transfer. Felix Platte signed on after a loan spell with Darmstadt whilst Tobias Kempe returned to the club after an unsuccessful stint with Nürnberg. Frings did lose some important players in the process with keeper Michael Esser (Hannover), Jerome Gondorf (Werder Bremen), Mario Vrancic (Norwich) and Marcel Heller (Augsburg) all leaving for pastures new.

Optimism was present at the start of the 2. Bundesliga campaign as Darmstadt hosted Greuther Fürth on the opening day of the season. Darmstadt were held in check for the vast majority of the clash but found a way to break down the Fürth resistance thanks to a tantalising set-piece from Tobias Kempe finding captain Aytac Sulu to give Die Lilien all three points. Their first away test came against Kaiserslautern who had former Darmstadt manager Norbert Meier in the dugout, it would be the former manager who celebrated first when Daniel Halfar’s long range effort beat Daniel Heuer Fernandes in goal. But Darmstadt toiled away and on 72 minutes they found their equaliser when  Sobiech picked out William Kamavuaka for the easy tap in.

A positive start to the 2 Bundesliga for Darmstadt as they prepared for their first round cup match with Jahn Regensburg who had just been promoted from the 3. Liga. Darmstadt looked the stronger in the opening 45 and opened the scoring before half time through Sobiech. But their second half showing was extremely poor with Regensburg pouring on the pain with three goals to see Darmstadt crash out of the cup. The return to league play afterwards was good for Darmstadt, though, with  Frings leading Die Lilien to victory in three of their next four matches against promotion hopefuls St. Pauli as well as promoted MSV Duisburg and Arminia Bielefeld.

Heading into matchday 7, Darmstadt were equal on points with Fortuna Düsseldorf and surprise packet Holstein Kiel when they travelled to Heidenheim. Darmstadt twice came from behind to secure a draw before showing great character the following week to overcome a 3-1 deficit to draw against Dynamo Dresden. Die Lillien struck twice in injury time to snatch an unlikely point. Dresden had been struggling in the league but against sides in form, those leads wouldn’t be coughed up as Darmstadt would eventually find out as they went on a three game losing streak.

 

The Audi boys from Ingolstadt put three past Darmstadt in a game where Frings side had 56% possession and only three shots on goal. They had no trouble finding the net against Nürnberg but Der Club who put four past Darmstadt in a 4-3 thriller at the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor. The losing streak would conclude after the Fortuna Düsseldorf defeat as Darmstadt secured a point at home to Holstein Kiel. Darmstadt continued on their winless run with draws with Eintracht Braunschweig and Union Berlin but what sealed Frings’ fate  were the defeats to  Sandhausen, Erzgebirge Aue and losing to Jahn Regensburg for the second time in less than four months. A winless run of 11 games saw Darmstadt swing the axe towards their coach.  Under Frings, Darmstadt were fifth-best in goals scored with 27, despite being second-worst in shots per match, with 11 and strikers Sobiech and Boyd combining for only five of that total.  They led the league in yellow cards received

Darmstadt, currently sitting in 16th place just a point ahead of Gruether Fürth, find themselves fully entangled in the relegation battle. Change was necessary following Darmstadt’s downward spiral into the drop zone, and Die Lilien has turned to a familiar name to recapture the glory years in Dirk Schuster, signed on as Darmstadt manager until June 2019.

Dirk Schuster in Charge

Schuster knows the club very well and provided Darmstadt their best years in the clubs 119-year history. The Darmstadt team that gained promotion into the Bundesliga was strong defensively as they conceded an equal league best 26 goals. This season already, Darmstadt possess the second worst defence in 2. Bundesliga with 30 goals conceded in just 17 games. Schuster has one fixture remaining until the winter break against relegation rivals Greuther Fürth. He won’t be able to make them a defensive juggernaut overnight, but he can hopefully build the foundations of a successful defense quickly.  To do so, he’ll have to improve individual players’ performances, as only Tobias Kempe (ranked 11th) are ranked among the top 60 Bundesliga 2 players by whoscored.com.

Schuster will have to improve the Lillies’ attacking, also.  Although the club’s goal total is quite respectable, a third of their goals scored have come from setpieces, with another two goals scored from the penalty spot while Darmstadt have been the recipient of one own goal this season.  The Lillies’ counterattack has been dreadful, as they haven’t produced one goal on the counter, leaving opponents freer to attack fearlessly in numbers.  And, as mentioned before, Schuster will have to improve on the amount of shots the team takes, especially with their shaky defense.  Being below average in passing success and possession has also put pressure on the defending side of the game — they allow the second-most shots per match to their opponents.  Improving midfield play is a must — the club misses the speed and dribbling of Heller and the assists provided by defensive midfielder Gondorf.

With Schuster’s success in Darmstadt, he’ll easily have the players’ attention and the fans’ support.  Despite their current place in the table, the club is only -3 in goal differential, meaning that they have been competitive in almost every match.  If Schuster can restore the confidence of individual players and get them playing at a higher level while creating more threat from open play and especially from counter attacks, pressure should be relieved on the Lillies’ defense and the results should come to see Darmstadt move up to mid-level status at the least.

Dirk Schuster Returns !!!

 

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Matthew is currently partaking in a Bachelor of Management (Marketing) at the University of South Australia and has been a RealSport’s writer since December of 2016 He predominately devotes his fandom to German football where he’s a passionate Schalke 04 supporter, and competes as a goalkeeper for the Rostrevor Old Collegians Soccer Club in Adelaide’s Collegiate Soccer League. Follow @MattKaragich

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