Just over nine months ago, Eintracht Braunschweig were gearing up for a promotional opportunity in the Relegation Play-offs against Wolfsburg. Braunschwieg coach Torsten Lieberknecht had built a balanced side, which was strong going forward with the likes of Domi Kumbela and Christoph Nyman who had combined for 24 of Die Löwen’s 50 goals, whilst having a strong defensive core that only shipped 36 goals (4th best in the league). Heading into the Relegation Play-offs, Braunschweig was on excellent form, winning four of their last five matches in 2. Bundesliga with that defeat costing Die Löwen any chance of automatic qualification. thanks to a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Arminia Bielefeld.
The opening leg of the Relegation Play-offs was very tight with neither side looking to give away much in the way of opportunities. It would be Wolfsburg who were more assertive going forward and on 35 minutes the Bundesliga club took the lead after Gustav Valsvik handled the ball inside the area. Mario Gomez stepped and converted past Jasmin Fejzic. Lieberknecht would need to make adjustments for the home leg after a poor showing in Wolfsburg. Braunschweig reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the second leg with Nyman leading the line. Die Löwen were active early and could’ve taken the lead in the opening 15 minutes when Nyman tested the reflexes of Koen Casteels. Unfortunately for Braunschweig, Wolfsburg would put the final dagger in the Die Löwen’s heart thanks to a pile driving shot by Vieirinha on 49 minutes sent Eintracht crashing.
So close to the Bundesliga again. Yet season, Braunschweig is really struggling in the 2.Bundesliga, almost scraping the table bottom. Were there signs from a year ago that pointed to Eintracht Braunschweig’s struggles this season?
Recently, 2. Bundesliga teams who competed in the Relegation Play-offs and lost have had a difficult time returning to the top 3 in the second division. Prime examples of this are Greuther Fürth and Nürnberg. Fürth in the 2013/14 season failed to beat Hamburg on away goals and the following season the finished 14th just a point above relegated Aue. Nürnberg lost 2-1 on aggregate to Eintracht Frankfurt in the 2014/14 season and followed that with a 12th placed finish and the second worst defense in the league. This season, the key for Braunschweig’s coach Torsten Lieberknecht was to avoid a similar fate.
Back in the summer, Braunschweig bolstered their side in midfield and defensively with Erzgebirge Aue duo Steve Breitkreuz and Louis Samson, whilst adding Özkan Yildirim as a number 10. However, they did lose key figures in Nik Omladič to Fürth, whilst right back Phil Ofosu-Ayeh made the journey across the channel, joining English Championship Side Wolves. Yilidrim was to provide creativity behind the strikers but was mainly brought in for depth, whilst Breitkreuz was coming off a strong season with Aue where he didn’t miss a single minute of action. The 26-year-old form Hertha Berlin youth product was to add depth defensively whilst challenging Braunschweig’s regular defensive core of Joseph Baffo and Gustav Valsvik.
Lieberknecht also changed his side tactically with Braunschweig switching to a back three compared to the conventional back four the 44 year-old coach typically uses. New signing Steve Breitkreuz partnered with Gustav Valsvik and Joseph Baffo in Braunschweig’s new system, as Ken Reichel and Jan Hochscheidt moved from central midfield to play at wing back.
This new look unit was first tested during the season opener in Düsseldorf. After Marcel Sobottka gave the hosts the lead Braunschweig were able to equalise, then take the lead. Joseph Baffo scrambling home the head on by Domi Kumbela and then Christoph Nyman scoring past Michael Rensing for his first of the season. But Eintracht threw the lead away as Florian Neuhaus gave Düsseldorf a share of the spoils.
Braunschweig were positive in the opening two months of the 2. Bundesliga sitting in 8th place with a record of 2-5-0. But there was a growing issue that would rear its ugly head throughout the season: the problem of defending a lead. In those five matches, Die Löwen coughed up a lead on three occasions against Kaiserslautern, Sandhausen and Fortuna Düsseldorf. This showcases a lack of mental will and toughness within the group as they failed to put teams away after being in a winnable position throughout their fixtures.
October and November was a difficult stretch for Torsten Lieberknecht with only the one victory in this time. Constantly looking for solutions, a change in formation and personal was frequent; from 4-4-2, 4-3-3 to a 5-4-1 was implemented yet Braunschweig continued to plummet down to 12th with poor showings at home to St. Pauli and coughing up leads in consecutive matches against Arminia Bielefeld and Nürnberg. Finally, Eintracht secured a pivotal victory on matchday 16 against a strong performance against a rising Ingolstadt side, to date it has been one of their better efforts with goals from Suleiman Abdullahi and Hendrick Zuck.
With the winter break on the horizon, Braunschweig looked to give their fans some Christmas cheer with their return fixture with Fortuna Düsseldorf. The visitors sitting third behind Nürnberg and surprise leaders Holstein Kiel. It would be Düsseldorf taking the lead just nine minutes into the game with Jan Hochscheidt’s free-kick being cleared and the visitors going straight on the counter attack. With Braunschweig extremely exposed, Benito Raman played in Davor Lovren who delicately chipped the out coming Fejzic.
This encounter prior to the winter break was a perfect representation of Braunschweig’s season. To wit, the side remains competitive throughout every contest, however, they have struggled to find the back of the net on a regular basis. It’s a microcosm of issues going forward as Die Löwen had only 22 goals in their opening 18 matches with a shot accuracy of 39%. Although their shot accuracy has been towards the top half of the lead, they just haven’t been able to convert in front of goal.
During die Winterpause; Eintracht went back to the transfer market as they brought in right back Georg Teigl from Augsburg on loan until the remainder of the season, winger Onur Bulut from Freiburg and striker Philipp Hofmann to bring goals to Braunschweig. On the other end, Onel Hernández made the jump to Norwich. Teigl and Bulut hadn’t made any impressions to their respective squad but tactically they can fit into Lieberknecht system. Bulut provides creativity that they lost through Hernández whilst Teigl is an aggressive right back who can play most systems he is implemented into. The Hofmann signing was an interesting one, the 24-year-old hadn’t been in great form with Fürth with just a single goal in nine appearances. Hofmann was left on the bench on numerous occasions and was even dropped to the 2nd team. At the time it seemed to be a strange purchase.
With a rejuvenated squad returning from the break, Braunschweig were expected to push on and make a run at the top half of the standings.
But it didn’t happen.
First, Eintracht butchering chances in their return against Heidenheim. Hendrick Zuck with a criminal miss from inside the six-yard box in the opening half which should’ve given them the lead. As is the case, the old adage of you miss I hit was on display when Denis Thomalla headed home Marc Schnatterer’s free-kick just after the break. Kolja Pusch made it two before full time to continue the woes of Braunschweig.
Granted, Lieberknecht’s side would produce a stellar side the following week in Aue. After falling behind in the opening 12 minutes thanks to a counter attacking goal from Pascal Köpke, Braunschweig picked themselves up immediately with a goal from Suleiman Abdullahi before Domi Kumbela gave Die Löwen the lead prior to the break. Abdullahi was at it again midway through the second half to give Eintracht their last win to date. Two of their last three performances have showcased their season, in their match-up with Kaiserslautern; Braunschweig shot themselves in the foot by outshooting Die roten Teufel 26 to 10. But two goals from Lukas Spalvis sunk Braunschweig. Whilst against Union Berlin, Die Eisern completed 286 more passes than Braunschweig and 66% of possession, yet it was Die Löwen taking all three points.
Perhaps the spirit was kicked out Braunschweig prior to the season, but there is no doubting that Torsten Lieberknecht hasn’t been able to get the same production out of his squad this season. Key performers Christoph Nyman and Domi Kumbela have combined for just six goals this season which is only a quarter of what they produced last season. They tend to drift in and out of games and if it wasn’t for the excellent goal-keeping of Jasmin Fejzic who is on track to beat his 11 clean sheets from last season.
In the short term, Eintracht Braunschweig’s goal is evidently clear: avoid occupying any of the bottom three slots at the conclusion of matchday 34. If this goal is achieved, the team will look to re-tool its squad, bringing players who better suit Torsten Lieberkneckt’s style of play. Especially needed is a striker, who has experience in the 2. Bundesliga, since Braunschweig is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league. So it’s essential they buy someone who can complement their stout defense. Finally, Die Löwen’s long term aspirations should be still be Bundesliga promotion, last season showcased they were more than capable of getting close to the top flight again.
At the time of this piece, Eintracht Braunschweig sit in 13th place.
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