Augsburg may not have beaten Schalke on matchday 19 but it sure felt like a win. It was Schalke’s first 0-0 draw in the league since February 2011, a run of 65 games to put that into perspective. A large part of that was not only down to Augsburg’s improved defending but improved all around performance.
The point lifts them above Hoffenheim on goal difference and into the relegation playoff spot. It’s the first time since October that they don’t find themselves in a direct relegation spot. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the end of the season results, Augsburg’s fine form at the beginning of 2013 bodes well for their bid for Bundesliga survival.
Augsburg collected just nine points in the first half of the season. Two games into 2013, they already have four and could easily have had six going by their performance against Schalke. The result was no coincidence of course and although Schalke are still trying to rediscover their form, Augsburg coach Markus Weinzierl and his team are doing a lot of things right. Most of all, Weinzierl finally found a formation that suits his team and gets the best out of them.
Defensively, Augsburg have tightened up their back line and don’t allow the amounts of space between the defensive and middle third they did earlier this season. Against Schalke, they limited Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to just a single shot, one of his lowest returns since arriving in the league. Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker, the man with one of the longest names in football, did a fantastic job marking the Dutch striker and won over 80 percent of his duels. Not bad for a player who has been moved around all over the field this season.
On that note, continuity has also been key. The Schalke game was the first time Weinzierl kept his starting eleven the same following their win against Fortuna Düsseldorf last week. With injuries to first choice players like captain Paul Verhaegh and Andreas Ottl and numerous other players out to either suspension or international duty, Weinzierl had to shuffle his deck a bit to find the best solution.
That reshuffling also resulted in a formation change, one that has contributed greatly to their improved performances. Two years ago German national team coach Joachim Löw flirted with the 4-1-4-1 formation as an alternative and this year Thomas Schaaf at Werder Bremen deviated from his preferred 4-4-2 diamond to the 4-1-4-1. Weinzierl is the next to implement it. Part of the reason was to add support to striker Sascha Mölders who has scored six times in nine games since returning from injury.
Earlier this season Weinzierl added an additional striker and changed to a 4-4-2 but no great effect. The change of formations adds greater variety to Augsburg’s attacks and puts them in a better position to play a proactive game as opposed to reacting to opponents, which they have had to do many times this season. In players like Ja-Cheol Koo, Jan Moravek and Sunderland loanee Dong-Won Ji, they have three very technically sound and creative attackers.
All three have done well so far since playing alongside each other in the new setup, and it is no surprise that Augsburg ended up outshooting Schalke (just like they did against Düsseldorf last week). The potential was always there for Augsburg as their chances created numbers show relative to their peers. They just needed a better way to channel it and the new formation may be exactly what they needed.
Aside from just an offensive perspective, the 4-1-4-1 plays a real practical defensive function. With four to five players in Schalke’s half when off the ball, Augsburg were in a better position to press and retrieve possession. Strikingly, Schalke’s pass percentage against Augsburg was as poor as they’ve been this season. Augsburg not only outpassed Schalke (the visitors misplaced a staggering 20 percent of their passes), they also had the majority of the possession. That against the team with the third highest possession percentage in the league this season.
Press high and press early, that has been the motto of Augsburg in the last two weeks. Sure enough, Uchida, Höwedes and Fuchs, three of Schalke’s four defenders, were all amongst the players with the lowest pass completion percentage. It was clear Schalke struggled playing out of the back, in large part thanks to the pressure applied by Augsburg’s attackers.
In the drop zone by the winter break, Augsburg relied on a strong showing in the Rückrunde to stay up last season as well. They are currently on a three match streak without a loss and although that may not seem like much, for a club like Augsburg who have struggled for points all season long, it’s the kind of start that could signal a real turnaround.
With both Sascha Mölders and Daniel Baier renewing their contracts and results and performances improving, 2013 started in the best way possible for Die Schwaben. If Augbsurg do avoid the drop by season’s end, and that still remains a rather big hypothetical, then people can look back at Weinzierl’s formation change as the team’s major turning point.
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