Bundesliga MatchDay Five ended several hours ago, with FC Schalke’s loss at Hoffenheim in Sunday’s late match. We have only just finished five of 34 matchdays in the 2016/2017. Not even 15% of the fixture schedule of Germany’s top footballing division is complete.
Nevertheless, there has been noted panic at three large, traditional clubs — SV Werder Bremen, Hamburger SV and FC Schalke 04. Those clubs currently occupy three of the four bottom berths in the Bundesliga table, with Werder Bremen climbing above FC Ingolstadt due to its first win of the season Saturday. Hamburg and Schalke have yet to find a victory in league play. The two north German clubs, Bremen and Hamburg, have already fired their coaches (Victor Skripnick two weeks ago at Bremen, Bruno Labbadia this weekend despite Hamburg holding powerful Bayern Munich scoreless for 87 minutes). Schalke’s new coach, Markus Weinzierl, is on the (very) hot seat in Gelsenkirchen as the Royal Blues are off to their worst start in their Bundesliga history.
The three slumping clubs have combined for 17 German national championships while having been runners-up 24 times, meaning that going back to the early 20th century, that one of these three have been the best or second-best team in Germany almost 1/3 of the time. They have also combined to win 14 Pokal championships since 1935 and have made the finals another 14 times in total. These have been successful clubs, from large metropolitan areas with huge fan followings, who have been run in the traditional German manner. Currently, each is awful. Why?
The Rise of the Lesser
Certainly not all traditional Bundesliga clubs are suffering. Bayern Munich once again top the league and Borussia Dortmund reside in second place, while big, traditional clubs such as 1.FC Koln and Eintracht Frankfurt are enjoying wonderful starts to the new campaign while Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer 04 Leverkusen are doing well, also.
But we’re also seeing clubs without a big winning tradition find current success. RB Leipzig and TSG Hoffenheim are exciting sides, while 1.FSV Mainz 05, FC Augsburg and SC Freiburg are small clubs punching above their weights without the financial advantages bestowed by Red Bull in Leipzig and Dietmar Hopp in Hoffenheim. All of these teams are outdoing Bremen, Schalke and Hamburg with lesser budget, lesser publicity and much less glory in their rearview mirrors. They are taking, and will take, the European spots that would be in the past taken by the traditional powers.
Look at clubs such as Mainz, Augsburg and Freiburg. There is no big money infusion and skirting of the 50+1 mandate as there is at Leipzig and Hoffenheim. The 05ers, Fuggerstädter and Breisgau-Brazilians are not considered ‘big’ clubs and are, for the most part, clubs without glory in their storylines. A club such as Schalke could not settle for the lesser-profile offseason signings that these clubs make to better their rosters — the media and fan criticism would be withering as the club would be accused of being cheap, without vision and lacking the intent to compete as an elite club. Meanwhile, Mainz, Augsburg and Freiburg can get away with these moves, improve their clubs, and compete on a level acceptable to much of their fan bases. Pressure to succeed, yes, but much less pressure. And no stadium clock (as in Hamburg) oppressively overshadowing every performance, a constant reminder of how the dinosaur has never been removed from first-division play. No room for error, even for a dinosaur.
Tradition as Hindrance
It’s plain that a tradition of success can lead to more success (Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund), but it’s also clear that it is no guarantee. And with tradition, unfortunately, often comes the legacy of unreal expectation among media, the club’s board, and longtime supporters.
There’s little doubt that media, especially local, can put pressure on a club’s management. One only needs to watch Aljoscha Pause’s documentary “The Trainer” to understand the pressures on a club to succeed. In the case of Heidenheim, a city of less than 50,000 the local media headlines questions about the club and longtime Coach Frank Schmidt (he’s still there) during a 2013/2013 losing streak in 3. Liga competition. The media scrutiny is, of course, much greater in the Bundesliga cities.
All three clubs brought in impressive talent over the summer, but integrating that talent successfully hasn’t come quickly, as it has in Dortmund under Thomas Tuchel. Schalke, a constant competitor in Europe (although they’ve had to settle for the Europa League’s lesser prestige and money the past two years), replaced their coach and sporting director in addition to the massive influx of new talent. Most of that talent is young and untested in Bundesliga play, and Coach Markus Weinzierl’s inability to find the right starting XI among more talent than he ever had at FC Augsburg has led to much of Schalke’s woes thus far. Labbadia had similar problems, while Skripnik, who barely kept his job after last season’s difficulties, had to find his way this season with his two top strikers unavailable through injury.
One could say, fairly or unfairly, that Labbadia and Skripnik were victims of heightened expectations, fueled by the new signings, fanned by the media and based on the club’s history and size. If Weinzierl is sacked, one could say similar things. All three clubs see the demotion of VfB Stuttgart vividly in their rearview mirrors, and feel the pressure to react to failure quickly, often too quickly.
Instability within Tradition
While one would expect more stability among traditionally successful, large clubs, with SVW, HSV and S04, the opposite is true. In recent years, each club has created a coaching merry-go-round on their sidelines. Constant change in coaches means new tactics to learn, a new boss for the players to impress and a less cohesive squad, at least at the outset. A player’s real trust in a coach takes time to build — today’s player is less willing to run through a wall for the gaffer than players of days past.
Again, the pressure to play within the club’s long-established norms of success means there is a limit to patience and much incentive to change things due to criticism.
Tradition Means Less Today
Tradition simply doesn’t mean that much in the modern footballing world. What have you done lately is what matters. One simply needs to look at the success of Leicester City in the EPL last season. Individuals who had little interest in the beautiful game would always ask me about Leicester City, because their quest to win the league after so many years without trophies was a remarkable storythat transcended the footballing world.
In the global game, many foreign fans are unaware of the storied past of many of the clubs that now are hard-put to earn a result. That ignorance is the natural result of being a ‘newbie’, and even those who are aware that clubs like Schalke, Hamburg and Werder Bremen have climbed the mountain in the past are NOT aware of the importance of those achievements in the manner that older German fans are.
Last April, Niklas Wildhagen reported on the effort of six tradtitional German clubs to band together in seeking a larger share of the Bundesliga TV pie. The argument is that German fans are much more interested in seeing a match between Werder Bremen and Hertha Berlin than a match between Hoffenheim and Mainz. Maybe. Maybeeeeee. But foreign viewers aren’t, especially if the Hoffenheim-Mainz match promises more goals, better play, more drama, and more exciting young stars.
What is crucial is that the Bundesliga clubs have basically maxed out all they can in domestic revenues, not only domestic TV, but other revenue streams such as corporate sponsorships and partnerships with individual clubs, stadium naming rights, shirt sponsorships. The great success in doing so, however, means that revenue growth will come mainly from sources outside of Germany. Because Werder Bremen and Hamburg are still big clubs in Germany doesn’t mean that they are must-see TV outside of it. Tradition, and past glory, simply don’t matter as much as they used to.
And let’s not forget the equality of social media in the battle of smaller clubs versus the traditional powers. One doesn’t need a huge budget, or a location in a traditional media center, to get the word out about your club via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. Right now, the biggest sports brands in the world are often the most adept and most interested in using social media — Bayern Munich, or the Golden State Warriors of the NBA, to build awareness and create fans of their teams globally, but lower-budget clubs can compete well in these new media markets. Once again, tradition means less in such an environment.
For these reasons, big, traditional clubs such as SV Werder Bremen, Hamburger SV and even FC Schalke 04 may be, to a degree, victims of their own past successes and large fan bases. It is still way too early in the season to say much definitive about where clubs will end up in the table in May, much too early. But it will be fascinating to see if the slow starts and resulting panic among these three traditional powers will be rectified as the season goes on. or instead will many fans suffer a very disappointing season and one or more of these clubs even be relegated.