March 23, 2017

Hannover 96 – Where they were, where they are, where they will be

Where they were:

Hannover survived the 2014/15 season by the skin of their teeth, largely due to a comical own goal by Pavel Krmas in the final game against Freiburg. The whole Rückrunde had been a disaster and Tayfun Korkut was let go after a 0-4 defeat against Leverkusen with five games left and the team still winless.

Michael (#frontswag) Frontzeck was brought in as a fireman and with the help of his attitude and the return of the club’s ultras and a way back to normality in the relations between the club and the active fan groups, Hannover got two lucky wins on the final two match days to limp over the line and finish in 13th.

When everyone expected fireman Frontzeck to leave, unlucky manager Dirk Dufner to leave and a new sporting director to take care of building a new squad after the departures of Joselu, Lars Stindl, Jimmy Briand, Didier Ya Konan etc., it came to the surprise of nearly everyone when the bold couple was allowed to continue. Frontzeck got a new contract and Dufner brought in new players.

Despite several articles stating that Dufner would have up to €10m to spend in the summer, he actually had a net spent of -200k after bringing in Oliver Sorg for defence, Felix Klaus and Uffe Bech for the wings, and Charlison Benschop and Mevlut Erdinc for the attack. With this new squad members, Hannover began preparing for the new season. Dufner, however, left. He didn’t feel like this was his place anymore and so the club was without a manager at the end of the transfer window.

Things weren’t off to a good start. The 1st round cup game can become an upset for some top-flight teams, but Hannover sat back and were lucky to not concede early on against 4th division Hessen Kassel. A header by Salif Sané and a second by Kenan Karaman in injury time spared the blushes and let Hannover advance.

The league was a bumpy ride in the beginning as well. To be fair, 96 had gotten the worst possible start. Away at Darmstadt, the unlikeliest of promoted teams, in their vintage stadium with infinite euphoria, the team made huge individual mistakes that led to two goals against and only a goal by Benschop and a fluky own goal saved a 2-2 draw. The game, however, is most remembered for the worst penalty of the season by Mevlut Erdinc, who basically just passed the ball back to the Darmstadt keeper.

After defeats against Leverkusen (meh) and Mainz (shocking), they welcomed Dortmund at home and managed to get their first lead of the season. Due to some comical defending and some theatrics from Dortmund, the guests won 4-2 and Hannover fans looked forward to the Augsburg game, because Artur Sobiech had scored a brace. Needless to say, the Augsburg game was a disaster again.

When even the game afterwards against Stuttgart was lost, Hannover sat on one point and -10 goals after six games. Thankfully, Hannover is Wolfsburg’s bogey team and they doubled their points tally there. This was followed by the only time Hannover got successive wins in this Hinrunde. A deserved 1-0 win against Werder Bremen (who were really poor) not only was the first clean sheet of the season, but the result was repeated a week later in Cologne – obviously due to very dubious circumstances with “Handreasen” volley-balling the ball into the Effzeh net.

Things didn’t shift into the right direction though. A bad Eintracht Frankfurt managed to turn a 1-0 lead into a 1-2 with two identical goals and when HSV ran riot in their first half, the days of Frontzeck seemed numbered. Fortuitously, Hamburg inexplicably collapsed in the 2nd half and Hannover stole a 2-1. From then on to the winter break was only one more highlight: a 4-0 thumping of Ingolstadt, finally showing the talent the team had against a team that had an off-day. Especially Karaman and Bech looked good in that one. Otherwise, there were lots of defeats and Hannover finished their worst Hinrunde since their promotion in 2002 with 14 points in 17th spot.

Where they are

To be honest, the fact that Michael Frontzeck would leave was clear. The only question was when and how. Mirko Slomka had gotten the boot a few days after Christmas in 2013, when President Martin Kind kind of talked himself into sacking Slomka in a series of interviews. One can only assume, that Frontzeck wanted to avoid this embarrassing feat when he announced his resignation a couple of days before Christmas. Speculations arose, whether his hand was forced by the move or whether it was his free decision, but I suppose it was a bit of both.

Over the holidays and towards New Year’s Day, fans speculated about a new coach. Hannover 96 at least had found a new sporting director during the autumn months who could take care of that. All kinds of names were thrown around; some reasonable, some horrifying. In the end, former Bremen and Frankfurt coach Thomas Schaaf was presented and the majority of fans was sure that his name was the soundest option available, given where the club is right now.

New sporting director Martin Bader has also presented four new signings so far to boost the attacking options of the team. Due to the injury of Hiroshi Kiyotake, who is convalescing from a hairline fracture in his foot, a new midfielder was signed to help Kenan Karaman in the creative role. Iver Fossum is only 19 year old and from Norway and will take time to adapt to the Bundesliga, but he sounds like an exciting prospect. Haturo Yamaguchi is a friend of Kiyotake and will try to offer support in the defensive midfield, perhaps closing the gap between defence and attack. Adam Szalai was loaned from Hoffenheim to replace the disappointing Erdinc, who stayed without a goal and became the target of fans when he played against Bayern with gloves when the scales read +15 degrees. The final signing so far is Marius Wolf from 1860 München, a 20-year-old lightweight, who will give Felix Klaus a run for his money on the left wing.

Currently, nearly all of the team are in Belek to prepare for the Rückrunde. The small town is known for its “bazar-like” infrastructure, where clubs, agents, and managers mingle and shift players around. Bader is still looking for one more striker while he’ll also look to get rid of a few players from Hannover’s bloated squad. One can be sure, that once new coach Schaaf had a look at everyone, he’ll give Bader a nod, who won’t make the core of the team and may need a loan or permanent move.

Where they will be

That is actually a good question. The Hinrunde was bad, very bad. But with the new coach, new sporting director, and new players, fans feel slightly more optimistic at the moment. Granted, all this could easily collapse if the start of the 2nd half of the season is messed up, but there is always hope that many teams may be just as bad and struggling as Hannover is. Even though there are only 14 points on the board, Hannover are far from being isolated. They are actually right in the fight for relegation. A few more points snapped up here and there and things could look much easier once spring is in full flow.

I suspect that things will be tight till the end of the season, but new boys Darmstadt and Ingolstadt will crumble in one way or another, Augsburg still has the Europa League (with the Hannover game between the two knock-out games in February), Bremen are in a shocking state and don’t even have money to adjust, Frankfurt are not very good, neither are Hamburg, and teams like Mainz or Köln may crumble a bit.

So given all things, the worst year with only seven wins in total (including the cup game in Kassel) ended with an overdue sacking and a new hope for 2016. People are quick to talk about eras and they did it already about a possible one for Schaaf, but the biggest thing will be to calm the nerves and get points on the board. Everything else will follow.

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Ansgar Löcke is a diehard Hannover fan who has written previously for the Bundesliga Fanatic on his adventures following the 96ers in Pokal competition and in Denmark. You can follow Ansgar on twitter @Ansgarius_90