July 28, 2017

Holstein Kiel: trying to get back on course

On June 2nd, Holstein Kiel were a couple of minutes from being promoted to the 2. Bundesliga, trying to hold on to a 1-1 draw in the Allianz Arena, which would send them through on away goals against 1860 München. In the final second, defender Kai Bülow scored from a rebound off the post to keep 1860 in the 2nd division and the “Storks” from Kiel down in the 3rd division. It was heartbreak for the team from Schleswig-Holstein, who made their way back up the A7 with the bus that night, nearly 900km straight up north.

This defeat closed the chapter on an unbelievable run in the second half of the 2014/15 season, which saw them climb the table of the 3. Liga until they sat behind Arminia Bielefeld and MSV Duisburg in 3rd spot. A crazy overachievement for the club, who is only the #2 sports team in their town. Kiel is dominated by handball club THW, dubbed the “FC Bayern of handball”. Even though Holstein Kiel exists since 1900, their only piece of national silverware came in 1912. THW was founded four years later, but has been German champion 20 times (17 times since 1994 and consecutive champion between ’05-’10 and ’12-’15), German cup winner nine times and Champions League winner three times. No wonder that the town mostly supports the handball team filled with national and international superstars.

Nevertheless, Holstein have found themselves a niche to offer league-wide football in Schleswig-Holstein to the inhabitants. Schleswig-Holstein is the only federal state never to have a team in the top tier of German football since the introduction of the league system in 1963. To play football in the 3rd tier against teams from the whole country is a unique selling point for Holstein, while local rivals VfB Lübeck recover from several insolvencies and are rebuilding in the 4th tier, only hosting teams from Bremen, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, and Hamburg.

New Faces, New Targets

In the summer of 2015, Holstein were busy licking their wounds about the failed promotion campaign. Nevertheless, the expectation was clear that a similar run to the promotion spots would be a big miracle, especially because a big team with Erzgebirge Aue had gotten relegated and Dynamo Dresden would be making a major push to get back into the 2. Bundesliga. Additionally, Holstein Kiel had to restructure their squad. Midfielder Mikkel Vendelbo returned to Denmark, attacker Patrick Breitkreuz left to join Energie Cottbus, veteran Fiete Sykora left for 4th division team Weiche Flensburg, and attacker Rafael Kazior joined the newly promoted reserve team from Werder Bremen to add experience to their youth.

The biggest shock, however, came when SC Paderborn offered 500.000 Euro to sign young centre back Hauke Wahl. The 21-year-old was one big piece in the defensive solidity in the previous season, but Kiel could not step away from that deal, a sum like that is like a win in the lottery in that tier.

But not only those players which had to be replaced: goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm, new midfielder Milad Salem, and defender and captain Marlon Krause all tore their ACLs in the early stages of the season.

Kiel signed several new defenders, most notably Rafael Czichos from Rot-Weiß Erfurt, Denis Weidlich from Hansa Rostock, and Dominik Schmidt from Preußen Münster. The midfield was strengthened with Evans Nyarko, Steven Lewerenz, and Fabian Schnellhardt on loan from Duisburg. The attack was only bolstered with Saliou Sané from Paderborn. Robin Zentner was loaned from Mainz to get a new keeper until Kronholm was fit again.

S.O.S.

From the outset, one could see that things would get tougher in this season. While local news outlets tried to hype the start of the season as a “second wave” towards the top spots, the first game was lost 4-0 against the reserve of Mainz 05 and sent a lot of fans back down to earth. It was in the first half of the Hinrunde, where supporters had to accept that Holstein Kiel is a team for the midfield of the table. It is a very tight league, where many teams can beat each other any given day, but a couple of bad results see you slip down the standings very quickly. After nine match days, Holstein had only managed two wins against Halle and Bremen II and things looked precarious. Especially the defence was very leaky in the beginning, where the new defenders and the new keepers – both new boy Zentner and former #2 Niklas Jakusch – had plenty of misunderstandings.

Things looked to be more stable in September, but then in October Kiel lost three games in a row and slid down to the bottom of the table after match day 15. Granted, things were still pretty close in the table and things improved again, but the alarm bells were ringing.

Back to Navigable Water

A big turnaround was needed, and it came on November 7th, when center back Rafael Czichos managed to score all four goals in a 3-1 win against Sonnenhof Großaspach. Two headers and a direct free kick guaranteed himself a hat trick, before he cleared a cross into his own net a few minutes later. But this game was a starting point to a good end of the Hinrunde. 3-1 seemed to be the flavour of the month, as they also beat VfB Stuttgart II and Erfurt by the same score line. At the end of the Hinrunde, Kiel stood back in 12th position. Before Christmas, the league already played two games of the Rückrunde, in which Holstein only managed one more point to spend New Year’s Eve in 15th, only three points above the drop zone.

To say that the club is right where it wants to be, would be a wrong assumption. Added to the defensive woes is a lack of creativity in the offensive part of the pitch. Although Steven Lewerenz tries his best and already has five goals and six assists, the biggest strength of Kiel are set-pieces. The strikers – especially Manuel Schäffler and veteran Marc Heider – aren’t firing yet and leave the fans frustrated a lot of the time. In fact, defender Rafa Czichos is the highest goal scorer so far with six goals.

Of course, the coach Karsten Neitzel and the new sporting director Uwe Stöver have taken a look at the squad and have made three new signings during the winter break. Icelandic defender Eidur Sigurbjörnsson has signed from Swedish club Örebro and will help to stabilize the defence even more. Striker Mathias Fetsch signed from Dynamo Dresden to bring attacking power back to Kiel. Fetsch had his best spell a few years ago for Kickers Offenbach and was unlucky to tear his ACL last season and see Dresden plan and play successfully without him. The third signing was midfielder Willi Evseev, who has joined on loan from 1. FC Nürnberg. The 22-year-old stems from Hannover 96’s youth system and moved to Franconia via VfL Wolfsburg. A Rückrunde in the 3rd tier may be his chance to step up for the first time and show himself for Nürnberg, who are challenging for a return to the Bundesliga. Evseev will want to show his technical ability either on the wings or in the centre.

Land Ahoy

Right now, promotion spots are eleven points away from Kiel and definitely out of reach. Even if the team improves a lot and they outplay themselves like they did one year ago, there are too many big names between Holstein and the Treasure Island. The target has to be to navigate steadily around the rocks that lie in front of the team, fixtures against direct rivals in the lower midfield have to be won. They start with this task on Sunday in the Weserstadion against Werder Bremen II, a relegation favourite. When this works and deeper waters are reached, perhaps the crew can catch a breeze and sail into the right direction, without things turning into an ugly storm, or worse, be in the doldrums.

It has to be hoped, that the new sailors pull in the right direction and the captain keeps his crew under control. There are no signs of a mutiny on the horizon and it better stays that way, because the track record of the man in charge is good. When the injured players return, they will be seen as new signings and can help in the final games of the season. The outlook has to be to bring the vessel into a good position for the 2016/17 season, perhaps coming closer to the paradise island that is the 2. Bundesliga.

The following two tabs change content below.
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