Will Niko Kovac lead Eintracht Frankfurt into Europe ? – an analysis of die Adler’s rise in 2 parts

This Bundesliga season’s been dominated by numerous narratives – seven coaching changes including Bayern and Dortmund is a compelling one – but the league’s competitiveness\parity\mediocrity has not been discussed enough. After 20 games played, Bayern currently have 50 points and a 16 point cushion on second place Schalke (or Leverkusen should they beat Mainz). The gap between third place Eintracht Frankfurt (!!!) and 16th place Werder Bremen is also 16 points. Cologne are attempting a historic turnaround – 3 points after 16 games which beat the record by Tasmania Berlin who collected four in 1965\66 – and have currently taken 10 points (the same as Tasmania did all season in 65\66) from their last four games. Freiburg managed just 8 points from their first 12 games, but as the 2-2 draw against Dortmund, who needed a stoppage time equalizer, Christian Streich’s still got the Black Forest magic: 16 points in their last 8 games is more than any team not named Bayern! Third on that 8 game form table is a team that’s also third in the actual rankings, yet have received very little publicity up until last week. Boasting a league-high 22 foreign players, Eintracht Frankfurt are doubling down on their international appeal. Their 74m squad value at the start of the season – so 4 million less than Virgil van Dijk alone !!! – is now at 90 million and Niko Kovac’s name keeps popping up in Bayern manager rumors. How did we get here?

 

Eintracht summer signings or UN members meeting?

Frankfurt have long-been among the Bundesliga’s sleeping giants, and despite a storied history (4 DFB Pokal wins), their last 20 years have been more about fighting relegation (4 visits to the 2. Liga) than relevance – two ninth place finishes and the 2012\13 surprise sixth spot that earned them UEL qualification! Case in point: alongside dropping into the 2. Liga die Adler have finished 13th or worse an additional 10 times in the last 20 seasons! Their calling card was a risk-free conservative approach that was spearheaded by the eloquent chairman Heribert Bruchhagen (69), a Bundesliga veteran, DFL board member – who ironically took the HSV job after criticizing the spendthrift Klaus Michael Kühne earlier.

The departure of Bruchhagen gave way to a new triumvirate of leaders: 1. deputy chairman Axel Hellmann (47) who had been the vice president since 2001 and the finance director since 2012, 2. Oliver Frankenbach (50) , the former marketing leader turned finance chief, and 3. Fredi Bobic (46) who had left Stuttgart in a proverbial “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” situation.  The sharing of power and their similarity in ages signaled a generational shift from the conservative days of Bruchhagen. The sporting director Bruno Hübner (since 2011) remained on board, but he was always the one willing to spend anyways. He’s made some smart deals in the past (netting 8 million on Kevin Trapp, getting David Abraham for 1.5 million plus Timmy Chandler and Makoto Hasebe for a combined 1 million from Nürnberg, signing Bastian Oczipka for 500k), but the list of failures – Haris Seferovic and Slobodan Medojevic for nearly 5m, Johannes Flum for 2m plus the 14\15 departures (“Sebastians” Rode and Jung, Pirmin Schwegler, Marc-Oliver Kempf and Marvin Bakalorz are/were at least solid Bundesliga starters that left for a combined 6m) bring up some talent evaluation concerns, even if Eintracht wasn’t making money and finished a disappointing 13th after making it to the Europa League the previous year. The reappointment of Armin Veh, who had publicly criticized Hübner’s signings in the summer of 2015 seemed like a panic move, having of course let him go just a year earlier to “steal” Thomas Schaaf who fell out with the board and left just after a year. By early March a mere 24 points from 24 games saw SGE in 16th and a prime candidate to go down alongside Hannover, especially in light of the appointment of one Julian Nagelsmann at 17th place Hoffenheim. Morale could not have been any lower: Alex Meier, Fussballgott!, who had scored 12 goals in 19 games after starting the season with a knee operation would get an edema in his keen and be ruled out potentially until the end of the season. With Bruchhagen leaving, Armin Veh getting fired, and upcoming games against the rejuvenated Gladbach, Mainz who were knocking on the doors of Europe, trips to Leverkusen and Bayern before finishing up against BVB at home, it really seemed like all was lost. It did seem that the last move of Bruchhagen was to hire  Niko Kovac, though sharing an agent with Bruno Hübner’s sons (Florian, now at Hannover and Benjamin, now at Hoffenheim) probably did not hurt either. At any rate Niko entered alongside his brother Robert to play the role of savior. 3-0 losses to Gladbach and more painfully to Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen – in the summer of 2012, Kovac had expected to get the RB Salzburg job after having finished his playing career there and worked under former head coach Ricardo Moniz, only to get passed over for Schmidt!! – alongside a 1-0 defeat in Munich and 0-2 at home vs Hoffenheim meant that die Adler were a point behind Bremen for 16th.

The eulogies for Frankfurt’s “Titanic” were already written, but remarkably, Kovac’s Eintracht rattled off three consecutive wins – a 2-1 triumph over Martin Schmidt’s sixth placed Mainz, beating Darmstadt away 2-1 after Sandro Wagner missed a penalty to put the hosts 2-0 up and the cherry on top: a 1-0 against Tuchel’s Dortmund with perhaps the lowest recorded possession in the Bundesliga’s recent history with 15.5%! It certainly wasn’t a pretty football match, with Kovac lining up in a 5-4-1, but anytime you can beat a Dortmund side that would’ve won the league in every other season (78 points is the most a second place team has gotten in Bundesliga history) with Anis Ben-Hatira, Yanni Regasel, Constant Djakpa, Luc Castaignos and Stefan Aigner in the same starting lineup you’re doing something right! Unfortunately, a late Papy Djilobodji goal in the relegation rubber match vs Werder meant that all the great work was undone. The loss meant that SGE had to play a tough Nürnberg team with strikers like Guido Burgstaller and Niklas Füllkrug in the relegation playoffs, but little-used Serbian midfielder Mijat Gacinovic had scored from former der Club man Timmy Chandler to make it 1-1 in the first leg, before producing an excellent solo run to set up Haris Seferovic’s only relevant moment, the game winner and survival for Eintracht!

The 16/17 looked promising for Eintracht, as the winter signings Marco Fabian and Szabolcs Huszti could finally integrate into the attack, and the defense looked set with David Abraham and Lukas Hradecky having a full season under their belt. However, Fredi Bobic and Bruno Hübner were far from done, offloading Aigner, Zambrano, Castaignos and Waldschmidt for nearly ten million, while shedding underperformers like Djakpa or Ben-Hatira or Flum. Bobic would start a new trend of signing international players, his targets were generally young guys with a pedigree who were not getting enough playing time at bigger clubs: Ante Rebic from Fiorentina, Omar Mascarell and Jesus Vallejo at Real Madrid, Michael Hector from Chelsea or Guillermo Varela from Manchester United. Bobic’s strategy of banking on the talent identification of clubs with better resources than SGE largely paid off: while Hector was loaned back out to Hull City and Varela’s unfortunate tattoo incident ended his tenure,  Rebic and Mascarell had shown enough to secure permanent deals since then for a combined 3 million. In the case of Jesus Vallejo, the loan was a little too successful, as he was arguably one of the best CBs of the Bundesliga and got recalled by Real. Things were chugging along fantastically for Frankfurt, led by Marco Fabian’s amazing Hinrunde, and 20 games in Eintracht were ahead of Dortmund and just behind Bayern and Leipzig in third place!!

Advanced metrics such as XG showed an overperformance of 6 points (35 to 29.2), but still ranked them sixth in terms of expected points.

Tactically, Kovac’s side was one that sustained pressure (a sub 8 PPDA was the 6th highest in the league) and was comfortable in the four back setup with the pairing of the duel-winning Abraham and the sweet passing\anticipating Vallejo flanked by the tricky dribbling and key passes of Bastian Oczipka and the powerful runs of Timmy Chandler. In midfield, Mascarell was the defensive midfielder that cleaned up, while Szabolcs Huszti connected the play as a number 8 with an attack that was lead by Fabian’s free role and Gacinovic as the attacking mid\winger and eventual Huszti replacement. Even though they did go 6-1-1 in the 4-2-3-1, the inclusion of Makoto Hasebe as the third CB\occasional “Sechser” (which became a more prominent feature in the 17\18 season) and\or Hector\Russ allowed Frankfurt to play with  more defensive stability, while still maintaining the speed on the wings (Chandler, Oczipka) to counter with Gacinovic\Rebic and Fabian.

That pass map was a successful defensive\counter-oriented approach against better sides like BVB, but Kovac’s Frankfurt

but was also capable of playing possession from the same setup against lesser sides like Werder:

They were an advanced metrics darling:  in the 16\17 season Frankfurt still finished 5th in Expected Points with 50.6 vs 42 actual points, despite that awful spring. Their stout defense was evident as they were 3rd in XGA 3rd in NPXGA. Their press was ranked 6th in terms PPDA in the opponent half with 7.84 rating, while SGE held their opponents to 164 pass completions inside 20 yards of SGE goal – the 3rd fewest in the league. 

That all resulted in the aforementioned run of 35 points in the 20 games, in no small part because of an unbeaten record at home (6-3-0), but 14 points on the road were nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately, it seemed like that if you did in fact sneeze at an Eintracht player they would miss 6 weeks.

Injuries kill the Rückrunde

https://twitter.com/fbinjuries/status/947118557887975424

https://twitter.com/fbinjuries/status/871756340645044227

In light of the previous graphs and Fabian going down with back problems during the break, plus weird things like Lukas Hradecky’s epic handball that cost them 2 games, it was perhaps not a surprise that Eintracht would slide down the table. Still, 7 points in the last 14 games were historically atrocious The Alex Meier conundrum was still looming over Frankfurt, as the Fussballgott who had scored 19 and 12 goals in the previous two seasons was now putting up career low numbers of 5 goals, 3.3 aerials won and 2 shot attempts per game. Meier, who at the time of this article is recovering from ankle surgery and an infection is yet to start a Bundesliga match since February of 2017. His replacements – Seferovic\Hrgota\Rebic combined to score just 10 goals in the Bundesliga. In retrospect, Haris Seferovic should probably not be your no.1. option if he’s got a 1599 minute goalless streak, but what do I know….

However, the nice thing about having 35 points from 20 games is that it’s pretty much impossible to get relegated and Frankfurt were of course still in the DFB Pokal and poised to make a run after getting past Hannover – hello Seferovic game winner!! – and  Bielefeld in the quarters in late February. While Alex Meier did feature in those spring cup games, it would be Branimir Hrgota’s penalty against Gladbach that would give the Eagles the 8-7 victory in the semifinal shootout to set up a date with Borussia Dortmund in Berlin. It looked like a perfect homecoming for Berlin-born Niko Kovac, but with a little magic from Ousmane Dembele and a lot of help from the Dortmund board, the cup final turned out to be Thomas Tuchel’s farewell party in the end….

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we look at the 17\18 season in depth!

 

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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

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