Bundesliga season preview I: The battle against relegation
Thick smoke floats through the stadium. The stadium is – put mildly – tense. The calm before the storm. In Hamburg some hundred people are getting ready to go ballistic. In contrast are the thousands of HSV Fans who accept the relegation of German football’s dinosaurs, already looking forwards.
They pledge themselves to their club, taking a clear position against the morons who want to destroy this positive general atmosphere. The relegation battle is linked with emotions. Nowhere in the Bundesliga are the future of clubs, colleagues and players at play as much as in the bottom third of the table.
In today’s edition we take a look at two promoted sides and four teams who have flirted with relegation several times in the recent past. Who will go down this season? Who can save themselves?
Whoever you meet, people are always pleased. Everyone says thank you for promotion. That shows you the meaning of what we’ve achieved this year,” said coach Michael Köllner after his team managed to secure their return to the big leagues.
In 2014, the club went down with just 26 points. Five years in the Bundesliga came to an end. During that time they even managed to come sixth one year. The last four years in the second division were fair to middling. Following a ninth place finish, relegation came in 2016. Eintracht Frankfurt just about came through, and Nuremberg came just 12th in the following season.
Last season, however, the club finally found consistency in their performances. Since Köllner took over in the dugout at the start of 2017, the team has clearly moved forwards.
Köllner is a very particular guy. It’s not just about sport for him. Visits to the monastery and discussions on everyday things are part of his way of leading the team. Politics, then, is just as much a topic as world football. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in March that he put the Mertesacker interview about pressure in football to his players.
The 48-year-old is a master of minimising precisely that pressure as much as possible. When Nuremberg – still in second place – went four games in a row without a win, Köllner had to face the questions at the press conference.
“We were expecting it,” he said completely calmly. “Everyone except Bayern Munich has phases of being stronger or weaker.” It’s that realism, paired with composure, that gave fans, club and players the ever-present feeling that they would have enough for promotion in the end.
Nuremberg also played very attractive, attacking football. They scored 61 goals – only Kiel (71) had more. But that wasn’t the big secret to their success. FCN impressed with a superb balance of risk and insurance. Leaving aside Sandhausen briefly, who only conceded 33 goals, the club had the best defence of the second division. 39 goals conceded were enough to get their noses ahead in most ties.
For the coming season, the only goal for a promoted side can be to lift that balance to a higher level. If the men from Nuremberg managed to keep the pressure as low as they have, and if they come out playing as liberated as they did, then much can be expected of them in a league in which balance and composure have been rare goods of late.
Our prediction: 1. FC Nuremberg stay in the Bundesliga, finishing 14th.
After relegation in 2014, 1. FC Nuremberg are back with the big boys. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the target will surely be to stay up first and foremost. But what do the club’s long-term ambitions and potential look like?
If you ask Michael Köllner, then he’d reject the goal of staying up, because he doesn’t want to define his goals ex negative and doesn’t want to limit his thinking to a specific league finish. In spite of that, staying up – however it happens – is obviously the goal.
In the last four years of second division status, the club has lost a lot of ground compared to all the other Bundesliga sides. That’s also visible when you see that the make-up of the Bundesliga, except for Leipzig and Düsseldorf (in place of Braunschweig and Hamburg) is identical to Nuremberg’s relegation season in 2013/14. Fellow promoted side Düsseldorf aside, Freiburg, Hannover and Stuttgart were all in the second division for a year, and Leipzig for two. All 13 other Bundesliga sides were in the first division without interruption. Making up the distance to those teams, in times of extreme financial disparities, seems almost impossible. When you see that FCN’s budget is as high as the fee Freiburg paid for Luca Waldschmidt (50 Bundesliga games, 2 goals), you see how far the club has been left behind.
As such, I’m personally rather sceptical as to whether the club can establish itself in the Bundesliga long-term. The potential for fans is definitely there, as evidenced by the friendly games which are intentionally held regionally, or by events like “The club fans out”, where are players and functionaries visited fan-clubs throughout Bavaria over one day. How far that goes to evening out the deficits of the past years is hard to say. All in all it seems like the board are using this season in the Bundesliga more for financial consolidation and not taking any great risks, as seen in that small transfer budget. As a result I’ll assume that it will be more of a brief guest appearance in the Bundesliga. Existence as a team in the bottom third of the Bundesliga or the upper third of the second division also seems to me realistic for the next few years.
What do you expect from FCN tactically in the Bundesliga? What will the club concentrate on, and where does the team still have a lot of work to do?
In our promotion season Michael Köllner mostly went with a 4-1-4-1 and the formation will certainly continue to be in his repertoire. At the same time, in pre-season he has tried out a 3-4-1-2 to gain greater flexibility. I’m assuming that Nuremberg will vary between the two formations according to opposition and their own plan. All in all, I expect an approach untypical of a promoted side from the club that puts technique and ball circulation at the fore. FCN were already a rather atypical second league side last season, defining themselves less by physique and duels and more by a fluid passing game. That doesn’t need to change fundamentally. The same goes for the strengths at set-pieces, where Enrico Valentini excelled with his corners and free-kicks.
So for the club it will mostly be about how last season’s key players – that is the full-backs Valentini and Leibold, captain Hanno Behrens, striker Mikael Ishak and all-rounder Edu Löwen – make the leap to the next level. If that comes off, then the club could in fact spring a surprise. On the other hand, the risk of going into the season with so little Bundesliga experience is of course a big one, and I find it quite unlikely that all the players manage to make the leap. So there are places to improve. As of now, the attacking wings are somewhat lacking (above all in the 4-1-4-1) and also lacking are three player in central midfield with Bundesliga experience to lend the squad additional quality. In tactical terms, play in the final third needs to be improved and tweaked above all, firstly on the right, because Kevin Möhwald will now be missing, a player who did still have a trick up his sleeve now and then. Over wide stretches things looked pretty solid defensively, but in the friendlies the three-man defence still looked extremely vulnerable, and since none of the centre-backs are blessed with pace, there could be another weak point there.
Are you personally already looking forward to the game with FC Bayern, or are they just games like any other for you?
After our derby experiences in the second division against Fürth were somewhat below-average (two wins, one draw, five defeats), I’m not particularly keen on the replacement for that derby in the first division. Generally a derby is more linked with tension for me, because I find the hype over-done. Still, I don’t think any fan of any other club would see a game against FC Bayern as a completely normal game. Bayern have been so far ahead of the competition in recent years, losing only 13 times in the four seasons during which FCN weren’t in the first division. Obviously you always hope that your team will be the one that manages to trip Bayern up this season. No matter how unrealistic it is. Personally I probably have less animosity towards Bayern than the average club fan, because I come from a family full of Bayern fans and so I know that Bayern fans are also just people.
Where will FCN end up at the end of the season, and will FC Bayern be champions again?
I have already hinted at it: for me it would be a minor miracle if the club stays up this season. I’m obviously hoping on 16th or upwards, but I’m more expecting relegation. That doesn’t mean that it has to go like that. Darmstadt and Ingolstadt also stayed up for a year. I just think it’s not likely.
Bayern will be champions. Other than Tolisso none of the World Cup players have brought back positive experiences from Russia, meaning the motivation to really do something will be there. On top of that comes Kovač, a coach who has proven that he can work well on a domestic level. Perhaps it’ll be a little tighter than in previous seasons, but at the end the 29th title will be lifted.
Düsseldorf hardly got off the ground after the relegation in 2013. After the direct rebound in 2014 failed with a sixth place, it was only enough for places 10, 14 and 11 in the following years, but similar to the Nuremberg team, Fortuna managed to get a good balance on the pitch in the past season.
57 goals and 44 conceded goals are not outstanding values for a champion, but the distribution of the goals made the difference. At the beginning of the first half of the season, the strategic discipline and orientation were nevertheless better than in the second half of the season.
This was not least due to Peter Hermann, who followed the calls of FC Bayern and Jupp Heynckes in the current season. In Munich we know the high quality of the assistant coach, especially in everyday training work. Hermann doesn’t give up until the last steps in the pressing are perfect.
The Düsseldorfers lacked these nuances. After 9 wins, a draw and only one defeat at the start of the season, there were six games without a win. Until the end of the season only 10 more victories have been achieved.
It was still enough for the championship and promotion. Funkel and his team of coaches have a big task ahead of them in the preparation. You have to stabilize the individual parts of the team in the work against the ball again, and make the offensive game more flexible.
Funkel’s record in the Bundesliga doesn’t give much hope. He scored 1.07 points in his 457 games as coach per 90 minutes. He relegated seven times in 17 seasons. These statistics must be considered in a nuanced way. So often enough he simply did not have the best conditions to keep the class. Nevertheless, they show that his Bundesliga years so far have not been his most successful.
Already this season he can prove that he can keep a relegation candidate with his skills in the upper house. With his calm and composure he managed to stabilize Fortuna Düsseldorf in the second division. This time he is also in a much better position than at many other stages of his career.
With the euphoria of the fans in the back and the right adjustments, a surprise is also conceivable in the Bundesliga. Düsseldorf has the potential to establish themselves permanently in the league. The first step must be taken this season.
Our prediction: Düsseldorf will not make it and will run in as second to last. But it’ll be close!
After the promotion in 2012 the following year it went directly down into the second division. What factors will be important to maintain class this season?
Calm. Tranquillity. Strength of action. In the relegation season, things went excellently for a long time. I remember Spiegel online writing in the forecast for the second half of the season that it was more about the European Cup than about the relegation fight. Then everything collapsed, the team did not agree – the club raced with open arms into the abyss and refused to dismiss Norbert Meier.
How well do you think the squad is assembled in relation to the objectives?
The squad reflects what a promoted team can afford. The team of the second division champions, but without the outstanding Florian Neuhaus, complemented by some of the best players of the last second-league season and some who did not make it in larger clubs – such as Diego Contento. You may have heard of him. For me it actually looks quite good, especially with Marvin Ducksch and Kevin Stöger, who both have to prove their eligibility for the Bundesliga. Lack of experience could be a disadvantage.
Assuming Fortuna stays in the league. Are there any greater ambitions in the long term than to establish oneself in the league? How do you assess the club’s potential?
Fortuna is one of many clubs that has the potential for a sustainable Bundesliga midfield. However, the new arrivals Hoffenheim and Leipzig “steal” two first division places, which makes it more difficult for Düsseldorf, Nuremberg and others to become the new Hannover 96. Hamburg, Bremen and Cologne are also struggling. Fortuna attempts to reflect on a clear, tradition-conscious, fan-oriented guideline, the “DNA”. This also includes its own font: with the typically curved F from the crest.
Where will Fortuna land at the end of the season and will FC Bayern be champions again?
I am a merciless Fortuna pessimist from many years of painful experience. This club punishes every spark of hope with an even harder kick between the legs. Nevertheless, I do not automatically see 18th place, as most experts do. I believe in 14th place – and the champion Bayer Leverkusen, because predicting Bayern is so boring. If one of them doesn’t happen, that’s fine.
The following page is about the VfL Wolfsburg and Streich’s Freiburg.