8. Bremen: Second half rise
At the start of the season it looked like the old Bremen again: Conceding goals left, right and centre, not having a clear concept and generally not signing good players in the defensive areas. All of that lead to Viktor Skripnik being sacked and he was replaced by Alexander Nouri who was coach of the second team. He started quite well and after winning four points from his first two games he got the job full time. He won another but after that, Bremen returned to the Bremen of old, never failing to score but always conceding a bucketload. For Bremen, playing attacking football and not caring too much about the defensive side of things is almost a club philosophy but to pull that of you need good Attackers and just Serge Gnabry wasn’t enough.
Going into the winter break they were just above the relegation zone and after losing the first four games in 2017, Nouri’s future was in doubt. But after that, their form just went through the roof, winning 29 out of the 33 available points. At the start of that run, a lot of it was down to luck but after Nouri changed to a 3-5-2, Bremen really showed how good they can be, beating Schalke, Leipzig and Hertha without conceding a goal, putting eight past them. Max Kruse, who was injured for big parts of the Hinrunde played a big part in that, scoring 10 goals during that run.
All of this saw Bremen jump up to 6th and people had them down as the favourites for the Europa League, considering their form. But in the last three games against Köln, Hoffenheim and Dortmund they reverted back to the Bremen of old scoring 9 but conceding 14. Some of it was down to luck, especially against Dortmund. Now they need to keep Serge Gnabry at the club and with the great counter attacking football they played in the Rückrunde they should have nothing to do with any sort of relegation battle.
9. Gladbach: Injuries and disappointment
Gladbach finished 4th in the 2015/16 season and things were looking up. The Fohlen had to sell Granit Xhaka to Arsenal but they received €45m so there wasn’t too much to be sad about. However, they didn’t properly replace him and that also meant that the great Xhaka/Dahoud partnership was broken up meaning that Dahoud often got rotated out of the squad because Schubert didn’t feel he would work without Xhaka.
Schubert also has to take a lot of the blame for the terrible Hinrunde with just 17 points. There was no movement between the lines, no players trying to make runs and create space. There was a game at Schalke – who had lost every game prior to this – where they had 70% of possession but most of it was between the three defenders with Schalke easily blocking passing lanes. In the second half when they pushed on a bit, but Schalke scored three times in 10 minutes – a typical Schubert game. This was part of the season where they only won 2 in 10 also coincided with an injury to their best attacking player in Raffael.
Schubert got sacked after 16 games and they replaced him with Dieter Hecking – who got sacked by Wolfsburg earlier in the season. Raffael was fit again and results started to improve with the highlight being the comeback from being 3-0 down on aggregate against Florenz. Two weeks later they smashed Europa League opponents Schalke 4-2 in the league. After that it all went wrong. A 1-1 draw at Schalke and a 2-2 draw at home after being 2-0 up saw them crash out of the Europa League. It was probably deserved but it felt cruel considering they were 2-0 up but the players never really recovered from it. Raffael got injured again and only 2 wins in the last 10 meant that there is no European Football in Gladbach next season.
That being said, the Fohlen already made a very good transfer in Vincenzo Grifo and if they keep that up they will challenge for Europe again without a doubt. The only real question is if Hecking is up to the task without having a superstar like he had de Bruyne at Wolfsburg.
10. Schalke: A season of injuries and change
Schalke are a huge club, one of the biggest in Germany. But they’re also a sleeping giant and things haven’t been great for the last couple of years. There was the occasional qualification for the Champions League and that famous 4-3 at the Bernabeu but something needed to change so Schalke replaced Heldt with Heidel in the sporting director role and Breitenreiter with Weinzierl in the head coach position.
Sane left for about €50m and Schalke signed Embolo who was at that point chased by a plethora of European clubs – he got injured for the season on MD 7. Coke also joined from Sevilla – he got injured in his first friendly. Nabil Bentaleb and Benjamin Stambouli joined late and so did Konoplyanka who turned out to be a total flop, partially because he didn’t want to learn German.
The first five games were lost and people started to question the project but a 4-0 win against Gladbach and a change to a 3-5-2 a couple weeks later and Schalke looked fairly good considering their injury crisis. Schöpf played well at RWB and it also got the best out of Schalke’s best players this season in Kolasinac and Goretzka. However, after most Attackers got injured, Schalke dropped off again which prompted the signing of Guido Burgstaller who managed to score 12 times in 23 games. But a season ending injury to Baba meant that Kolasinac could never be rested and a season ending injury to Naldo meant that the 3-5-2 didn’t work anymore.
All in all, in the second half of the season, Schalke were very inconsistent and never won twice in a row in the league, where they just won twice away from home the whole season. There were some great home games like the 4-1 victory against Wolfsburg or almost coming back against Ajax. But away from home it was often down to Ralf Fährmann to prevent worse things like a potential 4-0 loss in Amsterdam.
Looking forward, Schalke have players like Embolo coming back from injury and if he develops like he should he is going to be a great player for them. Replacing Arsenal-bound Kolasinac and signing proper wingers to sort of replace Sane who left last summer is going to be the main job for Christian Heidel next summer. If he does that and if Leon Goretzka stays, Schalke should be able to get into the Europa League or Champions League again because realistically speaking the squad and the financial backing of the club are more than big enough for just that. It is just about finally using the resources the right way. Heidel can surely do it, but can Weinzierl?
11. Frankfurt: A final and a collapse
When Frankfurt employed Niko Kovac in the 2015/16 season they were all but relegated to the 2. Bundesliga but he somehow led them to a Relegation Play Off spot with very basic defensive football. He won that and subsequently got the job full time. Together with Fredi Bobic he was entrusted with building a squad that should avoid relegation again and they went for a quite peculiar approach signing a lot of loanees and players who didn’t make it at big international clubs – most of them not speaking German.
The obvious advantage of this approach is that it is a way to get a good squad without paying the money you would probably have to for a good squad because realistically a player with the calibre of Jesus Vallejo would never join a club like Frankfurt in anything other than a loan deal. But it also requires restructuring every year and there is a greater risk of things going horribly wrong.
Things didn’t go horribly wrong for Frankfurt in the Hinrunde though and they surprised everyone, massively exceeding expectations being just one point behind the Champions League places. However, one mistake and a couple of injuries defined the rest of their season: Right after the transfer window to bring players in ended, Frankfurt sold Szabolcs Huszti back to China, a transfer that made sense economically considering that he is 34 but also a change that combined with a few injuries left Frankfurt with a lack of options in Central Midfield. When Marco Fabian went down they also lacked any sort of creativity in Attacking Midfield, culminating in a terrible Rückrunde with just 13 points.
When they didn’t struggle in the league, they edged past teams in the DFB-Pokal. On the way to the final, they won three penalty shootouts with Keeper Lukas Hradecky being the hero when he saved a late penalty in a 2-1 win against Hannover. All in all, they weren’t nice to watch but they did the job in the cup and deserved being in the cup final where they pushed Dortmund, especially in the first half. Tragic hero of the game was Hradecky who – for no reason – fouled Pulisic for Aubameyang’s winning penalty.
There is another rebuilding job imminent at Frankfurt. If they manage to use the money from their cup run well and sign players who have an impact as players like Hector, Fabian or Vallejo, avoiding relegation should be easy and the Rückrunde has shown that exactly that should be the goal and not Europe.