Bayer Leverkusen: What was that?
“Leverkusen will challenge for the title” – “Leverkusen are dead certains for Champions League qualification”. Both of these were predictions you heard prior to this season. And they did seem logical. They just finished Third after a great Rückrunde, didn’t lose any notable players and added some quality in Volland, Dragovic and Baumgartlinger. So how did this season happen?
If there are two open secrets about Roger Schmidt, they go as follows: 1) He is a very one dimensional coach and he lacks any sort of Plan B and 2) His man management is really bad. Teams were copying the Pressing 4-4-2 that Schmidt likes to play and Leverkusen didn’t really have any sort of other option to fall back on which is also due to the squad being built in a way that doesn’t support any other play style – e.g. thanks to the lack of a Defensive Midfielder. That all led to a topsy-turvy Hinrunde with 7 wins and 7 losses – for Leverkusen’s standards that is quite bad even though they advanced out of their Champions League group.
Towards the end of the first half, reports were surfacing about a falling out between Schmidt and Chicarito all leading to the employment of a communications coach. After another game of not really adapting to the opponent and thus getting walloped 6-2 at Dortmund, Schmidt had to go and with him the communications coach.
Now Tayfun Korkut took over and he had a problem: He didn’t want to play a Schmidt style but he had a squad who had only been coached to play that style and that wasn’t well suited to playing another style. So what Leverkusen played was just a weird mess of pressing high but with a lack of intensity and often just leaving the midfield completely open. It’s hard to blame Korkut but it’s obvious that he didn’t handle the situation very well and dragged Leverkusen into a relegation battle.
Now it is important that Leverkusen make the right decision when it comes to the next manager. One person that has been linked since he is about to leave Borussia Dortmund is Thomas Tuchel and that doesn’t sound like a bad option. In terms of players leaving, Ömer Toprak is already confirmed going to Dortmund and Chicharito is also very likely to leave so there might be a rebuilding job to do for the Werkself.
Augsburg – Slow, steady and weird
When Markus Weinzierl left for Schalke, the Augsburg bosses decided to replace him with Dirk Schuster. He miraculously kept Darmstadt in the league the year prior so it did seem like a good idea. But what they didn’t think about was, that he would play the same brand of defensive long ball football with better players at Augsburg.
When they eventually sacked him and replaced him with Manuel Baum they had collected 14 points from as many games, a decent tally for a team that was never supposed to do more than just staying in the league. It was all clarified as a misunderstanding and as Schuster not fitting the club philosophy and people moved on. Baum started well with 10 points out of the first five games and it looked like he would be able to steer Augsburg clear of any relegation worries. After this though, injuries to key players like Raul Bobadilla or Daniel Baier started to kick in and Augsburg’s form started to dip.
In the end it was a 4-0 against fellow strugglers Hamburg on MD 31 that kept them well above the drop. However, since teams at the bottom were winning left, right and centre they still needed two more points to stay up. They got even one more in the last three games that they all drew – funnily enough with the very defensive long ball football that meant the end for Dirk Schuster just five months earlier.
Now there is a new problem for Baum and his team. He kept Augsburg in the league and they do have a squad capable of staying in the Bundesliga – even with German Under-21 International Dominik Kohr leaving – but both Hannover and Stuttgart have a lot more financial firepower than Augsburg who are now probably the poorest team in the league so staying up is going to be an uphill battle for them and they’ll have to hope that there is some good team who just has an awful season they can capitalize on.
Hamburg: Oops, I did it again!
Prior to the season, investor Kühne pumped a lot of money into the club again that led to a spending spree of just above 40m €, something that no other team in a relegation battle can even dream of matching. Funnily enough, one of the players leaving was Kerem Demirbay who left for just 1.7m €, an absolute bargain for Hoffenheim.
One point out of the first five games led to Bruno Labbadia being sacked – he had somehow kept them in the league two years ago and comfortably kept them up in 15/16. Under the new head coach Markus Gisdol it didn’t really go much better. They just collected a solitary point in his first five games and lost to Frankfurt, Köln and Dortmund by three goals. At this time it looked like it would “finally” be happening, that the time for Hamburg in the Bundesliga would end and that the Bundesliga clock would stop ticking after 54 years.
Well, Hamburg wouldn’t be Hamburg without a lot of drama, would they? Starting from a 1-0 win against Augsburg in the middle of December – just their second win in the season – the Rothosen won seven home games in a row – a run that was only stopped by Darmstadt who were all but relegated at that point. Add some impressive away performances like a 3-0 win at Leipzig and you have a team that looks all but safe.
That is where the drama kicked in: After said loss against Darmstadt they travelled to fellow strugglers Augsburg and got spanked 4-0 in a performance that made you question just how Hamburg wants to stay in the league. That was followed up by a dire 0-0 against Mainz where both teams were afraid to do anything and a last minute goal in a 1-1 draw at Schalke meant a final for the relegation Play-Off place. Somehow, Hamburg won that despite not really being in the game for the first half and despite not having a really good chance to score. You could almost say it was typical Hamburg.
Looking at their squad, it is still weird that it took them until the final day to confirm another year of Bundesliga football. This shouldn’t happen and investor Kühne is not going to be happy. He does not have any formal power and Hamburg sort of depend on his money to make the signings they want to – Leverkusen is apparently demanding 10 Million for Papadopoulos – so this is going to be an interesting space to watch but with the two worst teams in terms of players and finances being relegated it looks like Hamburg could be in for yet another relegation battle.
Mainz 05 – Europe and a winter transfer
Mainz had just finished Sixth, meaning their first ever qualification for the group stage of the Europa League. As great as an achievement this is, there are disadvantages of being in Europe as a team with a small budget because eventually you are going to face the consequences of at least six more games in terms of fitness.
Exactly that happened to Mainz. That being said, they weren’t affected too much during the period where they played the six group games that eventually saw them bow out of the Europa League. In the Hinrunde, Martin Schmidt’s team collected 21 points and they were comfortably sitting in mid table which is precisely where they belong.
Mainz is a development club that depends on signing players for cheap fees to then develop them and sell them for a lot more which is something that worked very well when Christian Heidel was still in charge because he would always find a good replacement for any departed player meaning that Mainz could stabilize as a mid table club that sometimes would be challenge for Europe and sometimes would fight relegation.
New Boy on the block Rouven Schröder didn’t prove to be a worthy successor yet. In the winter transfer window, Mainz sold their best player in Yunus Malli which at the the time looked like a good deal for Wolfsburg and a horrifically bad deal for Mainz because if the reports are true, the only thing that deal did was securing them an extra 1.5m € that they wouldn’t have gotten the next summer. And they didn’t really try to properly replace him with their only real winter signing being Bojan Krkic who apart from a goal at Bayern didn’t do anything for them.
That oddity saw Mainz slip down into the relegation areas and after losing five games in a row in March and April, their Bundesliga future was in serious doubts. In the end, a 4-2 win at home against Frankfurt on the penultimate week of the season was enough to keep them in the Bundesliga but it wasn’t enough for Martin Schmidt to keep his job, being replaced by the coach of the second team, Sandro Schwarz.
The problems that Mainz face are similar to the problems that Augsburg face. They have a squad well equipped for the Bundesliga and they should not be going down with such a squad but some players like Jhon Cordoba might leave and if Rouven Schröder can’t prove himself in terms of recruitment it is going to be a tough season because in terms of financial resources they don’t really have much more than Augsburg.