Bundesliga season review part 6: The Bottom Three

16. Wolfsburg: Mario Gomez (cha cha cha) to the rescue

Wolfsburg finished 8th in 2015/16 and that was already very disappointing. Draxler as a replacement for de Bruyne didn’t really work out and Wolfsburg ended up without European Football. In the summer they also let Andre Schürrle go but considering the €30m bid that Dortmund put in for him it was actually a very good deal for them. With some other young additions and Mario Gomez, it looked like Wolfsburg would challenge for European Football again. Fair to say, that didn’t quite go to plan.

To find the reasons for that we have to go back to 2015 when de Bruyne left: It left Wolfsburg with a system that was very much built around him. It was there to give them the maximum amount of freedom and space to create for Bas Dost (he left prior to this season and scored a bucketload of goals in Portugal, funny eh). When de Bruyne left they signed Draxler to replace him but obviously Draxler is a different type of player. However, individual quality more or less carried them through the season and got them into a Champions League QF.

In retrospect, trusting Hecking to lead a charge on Europe again was probably the wrong choice because he still went with that system even when it was clear that the old way of playing didn’t work because the player quality was insufficient. He was then replaced by Valerien Ismael – another mistake. Ismael was reportedly very liked amongst the players but that is about it because as a manager he wasn’t that good. His game management was questionable and he made some weird decisions that lead to him being sacked in February – arguably too late.

His replacement was Andries Jonker. When he took over at Bayern for a couple of games in 2011, Mario Gomez scored in every single one of them and he also managed to score in Jonker’s first four games for Wolfsburg, securing them eight points. At this point it looked like they were on for a mid table finish but in the last eight games they only collected seven points including some dire defensive performances against Schalke and Bayern. It was a loss on a final day in Hamburg – a game where they played quite well – that meant they would be in a relegation play-off.

Wolfsburg were only seldomly able to bring their superior quality onto the scoresheet but they did so against Braunschweig, winning 2-0 on aggregate, all kicked off by a Mario Gomez penalty in the first leg. Now they have a real rebuilding job on their hands. VW is investing less, the club had a terrible year and some players will want to leave. Someone who won’t leave is Jonker and someone who wanted to join is Brooks, finally replacing Naldo who departed in 2016. It almost looks like they have a clue what they’re doing.

17. Ingolstadt: A costly mistake

When Ingolstadt and Darmstadt came up in 2015, the common consensus was that both would get relegated again because of their lack of quality and financial firepower. Both stayed up that season and Ingolstadt did so quite comfortably, prompting RB Leipzig to poach Ralph Hasenhüttl. They replaced him with Markus Kauczinski who was doing great things at Karlsruhe at that time.

That proved to be a costly mistake. Under Hasenhüttl, Ingolstadt were playing high pressing football focused on destroying play and not so much dictating it. There was also a distinct focus on set pieces and a distinct lack of striking options. Under Kauczinski there was still a distinct lack of striking options and the squad didn’t really improve but Kauczinski thought it was a good idea to bring his possession based football to Ingolstadt. Fair to say, that went pretty awful and Kauczinski was the first head coach to be sacked after getting two points out of nine games.

His replacement was Maik Walpurgis who handled the squad a lot better. They went back to the old Ingolstadt way of trying to destroy and disrupt the play which is also the way the squad apparently wanted to play all along. One thing they were still lacking though was a really good striker and in the end it was one of the reasons why they went down. They had some really good games against the likes of Dortmund where they defended very well and created a lot of chances but the quality of finishing was lacking throughout the season meaning that most of their goals had to come from set pieces again.

That being said, they almost mounted a late charge for survival winning three games in one week which put them just one point behind 16th at that point. In the final few games they showed some flexibility in their passing approach and dominated both Schalke and Freiburg but in the end the finishing was lacking again and two 1-1 draws in a row meant that they are relegated back to the 2. Bundesliga.

One person that will be there in the 2. Bundesliga is Maik Walpurgis and with him are Matip, Bregerie, Cohen and Kittel who are all very good players for a team in the 2. Bundesliga – a league that will most likely be worse next season because the two rich teams got promoted and are replaced by poorer clubs. However even without Pascal Groß who is off to Brighton, Ingolstadt are capable of a promotion charge next season.

18. Darmstadt – Inevitability

It was surprising that Ingolstadt stayed up in 2016. However, it was absolutely sensational that Darmstadt managed to do that having been on the brink of relegation to the fourth tier just a couple of years ago. Like it happens with clubs who don’t have a lot of resources and do well they got raided for players with the most notable losses being Sandro Wagner and Christian Mathenia and for coaches with Dirk Schuster making the switch to Augsburg. He was replaced by Norbert Meier and at Darmstadt they probably still don’t really know why.

He tried to carry the torch from Schuster and kept the defensive long ball approach but the players were way worse as Meier didn’t really have any creativity that might have helped them to mount some sort of challenge for at least 16th. When he was sacked in December, Darmstadt had accumulated just eight points from 13 games and three more losses under Caretaker Manager Ramon Bendroth all but confirmed their relegation after just 16 games.

What they did then was interesting: They gave Torsten Frings, who has been the assistant at Werder Bremen the nod because they could afford to take the gamble and maybe get a manager for the future considering that staying up was highly unlikely at that point. They also brought in Hamit Altintop who, despite his age, is still a very good player for a team like Darmstadt.

And it’s fair to say that that gamble paid off. Darmstadt played a very respectable Rückrunde with 16 points which is almost twice the amount of points they collected in the first half of the season. When it looked like they would get relegated they actually won three games in a row and managed to push confirmation back to MD 32 when they lost 1-0 away at Bayern.

Towards the end of the season you could see Frings’ ideas and his impact on the team with shades of intricate wide play and very well timed runs and movement that saw them smash Freiburg with 3-0. If they can carry that vibe to next season and build a decent squad they should be able to get their name into that promotion hat. It may not be too likely that they get drawn out of it but it’s certainly possible.