Category Archives: FC Augsburg

FC Augsburg: They couldn’t… could they?

Kyle Barber asks if the Bavarian newbies can survive in the First Bundesliga.

In the great pantheon of football annuls, FC Augsburg are veritable young upstarts. And, having found themselves gracing the Bundesliga for the first time this season, it is perhaps no surprise that they were immediately installed as favourites to return to the second tier. Yet their own history reflects experience way beyond their years, and may just engender the spirit and fight required to beat the drop.

Amalgamated into their present guise as recently as 1969, it was only in 2006 that they secured a place back in the 2.Bundesliga, having dropped to the depths of the Bavarian Bayernliga (Germany’s localised fourth tier) at the turn of the 21st Century, with debts of some DM1.8m. Cue local businessman Walther Seinsch’s arrival as rescuer-in-chief, and his newly-acquired side’s emergence from the doldrums began. Since his investment, a far more meteoric ascendance has been enjoyed, with promotion finally secured just twelve months on from a heartbreaking 2-0 aggregate defeat to Nürnberg via the relegation play-off.

As this year’s winterpause dawns – and following their 1-1 draw with Hamburg – Augsburg sit 17th in the top flight with 15 points, just two places (and three points) from overall safety, and one place (one point) adrift of Kaiserslautern in the play-off spot. To keep that in perspective, the average points required for overall safety over the past ten seasons has been 34, with a low of 31 in both 2002 and 2009. Since the introduction of the relegation play-off berth (in 2008-09), 32 points would have been sufficient to ensure a spot in that double-header. The highest tally required for safety in the last decade has been 37 points.

Indeed, much like their potted history, Augsburg’s season has been defined by key moments, underpinned by a dogged resilience and never-say-die attitude. Such was no more evident than in the performance levelled in the 2-1 reversal to Bayern. Although finally succumbing to the Munich behemoth, die Fuggerstädter performance typified their approach, showing why it is that they have only shipped more than two goals on just four occasions. Augsburg have been relatively quick in ticking off those metaphorical checkmarks though, netting their first top-flight goal in the opening game with Freiburg after 53 minutes, securing their first point in the process.

It did, however, take Jos Luhukay’s side nine games to get their first win (1-0 away to Mainz, courtesy of Jan-Inger Callsen-Bracker’s 88th minute penalty), picking up just four points prior to that. The Coach admitted to that marker coming as “a huge relief” to the team, but has ever conveyed a confidence and enthusiasm in his charges’ abilities. Since that victory, there has undoubtedly been a galvanising effect, with 11 points coming from their next nine games. At that rate, a total of 36-37 points would certainly seem to be within their compass. And with home ties against fellow relegation-battlers Kaiserslautern, Mainz and Nürnberg to come, their destiny is still very much in their own hands.

Credit must also go beyond the basic man-management of Luhukay. Assuming the role of Coach in March 2009, the Mark Lawrenson look-a-like spent 15 months loyally utilising a 4-4-2 formation. But with promotion in hand, he was prompt in recognising the potential openness that his traditional line-up could yield in the top flight. Since matchday one, the adoption of a more resolute and compact 4-2-3-1 has engineered a greater resolve and rigidity. And while that has placed more pressure on the square shoulders of striker Sascha Mölders, it has gone a substantial way to realising the “unity and stability” called for by Luhukay at the start of the campaign.

The main pitfall of the side, however, is their apparent inability to score themselves. With just 15 strikes in the ‘for’ column, only ‘Lautern have registered fewer. And to compound that issue, ten of those 15 have come through the forward-facing trio of Mölders, Hajime Hosogai, and Callsen-Bracker. They also have the second worst chances to games return (again behind Kaiserslautern). But, in being prepared to “win ugly as well”, the Bavarian’s have given themselves every chance of survival. Couple that with an apparent propensity to spring the odd surprise – consider their 1-0 triumph over a soaring ‘Gladbach – and the enthusiasm embedded in the squad, from Luhukay: “I’m very, very proud [of them]” through to experienced ‘keeper Simon Jentzsch: “We don’t play dream football [but] our team is a collective – the other most important factor in football” is proving to be far from misplaced.

After 11 games of this season, the Official Bundesliga website ran a poll on who would be relegated. Augsburg received 44% of the vote. Yet if they can use the mid-season break to reenergise, and replenish the squad – a second striker is, you feel, a must – then Augsburg are in prime position to profit from the mistakes of those around them. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths bestowed on them comes in the guise of the paucity and inconsistency of the other teams around them; which allowed them to find their feet in the division without being cut adrift. While the moniker of being “the Napoli of Germany” – as bestowed on the team in 1974 – may still appear a long-way distant, somewhat closer at hand is Coach Luhukay’s pre-season aim “to be in the Bundesliga in 2012/13 as well”. And you never know, they just may do it.

Rough Times in the ‘Burg

Under typical conditions, a goalless draw would not be a welcome result, particularly for a home side that might have considered a draw in their park as two essential points gone begging. For such a thing to even occur in a 1.Bundesliga arena this season looks a bit anomalous, as there have only been two matches end in such a fashion after seven full weeks of play by all eighteen clubs in the league. When the final whistle sounded at the SGL arena this past weekend, ending FC Augsburg’s match against Hannover 96 at 0-0, though, Jos Luhukay’s moustache probably twitched into something suggesting he was smiling at the outcome.

After all, this was progress for his squad, and a home draw might count for a win these early days.

None expected FCA’s initial foray into top flight German football to be a hugely successful one, but few would have predicted the Bavarian squad would be entering Matchday 8 still in search of its first victory. That other underwhelming ‘Burg in Hamburg recently broke their duck, so now it is FC Augsburg that have yet to clear the good name of ‘Burgs and their ilk. Luhukay must assuredly be hoping FCA do not challenge the record held by 1860 Munich when die Löwen  failed to earn all three points until Matchday 15 of the 1977/78 campaign. By then, it would be early December and it would be less a question of whether Augsburg could beat the drop but whether their bottoming out would reach historic proportions.

Although any Bundesliga club would have to produce some seriously horrid work on the pitch to match the monumental achievements of SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin during their ill-fated 1965-66 campaign. The club set several infamous marks for abysmal performance, including fewest wins (2), fewest points (8), and fewest goals scored (15). With these feats having happened during a 34 match season, Tasmania either had to work very hard at being this terrible or regularly fielded squads where their goalkeeper played as a striker rather than between the sticks.

So, Luhukay should be able to breathe a bit easier aware there have been other clubs historically out of their depth in the top flight, and he should be able to take some positives away from that draw with Hannover, the most obvious being that it was FCA’s first clean sheet of the season. More than that, though, was that Luhukay found a potentially winning formula when he opted for the 4-4-2 formation rather than the 4-2-3-1 he set out on previous occasions. Against Hannover 96, Luhukay had Daniel Baier out on the right wing with Nando Rafael partnering Sascha Mölders up top rather than having Baier centrally located supporting Mölders as the lone striker.

Now, while Baier did seem to cut in a bit more than perhaps he should have when positioned as a wide player, having him there rather than in his more accustomed central attacking midfielder spot made him more of an effective outlet for FC Augsburg to threaten Ron-Robert Zeiler’s goal. He was able to get considerably more positive touches on the ball than he had been while playing in the middle during the first six matches and, when Luhukay substituted Rafael for Akaki Gogia at the hour mark, his natural inclination to play on the interior opened up the right for Gogia to occupy. Perhaps by this point FCA might have been playing for a draw, as Gogia sat deeper than Baier on the right, and here the tactical decision might have been wise by Luhukay, as it prevented Augsburg from being overturned later in the match as they had when Sidney Sam ran amok down this same flank in their previous home match with Bayer Leverkusen.

Again, a draw for FCA at this stage is a sight nicer than a morale-crushing loss late in the game.

Further, this change in formation prevented Hannover 96 from being able to simply isolate Mölders in the middle or be able to defend him in the centre with only one player. In several matches thus far, FCA have seen Japanese RB Hajime Hosogai charge down the right and either cross or cut inside to find Mölders on the GK’s doorstep, only to find a jumble of humanity effectively screening the forward out of an effective shot. At times, it has been Sascha as the lone FCA shirt in a sea of defenders and at other times it has been his own teammate Baier acting almost as the unlikely defender, shielding a cross from either Hosogai or LW Axel Bellinghausen to be capable of producing a quality shot on goal. With the four midfielders, then, FC Augsburg were better able to unclog the middle and make it easier for runners from either side to identify where their target man was in order to test the opposition’s keeper. Granted, a goalless draw suggests this was unsuccessful for either side in this encounter, but for Luhukay and that fantastic lip sweater of his, this might have marked the path toward FCA finding their first 1.Bundesliga victory.

Just, maybe not this approaching matchday–Augsburg venture into Westfalenstadion with a hope and a prayer.

So, while top flight life might not be for the ‘Burg by the end of this season, they show promise for making their dedicated supporters proud regardless. There will likely be little in the way of funds available come the January transfer window should Luhukay want to recruit seasoned Bundesliga veterans for a 2nd half charge, as benefactor Walther Seinsch indicated he has provided as much financial support in the past as he can to turn FCA into a winner. In essence, he stated last fall that the club must find its own way now, as he has finished his role in reviving the club after it fell into the amateur leagues due to its large debts earlier last decade. Still if Hamburg can find a way to get on track this season, why not Augsburg?

As for Freiburg, that’s a different ‘Burg of issues altogether.

Unbeaten Augsburg will not go down easily

No doubt those who are closer to the club than the humble Bundesliga Lounge will have more information but the case of Michael Thurk remains something of a mystery. The English news services reported the 35 year old FC Augsburg striker as “sacked” at the beginning of August, while others suggest that he has been suspended. The Lounge has also heard it said that he is going to Bochum. Either way, to let go of your one of top scorers on the eve of your first ever season in the First Bundesliga is a decision of which there must have been a very good reason.

In the three seasons that Thurk has been at FCA, he scored fifty one goals. While last season he only netted nine times, he did make twenty six appearances and played a significant role in the club’s promotion from the Second Division. The player himself stated that he has done nothing wrong and has no knowledge as to why he has been told to leave.

Not that the team are necessarily struggling without Thurk. Upon their promotion, the club pretty much acknowledged that they may have to be a yo-yo club and would not be surprised if they were relegated after one season. Statements like that can either send the wrong signals to the players and leave them deflated at the club’s lack of ambition or have the opposite effect and take the pressure off the coach and his squad, giving them the freedom to have a good crack at top top flight. I’ve seen both of Augsburg’s game this season and it looks like they’re up for the challenge.

Coach Jos Luhukay has brought in some interesting players at knock down prices. Lorenzo Davids is a is a tigerish central midfielder and closely resembles his Uncle Edgar, protective eye-ware aside. He was signed from the NEC club from the Dutch Eredivisie.

Sascha Möldes (left) scored fifteen goals for FSV Frankfurt, last season and at twenty six years old must have wondered if he would get another shot at the First Division after his one scoreless season with Duisberg in 2008. So far the Essen born striker is making up for lost time. He scored a brace in the 2-2 draw with Freiburg on Matchday One and netted a cracker at the Betzenberg, Kaiserslautern, on Sunday. His turn and curling shot demonstrated fine technique which leaves you wondering if he will be another Srdan Lakic, a striker returning to the top flight and grasping the opportunity with both hands.

While the rest of the squad is not exactly bursting with experience, so far the team don’t look out of their depth. Against Freiburg they responded well to going a goal down twice in the game. Against Kaiserslautern they showed tremendous determination to keep the home side at bay.The two attacking flank players, Axel Bellinghausen and Marcel Ndjeng were particularly effective in both advanced positions and helping out at the back. The last line of defense is one Simon Jentzsch who is a veteran goalkeeper of many Bundesliga campaigns. He kept FCK at bay until the 80th minute and it took a quality strike from Etey Shechter do finally beat him and bring relief to the increasingly irritated Kasierslautern supporters.
It’s also worth pointing out that last season’s top scorer, Nando Rafael has yet to feature this season because of injury.

One swallow does not make a Summer and two points don’t make a successful survival campaign. However, starting the season unbeaten after two games is not bad for a side who are widely expected to be relegated. It’s worth remembering the words of ESPN commentator, Jim Proudfoot who pointed out during the game on Sunday that this is pretty much the same squad that finished third and second in Division 2 for the last two seasons. They are used to winning and that kind of confidence can be hard to break down.