Niko Kovac drags Eintracht Frankfurt into the future with a retro approach

Hey Bundesliga? Si senõr, the league is on. Ten games into the 2016-17 season, there are the old, familiar, expected faces at both ends of the table – FC Bayern (unbeaten und unconvincing) at the top, Hamburger SV (clueless, rudderless, irreparable) at the bottom – but otherwise, it’s a jolly good mess of smart overachievers, former giants growing in stature, elite sides mired in inconsistency and an array of sporting disasters of varying magnitude.

Eintracht Frankfurt v FC Bayern Munich - German BundesligaEintracht Frankfurt v FC Bayern Munich - German Bundesliga

Only six points separate the first seven teams. RB Leipzig, are second behind Bayern on goal difference after another exhilarating win, 3-1 over Mainz. While their twisted football fairytale (a rich, despised prince buys himself seven-league boots and runs aways from most rivals) was always likely to be off to a pacy opening chapter and Julian Nagelsmann’s TSG Hoffenheim merely re-confirmed the village club’s reputation for its highly inventive use of (considerable) resources, Hertha BSC’s staying-power was much harder to foresee.

The Berliners underlined their remarkably efficient start to the campaign and burgeoning Champions League place credentials (don’t laugh) with a 3-0 win against Borussia Mönchengladbach, featuring a hat-trick by Ivorian striker Salomon Kalou). The most surprising surprise so far, however, is perhaps the Eagles’ flight of fancy over in Frankfurt. “Really sensational,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung exclaimedafter the 1-0 over 1. FC Köln on Saturday, no so much in reference to the decent, unspectacular performance as such but Eintracht doing so inexplicably well this season. They were, lest we forget, grade A relegation material reliant on regular divine intervention by local Fußballgott Alex Meier when Niko Kovac took over in March, and only narrowly escaped the drop in the relegation play-off against 1. FC Nürnberg.

Kovac, the former Croatia coach and Bayern Munich midfielder, had proved the right man for the tense rescue mission with his natural authority and impassioned “you have to eat dirt!” speeches, but very little hinted at a sustainable or even prosperous future under a 45-year-old whose views came across a little antiquated for his age. A self-imposed transfer-market moratorium - Frankfurt only spent a negligible €3m on new players - further lowered expectations; the underwhelming track record of new sporting director Fredi Bobic didn’t necessarily instil full confidence either. “Consolidation,” Kovac’s official target for the season, was really just a fancy word for staving off relegation worries a bit earlier than last time, wasn’t it? A great run of results, with five wins and three draws in the opening 10 games, has now lifted the side to seventh place, well into contention for a European place.

Kovac, though, is still firmly in class warfare mood, unwilling to gaze at the stars. “I’m not looking up (at the top places), I’m looking at the table as a whole,” he said on Saturday. “We are 10 points clear of the third from bottom. We want to keep or extend that lead to be able to celebrate a calm Christmas.” Eintracht are wise not to dream bigger at this stage. But the reality is fantastic enough as it is. Frankfurt are no longer solely dependent on Meier, or any particular player for that matter; they can grind out results by virtue of collective strength.

Kovac, a stickler for good manners and a human approach (“empathy is important, openness, honesty and an understanding for others,” he told Die Welt) has solidified a baffled, lost squad of players with methods so old-school that they’re almost ingenious again: exhaustive fitness training with mammoth sessions in pre-season and a 3-5-2 system (with re-purposed midfielder Makoto Hasebe at the centre) that turns into a traditionally German five at the back without the ball have provided security, on the pitch and in the minds of the players. “Fitness gives you confidence, and if you’re fit, you don’t have to wonder whether you’ll last the 90 minutes,” Kovac said after the Köln win, courtesy of an early goal by 21-year-old Serbian international Mijat Gavinovic.

The manager’s emphasis on football’s “basic virtues” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) and professionalism is somewhat counter-cultural at the Commerzbank Arena. Frankfurt used to pride themselves on free-flowing, devil-may-care attacking football, their old nickname, “the diva from the Main” reflected the perverse pleasure the locals took in the team’s unpredictability. Kovac’s very combative, back-to-the-future approach, by contrast, will not result in fireworks any time soon but it might just build a platform for more upper mid-table consistency, especially if long over-due improvements behind the scenes are put into place.

Three weeks ago, Kovac openly criticised training conditions at the Commerzbank compound as shambolic; “there’s not enough space, not enough rooms for meetings, bad ventilation,” he said. “We are expected to play good Bundesliga football with Bundesliga 2 means.” As a result, the club have vowed to construct a new building for the first team. Right now, Eintracht get changed in the stadium’s second floor, where the kitchen abuts the sauna and the washing machine is positioned next to the ball machine. The gym is tiny, too, certainly not big enough to let Frankfurt continue to play their particular brand of Kraftfußball. “It was great to see us fight so hard,” a pleased Bobic said after the successful battle against Köln.

All in all, it adds up to a remarkable transformation in the space of eight months. Frankfurt, like fellow Bundesliga blue chip stalwarts/sleeping giants Köln, might be turning into a proper club at last.

Results: Hertha 3-0 Gladbach, Freiburg 0-3 Wolfsburg, Frankfurt 1-0 Köln, Bayern 1-1 Hoffenheim, Leverkusen 3-2 Darmstadt, Hamburg 2-5 Dortmund, Leipzig 3-1 Mainz, Schalke 3-1 Bremen.

Talking points to follow

• The new three-at-the-back trend also reached Hamburger SV this weekend, albeit with less happy consequences. Coach Markus Gisdol surprised friend and foe with his tactical switch for the game against Borussia Dortmund. “It was new for many of us, the automatisms were missing,” centre-back Johan Djourou lamented after the 5-2 defeat. In Gisdol’s opinion, however, the ability to play different systems was “part of the basic education” of football professionals. Both are not wrong but the upshot was a first half that was certainly more corporal punishment than lesson. The visitors smashed the disjointed hosts to bits with some straightforward through-balls to make it 4-0 shortly after the break. “Sorry” didn’t have to be the hardest word as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang atoned for his unauthorised midweek trip to Milan (and subsequent suspension against Sporting) with four goals. “His reaction was outstanding but we didn’t expect anything else after the talks we had,” BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke told Bild. “He’s like Cristiano Ronaldo, he likes to be in the limelight.” Insert your own softcore-underwear-shot joke here.

• The northerners have much graver problems. The catastrophic result marked the second worst start to a Bundesliga season since Saarbrücken (1963-64) and left supporters seek solace in sarcasm. “Apart from Uwe, you can all go,” they sang, in honour of club icon Uwe Seeler, who celebrated a most unhappy 80th birthday.

• Elsewhere, Markus Kauczinski paid the price for an equally poor run with Ingolstadt, getting his marching orders following the 2-0 home defeat by Augsburg in the derby. The Bavarians might appoint Ottmar Hitzfeld’s former sidekick Michael Henke as interim coach “to provide a new impulse,” as club director Harald Gärtner put it.

• VfL Wolfsburg, on the other hand, promoted Valerien Ismael to head coach in the wake of their 3-0 win at Freiburg. The former French defender had been in charge as interim coach after Dieter Hecking’s dismissal and can now stay - rumours are that sporting director Klaus Allofs didn’t really have any other viable ideas at this stage.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Raphael Honigstein, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th November 2016 16.14 Europe/London

PosTeamPGDPts
1 Bayern Munich 10 18 24
2 RB Leipzig 10 13 24
3 TSG Hoffenheim 10 7 20
4 Hertha Berlin 10 7 20
5 Borussia Dortmund 10 13 18
6 Cologne 10 9 18
7 Eintracht Frankfurt 10 6 18
8 Bayer Leverkusen 10 1 16
9 SC Freiburg 10 -3 15
10 Mainz 10 -1 14
11 Borussia M'gladbach 10 -5 12
12 Schalke 04 10 1 11
13 Augsburg 10 -4 11
14 Wolfsburg 10 -4 9
15 Darmstadt 10 -10 8
16 Werder Bremen 10 -15 7
17 FC Ingolstadt 10 -14 2
18 Hamburg 10 -19 2

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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