Eintracht Frankfurt: From relegation battlers to Champions League contenders in €3 million

Eintracht Frankfurt

It’s 23rd May 2016. 50,000 fill the stands of the Grundig Stadion to watch the home side, 1. FC Nürnberg take on Eintracht Frankfurt. This was no ordinary game; this was the Bundesliga relegation play-off.

For Nürnberg, it was an opportunity to return to the Bundesliga after relegation to the second tier in 2014. For Frankfurt it was a chance to stay in the Bundesliga after a miserable season that saw them lose sixteen games and win just nine. With 36 points, they finished three ahead of relegated Stuttgart, and just a point behind Hoffenheim, who stayed up. They landed in this position after failing to beat Werder Bremen on the last day, conceding an 88th minute winner.

Frankfurt’s spot was made tougher because they drew the play-off’s first leg at home 1-1. The cruel irony was that Marco Russ scored the own goal, kicking the ball in off a Nürnberg free-kick. The same Marco Russ who had been diagnosed with a severe tumour disease after failing a drug test a few days prior to the game.

His blood had shown elevated levels of the hormone hCG, which either indicates the use of anabolic steroids or a cancerous disease. After diagnosis, the captain showed bravery in leading his troops out, his own-goal a cruel twist of fate. Despite that, they pulled back a goal through the 21-year-old Mijat Gacinovic, ensuring the game ended on an even keel ahead of the second leg.

Frankfurt dominated the second leg just as they did the first, but needed a 66th minute Haris Seferović goal to win the game. 1-0, game over, safety secured. Nürnberg were distraught, but Frankfurt were ecstatic.

Fast forward to 20th December 2016, the last game of the Hinrunde. Frankfurt thump Mainz 3-0 at home to end the first half of the season in fourth. That’s right, fourth, only 10 points behind league leaders Bayern.

Last season, they finished a full 52 points behind Bayern. From near relegation to fourth in six months. Look at the table today and, behind Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, sit Eintracht Frankfurt in third.

This season’s Bundesliga has been tighter than usual. Many ‘smaller’ clubs are battling at the top with the big guns (Leipzig, Hertha, Hoffenheim and Koln) while the usual contenders for Europe (Leverkusen, Gladbach and Wolfsburg) are struggling.

But few are talking about Eintracht Frankfurt, despite their position in the Champions League spots with more than half the season gone. No one would have foreseen this back in May. It’s a Leicester-style story, albeit without a title challenge. How has this happened?

SEE ALSO: The Bundesliga 2016/17 team of the season so far

Eagles soaring: The rise of Eintracht Frankfurt

The summer window saw Frankfurt conduct some interesting business. Some regulars from the previous season departed: Ignjovski, Zambrano, Aigner and Castaignos, while Stefan Reinartz was forced to retire at 27. From all the sales, Frankfurt gained 12.05 million euros as per transfermarkt. But they did not choose to invest this.

Just three million euros was spent on new players – some sort of self-imposed transfer inactivity – and Fredi Bobic’s reputation as sporting director was not the most promising, which lowered expectations and in a way helped. Manager Niko Kovac chose to rely on the loan market as well as the squad already at his disposal.

Taleb Tawatha was the most expensive signing, from Maccabi Haifa for €1.2 million, but he’s only had 18 minutes of league action. The winter signings included youngsters such as Andersson Ordóñez and Marius Wolf; both brought in on cheap deals and unlikely to play major roles this season. The two best summer signings though came from Real Madrid. In fact, their success will give Frankfurt a good chance of getting more loans from the Spanish giants in future.

Enter Omar Mascarell and Jesus Vallejo. If Madridistas didn’t know of them previously, they do now.

Mascarell moved on a permanent three-year contract with a rumoured buy-back clause after previous loan spells. With 18 starts and 1,550 minutes of league action he is the most-played midfielder in the squad. He averages 2.5 long balls per game, facilitating the switching of play, 3.3 interceptions (putting him in the Bundesliga’s top 15), 1.9 fouls and 2.6 clearances per game. This gives a clear picture of his style, and despite his nine yellow cards so far he has been an integral part of the side.

Jesus Vallejo, though, has been a gem. Real Madrid loaned him to Frankfurt, and he has truly shone this season. Intelligent (3.1 average interceptions per game), composed on the ball and possessing a great passing range (86% pass success percentage), Kovac branded him “scandalously good”, top praise for a 20-year-old in his first season in a top tier. He has been a rock, contributing to a tight defence, and one of Frankfurt’s best players this season.

He was rumoured to return to Madrid in the winter window, a potentially nightmare situation for Frankfurt, as to lose Vallejo would have been to lose a crucial cog of the engine. But Frankfurt have him at the Commerzbank-Arena for six months more. A star of the future, Frankfurt fans need to enjoy him sweeping from the back while they can.

Apart from the Spanish duo, recruitment wasn’t great. Four other loan signings haven’t been fruitful: Ante Rebic (from Fiorentina), Shani Tarashaj (from Everton) and Michael Hector have failed to impress while Guillermo Varela started off brightly but tore his ligament in September, ruling him out for several months.

On the other hand, Branimir Hrgota could be classified as a success as he provides an alternative to the legend that is Alexander Meier. The Swede has popped in with three goals so far from 836 minutes.

While the new arrivals are the ones that have played the least, Frankfurt’s heroes are in fact those that starred in the relegation escape. The side that was relegation-bound last season, and heavily reliant on revered striker Alexander Meier, has been transformed into an efficient machine under Kovac.

A former footballer who played for Hertha, Leverkusen, Hamburg and Bayern, Kovac has also managed his national side Croatia. When he took over from the struggling Armin Veh on 8th March 2016, he did not have much time to implement his ideas. Survival was the mantra. But with an entire summer under his belt, Frankfurt have been remodelled. Die Adler are now soaring.

Kovac has fashioned Frankfurt into a well-organised and disciplined side, mixing up the youthful flavour of Mijat Gacinovic (one of our top 70 young players to watch in Europe this season – Ed) and Vallejo with experienced heads such as Meier, Huszti and Abraham. This has been achieved through smart summer business but also tactical tweaks, which see Frankfurt play three at the back with wing-backs.

A three-man defence has been brought back into vogue in 2016 mainly by Antonio Conte at Chelsea, and Kovac utilises the same system at Frankfurt. A high-pressing 3-4-2-1/3-4-3/3-5-2 is one of the tactical tweaks that has proved effective.

Interceptions and sprints are part of their game; their physical and tactical football is effective and yet fun to watch. At the back, Lukáš Hrádecký provides calmness between the sticks. The back three in front of him features Makoto Hasebe, the experience of David Abraham and the aforementioned Vallejo, with Timothy Chandler and Bastian Oczipka acting as wing-backs in the formation.

Their stamina provides security, as they drop back to form a five-man defence when Frankfurt do not have possession. In midfield, Mascarell and the evergreen Szabolcs Huszti form an effective partnership. Up top, Marco Fabian and Gacinovic flank Meier.

Fabian’s story is an interesting one: he joined from Chivas in December 2015, found the initial adaptation difficult, was played regularly by Veh but not by Kovac. He was rumoured to leave after struggles, but stayed. And how has that decision paid off? The Mexican’s European career has taken off at 27, after spending his entire career in Liga MX. With 3 goals and 4 assists, he is perhaps their most influential player.

On the other flank, Mijat Gacinovic has truly broken through this season, becoming a vital part of the side. And of course, we cannot finish off without mentioning Alexander Meier, club stalwart and captain, who has been at the club since 2004. Even at 34 he is the main striker. At 6’4’’, he holds up the ball as well as anybody else in the league. He exemplifies the Frankfurt spirit.

What should surprise outsiders is that one of their most talented players has been out through injury for the entire season: Marc Stendera. He’s come through the academy and has progressed through the years, but an ACL tear has relegated him to the sidelines in Frankfurt’s best season in a long time. He will be akin to a new signing when he returns, and should provide reinforcement at a time when they could be closing in on a European berth.

Aymen Barkok is another find from the academy: the 18-year-old defender/midfielder has made seven substitute appearances and one start this season, scoring on his debut in the 90th minute versus Bremen and in the last game of 2016 against Mainz. 

Kovac has his team playing as a unit, as can be seem from the fact that there have been 11 different goalscorers so far. David Abraham said in an interview that the strikers (Meier, Hrgota or Seferović) were the first line of their defence, and they try to win back possession when they lose it. He credits Kovac for their new found intensity.

SEE ALSO: The #JF70 top 10 best young players to watch in the Bundesliga in 2016/17

They used to be called Launische Diva, or Moody Diva, for their unpredictability. Kovac’s new style does not entirely live up to that, but it promises a lot for the future. What Kovac wants is consolidation; he is focusing on survival first á la Ranieri. But their form offers a chance of more.

They’ve beaten Dortmund, Schalke, Leverkusen and drawn with Bayern, Hertha, Gladbach and Hoffenheim. There’s a system in place and it’s working. Let’s hope it stays well-oiled.

The Rückrunde promises a lot. Neutrals will hope that Leipzig can keep up with Bayern and that the Bundesliga will be competitive until May, with surprise Champions League qualifers in the form of Hertha Berlin or Hoffenheim. But don’t discount Eintracht Frankfurt. Die Adler are quietly racking up the points while rivals claim the hype.

They probably prefer it this way. 2016 was a tale of two stories for them: struggle and redemption in the first half, success in the second. The Sportgemeinde Frankfurt fans are looking forward to the Rückrunde with more hope than ever before. Bundesliga, beware of the soaring Eagles.

Words: Rahul Warrier | Main image credit: Diego Sideburns via Flickr

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