Welcome back to the Bundesliga, Darmstadt!
Darmstadt are back in the Bundesliga after a six-year absence thanks to an iron-clad defence and a coach who has picked up tips from an ex-teammate - none other than Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. bundesliga.com looks at the reasons behind the Lilies coming good in 2022/23.
The basis was undoubtedly there for a promotion push this term. The previous campaign had seen Darmstadt end fourth, missing out on the promotion/relegation play-off on goal difference and only three points out of the automatic promotion spots.
But this time round was no copy-and-paste assault on regaining a place in the big time. In 2021/22, a free-scoring attack was central to their swashbuckling effort that just fell short. This season they have succeeded by underlining the truth in the cliché that, 'Strikers win games, defenders win championships,' with Darmstadt top of the pile in Bundesliga 2 when clinching promotion with a 1-0 win over Magdeburg on Matchday 33.
Watch: Darmstadt's promotion celebrations after beating Magdeburg
"We try to defend the goal with passion," added Jannik Müller, a 29-year-old centre-back and mainstay of a back line that has conceded a miserly league-low 29 goals all season. They also tallied a stingy 13 clean sheets, not that the defenders are taking all the credit. "But our low 'goals against' total is not only the work of the defence, but of the whole team."
That is also the case of the club's promotion: this is very much a team effort.
Boss Torsten Lieberknecht has used no fewer than 26 players in the league, while 14 men have got on the scoresheet. Only striker Phillip Tietz has reached double figures, but with veteran goalkeeper Marcel Schuhen saving a league-high 77 percent of shots he faced, every goal scored virtually counted double.
"We give everything, whether it's in training or in recovery. That means putting the pedal to the metal all the time," said Tietz, whose team has won 14 matches by a single goal. "That gives you a certain desire for the weekend, and it spurs us on."
Regardless of their close-run thing the season before, a look at the squad last summer would not have inspired you to instantly back Darmstadt for promotion. Luca Pfeiffer, last season's leading scorer, saw his loan ended and a move to Stuttgart materialise, and a like-for-like replacement — in the shape of Switzerland U21 striker Filip Stojilkovic — did not walk through the door until the winter transfer window. The biggest summer arrival was Christoph Zimmermann, a former Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach reserve team centre-back who arrived on a free transfer from Norwich City.
Tietz had moved to Darmstadt from third-tier Wiesbaden in summer 2021, Müller was once on the books of Cologne without ever making a top-flight appearance, and who has edged towards the big time via Dynamo Dresden and a spell in Slovakia. Fabian Holland, who has been at the club since 2015, is the most experienced in terms of Bundesliga appearances with 49, while veteran midfielder Tobias Kempe has 31 — together, they account for nearly two thirds of all the top-flight games played by the squad that earned promotion. This is a club where — and here's another cliché — the team is the star, and no one tries to shine brighter than anyone else.
"We have some silent heroes in the team," said Lieberknecht. "Often, the players on the pitch get all the attention. But we really survive because we have these players. And I know full well that they are in full support of the whole thing."
Lieberknecht talked of his players "pushing through the pain barrier" in the win over Karlsruhe in late April, a sign of the walk-over-hot-coals attitude his squad has, prepared to do things the hard way when the easy way is blocked.
They came back from conceding the opening goal to take points on seven of 11 occasions they went 1-0 down, winning three times. Away from home, they have tallied a league-high 32 points and conceded just 14 goals. "We have a never-say-die attitude," said Schuhen. "We know every point is crucial in this league, and we fight until the very end to get the result we need. We have a lot of experience in the team, and that has helped us in tight games."
Will that be enough to enable them to thrive in the Bundesliga? We will find out soon enough, but fortunately Lieberknecht can take lessons from one of European football's top coaches.
A former teammate and roommate of Klopp at Mainz, the 49-year-old is in regular contact with the UEFA Champions League-winning coach, exchanging ideas over squad management and tactics.
"I visited him at Liverpool a few years ago, and during the pandemic, due to the number of midweek games. I spoke to him about training loads, because having matches in quick succession is something almost normal in England," said Lieberknecht, who has combined his friend's advice with his own philosophy. "I think it's important that everyone goes their own way as a coach, but also always thinks outside the box and is willing to learn."
Lieberknecht has a track record of success too. He took Eintracht Braunschweig from the third division to the Bundesliga — marking a return to the top flight after a 28-year wait — in the space of five seasons. Though a subsequent spell at Duisburg did not work out as well, ending with his departure in November 2020, it seems he and Darmstadt were made for each other.
"From the first day, I felt good in the club and the city. My hopes and expectations of the club and my work here have been confirmed," said Lieberknecht, who has already added two years to the initial deal he signed in June 2021, tying him to Darmstadt until 2025.
Lieberknecht — like Holland — has taken out a membership of the club "to show what Darmstadt has already given me and clarify that I wish to stay connected to the club for a long time." He has also revealed his children proudly sport Darmstadt shirts. Next season, they'll be able to say they're fans of a Bundesliga club.
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