Augsburg - From surviving relegation in 2013 to the brink of qualifying for Europe a year later, the progress made by FC Augsburg under coach Markus Weinzierl has been nothing short of sensational.
Punching above their weight
The 39-year-old tactician is now entering his third season in charge of the Bavarian club, and the narrative of progress is expected to continue in 2014/15, even if bettering that unprecedented eighth-placed finish from last term proves to be one step too far.
Playing with a functioning and organised system based on defensive rigidity and aided by some outstanding individuals, the
Fuggerstädter, only in the top flight since 2011, finished the 2013/14 campaign with 15 victories, missing out on a spot in the UEFA Europa League by a solitary point.
They ended the season with four wins from their final six matches, one of which came against none other than FC Bayern München, Augsburg’s first-ever competitive win against their noisier neighbours and a result that marked the end of the champions’ record 53-game unbeaten league run. Compared with the previous campaign, when the club were faced with the prospect of relegation up until the final game, the improvement under the wily Weinzierl has been truly remarkable.
As well as the coach’s tactical nous, much of last season’s success must be attributed to a cluster of players from whom Weinzierl managed to extract the very most of their ability. Left-back Matthias Ostrzolek was a key outlet in attack and a solid presence in defence, while experienced midfielder Daniel Baier dictated the tempo superbly from the centre of the park and captain Paul Verhaegh drove the team on from right-back.
Up front, Halil Altintop, back in the Bundesliga after a three-year absence, notched ten goals from an advanced attacking midfield role, while 29-year-old Tobias Werner scored nine and assisted as many from a wide left position. Most impressive was the contribution of Andre Hahn, though, a third-tier player in late 2012, whose 12 goals and nine assists were rewarded with a senior appearance for Germany and a call-up to Joachim Löw’s provisional 2014 FIFA World Cup squad.
New faces in
Unsurprisingly, Hahn’s form attracted interest from elsewhere and the 23-year-old has since moved on to Borussia Mönchengladbach, with on-loan South Korean striker Dong-Won Ji also leaving to join Borussia Dortmund. The job for Weinzierl and sporting director Stefan Reuter now is to replace quality with quality, and the duo have acted decisively to do so, bringing in USA forward Shawn Parker from 1. FSV Mainz 05 and Bundesliga 2 duo Caiuby and Nikola Djurdjic, both of whom have experience of playing in the top flight.
Augsburg supporters will no doubt miss the sight of seeing Hahn tear defenders to shreds with his pace and power, but so effective have the club’s foray's into the transfer market been in recent years that it is not unrealistic to expect this summer’s new arrivals to also hit the ground running.
Club in safe hands
Throughout last season, Weinzierl rejected talk of European qualification, insisting survival was the remit for a club of Augsburg’s size and stature, and that is likely to be the stance in the coming campaign too. Yet, as extraordinary as last season was, this is still a club finding its feet in the division, far from being an established top-tier side.
In that sense, therefore, where they finish in 2014/15 matters far less than ensuring that the excellent work done in the last few years is maintained, and with the men voted coach and sporting director of 2013/14 by popular German magazine 11 Freunde in charge, that is a distinct and realistic possibility.