The case of right place, wrong time is an authentic fear. In public life it could be that one invites another for a quiet glass or two in the local pub, a respite period after a hard week at work, yet despite turning up to the right place on the Saturday, it turns out on reflection the meet was in fact incorrectly pencilled in the diary, and meant to happen on the Friday. The ‘one’ is as such left a bit wanting that Friday night.
Greuther Fürth are a theorised personification of that. Following their first half of the season, one of the worst in German top-tier history, looking back it seems their promotion came at a bad time. Perhaps had they turned up on Friday, a season earlier so to speak, certain issues and circumstances beyond their control may have been averted, and certain stars of their promotion push may still be on their books.
Had Germany’s Under-21s not excelled at the European Championships, and deep-lying midfielder Anton Stach not made promising impressions to attract a move to another top-tier side in Mainz, a defined primary-pivot which they would go on to sorely lack in the Hinrunde would not have been such a big issue.
David Raum and Paul Jaeckel, the other two Fürth players to feature at that tournament spread across Slovakia and Hungary, knew their futures would not be in green and white either owing to pre-contractual agreements signed and sealed with Hoffenheim and Union Berlin respectively. For all we know, had they gone up knowing a Bundesliga spot would give them some extra leverage, Fürth may have had these three still in their squad and been more competitive from the outset as such.
Sebastian Ernst opting to stay in the second-tier at Hannover 96 despite being a key cog in attacking midfield came as a blow too, such was his penchant for picking up good penalty-box positions to shoot and being a good cross target.
But from the other side of the coin, an extra second-tier season proved vital in making them what they are, and a more immediate step-up likely would have not provided that same platform. These arguments stand as hypotheticals at the end of it, and such is the nature of the sport, the reality is that the means is always to go on.
Greuther Fürth were promoted in 2nd-place from the Zweite Liga. They did it deploying a direct and attack-minded brand under Stefan Leitl, a brave philosophy to integrate into a new top-tier venture. Given this is a team who only once finished above 9th-place in the six second-tier seasons prior, the task forecast taking into account the soon-to-be-vacant voids left by Raum, Stach and Jaeckel was set to be arduous, adding to the fact that it was also set to be one of the youngest teams in the division.
It was a close-knit core and fairly small squad, which sporting director Rachid Azzouzi signalled his intent to increase. Eleven new arrivals were confirmed in the summer window, yet as time endured, those voids were more gaping than ever.
21-year-old loanee attacker Jessic Ngankam is yet to debut due to an unfortunate long-term injury layoff. Neither Justin Hoogma nor Gideon Jung have featured since August. Striker Cédric Itten scored twice before parent club Rangers called him back. Nils Seufert, signed in the summer, has been sent on loan to second-tier Sandhausen mid-way through the season.
Adrian Fein, a major success in midfield at Hamburg a couple of seasons ago, is yet to start a Bundesliga match even as a like-for-like for Stach on paper. His ex-teammate in the northwest Jeremy Dudziak, a reported €750,000 purchase, has struggled for consistency in form and drifts in and out of matches all too often. Regardless of the calibre and status of members they were brought in to succeed, the summer recruitment on reflection save for a few has been a big disappointment.
“We owe a good Rückrunde to ourselves and the people out there. I expect that we are fit to play in the Bundesliga then,” explained Azzouzi. The club with a clover leaf on the logo could use some luck, with a double-digit margin on every other team to make up with 15 matches to play. Fürth came within a solitary (adjusted) point of the Hinrunde performance of Tasmania Berlin in 1965-66, widely acknowledged as the worst single-season team showing in the Bundesliga, as they claimed just five points in 17 matches and only got their first win, a 1-0 victory over Union Berlin, on 12th December.
Leitl’s call to keep with his brand without adjustment, while admirable in sticking to his principles, also backfired. A 12-game losing streak, including a run of 17 goals conceded in the three matches prior to that widely-celebrated win over Union, highlighted a sense of naivety in spite of theorised bravery. The high-press was picked apart, especially by well-trained technical teams, from the earliest phases of opposition build-up, and spaces were exploited across the board as the adversary got to goal.
“An average of 1.7 or even 1.8 points per game,” expressed Leitl on what it would take for the club to make a stab at survival. Typically 15th-placed teams have points tallies of over 30, with sometimes 35 or more needed; if Mainz’s survival from a seven-point Hinrunde last season was one of the Bundesliga’s all-time great escapes, where the returning Bo Svensson spearheaded the Nullfünfer to 32 Rückrunde points and survival in 12th-place, then there’s no telling how seismic a Fürth recovery from five would be. Few in any league anywhere would stand parallel to that.
There is hope. On a current run of six points collected from five matches, keeping three clean sheets in the process, Leitl has finally tweaked the setup without taking away from the personality, and in this small sample size, structural improvement has been seen. Rising to recent prominence is Max Christiansen, a summer signing from third-tier Waldhof Mannheim, who can cover the spaces of those moving to press and slot between centre backs as an extra option in build-up. He has offered assurance at the base of midfield and enhanced others around him like the well-rounded Paul Seguin.
Jamie Leweling, a 20-year-old homegrown attacker who the club tied down to a contract extension to 2024 in the summer, has added technical spark and speed to complement the focal-point profiles of Branimir Hrgota and Håvard Nielsen. New signings Sebastian Griesbeck, berthed in a right-sided centre back role in recent weeks, and left back Jetro Willems are starting to offer positivity in their impacts too. Leitl has also kept with the consistency of a 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 system.
It all should smoothen the adaptation periods of their two new January recruits, Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Linde who was focal to Molde getting further into Europe than any Norwegian side this millennium last year, and Angolan-born frontman Afimico Pululu who was highly-rated coming through the ranks at Swiss side Basel. What say they may have will be a real point of intrigue as this part of the season endures.
For the Kleeblätter, the odds are stacked against them, and it may cruelly be too late already, but they are not there to be pitied. They have made their statement, a statement to fight, a statement to battle and push to the end, knowing that if they could talk of an almighty tale of staying up, turning up on the Saturday to sip from the freshest pint of the batch may not appear such a bad decision after all.
This post was written by Lewis Bennett. Lewis provides insightful tactical analysis on his excellent Twitter account – @FootballChat555. You can also read Lewis’s wide-ranging work on his website.