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#ISSUE 21: The Zweite Bundesliga Check-in: Aufstieg Edition
With just 9 points separate 1st from 9th, the remaining 14-matches in the 2021/22 Zweite Bundesliga season are set for unparalleled excitement.
Boasting fallen giants, fake vaccine certificates, and goalscoring phenoms, the 2021/22 Zweite Bundesliga season has more than lived up to its calling as “the most entertaining second division of all time”.
Though the football on the pitch has often been overshadowed by the madness off it, with 20 matches gone and 14 still to play, the race for promotion is approaching climax. Just 9 points separate 1st place Darmstadt 98 from SC Paderborn in 9th, allowing at least half of the 18-team league to still carry realistic dreams of a spot in the topflight next season.
With so much at stake across the next 14 gameweeks, today's newsletter takes a look at all the major promotion candidates in this topsy-turvy Bundesliga 2 season.
SV Darmstadt 98
Position: 1 Points: 39
Though 8 Bundesliga titles and 23 DFB-Pokal wins are divided across 7 clubs in this season’s second division, it is trophyless Darmstadt who are leading the promotion charge. With the most goals in the league and the second-fewest conceded, it’s no surprise that Darmstadt’s performance has been rewarded with a healthy points balance. Barely any fans of the Bundesliga 2 could have expected such a successful Hinrunde (the first half of the season, matchdays 1-17) after Die Lillien’s (The Lillies) major off-season struggles.
Having lost their manager, the Bundesliga 2 golden boot winner, and their starting center back partnership, it seemed probable to expect that Darmstadt may struggle against the drop in a season of rebuilding.
Yet, head-coach and Bundesliga 2 veteran Torsten Lieberknecht has rallied the troops at the Stadion am Böllenfalltor. Players previously out of favor have stepped up to the task, others have built on the momentum from last season, whilst almost all of the new signings have hit the ground running.
Even in the attacking department, where the 27-goal veteran Serdar Dursun was let go on a free, Darmstadt’s elite recruitment has found the answers.
Rather than shell out a big sum on a like-for-like replacement, Darmstadt have spread Dursun’s output across two under the radar offseason arrivals. Phillip Tietz (24) and Luca Pfeiffer (25) had combined for just 6 goals in 32 previous Bundesliga 2 appearances, but since arriving over the summer, the duo has been an unstoppable force for Darmstadt’s surge up the table. After 20 match-days, Die Lillien’s strike partnership has scored 24 goals - more than what 7 teams have mustered as a whole this season!
It could spell danger should either one falls out for an extended period of the season, but it’s impossible to ignore Darmstadt with their current seat at the summit, and their single, solitary loss in the last 12 Zweite Liga outings.
Promotion Probability: 18%
FC St. Pauli
Position: 2 Points: 37
Since the Zweite Bundesliga became an 18-team league in 1993, few teams have caught the eye as much as FC St. Pauli this season.
Under the tutelage of club icon Timo Schultz, Die Kiezkicker have enjoyed one of the most sensational turnarounds ever seen in a calendar year, beginning 2021 in the relegation zone, and ending it with top spot and the biggest Herbstmeisterschaft lead since Ingolstadt in 2014.
With Schultz at the helm, St. Pauli are playing brave, front-footed football that goes hand in hand with the club’s anti-establishment ethos and outspoken nature.
Die Kiezkicker have gotten the most out of players previously written off in German football, and filled the roster with foreign talent looking for an unconventional path abroad.
Guys like Guido Burgstaller, who found the net just 4 times in his final 45 matches for Schalke, looks revitalized under Schultz’s instruction. Not only is he leading this season’s Zweite Liga golden boot race (15 goals), but since the calendar year kicked off last January, only Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski have scored more goals in Germany’s top 3 leagues. Maintaining the current high pace though will be key in turning a flirt with promotion into reality.
Since the 2:1 win over Schalke on the 4th of December, St. Pauli have failed to win any of their last 4 league matches, going from a 7-point buffer to third, to now being within 2-points of dropping out altogether. Schultz is adamant that results will return, but it is striking to see how ill-fit St. Pauli looks when operating in the role of league favorites.
Traditionally, the Freibeuter club is accustomed to being the chaser. Slipping under the radar, upsetting the elite, but rarely putting up a consistent fight over a 34-game season. This is why, for example, Die Kiezkicker needed a 90th minute equalizer to draw level with relegation-threatened Erzgebirge Aue on matchday 19, but then 3 days later could go into a DFB-Pokal fixture and knock out Borussia Dortmund.
Managing the pressure that success brings but also retaining a carefree attitude will be key for St. Pauli to remain a top-3 contender even as the second-tier’s elite participants wake from their slumber and join the promotion push.
Promotion Probability: 12%
Position: 3 Points: 35
Speaking of waking from a slumber…
After spending matchday 15 in 10th position, Bremen fans could have been forgiven for writing off their Zweite Bundesliga return as an almighty disaster.
Sitting 2-points closer to the relegation zone than the final promotion playoff spot, tensions were rife amongst a fan base which had demanded top-tier football for the last 40 years. Worse still, the repeated collapse on the pitch accounted for only a fraction of the anger brewing at the club.
Markus Anfang, Bremen’s summer managerial appointment, shocked the tabloids in November when it was revealed that he was operating with a falsified vaccination card. The serial number of the vaccine sample didn’t match the batch it was issued from, and worse yet, the dates of immunization clashed with a league fixture last season and Bremen’s preseason tour to Austria.
Within hours of the public meltdown Anfang was “mutually” relieved of his duties, allowing Werder Bremen to draw neck in neck with Schalke as the biggest madhouse in German football. A new manager was needed in a point of crisis, and up stepped Ole Werner. Though just 33-years old, Werner was a shoe-in for the vacancy. The Kiel native had come within inches of taking his boyhood club to the topflight last season, had knocked FC Bayern out of the cup in a dramatic penalty shootout, and most crucially, Bremen would not need to pay a transfer fee given his free agent status.
What others saw as a poisoned chalice, Werner viewed as an opportunity, and immediately the former Holstein man injected new life into the Weser-Stadion. In the 5 matches since his arrival, Bremen have taken 15 of 15 points and scored a league-high 19 goals.
Whereas Anfang would flip-flop on playing personnel and fluctuate on a clearly defined tactical system, Werner has held true to a 3-1-4-2 and an almost identical starting XI in his 5 matches in the hot-seat.
Major issues still abound, most notably in defense, but going forward Bremen have been a scintillating watch. The return of Leonardo Bittencourt from a lengthy knee injury is worth its weight in gold, but even the oft-maligned strike duo of Marvin Ducksch and Niclas Füllkrug have silenced any and all critics. The Hässliche Vögel (ugly birds), a nickname given to the pair directly by Niclas Füllkrug, have combined for 9 goals and 7 assists since Werner's arrival.
For a club renowned for their lethal striker partnerships, fans will be hoping the Hässliche Vögel can become the next Ailton and Claudio Pizarro (nicknamed Pizza-Toni) in a new era of Bremen success.
Promotion Probability: 20%
Position: 4 Points: 34
One spot outside of the promotion places but still very much in contention is Schalke 04.
After picking up the third fewest points in Bundesliga history, just about everything had to change at the VELTINS-Arena over the summer. In total, 31 players departed the club, 16 were signed or loaned in, and 4 were promoted from the club’s u23 outfit. In a complete revamp of the playing squad, just 4 players which began last season remain at S04 today, with Ralf Fährmann being the only member of the current roster to have played over 75 matches for Die Königsblauen.
The core of elder-statesman hanging around for a final pay-day have been replaced by a pact of seasoned veterans well versed in the second-tier, whilst starlets with a point to prove have been signed in exchange for the disgruntled youth who played - but did not perform - on a Champions League budget.
In phases, this revamp has looked successful. Individual quality like the Bundesliga 2’s record goalscorer, Simon Terodde, have regularly dragged Die Königsblauen over the line. Alongside 14-goal Terodde, left-back Thomas Ouwejan looks an inspired signing with his set piece delivery and 7 assists, whilst a handful of loans have shown in spurts their world-class ceiling.
But more often than not, S04 remains a side playing far below the sum of its parts, highlighted in the fact that they've taken just 8 points from 10 matches against opponents in the Zweite Liga’s top 10!
Part of the reason is Dimitrios Grammozis, a former Darmstadt manager hired towards the end of last season when the focus shifted from Bundesliga survival to a Zweite Liga rebuild. Too often under his leadership there’s been a shortage of tactical nuance, with Grammozis clinging to his player’s individual talents to lift him over the line.
This is why, for example, Schalke have been leading at half time on just 8 of 20 occasions, yet have scored the most goals, and taken the most points, in the final 15 minutes of matches.
This ability to strike at the dying embers is a testament to the character overhaul and final-third difference makers now abounding in the squad, but the fact that they are routinely chasing leads, and habitually dropping points against direct competition, means major questions need to be asked regarding their true validity as a leading member of the promotion pack.
Promotion Probability: 11%
Position: 5 Points: 34
After years of mismanagement and complacency, HSV finally took the tumble into the second division in 2018. Though they had spent more than 50 uninterrupted years in Germany’s premier division, the sliding performances and growing discontent meant few were shocked when the legendary StadionUhr stopped ticking.
That they are still in the second division 4 years later though, has shaken German football to its core.
Prior to this season, HSV had spent almost 80% of their Zweite Bundesliga history on a promotion spot, yet a reoccurring end of season collapse has always seen them come up short.
Now in 5th place after 20 match days with their worst ever points tally at this point in a season, optimism should be low. Yet, there is a quiet confidence reverberating around the Volksparkstadion, one of two stadiums in Germany’s top 3 divisions which has yet to see its home side lose a match.
That’s just one of the statistics which sheds a bit of light onto the quality of HSV’s performances this season. With the joint-fewest defeats since FC Ingolstadt in 2014/15, the second best defense since Union Berlin in 2018/19, and the highest ball possession since VFB Stuttgart in 2019/20, all the signs point to a complete dominance in this season’s final stretch.
Yet, the excruciating inability to turn draws into wins - 10 of their 20 matches this season have ended with a points-split - sees HSV amassing a points total far below their performances would warrant. Under Tim Walter, Die Rothosen have dazzled the division with fluid build up play and rapid positional interchange, but in the final third the squad is often lacking that decisive touch to reward themselves for their production.
Sonny Kittle’s record-breaking 13 assists, and Robert Glatzels’ goal every other game have been a reliable source of income for Walter, but beyond that, Hamburg’s attacking influencers have appeared only sporadically on the scoresheet.
The defense is sound, the build up play is phenomenal. If HSV can just get more goals from their wide midfielders and supporting cast, this could finally be the year we see one of Germany's most historic clubs return to its rightful place in the topflight.
Promotion Probability: 24%
Position: 6 Points: 34
Following three former giants battling it out for a Bundesliga return, we move on to to a promotion outsider in 1.FC Heidenheim.
Less than 14-years ago, this small club on the border to Bavaria was playing in front of rural crowds and a small local contingent in Germany’s amateur 5th tier. What has been a meteoric rise to within one goal of Bundesliga football in 2019/20 can be almost entirely chalked up to the performances of the club’s iconic manager, Frank Schmidt.
Since taking over the club in 2007, Schmidt has revolutionized the football played at FC. Heidenheim, allowing a city with a population smaller than the capacity of the Veltins-Arena to dream of the ultimate heights of German football. With a transfer policy focused on getting the most out of overlooked talent from Germany's lower leagues, Heidenheim have routinely presented a competitive outfit that can perform far beyond the proposed market value of each individual.
Furthermore, we are seeing the powers of continuity play in Heidenheim’s favor in a season where managerial turnover and the weight of expectations has abounded in Germany’s second tier. Like SC Freiburg and Union Berlin in the Bundesliga, Heidenheim have been able to sneak into the promotion race with a clear identity that hasn’t wavered since Schmidt took over the club more than a decade ago.
Consistency in the dugout hasn’t necessarily transpired on the pitch though, with performances in the Zweite Bundesliga often fluctuating between breathtaking and bewildering.
Since the season began in late August, Heidenheim have twice gone on 3-match winning streaks, and 3-match winless streaks. No other side in the top 9 has had such a wild journey up and down the table, with Heidenheim spending two successive match days on the same position in the table just twice this season.
And, whilst Heidenheim’s strong defense has kept them in the running, their 25 goals scored account for just the 11th best tally in the division.
Even Tim Kleindienst, who was re-signed over the summer for a record €3.50m fee, leads Heidenheim’s goalscoring charts with only 7-goals. To put it into context, 10 of the 18 clubs in this year’s competition have at least one goal scorer who has found the net more often. In part, it’s bad luck - no side in Germany’s top 3 divisions has hit the woodwork more often - but Heidenheim must make more of their chances if Frank Schmidt’s side can take the final step into Germany’s topflight.
Promotion Probability: 4%
Position: 7 Points: 33
Like 1.FC Kaiserslautern, MSV Duisburg, and 1860 Munich before them, 1. FC Nürnberg looked set to become the next former giant wallowing away in the third tier. Der Club barely came through a relegation playoff in 2019/20, and then again finished in the bottom half of the table last season.
Yet, in Robert Klauß’s second season in charge, FCN finally look like a settled outfit, with a hard to beat system and an impressive crop of young talent. In fact, up until a gameweek 12 defeat to Darmstadt, Nürnberg were the only unbeaten side remaining in Germany’s top 3 divisions.
It all speaks to an impressive turn around with the potential for a Bundesliga return, however Nürnberg have seen a massive regression in recent weeks. Since trouncing Heidenheim on matchday 11, Robert Klauß’s side have been unable to string together two successive victories in 9 Bundesliga 2 match days, even adding 5 defeats to their previous clean slate in that same time frame.
More worrisome is their lack of competitiveness in the fixtures against direct promotion rivals. In 9 matches against the likes of Bremen, HSV, and Paderborn, Nürnberg have taken just one victory. The fact that they are unbeaten against sides below the 9th place threshold means they are still very much in contention, but Klauß will need to get more out of his top fixtures to maintain the pressure for the top spots until the end of May.
Additionally, Der Club doesn’t have a ruthless striker which is so often the crucial component in a club’s promotion battle. Of the last 10 sides to get promoted to the Bundesliga, not one has gone up without a player registering at least 10 goals in the 34-game season. Though multiple players could still hit double-digits, the fact that top-scorer Erik Shuranov sits on just 5 after 20 match days is a worry.
Thus, it will be in defense where Nüremberg can insight a late push.
With Christian Mathenia, Der Club has a shot-stopper with more than 200 matches in Germany’s top two divisions who is beginning to find his feet again after a couple of shaky seasons in goal. No goalkeeper in the top two divisions has kept more cleansheets, whilst Mathenia’s average match rating from Germany's leading sports outlet Kicker.de sees him ranked as the 5th best player in this season’s Zweite Bundesliga.
Promotion Probability: 5%
Position: 8 Points: 31
Though Darmstadt, Paderborn, and St. Pauli have shocked the bookies with their performances this season, not even the most optimistic Regensburg fan could have foreseen this side gunning for promotion with more than half the season gone.
Even that isn’t doing the performances at the Jahnstadion justice, with Mersad Selimbegovic’s side topping the table on more occasions than every other team outside of St. Pauli this season.
To put into words how a side which finished just 2 places above the drop zone last season is now within 4 points of the promotion playoff isn’t necessarily easy, but it does have a lot to do with the ‘frustrating’ tactics Selimbegovic implements. Whereas sides like HSV and Bremen have entered the promotion race with meticulous possession football, Regensburg are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum where direct vertical passing and a keen eye for set pieces lives.
Only Hansa Rostock has completed more long passes in Germany’s second tier this season, whilst Regensburg’s set piece proficiency is unrivaled across the division. In the opening 19 matchdays, Die Jahnelf have scored 16 goals from a dead ball situation, 6 more than any other side.
Though the aerial prowess of Steve Breitkreuz and Kaan Caliskaner have played their part, the biggest factors have been the summer arrivals of Jan-Niklas Beste and Sarpreet Singh.
Both players have been loaned in from Werder Bremen, and FC Bayern respectively, and both have immediately taken up the team’s set piece duties to great effect. Singh in particular has been a revelation, having a direct hand in 41% of the Regensburg goals he’s been on the pitch for. Though the New Zealander may never make the step up to Bayern’s first team, he is proven far too good for second tier football in his second spell in the division.
The lofty Hinrunde performances and some remarkable score lines have allowed the Regensburg fanbase to dream.
Ultimately though, this is a club which as recently as 2016 was playing in Germany’s 4th tier. As cheap as it may sound, the only thing Mersad Selimbegovic will be concerning himself with is that Regensburg quickly acquire another 9-points to guarantee Bundesliga 2 survival.
Promotion Probability: 4%
Position: 9 Points: 30
Though ninth in the table and slowly drifting into anonymity, SC Paderborn are far from out of the promotion race with just a 5-point gap to Bremen in third.
In Lukas Kwasniok’s first season in charge Paderborn have fulfilled their club-mantra of ‘Football with Passion’, making up for some individual deficits with full-hearted performances and an unwavering determination.
Despite looking somewhat uncomfortable in possession, SCP are adept at playing a reactive game which can foil even the best in the division. In 2 matches they’ve put 7 past Werder Bremen, whilst only three sides have been able to keep them off the scoresheet entirely.
A big part of this is the strike duo of Sven Michel and Felix Platte, the Bundesliga 2’s second most dangerous pairing with 22 goals between them. Sven Michel in particular has looked like a man possessed, contributing the most goals (14) and assists (8) of any player in the second-tier. His deadline day departure to Union Berlin doesn’t bode well for Paderborn’s goalscoring threat given the poor form (Dennis Srbeny) and general inconsistencies (Kai Pröger, Julian Justvan) from SCP’s other attacking outlets.
Defensively, Lukas Kwasniok’s side have been a bit more difficult to judge. At the midway point only HSV had conceded fewer goals in the Zweite Bundesliga, yet the past few weeks have seen Paderborn’s defensive numbers go into a tailspin. Since the start of the Rückrunde (the second half of the season, matchdays 18-34), only FC Augsburg and Erzgebirge Aue have conceded more goals in Germany’s top two tiers, no doubt coinciding with Paderborn’s drop down the table.
Were it not for Jannik Huth leading Germany’s top two divisions with 87 saves, one could easily imagine Paderborn being on the wrong end of more 4:3 thrillers and 5:2 thrashings in the remaining 14-matchdays.
Promotion Probability: 2%
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno