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#ISSUE 22: Arminia Bielefeld: Germany's Quiet Unbeatables
Since the 11th of December Arminia Bielefeld have not lost a Bundesliga fixture. They may be level on points with the final relegation spot, but Arminia is drawing attention for all the right reasons!
In a week in which Bayern wrapped up the title, Niklas Süle agreed a move to Dortmund, and the DFL began floating around the idea of playoffs, there were more than enough talking points to fill an entire collection of newsletters.
Yet, it is none of these topics which draws our attention this Friday, instead averted to the Teutoburg Forest where Arminia Bielefeld is providing somewhat of a sensation at the bottom reaches of the table.
Since the 11th of December Arminia Bielefeld have not lost a Bundesliga fixture, taking at least a point out of each of their last 6 matches.
Neither Bayern nor Dortmund have gone on longer unbeaten runs in this season’s topflight, whilst Bielefeld now only need two more matches to equal their longest ever streak set all the way back in 2006.
Were it not for a catastrophic start to the season (5 points from the opening 10 matches), and 10 draws after 21 matchdays, we could easily be talking about a club providing a late push for Europe.
Instead, Arminia Bielefeld are just 1 point above the relegation zone, in a battle for topflight survival which includes European regulars VFL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, as well as big winter spenders FC Augsburg.
Though Arminia Bielefeld were promoted in 2019/20 as run away champions from the Zweite Bundesliga, almost everyone in German football expected Die Arminen to be heading straight back down at the first time of asking. The club named after Arminius, the Roman general turned German freedom fighter, had the smallest market value in the division, and just 4 players from the 33-man squad had even the slightest experience of Bundesliga football.
Yet, ultimately the Bielefelder Alm would remain a top flight destination, in no small part owing its survival to the solid defensive unit present throughout. Across 34 matches Die Arminen conceded just 52 goals, the 7th best record in the Bundesliga.
Not only has this trend carried over to this season, but Die Arminen have even made another step forward in turning an already compact unit into an often impenetrable force. In 21 matches, Frank Kramer’s side have conceded 27-goals, giving the Bielefeld backline the title of the 5th best defense in the 2021/22 Bundesliga.
How a side with just a fraction of Borussia Dortmund’s budget has let in 9 fewer goals than the black & yellows is owed to a number of reasons (many of which were explored in ISSUE #20), but chief amongst these is the measures Bielefeld has taken to limit costly mistakes in possession.
Whereas other Bundesliga minnows will try to play their way up the table (looking at you Greuther Fürth), Arminia Bielefeld are content with giving up some beauty points if it means playing Dortmund and Bayern next season rather than Sandhausen and Aue.
The Analyst recently released a brilliant data dissection of the 18 Bundesliga clubs, where you can clearly see how uncommon Bielefeld’s approach is in German football.
Arminia Bielefeld appears as the club in the top left corner
Not a single side comes close to Bielefeld’s direct speed in possession, progressing the ball up the field with an average of 2.0 meters per second. This isn’t intricate line breaking through balls, but large, searching, rockets often directed from goalkeeper Stefan Ortega.
In the 2020/21 campaign, not a single player in Europe attempted more long passes than Bielefeld’s number 1. The 29-year old’s astronomical output has slightly dropped off this season - now second in Europe’s top 5 leagues - but the fact remains that should Ortega have the ball at his feet, it’s very likely you’ll see it sailing over your head in the next 5 seconds.
Getting the ball up the pitch is just half of the equation. Ensuring it isn’t coming straight back is arguably what separates Bielefeld from numerous other European sides who have tried, and failed, to operate with a similar simplistic style.
Fabian Klos, Bielefeld’s 34-year old battering ram, has been key in ensuring Ortega’s long-range drives remain temporarily nestled in the opposition half. With 7.67 aerial wins per 90, Klos leads the German topflight amongst players with at least 400 minutes to their name.
His mediocre Bundesliga output (8 goals in 53 appearances as a center-forward), and declining availability means he is no longer the definitive choice in Kramer’s setup, but Die Arminen’s record goalscorer still has a lot to offer this side when it comes to retaining the ball high up the pitch in areas where the more creative heads can take over.
A typical Arminia Bielefeld build up: Stefan Ortega plays a searching ball onto the head of Fabian Klos, who can then ideally lay it into the path for one of his teammates. Even when Klos’ header doesn’t come off, this risk-averse style prevents Bielefeld from turning over possession in dangerous areas near their own goal.
As expected from a system which predominantly relies on catapulting long balls to the head of a towering number nine, Arminia Bielefeld spend quite a lot of time out of possession. Frank Kramer’s side is not only dead last for the number of passes completed, but they also sit bottom for the amount they allow their opponent.
Thus, whilst you could define Die Arminen as fast and direct in possession, their approach without the ball is the exact opposite, hoping to turn their opponent into a cumbersome outfit bereft of ideas against their compact defensive block.
It’s often worked a treat, as in November when they kept Bayern off the score sheet longer than any other side this season, but it still wouldn’t be possible without arguably one of the most underrated shot-stoppers in Europe.
Stefan Ortega, far more than just a big boot to smash balls up the pitch, has been sensational for Bielefeld since promotion to the topflight. In his maiden Bundesliga campaign the 29-year old shot stopper not only led the division in save percentage, but also earned a call up to Jogi Löw’s standby Euro 2020 roster, and ended the season with the 5th best average match rating from the countries leading sports outlet Kicker.de.
Any complacency creeping into his game has yet to surface, with Ortega even more important now than he was in 2020/21. The Bielefeld academy graduate has marginally improved on both his shot stopping volume and save percentage, with both statistics reflected in a massive overperformance in the club’s expected goals against model.
According to Understat.com’s predictions, Bielefeld should have conceded 37.02 goals this season from the quality of chances they let up - approximately 10 goals more than what they have actually let up. This overperformance blows the domestic competition out of the water, and even in Europe Ortega’s goalkeeping heroics are only rivaled by Wolverhampton Wanderers’ José Sá.
With Ortega’s contract expiring in the summer, it is becoming all too clear that the 29-year old’s 15-year marriage with Die Blauen will come to a somber end. Ortega will certainly receive a topflight offer should Bielefeld go down, and FC Bayern have even expressed their interest.
“I see him very positively. For me one of the three or four best goalkeepers in the league. One thing has to be said clearly and unequivocally: the fact that Bielefeld didn't get relegated last year bears the name of Ortega. He had a great season, he's playing a great season again this year, he has incredibly good positional play, he has good reflexes. He could maybe be five centimeters taller, then he might also be a goalkeeper for top teams. But basically a very interesting player.”
(Ex-Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge)
Not only Ortega sees his contract ending this season, but 9 other players within the first team squad, 7 of which have appeared in over 40% of Bielefeld’s Bundesliga minutes, also will leave for free on the first of July. Bielefeld will inevitably be entering a new era next season, one in which they hope to focus more on providing a platform for young talent in the Bundesliga.
Since last summer, Bielefeld have signed 6 players under the age of 25, and allowed 5 over the age of 28 to leave out the other door. Even in the managerial dugout there is a clear consensus of the direction Arminia wants to take.
When the experienced Uwe Neuhaus was relieved of his duties last March, Bielefeld opted against a relegation firefighter, instead going for a left-field choice in former Germany youth coach and Red Bull Leipzig academy director Frank Kramer.
It’s a risky policy given that Bielefeld are level with FC Augsburg on the final relegation spot, but there have been notable signs that Die Arminen’s youthful scouting policy can pay off.
The latest arrival in Atlanta United’s George Bello has major upsides both on and off the pitch. The 20-year old fullback is labeled as one of the most talented prospects in his position, and his rise to prominence could allow Arminia Bielefeld to tap into a lucrative American market, and prove once and for all that Bielefeld does actually exist!
Similar stories can describe the signings of Burak Ince (18), Florian Krüger (22), or Janni Serra (23), but none come close to the wonderful summer business which brought Patrick Wimmer to the Bielefelder-Alm.
Wimmer, a tricky 20-year old winger who was still playing in the Austrian fourth division in 2018, has been a revelation for Bielefeld this season. The departure of PSV loanee Ritsu Doan over the summer left many fans weary of Bielefeld’s offensive potency, but Wimmer has more than provided a suitable replacement. In 19 matches, Wimmer has provided 3 goals and 6 assists, 5 of which have come during this 6-match unbeaten streak.
There’s still a lot to iron out before Wimmer can truly be a reliable force, but the Austrian’s carefree nature is a breath of fresh air in a side otherwise living off its sound structure and defensive resistance. Even Stefan Ortega, the embodiment of Bielefeld’s stoic opposition, has found some joy in Wimmer’s arrival. Arminia's goalkeeper produced some glowing praise for his new teammate in a recent article for Bundesliga.com
"There's something crazy and care-free about him; he's got a youthful folly, which does us the world of good. If he sticks at it and works on getting some of the basics right, which help the team, then he will be even more valuable."
(Arminia Bielefeld’s Goalkeeper Stefan Ortega)
A rabona assist on gameweek 16 and the second-most nutmegs in the division are just a couple of ways in which Wimmer has brought ‘the crazy and care-free’ to the Bielefelder-Alm. The fact that he has a deal which will run until 2025 regardless of the club's topflight status can only encourage the Bielefeld hierarchy to stick with their youthful transfer policy into the future.
The difficulties that lie ahead over the remaining 14 matchdays shouldn’t be understated. Fixtures against 7 of the current top 8 are still to come, as well as relegation 6-pointers against the likes of FC Augsburg, VFB Stuttgart, and Hertha BSC.
Rather than play themselves out of a relegation battle, their 6-game unbeaten run has only provided them a fighting chance. There’s hope for the future in Bielefeld’s youthful entourage, but over the next 13 weeks all eyes will be on one goal, and achieving it by any means possible.
If that requires Stefan Ortega heroics, and Fabian Klos' 1.94m stature, then so be it.
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno