ISSUE #32: 1.FC Magdeburg: The Most Dominant Force In German Football Right Now
1. FC Magdeburg are the first side in Germany to achieve promotion this season. In Issue #32, we go all in about their unique style and dominant tromp through the division.
On Saturday, April 23rd, F.C. Bayern were confirmed as German champions for the 10th season in a row - a historic achievement which makes them the first side in Europe’s top five leagues to have ever completed a decade undisturbed at the top.
Triumphant hugs, an uproar from the stands, and the traditional Weißbier shower were included, but all in all it was a relatively subdued atmosphere coming less than 2 weeks after the club completely missed the mark in the UEFA Champions League.
Subdued, though, isn’t what you would call the title celebrations which occurred the following day 500 km North of the Bavarian capital where 1. FC Magdeburg were confirmed as champions of the German 3rd tier after a convincing 3:0 victory over FSV Zwickau.
It may not be of the same magnitude as the East German’s one and only European title in 1974 (European Cup Winners Cup), but you wouldn’t have sensed it from the wild celebration which unfolded following referee Tom Bauer's final whistle.
Thousands in the sold-out MDC-Arena stormed the pitch, beers and tears flowed in equal measure, whilst players, fans, and coaches alike allow a release of emotion rarely seen since the COVID pandemic took its toll more than 2 years ago.
With 72 points, the 3-time GDR (German Democratic Republic) champions are on-course to topple countless records, whilst the attractive football, and raucous stadium atmosphere have made them one of the most entertaining destinations for groundhoppers around the continent this season.
In this issue of the German Football Weekly, we not only look at how 1. FC Magdeburg have slowly built up a project capable of dominating the German 3rd tier, but also provide some insight into the characters behind their successful promotion.
Fueled not Barred by History & Tradition
We’ve talked at length about the historic clubs negotiating Germany’s second tier this season - with the 18-team division made up of 3 Bundesliga champions and 7 Pokal winners - but even the Dritte Bundesliga (3rd division) has showcased some of the biggest, most storied, clubs in the country during the 2021/22 campaign.
Former Bundesliga champions Eintracht Braunschweig, 1860 Muenchen, and 1. FC Kaiserslautern are battling for promotion while 2011 DFB-Pokal finalists MSV Duisburg are slipping back into the relegation battle, but undoubtedly the biggest attraction along the Elbe river are still eastern giants 1. FC Magdeburg.
As the only former GDR club to ever win European honors, FCM remain a massive force of pride in a region often overlooked and underrepresented in the wider context of German football and society.
Though they - like all East German outfits - have failed to carry over their GDR fortunes post-unification, a dominant stretch of 3 league titles, 7 GDR cups, and that famous Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Giovanni Trapattoni’s A.C. Milan has ensured that FCM’s reputation remains intact despite struggles in the more recent past.
And struggle they have, with the capital-club of Saxony-Anhalt failing to even represent the region in one of Germany’s national leagues for exactly 25-years between 1990 and 2015.
Turmoil on the pitch, and financial disarray off it provided the backdrop for countless years of stagnation, but the former GDR giant finally returned to a state of relative prominence soon after the arrival of Peter Fechner in April 2011.
Fechner, a decade-long fan and the executive director of a regional shipping tour company, was voted in as president at a time when nobody else wanted to take responsibility for the rotting carcass of FCM.
In the ensuing decade, Fechner not only stabilized a crisis plagued club sinking into further decline, but he returned FCM to the national leagues and has now twice been promoted to the Second Bundesliga.
Unlike other upstart projects which experience a rapid ascent before a monumental decline, Fechner has created stable success by diversifying his pool of sponsors, and ensuring the club remains represented by the local communities and corporations within the region.
Whereas other recent German takeovers saw the likes of KFC Uerdingen, 1860 Muenchen, and Türkgücü Muenchen welcome in foreign investors to momentarily bankroll projects that eventually led to insolvency, Fechner’s more holistic approach required patience for success to materialize, but ensured that the long-term viability of 1. FC Magdeburg remained in-tact.
With over 350 local business partners, the largest attendance in this season’s third tier, and a vast consortium of match-going sponsors, Fechner has expertly connected the allure of Magdeburg’s impressive regional history, with his own business acumen required to succeed in modern football.
Unlike countless other clubs who seem weighed down by colossal historic burdens and expectations, Magdeburg have used their previous success as a tool to market to potential sponsors , but have refused to allow outside influences to lure them into short-sighted decisions on and off the pitch.
Putting the Faith in Football Heads
Beyond the impressive ability to unite the region behind FCM, president Peter Fechner now has the privilege of leading a side into the second division because he has refused to allow his own ideas to mix into the football side of the operation.
Whereas KFC Uerdingen’s former Russian Billionaire - Mikhail Ponomaryov - would regularly dictate the starting lineup and threaten to terminate a player’s contracts after a poor defeat, at Magdeburg a similar authoritarian regime simply wouldn’t come to stand.
As Feschner puts it, there are three pillars to reviving a massive club,
“re-earning the trust of the fanbase, allowing the sporting side of the club to be run by people who understand what they are doing, and not allowing your own emotions and opinions to get in the way of people more experienced in their field.”
The respect for these simple principles are not only allowing FCM to dazzle the 3rd-tier with innovative attacking football, but just 1-year ago it was also the guiding principle which helped launch them out of a relegation battle that could have sunk the East-German giants back into the obscurity of regional fourth division football.
After 21 matchdays, Magdeburg sat second-bottom in the table with just 5 victories to their name. Manager Thomas Hoßmang was relieved of his duties, and everyone expected a firefighter to come in with the fading hope of rescuing the club in the remaining 17 gameweeks.
Yet, that isn’t what the former GDR-Champions went for, instead staying true to their long-term vision with an appointment that in many aspects seemed opposite to what the pressures of 3rd tier survival may dictate.
Christian Titz, a contentious manager with former spells at Hamburger SV and Rot-Weiß Essen came into the team.
Despite missing out on the goal of promotion at both destinations, with hindsight it felt impossible to consider Titz's work at either Traditionsklub (a club with a long, rich history in German football) a true failure.
In Hamburg, Titz was fired after sitting just two-points behind table leaders 1. FC Köln in the Bundesliga 2 promotion race, whilst at Rot-Weiß Essen, in the Regionalliga West, the now 51-year old was handed his marching orders following the uncertainty presented in the first wave of COVID lockdowns. Neither club has achieved the elusive goal of promotion since his departure, and in Hamburg he even has the best points per game record of any manager in the past 12 years
At Magdeburg however it was an altogether different challenge he faced - moving from promotion aspirants to a side scraping away for any points they could get in an attempt to survive a torrid relegation battle.
Though one quickly came to see that Titz had the ingredients of a profound team-builder and football innovator, neither of these traits necessarily suited the side’s predicament at the time, with alarm bells ringing after FCM failed to win any of Titz’s first 3 matches in charge.
With time ticking dangerously against them, many would have given up on a free-flowing style of football for a more traditional approach, but president Peter Fechner held true to his man in what was ultimately the latest masterstroke in his decade reign at the MDC-Arena.
In the final 11 matchdays, Magdeburg took a staggering 26 points - ending the season 14 points clear of any relegation trouble.
Not even FC Bayern took more victories out of their final 11 league matches, whilst any of the remaining fears of relegation were gone by late April as FCM sauntered up the table with creative, energetic football that would be the groundwork for the current campaign.
With such impressive performances, Titz was afforded the opportunity to mold the side in his image over the summer (yet another example of president Feschner’s hands-off approach), and so he did, bringing in a handful of young, hungry, talents who would be able to enable his combative gameplan in the bid for immediate promotion.
Various elder-statesmen, including club legend Christian Beck, were released in controversial fashion, but barely anyone in the stands was left complaining after witnessing the football playing out on the pitch as the season got into swing.
Quick vertical transitions, dominance in possession, and the highest pressing intensity of any side in Germany’s top 3 leagues (graphed below) have allowed Magdeburg to saunter to an early lead in the title race which they haven’t let go of since gameweek 7.
No side in German football, let alone Europe’s top 5 leagues, has, on average, won the ball back quicker than 1.FC Magdeburg this season. Titz’s side are dominant with the ball, but they also feverishly hunt their opponent out of possession to ensure that there are never prolonged periods of rest.
Replacing the fear of failure with the excitement that success fuels stood at the core of Christian Titz’s Magdeburg transformation.
Getting a side who desperately clung to reactive 3rd tier football and reschooling them into a possession-oriented style was difficult at first, but with the belief that the early results brought, the holy trinity of players, fans, and officials quickly bought into Titz’s system.
That’s how FCM currently holds more average ball-possession per game (64.4%) than any other side in Germany’s top 3 tiers, whilst in the Dritte Bundesliga alone there hasn’t been a club with more dominance on the ball since possession stats were first recorded in 2015.
Of course, the exceptional talent within the squad plays a significant role in Magdeburg’s success, but there is also a significant amount of trust and confidence required to maintain such dominance despite the often torrid pitches across 3rd division stadiums, and the many times destructive playstyles faced in lower-league professional football.
Thus, it was crucial to assemble a squad that was not only open to new impulses, and willing to learn, but also brave enough to remain faithful and confident in their work despite ever-present roadblocks along the way.
With players boasting a combined 500 matches of 3rd tier experience leaving in the summer of 2021 there was a lack of core leadership for younger prospects to fall back on, but it simultaneously provided an opportunity for new ideas to flow, uncurbed by a "this is how we did it in my day" attitude.
With veterans replaced by less experienced young talent or lower league prospects, one could immediately see a side that was pulling together on the same end of the rope and willing to follow Christian Titz into the next frontier.
As the points rolled in, individuals gained recognition, and a general feel-good atmosphere reigned over the club, a flirt with possible promotion quickly became a dominant campaign rarely before seen in lower-league football.
Magdeburg play with extreme confidence in possession with every player (including goalkeeper Dominik Reimann) willing to come short or long to receive the ball.
“This year I always had the feeling that with this squad, and team-spirit we could always achieve this goal”
Those were the words of Amara Condé, the 25-year old midfield anchor who had thrice narrowly missed out on promotions in his career before finally achieving the dream with FCM.
He, like much of the squad, was finally soaking in ecstasy after years of hardship, near misses, and disregard from the world of German football.
Baris Atik, “the visual manifestation of Titz’s ideas”, whose 18 goals and 20 assists make him the most successful single-season scorer in 3rd tier history, was unemployed before Magdeburg picked him up last January.
Luca Schuler, a 23-year old summer signing, didn't even hit double digits for Schalke's U23s last season before taking the 3rd tier apart this year.
And captain Tobias Müller, who has played almost 100 games for FCM in the third tier, could now be on the cusp of his second season in the Zweite Bundesliga after starting his career all the way down in the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg (Germany's hyper-regional 5th tier).
Whilst the dream of back-to-back promotions leading to the Bundesliga are reserved for the most optimistic amongst the FCM fanbase, it'd be foolish to think that the former GDR champions won't present a competitive outfit capable of retaining their second tier status next season.
The strong opponents and individual difference-makers that abound in the Zweite Bundesliga gives the impression that Magdeburg's game plan could be suicidal, yet the same was said when Christian Titz came into the job last February... and just look how far FC Magdeburg have come since then!
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno