Part 1: The New Manager Check-in
The likes of Sadio Mané, Nico Schlotterbeck, and David Raum may have stolen headlines with their moves in the transfer window, but this off-season hasn’t been without in the managerial dugout either.
In total, 7 of the 18 sides in the Bundesliga have a new manager on the touchline.
It’s the most off-season change in any of the major European leagues, and just 4 of the remaining topflight sides now have a head-coach who has been with the club for over 2 years.
With so much change over the past two seasons, it’s easy to lose track of who is patrolling the touchline across the various Bundesliga stadiums, so to get fans up to speed, this week’s issue focuses on some of the new faces on the touchline.
If you want to read part 2 where we detail the remaining 3 NEW managers, make sure to become a premium subscriber today!
Frank Kramer - FC Schalke 04
After club-legend Mike Büskens steered Die Königsblauen to promotion in the final 8 matches of last season, the 54-year old ‘EuroFighter’ now returns to the backdrop to make way for Frank Kramer to take the reins in the Bundesliga.
It’s a manager fans of the league should be familiar with after doing a solid job in 1 ½ seasons with Arminia Bielefeld. After taking over in the relegation zone, Kramer did a tremendous job to turn around a defensive rot and take points in 9 of his 12 matches in charge.
Bielefeld stayed up at the end of the 2020/21 campaign, and only narrowly missed out on repeating the feat again last year. Though Kramer was let go on gameweek 30, Die Arminen were just 3 points adrift of safety, had just lost to FC Bayern, and were struggling with an injury crisis that tore through the squad’s attacking options.
Though the sacking was not indefensible given Kramer had taken 1 point in his last 7 Bundesliga fixtures, it seemed very optimistic from sporting director Samir Arabi to give the job to goalkeeping coach Marco Kostmann in the hopes he could perform a motivational turn-around in a squad clearly at it’s limit.
Though formerly head of academy at RB Salzburg, expansive football and aggressive counter-pressing weren’t factors behind Kramer’s match-plan in Bielefeld.
Perhaps it was a reaction to the strengths of the squad, but Kramer implemented an extremely defensive game. In his 42 matches in charge, Bielefeld conceded just 57 goals, fewer than half the division, including Borussia Dortmund, in that time frame.
Going forward then was where it often got stuck.
In almost 12 months in charge, Bielefeld never scored more than 2 goals in a Bundesliga match, and only Greuther Fürth let off fewer shots in last season’s topflight.
Besides the creative inspiration of Patrick Wimmer, the passing range of Stefan Ortega, and the aerial dominance of Stefan Klos, it was often impossible to decipher any true plan behind Bielefeld’s approach to getting the ball in the net.
Why it will fit
Despite winning the title in the Zweite Bundesliga last season, in 34 matches Schalke 04 conceded a staggering 44 goals. Since FC Köln in 2018/19 no side has ever been promoted with more goals conceded.
With Schalke susceptible defensively, and without their best centerback from last season, bringing in a defensive specialist with topflight experience will be their best shot at staying up.
Why it won’t fit
Even though Schalke scored a remarkable 72 goals in last season’s second-tier, a clear attacking gameplan was never apparent whether under Dimitrios Grammozis or Mike Büskens.
If they want to stay up, Die Königsblauen will need to develop a distinct identity in possession to break down stronger defences that can stifle the individual genius which so often won games in the second tier.
Though it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Frank Kramer can develop this, in his previous topflight stint the 50-year old failed in this regard.
Sandro Schwarz - Hertha BSC
Since German entrepreneur Lars Windhorst and his investment firm Tennor Holding B.V. made a majority investment into the club in 2019, things have only gone down-hill for Hertha BSC.
Almost €400m has been invested over the past 3 years, with 8 managers coming and going as Hertha have slipped ever closer to the relegation zone.
Tasked then with finally bringing some stability back to the ‘big-city club’ is Sandro Schwarz.
One of many great managers to have come through at Mainz 05, Sandro Schwarz pairs a solid Bundesliga reputation with international experience.
The 43-year old twice finished clear of relegation with Mainz 05, and after 2 ½ years with Dynamo Moscow Schwarz ended his tenure with the second best points per game record of any manager in the club’s 21st century history.
Though it’s scary to say it, Sandro Schwarz is arguably the first manager appointed in the Windhorst era with a footballing identity ready for the Bundesliga. Over the past 3 seasons, Hertha have been defined by passive defending and a reliance on individual qualities.
In Europe’s top 5 leagues only Espanyol completed fewer pressures in the final third last season, and not one of the 98 sides in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, and Ligue 1 completed fewer touches in the final third.
Thus, arguably the biggest reason behind Schwarz’s appointment will be his ability to tilt the game back into the opposing half.
Even at Mainz, a side with one of the smallest budgets in the division, Schwarz promoted a front-footed game reliant on intense running and bravery in possession.
In both 2017/18 and 2018/19 Mainz finished the campaign in the top 3 for final 1/3rd pressures, whilst the club’s total touches in the final 1/3rd was on both occasions over 500 more than Hertha managed last year.
Why it will fit
Speaking with Richard David Pike - Russian football expert and Breakingthelines contributor - it was clear to hear his gleaming praise of Schwarz’s work with young talent in Moscow.
Sebastian Szymanski (23), now of Conference League winners Feyenoord, was a stand-out in midfield. Daniil Fomin (25) became club captain and a full Russian international under Schwarz’s reign, whilst Arsen Zakharyan (19), arguably the biggest talent in Russian football, made his first steps into the professional game under the new Hertha manger.
This same trend was replicated in Mainz years earlier where the likes of Abdou Diallo, Ridle Baku, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, and Hertha’s very own Suat Serdar all made their big developmental leaps under Schwarz’s coaching.
With the city of Berlin a hotbed for talent, Schwarz’s proven developmental track-record should finally provide an identity which resonates with a fan-base crying out for something to cling on to.
Why it won’t fit
Though Schwarz seems like a reasonable appointment in comparison to some of Hertha’s senseless decisions in the past, there’s a growing consensus that the spot in the dug-out is a poisoned chalice in the Olympiastadion.
The issues which have run rampant for almost a decade at Hertha BSC extend far beyond who is currently in the head-coach job, making Schwarz’s task of rebuilding the capital-club a far greater challenge than simply producing an identity on the pitch and developing local talent.
Judging his ability to take on this challenge will only come with time, but his only Bundesliga experience coming in the serene environment of Mainz 05 isn’t a good comparison to the burning hell-fire he will be thrown into in Berlin.
Enrico Maaßen - FC Augsburg
A 38-year old student of the game, Enrico Maaßen follows in the footsteps of Daniel Farke, David Wagner, and Hannes Wolf by going from Borussia Dortmund’s U23s to the Bundesliga.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist who is constantly searching for new ideas and meticulously analysing matches, Maaßen puts everything and more into the job, leaving no stone unturned in his quest for success.
And though the endless video sessions, and constant urge for improvement may be frustrating for his players and colleagues, it has undeniably brought success in his two years in Dortmund.
There, Maaßen achieved promotion to the third tier in 2020 with just 1 defeat in 42 matches, and then followed up this almighty achievement with a 9th place finish in the Dritte Liga - the best performance in club history.
Perhaps more exciting than this remarkable consistency on the pitch though, is Maaßen’s grooming of young talent.
The likes of Tobi Raschl, Immanuel Pherai, Steffen Tigges, and Ansgar Knauff all made huge developmental strides under Maaßen, and now are playing key roles higher up the divisions. Knauff especially is Maaßen's greatest achievement to date.
The 20-year old featured in 36 matches for Maaßen's side, and just last season featured in every available minute of Eintracht Frankfurt's Europa League success.
Maaßen’s history in Dortmund may give the impression that the young manager stands for extravagant attacking football, but at the basis of his success was a strong defensive core.
Always setting up in a 3-5-2, Maaßen retained the focus on ball-oriented possession phases. It not only gave structure, and variability in Dortmund’s build-up phases, but the additional central cover reduced the chances of being ripped apart in dangerous areas around the goal.
Variability is also a key facet of Maaßen’s philosophy with the ball.
With wing-backs making the field as wide as possible, and two strikers on the shoulder of the backline, Maaßen’s sides are always looking to make the playing field as large as possible. In last season’s campaign Dortmund II would regularly switch between attacking through the channels, possessing in central overloads, or looking to go directly over top into the feet of a striker.
Depending on the strengths of the opposition and player’s available Maaßen could switch up his game plan within the same tactical outline, thereby retaining a set identity with and without the ball, but allowing for free decision-making to nevertheless thrive.
Why it will fit
Enrico Maaßen is a young, ambitious, manager who fits the description of the future major shareholder David Blitzer is looking to build at FC Augsburg.
With the Bavarian outfit promoting a youthful transfer policy that sees this year’s squad boast the youngest average age in their 12-year Bundesliga history, bringing in a manager who has a proven track-record of developing talent seems like the logical next step in a bold revamp of FC Augsburg.
Why it won’t fit
Maaßen may be an extremely talented manager with the promise of a Bundesliga future, but this squad doesn’t have the quality of years past, and the 4:0 opening day defeat shows that this will be a relegation dog-fight all year long.
Though the 38-year old has many of the characteristics of a top manager, he hasn’t proven his ability to maintain composure and nerve in a fierce relegation fight. How he handles this new challenge will ultimately make or break this next step of his career.
Niko Kovač - VFL Wolfsburg
Though Bayern fans may be quick to argue in the comments, from a purely unemotional standpoint it’s hard to argue that Niko Kovač isn’t one of the most underrated managers on the continent.
The 50-year old Croat ended Eintracht Frankfurt’s 30-year wait for a major title, won a league and cup double in his one full season with Bayern, and took a Monaco side to within 5 points of the Ligue 1 title just 18 months after they looked certain to be relegated.
In the less public arena in Wolfsburg, Niko Kovač will be well-placed to rebuild his reputation in Germany, and simultaneously return Die Wolfen back to the European places where they belong.
Niko Kovač lives off his formational flexibility.
Whereas in Frankfurt he would regularly set up in 3-5-2, at Bayern Kovač flipped the script, changing to a 4-2-3-1 to provide the best setup for Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller to thrive. At Monaco Kovač even took it to another level, using 8 different formations throughout the 2020/21 Ligue 1 season.
Whether a 5-3-2, 4-4-2, or 3-4-2-1, Kovač feels comfortable using whatever best fits the needs of his players, or has the best chance of stifling the strengths of his opponent.
If Kovač shows his flexibility when it comes to formational setup, then where he is perhaps more rigid is in terms of his defensive principles.
Regardless of the club he is coaching, Kovač has always implemented a man-oriented press that looks to close central passing lanes and strengthen the midfield. While it may forfeit space in the wide channels, it’s a game plan which has provided the Croatian manager impressive success in recent jobs.
Since Kovač, no Bayern manager has ever finished the Bundesliga season with fewer goals conceded (32), and in his one full season with Monaco the French outfit conceded the fewest shots of any side in Ligue 1 (8.6 per game).
Why it will fit
Though just about everything went wrong for VFL Wolfsburg last season, one of the biggest drop-offs from the Oliver Glasner era was the lack of attention to defensive principles. Last year under Mark van Bommel and Florian Kohfeldt Die Wolfen conceded 54 times in the Bundesliga - the club's worst defensive performance since 2011/12.
Bringing in a defensive expert like Niko Kovač may not be enough to steer the club directly back into the Champions League, but it should go a long way in ensuring Wolfsburg don’t end up wallowing away in 12th again this season.
Why it won’t fit
For all his defensive discipline and tactical know-how, one thing Niko Kovač has routinely struggled with is his relationship towards sporting directors. At FC Bayern he was always considered an outsider by the powerful duo of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeneß, while a public fall-out with Monaco’s sporting director was the core reason behind his shock dismissal last December.
Though VFL Wolfsburg may not have a fanbase that demands results like other Bundesliga clubs, sporting director Jörg Schmadtke is notorious for his short fuse.
Kovač is the 5th manager at the Volkswagen-Arena since 2019, and despite the fact that Schmadtke is stepping down at the end of the year, the Croatian manager will need to immediately be at the top of his game if he doesn’t want to end up with the same fate as Mark van Bommel - sacked just 116 days into the job.