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Zweitegeist Round 21: Braunschweig bottling it in 2017 as Union stake their claim

What on earth is happening at Eintracht Braunschweig? They topped the table at the end of the Hinrunde to be crowned as the ‘Winter Champions’, but fast forward just four rounds into the Rückrunde and they’ve fallen to 4th. Not only are they 7 points behind the new leaders VfB Stuttgart and out of the automatic promotion places, they’re also a point outside the promotion playoff spot, which is now occupied by Union Berlin.

How to explain this dramatic drop-off in form and fortune? Well, you’ll have to ask Torsten Lieberknecht about that. This week the Braunschweig coach dismissed criticism of his side from fans as “nonsense” but just three points and zero wins against Würzburger Kickers (A), St. Pauli (H), Nürnberg (A) and Erzgebirge Aue (H) is simply not good enough for a team with ambitions of promotion. The supporters had every right to complain after the latest disappointing result – the 1-1 draw with Aue at the weekend. Eintracht took the lead in the first half with a brilliantly-worked goal down the left side, featuring a neat flick from Julias Biada and an overlap by Ken Reichel, leaving wing-back Phil Ofosu-Ayeh with the simple task of tapping in. But the goal came out of the blue and was out of kilter for a half devoid of chances for either side.

Lieberknecht has been criticised (by myself included) for switching to a more defensive three at the back system in certain games, rather than trusting the simple positive 4-4-2 system that has worked well for most of the season. So far he’s made the switch in tough away games such as Stuttgart and Union Berlin, both of which ended in 2-0 defeats, and then in the visit to Nürnberg in the previous round. Despite having watched through the game multiple times it’s still unclear exactly what system Lieberknecht was employing – I can only describe it as a bizarre asymmetric 3-3-2-2. Although the players didn’t seem to quite know where they were supposed to be playing at certain times, it still resulted in a more positive performance, but again only a 1-1 draw.

Surprisingly though, Lieberknecht persisted with playing a ‘triple-chain’ against Aue as well, despite being at home against the team at the bottom of the table. While there’s no doubt this seemingly negative approach helped with getting the opening goal, it also goes a long way to explaining the scarcity of attacking chances in the first half. After the goal went in the coach made a switch to 4-4-2, presumably to take advantage of any counter-attacking opportunities, but instead there was a palpable shift towards passivity. The defence sat deeper and allowed Aue greater possession to attack and it was no surprise when they equalised through a penalty before the hour mark. The visitors arrived with more purpose in the second half, while Braunschweig did not launch another meaningful attack until after the equaliser.

Braunschweig can point to their bad luck in chances for Christoffer Nyman and Hendrick Zuck, as both suffered from massive bobbles in the pitch just before striking their shots high and wide, but Aue also spurned chances to go and win the game too. Overall though, it seems Lieberknecht’s insistence on being 2. Bundesliga’s resident ‘Tinkerman’ means that his side are struggling to regain any of the rhythm that saw them surge to the top of the table in the first half of the season. In four games in 2017 he has used three different systems and started with eighteen (!) different outfield players. This is not normal. It’s no surprise that the only consistency they’ve been able to find is consistently disappointing results. Their best player of last season, Salim Khelifi, did not even make the squad at the weekend.

Teams have been in this situation before – just last season Freiburg were also 2. Bundesliga ‘Winter Champions’ but made a dreadful start to the Rückrunde by losing their opening two games, when they were missing star strikers Nils Petersen and Maximillian Philipp through injury. Unlike Lieberknecht though, Christian Streich surprised everybody when he stuck with the losing XI that had served him well for most of the season and that faith was repaid with eleven wins from their next twelve games that saw them charge to the title. Braunschweig need to rediscover that confidence and swagger – as seen in the 6-1 bruising of Nürnberg – that made them early-season title contenders. And considering the mood that Union Berlin are currently in, they need to do it fast. – Anthony Wood.

…. As Union stake their claim

In direct contrast to Eintracht’s atrocious form to begin 2017, Union Berlin have not only benefitted from the slip up, but also done their utmost to capitalise, with an undefeated start to the campaign’s back end. Aside from a draw in the East-German derby with Dresden, Die Eisern have gained maximum points with wins against Bochum, Arminia and Karsruher.

The latest of those wins came on Sunday at the Wildparkstadion, and represented the battle of two former Schalke 04 managers in Jens Keller and Mirko Slomka. The latter of those had seen some improvement in his new side as KSC won their previous home game against Arminia and sat outside the relegation places which they had occupied when he arrived, going into this game.

That last home game had ended a high-scoring affair, and this one was already threatening to emulate it after just five minutes when David Kinsombi impeded Polter in the box, and Simon Hedlund stepped up to dispatch the resulting penalty. While the awarding of the penalty was slightly soft, it was a poor mistake by Kinsombi, who interestingly continues to start at centre half to the misfortune of Bjarne Thoelke, who can perhaps consider himself a bit hard done by to have been left out of the squad entirely by his new manager for the last three games.

Later in the half, and despite the best efforts of the home side to level the match, Union’s lead was doubled, and again the same three men were at the heart of it. Hedlund was sent into the right channel and looked to repay the favour for the man who had won his penalty, with Polter given the freedom of the penalty area. He was unable to find the number 9, but with no consequence, as Kinsombi’s interception found the empty net. For the 21 year old there was again an element of misfortune, but again he had to accept the majority of the blame.

Hedlund on the other hand had a goal and assist before half time. The Swede has become a regular starter since joining the club this season, but curiously this was only his second of each, the others also both coming in one match, vs Eintracht prior to Christmas. He will surely need to kick on and improve these numbers if he is to keep up with Union’s increased expectations, and from his celebration after converting the penalty, it seems he knows it.

It would be remiss, however, not to mention the real architect of both goals. Another stark contrast between Union and Braunschweig is how consistent Jens Keller has kept his starting XI compared to Torsten Lieberknecht’s rotation come rain or shine. Keller has settled on a first choice that is rarely changed unless forced. However, when the odd change is inevitable, the manager is yet to be significantly let down by one of his backups, and this has never been more the case than here as Eroll Zejnullahu deputised for suspended captain Felix Kroos.

It has been a tough season for the Kosovan, who made only his 2nd league start here, compared to 23 in the whole of 15/16. He has also made frequent trips in vain to the Kosovan national setup, being yet to play a single competitive minute for the new kids on UEFA’s block. These absences from the training weeks during international breaks had also hurt his chances back in Berlin, according to Keller. A vicious circle.

His performance here though, should give both his club and international managers a major headache. The 22 year old was superb from start to finish in Karsruhe, pulling strings from deep as well as bravely making runs forward, often without much in the way of support, holding off defenders in such a way as to belie his slight frame. His unlocking of the home defence, first crossing to Polter from deep, and giving Kinsombi no choice but to commit a foul, and later sending Hedlund through with a pass that defined “slide rule” was a joy to behold. He was withdrawn in the later stages of the game to be greeted warmly by his manager, and rightly so.

For Keller, it must be extremely pleasing to head into this stage of the campaign with such dependable backups. At the point in the season where most injuries start to occur, the boss has managed to avoid any so far, but has been forced into a single suspension-related change from his accepted first choice in 3 out of the first 4 games this year. However, as with Zejnullahu this week, previously Michael Parensen and Emanuel Pogatetz have stepped in admirably. As the Iron hit 3rd place this week, their highest ever position at this stage of the season, they have a squad that looks strong enough to maintain or even improve upon it. –Tom Nuttall-Jones.

Talking Points

  • For those who watched Manchester City’s bonkers 5-3 victory over Monaco this week you would have seen a fabulous advert for the game and attacking football, as well as perhaps evidence for the dying art of defending. While that game was unique for the sheer number of goals scored in a knockout-leg of the highest echelon of club football, it was a pleasure to see two sides attack without restraint. Although the scoreline was significantly lower, we saw a similarly thrilling end-to-end encounter between Dynamo Dresden and Hannover at the weekend. It was hotly anticipated as a meeting of the two of the most relentlessly attacking sides in the league and it did not disappoint. The visitors Hannover triumphed 1-2 but it easily could have been 3-5 or even 4-4. The wonderful movement and interchanging of Dresden’s midfield, especially Niklas ‘The Snake’ Hauptmann, could have seen them score five in the first half alone. The finishing on display could not match that of Falcao or Agüero though, otherwise we could have seen a hatful of goals. Martin Harnik, in particular, missed two glaring opportunities before his opening goal for Hannover and then missed two more after that. Once again he proved with his movement that he’s in a league of his own, but as usual his finishing left a lot to be desired. It was a pleasure to watch though, even if the finishing was equally as bad as the defending at the Etihad. – AW
  • After devoting so many lines of this column over the season to reporting on the turmoil unravelling at 1860 München, it would be lax of me not to give them some credit now after winning their second game in a row on Monday. The first was a deserved victory over Karlsruher but they had to wait until the 96th minute to get it, thanks to a towering head from stand-in captain Kai Bülow. With German referees’ frustrating reluctance to add on any more than 2 minutes of stoppage time at the end of games, even matches that are tied, it was a genuine delight to witness a late winner – the first in a long time in 2. Bundesliga. Monday night’s victory in the Bavarian derby against Nürnberg was surprisingly a much simpler affair for 1860. They controlled the game throughout and triumphed thanks to two first half goals from January signings Abdoulaye Ba and Lumor. Goalkeeper Thorsten Kirschbaum will receive his fair share of criticism for his part on both goals, and rightly so, but it was still a convincing display. Credit should go to new coach Vitor Pereira for sticking to his guns and his radical 3-4-3 system. It was a bold move to drop Stefan Aigner, Ivica Olic and Michael Liendl, but you can’t argue with the recent results. – AW
  • As one of our column favourites, we have looked upon the recent St Pauli revival with great interest. Supreme credit must go to the board at the Millerntor for keeping faith with Ewald Lienen in such dire circumstances that would surely see the departure of most other managers. The 63 year old certainly had plenty of credit to trade off from last season, and that he is proving that faith, and looks capable of orchestrating a 2nd relegation rescue in the space of 3 seasons is great credit to him and his players, a dressing room that certainly looks unlikely to ever be “lost” to this coach. However it was frustrating to see how their match at Arminia finished, and unfortunately it was Lienen to blame on this occasion for a couple of inadvisable subs in the late stages. Waldemar Sobota, upstaged by Cenk Sahin of late, was absolutely electric on Sunday and certainly looked the most likely to create something that would extend the Kiezkicker’s slender lead, but was withdrawn for Litka. Even more crucially, in what seemed like a defensive change, Bouhaddouz was exchanged for captain and centre-back Gonther. Unfortunately without their target man to hold up the ball, Pauli were unable to keep possession and eventually succumbed to the sustained Arminia pressure, with the home side grabbing a deserved draw. Certainly a lesson for Lienen in the benefits of a more daring approach. – TNJ
  • There was little historical basis in Heidenheim against Stuttgart being referred to as “a derby” prior to the match, with the list of previous encounters between the two Baden-Wϋrttemberg sides empty before this season. However, it is on games such as the one on Friday that history is built, and you would certainly not have mistaken this for “just another game” having seen VfB’s celebrations at the final whistle on Friday night. The league leaders have begun to assert their position as promotion favourites more forcefully since Christmas, but were made to fight for this one by their neighbours an hour down the road. It is no surprise though Stuttgart are expected to return to the top flight when they can pull 18 year old Josip Brekalo off the bench to hit an obscene winner, and upstage the goals hit by veterans Gentner and Schnatterer that had tied the game. Hopefully the goal and the match will live long in the memory as a star and a rivalry are born. -TNJ

Team of the Week

Müller (Heidenheim); Philip (Heidenheim), Ba (1860), Leistner (Union), Lumor (1860); Hartmann (Dresden); Gentner (Stuttgart), Zeynullahu (Union); Sobota (St. Pauli), Zoua (Kaiserslautern), Hedlund (Union)

Goal of the Week

Josip Brekalo, Stuttgart vs Heidenheim.

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