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FEATURE | FC Ingolstadt 04 – Wrecked it since Ralph

With the final whistle blown and a 2-1 home defeat to Wehen Wiesbaden behind them, FC Ingolstadt will begin life back in 3. Liga, a division they thought was long behind them just a few years ago. Yet, three years on from the midtable Bundesliga finish under now icon Ralph Hasenhüttl, the club finds itself languishing in obscurity once more.

Since Hasenhüttl’s 2016 summer departure to RB Leipzig, Ingolstadt have appointed seven managers, averaging a new manager every five months, giving some indication as to the insecurity that has been rife throughout this club in recent years.

When the Austrian took the reins at FC Ingolstadt, they found themselves rock bottom of 2. Bundesliga, a relatively small, lower league German club that simply was not of the stature of many second division counterparts let alone Bundesliga clubs. However, within the space of 18 months, he had successfully taken Ingolstadt to the Bundesliga for the first time in their short fifteen-year history, an astonishing achievement especially given the number of historic clubs in the division at that time.

Hasenhüttl did not stop there. The club took to the Bundesliga with a high pressing, high tempo style with an intent to attack every team they faced no matter the stature, this mentality earned them an 11th place finish in their first season in the division. This remarkable achievement earned Hasenhüttl a move to RB Leipzig where he has gone on to prove that he can map his philosophy on to yet another club before recently moving to Southampton.

Though the move was a good one for him, it left FC Ingolstadt lost. Given the clubs short history, this was all they knew of success, the philosophical footprint of their previous manager disappeared extremely quickly because the club did not have the long-term infrastructure in place to continue to implement once he had departed.

The club acted quickly to replace their previous manager, believing that Markus Kauczinski was the man to steady the ship going into their second ever season in the top flight of German football. Kauczinski was appointed after a relatively successful stint with Karlsruher SC, and despite recruiting well in the summer and keeping hold of some of his key players, Kauczinski’s short stint with Die Schanzer ended after gaining just two points from his opening 10 games of the 2016/17 Bundesliga season.

A steadying of the ship was vital at this stage, the club was at risk of complete freefall given the start to the season. Surprisingly former VfL Osnabruck head coach Maik Walpurgis, a coach who had languished in the lower divisions of Germany throughout his career, was given the chance to manage in the top flight for the first time with the monumental task of avoiding relegation. As expected, he was unable to make the impact necessary to keep the club afloat, however his appointment had been made with this as a relative expectation and a view to stabilising the club once they returned to the 2. Bundesliga.

Following the club’s relegation they lost a host of players who had shone for them during their spell in the Bundesliga, particularly under Ralph Hasenhüttl, the likes of Marcel Tisserand, Matthew Leckie and Pascal Groß left the club, leaving a major rebuilding job for Walpurgis to keep Ingolstadt stable in the upcoming 2017/18 2. Bundesliga season. His recruitment left a lot to be desired and three games and three defeats into the new season, he was gone. The club felt the risk of continuing with a manager that had not pulled up any trees throughout his year in charge was too much and decided to promote Stefan Leitl from the reserve team structure to take the reins.

Leitl completed the season well guiding the club to a 9th place finish, exactly what was required after all the instability surrounding the club in the past two seasons. The club expected Leitl to regroup and push on the following season in order to at least push for a return to the Bundesliga. However, the loss of yet more key players in the summer window, not least Ørjan Nyland, left Ingolstadt in dire need of successful recruitment in return. Stefan Leitl believed he had brought in enough quality, though he anticipated that it would take time for these new players to bed in and for the team to steady after so much upheaval. He was not given this chance.

After one win in their first six games, including a resounding 6-0 defeat away to VfL Bochum, the board decided to pull the trigger once more. It was evident that the bedding in period Stefan Leitl wanted after the summer window was not something the Ingolstadt hierarchy subscribed to, though it was evident in their next appointment that this can now be viewed as a mistake.

Alexander Nouri only compounded matters as the fourth manager since Ralph Hasenhüttl departure. He failed to win a single game in charge during his two-month spell with Die Schanzer. His sacking could have been seen coming after his first match in charge. There was no fluidity to any of Ingolstadt’s play, no desire to conform to a structure and philosophy on and off the pitch, every single aspect of the club’s operations was short-sighted. Nouri’s quick departure left the club desperate for a plan to somehow survive yet another relegation.

After a harsh sacking from Union Berlin, Jens Keller was the man appointed to arrest the decline. His start looked promising collecting 14 points out of a potential 24 in his first 8 games, form of which had not been seen anywhere near the club since their 2016/17 sensational season. Yet after this sharp upturn in form, five straight defeats followed, resulting in his contract being terminated following the 2-1 home defeat to Sandhausen. This left the club rock bottom of the second division with 22 points from 30 games played.

The only hope the club had now was to prepare for life in 3. Liga and their next appointment was made on this basis. Tomas Oral arrived, having previously managed the club for two seasons between 2011 and 2013. Ironically Oral’s first spell at the club began with seven consecutive defeats in a row but the club refused to pull the trigger, a complete shift in mentality from their current decision-making. After those 7 defeats, he took Ingolstadt on a 14 game unbeaten run securing a midtable finish for the lowly club.

This time around, his mission was clear to try and stabilise the club in preparation for the inevitable drop into 3. Liga. However, Tomas Oral nearly achieved the impossible. In his seven 2. Bundesliga games in charge, he guided the club to 19 points out of a possible 24 which incredibly left Ingolstadt with something to play for on the final day. Unfortunately, a 4-2 defeat away to Heidenheim left them in the relegation play-off, although even this seemed impossible just weeks earlier.

Evidently, it was a step too far and after a 2-legged defeat to Wehen Wiesbaden, FC Ingolstadt 04 find themselves in the third tier of German football for the first time since 2010. If you look at the season, you just cannot argue with this outcome. They went into the winter break off a run of 14 games without a win leaving them with just 10 points on the board. In terms of a secure playing squad there simply was not one, only 6 players played more than 70% of the club’s 34 2. Liga games in 2018/19. Even more alarmingly 4 goalkeepers played 5 games or more in those 34 games.

It is clear that FC Ingolstadt 04 are at risk of returning to immediate obscurity if things do not upturn soon. However, in Tomas Oral they have a manager who has proven his worth twice with the club, he has stabilised them in a time of need before, he has galvanised the support and implemented a playing style that is pleasing on the eye even in the middle of a desperate scramble to survive relegation and, if he is given the power to recruit and time to bed in those new players, then the club will more than likely return to 2. Bundesliga in no time. Pull the trigger just games into the season again however, and who knows how far this freefall could go.

By Sean McGinlay.

 

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