Having been promoted with 1. FC Nürnberg, Fortuna Düsseldorf entered the 2018/19 Bundesliga season looking to retain their Bundesliga status for the first time since their 13th place position in 1995/96. Whilst the Bavarians floundered in the top division and ultimately finished rock bottom, Fortuna confounded expectations as they achieved 10th position. This represented a significant accomplishment for the side, who rose to their highest league place since 1990.
Veteran head coach Friedhelm Funkel could have been forgiven for thinking that his time for Bundesliga management had come and gone. The 65-year old’s last taste of top flight coaching came in 2009/10, when he led Hertha BSC to relegation after taking over from Lucien Favre. In fact, Funkel has been involved in six relegations from the Bundesliga as a coach, three of which with first club Bayer Uerdingen. Unsuccessful spells at Bochum, Alemannia Aachen and 1860 München followed the capital stint, so there was risk taken by the F95 hierarchy when they appointed Funkel in March 2016. Ultimately, it was a gamble that paid off as the 2. Bundesliga title followed two years later. Despite this, doubts remained of his suitability as a top flight coach. With Funkel and Fortuna’s shared below-par Bundesliga record, the club were tipped by many pundits to go straight back down.
Fortuna endured a miserable start to the season, as the squad seemed out of its depth in the Bundesliga. Only five points were collected in the first ten games, the low point coming between Matchdays 8-10 when the club propped up the rest of the league in 18th. During this bleak period, Düsseldorf conceded 13 goals in 3 matches, with a 7-1 drubbing from Eintracht Frankfurt and 3-0 losses to Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach. However, it was the weak manner in which Fortuna succumbed to defeat against local rivals Gladbach which inspired a turnaround. In the next match, against Funkel’s former employers Hertha BSC, the capital club were dispatched 4-1. In truth, Fortuna were helped by Maximilian Mittelstädt’s first half sending off, but the victory symbolised a turning point in their season. Perhaps even more impressively in the following match, F95 battled back to earn a 3-3 draw with Bayern München at the Allianz Arena.
Funkel himself recognised the significance of the win in hindsight. “The 4-1 against Hertha was a turning point, then the 3-3 in Munich, because we have swum free,” he remarked on Sport1’s Doppelpass. “We noticed that we can compete in the Bundesliga.” The confidence gained from these matches encouraged Funkel to adopt a more adventurous approach which ultimately paid dividends. This was only furthered after inflicting Borussia Dortmund’s first defeat of the season, the 2-1 win courtesy of goals by Dodi Lukebakio and Jean Zimmer. “The victory against Dortmund gave us even more self-confidence, especially the way we won, because we didn’t park the bus and it was by no means a lucky win,” Funkel told DW Sports. Even opposition coach Lucien Favre seemed to agree with this assessment, commenting on the BVB website: “They played well tactically,” pointing out the effectiveness of Fortuna’s counter attack.
Fortuna Düsseldorf continued in the same stead in the Rückrunde, in which they collected an impressive 26 points. The second half of the season included memorable victories such as a 4-0 hammering of Schalke 04 on their own patch. Credit must be given to Funkel as he remained consistent with his expansive style. He largely adopted a 4-1-4-1 formation, which maximised the utility of speedy players such as Benito Raman on the counter attack. Fortuna’s attractive style of play also seemed to bring the fans on board. The opening fixture against FC Augsburg had an attendance of 40,996, which highlights the initial low expectations over Düsseldorf’s hopes of competing in the top division. By contrast, the club’s last four home matches all attracted over 50,000 spectators. Fortuna’s improved results coupled with Funkel’s playing style had won over supporters by the end of the season, as evidenced by these figures.
Friedhelm Funkel defying expectations was one of the great success stories of the Bundesliga season, as the oldest Bundesliga coach took delight in finishing above traditional powerhouses such as Schalke and Stuttgart in 10th. However, credit must also be due to stellar individual player performances. Astute purchases were made in Matthias Zimmermann and Kevin Stöger, both signed on a free, and the former starting in every league match. Perhaps the biggest impact was made by 20-year old Belgian Dodi Lukebakio, who was brought in on loan from Watford. He contributed 10 goals and 4 assists to the league campaign, including a memorable hat-trick at the Allianz Arena in the aforementioned 3-3 draw against Bayern. The signings made in pre-season strengthened the squad without breaking the core of the promotion side, as club stalwarts such as Oliver Fink and Rouwen Hennings were also key to the success of the campaign.
For all of Fortuna Düsseldorf’s success this season, a bigger challenge exists in maintaining this performance in the top flight. A history exists of recently promoted clubs failing to consolidate their Bundesliga position after impressive first seasons. Fortuna should look no further than the case of VfB Stuttgart, as the Swabians were relegated following a 7th place finish in 2017/18. It seems inevitable Fortuna will lose star performers, as speculation surrounds the likes of Kaan Ayhan and Benito Raman. “We will lose three, four, maybe five players, which of course does not make it any easier,” Funkel concedes. However, it is Lukebakio’s absence that perhaps provides most concern for Fortuna Düsseldorf supporters next season. The forward returns to his parent club, amid interest from a host of European clubs for his permanent signature. The reported €20 million price tag is well beyond Fortuna’s reach, so they must look elsewhere for a forward to replace his goals. This may come in the form of Dawid Kownacki. The Polish international contributed four league goals after arriving in January on loan from Sampdoria, and Weltdeutsche Zeitung have already reported his intentions to sign permanently.
It is important that Düsseldorf remain realistic in their expectations in spite of their mid-table finish, and the coach insists that the primary goal for the club remains survival and a third consecutive year in the Bundesliga. Optimism comes from the appointment of Lutz Pfannenstiel as sporting director, former head of international relations at TSG Hoffenheim. He was brought into the role in December 2018, and much is anticipated of his first summer transfer window. If expectations remain grounded and Fortuna Düsseldorf continue their successful recruitment, the club’s success may be sustained and Funkel’s reign eclipse his previous top-flight failures.
By Colin Moore.