The 2. Bundesliga is a notoriously unpredictable and baffling league. No team ever does exactly what you expect them to. Every week has a wild result or three. Every season throws up a surprise. At the beginning of this long, long 2019/20 campaign, perhaps the one prediction that everyone seemed to agree on was that Arminia Bielefeld were the likely “dark horses”: 4th or 5th were the likely finishing spots for a side that looked solid, but perhaps lacked the star power of some of the divisions bigger clubs.
In the end, a side that was tipped by many to be the “best of the rest” in this season’s 2nd tier ended up being comfortably best of them all.
Back in July, “the rest” was a group of 14 teams that were expected to serve only as also-rans to a big 4 of relegated Stuttgart, Nürnberg and Hannover, as well as a Hamburg side entering a surprising second ever season outside the top flight.
The fact that this is the first season in recent years where that many clubs of such a strong profile contested the 2 .Bundesliga only adds to Arminia’s achievements, and while all four of the above sides could be accused of self sabotage to some extent during this campaign, that should not take away even the tiniest sliver of credit from Uwe Neuhaus’ side as they completed their project of the last 5 years in the face of such intimidating opposition.
Recent promotion successes of the Zweite Liga have rarely deviated from two types of club: massive traditional sides like last year’s FC Köln or Stuttgart of 2017, giants at their lowest point who make light work of climbing through the same trapdoor they had recently fallen through, or new powerhouses such as Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig, whose financial muscle meant their rise was just as foregone a conclusion.
Arminia have shown it can be done another way. Having returned to the 2nd tier in 2015, their rise has been slow and steady, patiently building a side capable of holding their own in this division. For as much as half that time, they would have been thought as likely to rejoin the 3. Liga as the Bundesliga, coming very close to doing so in 2017. A staggering 6-0 victory over promotion contenders Braunschweig, one of the most incredible results in German football history, not only saved them from a bottom 3 finish, but seemed to revitalise the club entirely, and they went on to turn the table on its head the following season by reaching 4th place.
Having firmly re-established themselves, the pieces continued to fall into place. Captain Fabian Klos spoke this week of how Marcel Hartel proved to be the final building block that has allowed them to complete this journey. Looking back at previous years though highlights the work that has gone on behind the scenes – there wasn’t a season between 2015 and last year that didn’t see 2 or 3 players arriving that have all now proved vital – once the recipe had all the ingredients required.
A handful of those ingredients, those building blocks, enough for a solid foundation at least, had been there throughout this 5 year spell. Four names were involved in both Bielefeld’s first game back in the division in July 2015 and this weekend’s title procession against Heidenheim. While both Tom Schutz and Steven Salger’s importance has diminished in more recent times, they were still afforded the reward of coming off the bench to bask in the side’s glory on Sunday, the least either could expect after both spending most of the past decade at the Alm. Brian Behrendt will surely look back on this season as a bitter-sweet one, having spent much of it out with a serious knee injury, but has at least been able to return in time to be involved in the final triumphant matches, nearly 5 years after his debut in that 2015 match against St Pauli.
And then of course, there is Fabian Klos. It’s tough to think of a player who epitomises the word “talisman” more than the 32-year-old has for the DSC in recent years. Despite having long become the club’s all time leading scorer and already being guaranteed legend status well before this campaign started, things have not always been plain sailing for Klos and Arminia. The forward has been awarded the captaincy, stripped of it, and granted it again, as well as being used as an example by more than one manager as his attitude was questioned and his first team status put under threat. He struggled, at least in part, to adapt to the first couple of seasons back in the more technical, less physical 2nd tier after dominating the 3.liga, and his yellow card numbers always looked like threatening to exceed his goal tally as a result.
This season however, the club’s textbook number 9 has made it look easy. Finally at peace with a manager in Uwe Neuhaus, who deserves supreme credit for effortlessly bringing this group together, Klos has dragged the side forward both with his leadership and his example. Having stuck around at Bielefeld following their 3. Liga relegation, his loyalty has been rewarded not only with the honour of lifting the league trophy, but also with the division’s golden boot. There was always a suspicion that Klos could reach these levels at the right club. His patience matched that of his employers – Bielefeld became that club.
Some have already questioned if the striker’s old-school style of play has any chance of reproducing his 21 goal tally from this season once the club are in the top flight, and the player himself has conceded he may have to settle for a bit part role “in the medium term”, but concerns for next season should be put on hold for now. Having defied the odds, Arminia, Neuhaus and Klos have earned the right to bask in their achievements. Congratulations!