Catching up with Eintracht Frankfurt, the Bundesliga's best team in 2021
part one of a multi part series on SGE's transition from the Büffelherde to the brink of European football
Despite not being able to field the prolific Andre Silva due to injury, Eintracht Frankfurt pulled off a major upset over Bayern Munich on Matchday 22. Their 2-1 victory saw SGE press and harangue Bayern in the first half, with Amin Younes, Filip Kostic and Daichi Kamada running riot over the Bavarians, whose second half Leon Goretzka led comeback ultimately fell short.
The win now made it 11 unbeaten and 9 wins out of 10 for Eintracht, who have tied their 1973/74 (4th place ) and 1989\90 (3rd place, Bayern won the league both times) campaigns for most points after 22 matchdays.
Given that in both of those seasons they were still using the 2 points for a win system, and the fact the SGE have never started a Rückrunde with 5 consecutive wins, it’s safe to call this a historic season for die Adler.
Their chances of finishing in the UCL places have climbed to 64% over at Fivethirtyeight, compared to 18% on January 20th!
In order to fully appreciate this current Frankfurt team’s achievements, it’s worth looking back at where they came from. This series is going to pick up their rollercoaster ride from the heights of the fleeting Haller/Rebic/Jovic era and zoom through last season’s difficulties in a transition year. Is it still lightning in a bottle if you take one of the Bundesliga’s sleepy giants into Europe in multiple seasons? With some focus on how Adi Hütter, Fredi Bobic and chief scout Ben Manga, I’ll examine on how Eintracht Frankfurt 2.0 was built. As always, these are my observations based on various input: personal experience/text/audio/video and data which I’ve accumulated over the last couple of years.
In what seems like approximately 15 years ago, everyone’s feel good story of German football, Eintracht Frankfurt lost on penalties to eventual Europa League winners Chelsea in May of 2019.
It was tough to not like that Frankfurt team, which after years of mismanagement, finally got rid of the moody diva label thanks to Niko Kovac laying the groundwork and Fredi Bobic and his staff turning SGE around in 2018-19. Eventually the coaching transition to Adi Hütter, who after some initial struggles, supercharged the Haller/Rebic/Jovic trio with Filip Kostic supplying the assist was not only an upgrade,
it was a story beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
And so was the amazing crowd of die Waldstadion (having visited a couple times) supplying the noise, as their beloved Eintracht ran and counterpressed their way into our hearts.
Still, given the way Bobic and chief scout Ben Manga wrangled together this squad - you can make the argument that Jovic/Rebic/Kostic/Haller plus Danny da Costa, Sebastian Rode and Martin Hinteregger were all reclamation projects, with Abraham/de Guzman/Gelson Fernandes close to the end of their careers - there was a sort of a once in a generation/perfect storm element to that miracle season. Was it even repeateable?
Having netted somewhere around 100 million from the sale of the Jovic\Haller duo - depending on Benfica’s 30%, Pini Zahavi’s agent fees, etc - Fredi Bobic and co. set about replacing them and using that money to fill out the squad. Having sold all 3 of the “Büffelherde” the obvious need was at striker. An earlier edition of the newsletter looked at why Bas Dost is a different type of striker, and it says a lot about the difficulties of finding strikers that not only the Dutchman (last seen killing the Belgian league for 4m\year and a) but the replacements such as Dejan Joveljic and Goncalo Paciencia have already been loaned out. You can’t win ‘em all….
Transitioning into a transition year
Although the 18\19 season will forever be remembered for the UEL run, SGE fans will sadly remember the team fading badly: they were in 4th place after 29 matches and contending for the UCL. But after going winless over their last 6 matches and getting rocked 6-1 and 5-1 by Leverkusen and Bayern, Eintracht had to settle for 7th place and early UEL qualification.
That actually set the tone for the 19\20 season, which despite the 5-1 win over Bayern - resulting in the sacking of Niko Kovac and the inadvertent start of the Hansi Flick era (I hear that’s gone okay since…) was less glamorous. Perhaps they just fell victim to the powers of the #Abeljinx, when I praised them for Statsbomb:
The Eagles have already faced the top five sides by xG difference. With their next two opponents, Freiburg and Wolfsburg, coming back down to Earth, followed by three against bottom-dwellers Mainz, Cologne and Paderborn, don’t be surprised if Paciência and Co. are in the Champions League spots in January.
All in all, they played 31 matches until Christmas, used 3 GKs (including going full Felix Wiedwald), at RWB the electric Danny da Costa regressed, while everyone’s favorite Serbian crossing\shooting machine Kostic began putting up Russell Westbrook era usage rate numbers, unfortunately with similar efficiency. After that Bayern beating, they lost to Schalke, Cologne and Paderborn in their last 3 Hinrunde matches to finish 2019 in 13th place with 18 points from 17 matches. Sitting just 3 points of 16th place, Adi Hütter cut an increasingly frustrated figure and there were some rumors about whether he would survive the season.
Comeback on hold + relegation scare averted = a lost seaso n
Coming into 2020, Hütter went back to a back four, and thanks to LB Ndicka providing more security for Kostic’s LW runs, they started really well: beating Leipzig a couple times in 8 days (league + cup) thanks to the ever so brief Timmy Chandler revival, the previously struggling Andre Silva (3 goals until January, TWELVE after) and Bas Dost started banging in goals, while Daichi Kamada was showing some nifty playmaking skills. But after an unlucky draw vs Düsseldorf and a 5 goal thrashing of hapless Augsburg, the wheels fell off their would be comeback wagon.
It began with the Dortmund match where they had one total shot and - despite a game they should not have lost vs Union - continued with Leverkusen going up 2-0 after 13 minutes en route to a 4 goal win. Although one can say that those 3 losses took the wind out of their sails before COVID hit, the restart after the 2 month layoff didn’t begin well: In fact, just like Leverkusen, Gladbach went up 2 goals before you could blink (inside of 6 minutes) and played Eintracht off the pitch. Then, Bayern destroyed them 5-2 (two Hinti set piece goals, but FCB were out of sight after the first half) - before one of the “stupidest” matches against Freiburg took place: the 3-3 draw where Eintracht managed to not take the points, despite the xG favoring them 4.8 to 0.9! After 28 matchdays, Eintracht were once again 2 points off 16th, albeit with a game in hand because their match vs Werder would need to be made up . The cancellation was because of the postponement of the Salzburg knockout tie for Frankfurt in the UEL, where they would progress to the next round to lose unceremoniously by 3-0 to Basel on March 12th, 2020, in one of the last matches before Covid. The August 6th return leg seemed as much of a formality (Basel won 1-0) as it was unneccessary for a team that finished the Bundesliga in late June.
In the league, Frankfurt finish the “easy” end of the season (Werder, Schalke, Mainz, Cologne, Hertha, Paderborn) strongly with 5 wins out of their last 7 and climb to 45 points and 9th place. The 15 losses in 34 matches were nothing to write home about in what looked like a lost season. The one bright spot was Andre Silva scoring 8 of his 12 goals post lockdown, offering perhaps a glimmer of hope.
In the next part we’ll take a look at Eintracht’s 20\21 season, particularly focusing on their first 13 matches and examining their reasons for their lack of success, before moving onto how they managed to rebuild the squad mid-season and turning their campaign completely around.
Thanks for reading,