In light of everything that’s happened in the past couple of months, it’s easy to forget just where we got to in the 2. Bundesliga before the stoppage in the middle of March. It’s fair to say that Daniel Thioune and his VfL Osnabrück side would have rather done just that given the state they left off in.
In the first half of the campaign, they were at times a breath of fresh air. Barnstorming victories over Darmstadt, Karlsruhe and Dynamo Dresden were a joy to watch, whilst they also claimed notable scalps at a euphoric Bremer Bridge over the giants of VfB Stuttgart and Hamburg.
They were pushing for the promotion places at Christmas, and yet as they travelled to Bielefeld on the day football in Germany came to an abrupt halt, they were beginning to look in serious peril. Without a win in 2020, they were slipping ever closer to the bottom three and looking like a spent force.
Where did it go so wrong, and can they stop the eerie coincidences with another fated promoted side a few years ago?
The games before the corona-break against St. Pauli and Wehen Wiesbaden exposed a crumbling defence. The three goals in Hamburg all looked bad from their perspective, with previous top performers Moritz Heyer and Ulrich Taffertshofer both to blame for the second goal, for example.
If that was bad, the home game against Wiesbaden was simply a catastrophe. They may have gone ahead early but they were 3-1 down after 15 minutes, 4-1 after 26 and 5-1 down just before half time. Despite going in at 5-2 and limiting the damage in the second half, they ultimately lost 6-2.
Felix Agu, another highly-rated player, truly had a nightmare was partially to blame for the first three goals. He was hooked off after 22 minutes, only for his replacement Kevin Wolze to slip and allow the fourth goal soon after.
The loss of form amongst many of their key players is only one possible explanation for their collapse since Christmas. Another is that, whilst Thioune has worked wonders with this squad, his constant tinkering with the side may have created a sense of instability in the back line.
Heyer, Lukas Gugganig and Joost van Aken were all constants before Christmas, but since then Maurcie Trapp has returned from a long-term back problem, allowing the coach to rotate his defensive players, perhaps to the detriment of the side, with only Heyer holding onto his place in the XI.
He is the only player to appear in (and start) every game this season, but it’s impossible to predict from one game to the next where he will actually play. As well as in the heart of defence, he has also played in midfield, to some success earlier in the second, whilst more recently he has been put in at right-back, a role that hasn’t appeared to be his best.
The luxury of two superb goalkeepers in Nils Körber and Philipp Kühn hasn’t helped either, with circumstances and a lack of clarity following the former’s return to full fitness leading to the gloves frequently changing hands and giving the men in front of them something else to think about.
The attack has been another issue. Anas Ouahim and Etienne Amenyido impressed with their playmaking abilities at the start of the season but the former is out of form and the other has been injured since November. Niklas Schmidt, on loan from Werder Bremen, has shown signs of being better than both, but the 22-year-old is still struggling for consistancy.
The strikers meanwhile have proved mostly impotent. Marcos Álvarez is the exception with 10 goals, but he is only in and out of the side and has taken a number of roles other than just that of centre forward.
Benjamin Girth, their main marksman in the 3. Liga last season, has often looked out of his depth at this level and has just two goals all season, but that’s still two more than Marc Heider, Kevin Friesenbichler (now departed) and January-arrival Assan Ceesay combined.
Thioune clearly has a lot on his plate to try to get his team going again. The break will have done his team good – a meeting with leaders Arminia Bielefeld before the stoppage couldn’t have come at a worse time. However, like with the rest of the league, they will have only had just over a week of team training by the time the two neighbours finally meet on Sunday (17).
There have naturally been comparisons to the cautionary tale of Würzburger Kickers, who were relegated in 2016-17 despite a strong first half of the campaign following promotion, and the parallels between the two sides are remarkable.
After 25 games, both were 12th with 29 points, whilst Wurzbürg’s goal difference (-2) was only one better than Osnabrück’s (-3). Osnabrück’s last victory was a 3-0 home win against Dynamo Dresden on matchday 17. Würzburg’s last win of their entire campaign was a 3-0 home win against Stuttgart, also on matchday 17.
Thioune has indicated that there will actually be more rotation going forward, due to the unique circumstances of the restart, but if he is to keep his side up, he must find the right combination if they are to avoid the fate of Bernd Hollerbach’s side.