For Greuther Fürth, FC Augsburg, Hoffenheim and, to an extent, VfL Wolfsburg, January was always going to prompt the hammering of the “panic button” during the window. But it is also the perfect opportunity to restructure in the winter break and be ready for the second half of the season.
The first half, though, did not go smoothly for all these sides. The latter two had such an abysmal start that they restructured completely in mid-season, with Hoffenheim sacking Markus Babbel from his two roles as head coach and sporting director, and replacing with Marco Kurz and Andreas Müller, respectively.
Despite being at the bottom of the Bundesliga, Wolfsburg persisted with Felix Magath until the end of October before sacking the experienced coach who led the club to championship glory in 2009. Lorenz-Gunther Kostner took the reins short term, until the club decided to appoint Werder Bremen’s Klaus Allofs as sporting director, and only recently, Dieter Hecking as the head coach.
The two Bavarian-based sides, Fürth and Augsburg, have suffered from the slight improvement in Wolfsburg’s form toward the end of 2012 and find themselves adrift at the bottom of the Bundesliga. Both teams are level of nine points with 17 games still to play. Hoffenheim hold a three-point advantage in the relegation/promotion playoff, but with a 10-point gap between the sides in the bottom two with Wolfsburg, there is only a glimmer of hope for them of survival.
The bottom two have been busy in the January window already, adding much-needed attacking quality to their ranks. Fürth made an impressive coup in 26-year-old striker Nikola Djurdjic, who struck 14 times in 19 games during his loan spell with Helsingborg. He also stood out in matches against Celtic in the Champions League, then against Hannover 96 in the Europa League.
Head coach Mike Büskens has preferred to focus on a more defensive, robust shape for the Bundesliga new-boys and have shown in matches against Eintracht Frankfurt and others that they can spring a very dangerous counter-attack. With Sercan Sararer and Zoltan Stieber, Fürth have a degree of creativity in wide positions. But the inclusion of Djurdjic in a central-attacking role will bring a presence, dynamism and potency that have been sorely lacking.
As for Augsburg, 38-year-old coach Markus Weinzierl has been given the backing of the club’s board and has strengthened his side with another South Korean import, via the North-East of England. Striker Ji Dong-Won struggled under Martin O’Neil in the Premier League, but did make a huge impression early on by scoring the winning goal against Manchester City at the Stadium of Light.
The 21-year-old will add a different outlet to Augsburg’s attack, which is made up generally of journeyman, hard-working forwards without the required quality. Ji Dong-Won has been capped 18 times by South Korea and has the pace that has been missing from Weinzierl’s team in the first half of the season. He teams up with fellow international Koo Ja-Cheol, who is also on loan from Wolfsburg.
The 14 clubs in the middle of the table will jockey for positions throughout the second half of the season with very little to separate them in terms of quality. The changes at Wolfsburg, plus the addition of Ivan Perisic, might give the Wolves some impetus and momentum to achieve their aims of a place in Europe.
But this is where the mettle of the sporting director will be tested—and whether a little bit of quality can be added in any of the teams chasing the elusive positions.