By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

Bundesliga 2023/24 Tactical Previews: "The Bottom Six"

The advent of a new Bundesliga season just one day away! Returning alongside it will be the Bulinews comprehensive recap feature known as "Tactics Talk", now returning for its fourth season on the website.

This week we'll be previewing the new season with the latest tactical updates from all 18 teams following their "soft openers" in the DFB Pokal and DFL Supercup this weekend. Three articles each covering six clubs will survey the top, middle, and bottom of the field.

In our final such article, the projected relegation field gets its turn: VfL Bochum, 1. FC Köln, SV Werder Bremen, FC Augsburg, SV Darmstadt 98, and 1. FC Heidenheim.

Introduction: The Bottom Six

The final set of our pre-season tactical previews arrives. After taking a look at the "Top Six" and "Middle Six", it's time to survey what one assumes shall be the relegation field. The 2023/24 Bundesliga's two newcomers are joined by a trio of teams (SV Werder Bremen, VfL Bochum, and FC Augsburg) that finished just above the relegation zone last year in 13th, 14th, and 15th place in the table. Despite their 11th-placed finish last year, 1. FC Köln are expected to be battling the drop this season.

VfL Bochum

One suddenly has great concern for the Revierklub, which did for a time seem to be well on their way back to reclaiming their "unabsteigbar" ["un-relegatable"] status. A strong transfer window last January left many of us thinking that Bochum could cement a place above the relegation fray for years to come. Unfortunately, the club's front office (for whatever reason) made no overt effort to keep some of the stronger players they secured on loan last year. What replacements were procured have thus far failed to truly gel and head-coach Thomas Letsch can't seem to establish a system.

We all received grim confirmation of how unevenly this squad is set up in the opening round DFB-Pokal loss to lowly DSC Arminia Bielefeld on Saturday. Letsch's opening XI featured three of the new summer additions, Lukas Daschner, Felix Passlack, and Bernardo. In all candor, none of them looked as if they had really arrived mentally for their new team. The 1848ers conceded two goals - one from open play and one off a dead ball - before a half-hour had been played. Letsch has a lot to work on here.

Lineup—Bochum—DFB Pokal (3-4-1-2)

Kevin Stöger recovered from a very shaky start to supply two assists on the pair of tallies that enabled Bochum to draw level. Takuma Asano pulled the first goal back with a little moment of magic in first-half injury-time whilst substitute Simon Zoller buried the eventual equalizer at 90+1. These two goals very much counted as aberrations in the team's overall play as they weren't able to generate much between them. Letsch's charges ultimately fell to the Teutoburgs in a penalty shoot-out. Stöger and Philipp Hofmann both missed from the spot in the opening two rounds.

Overall, the team just doesn't appear ready for prime-time. It's entirely conceivable that - exactly like last year - Bochum could start the season with a long string of defeats. The administrative duo of Marc Letter and Patrick Fabian may have little choice but to remove Letsch if the results don't come. This. in turn, might exacerbate problems as the roster has been built largely in accordance with Letsch's specific plans for his former players. The knock-on effect of ditching a specific footballing philosophy early in the season often spells doom. The dangers of general incoherence lurk here.

One summer signing that Fabian and Lettau deserve immense credit for is German attacking midfielder Moritz-Broni Kwarteng. The 25-year-old can enhance Letsch's squad in a number of ways. A Kwarteng-Daschner eight-pairing theoretically livens up this attack quite a bit. Asano and Christopher Antwi-Adjei playing wide with Felix Passlack and Jordi Osei-Tutu furnishing danger from fullback positions has a nice feel to it. The problem lies with the fact that Kwarteng remains out with the dreaded pubic-bone issue. The signing around which the thesis was built may be out for a long time.
Notes from camp, Bochum

Bochum won only one of their pre-season friendlies, besting out England's Luton Town in the first of a pair of organized exhibitions. The defense has been horribly porous and the arrival of Bernardo hasn't helped much. Bochum conceded goals in all six of their test fixtures, letting in three or more on four occasions. A tough opening schedule shall see them face Revier rivals Dortmund already on matchday two. Frankfurt, Bayern, and Gladbach beckon after the first international break.

Somewhat partial to the club, the writer certainly hopes to bust out the "Badass Bochumery" headline again in the weekly column. A legitimate sense of foreboding that this won't be coming to pass nevertheless persists. A lot of regular actors on this team overachieved last season. It might be the case that it's time to come crashing back down to earth for players such as Erhan Masovic, Philipp Förster, and even club "heart-and-soul" grinders like Kevin Stöger and captain Anthony Losilla.

One doesn't see an "un-relegatable" side here.

1. FC Köln

Operating under the specter of a transfer ban this summer, the cathedral city side found itself confronted with another problem to add to the general headache of their financial woes. Famously thrifty front-office head Christina Keller had no major plans to upgrade the roster with large purchases anyway. Keller never made a secret of the fact that the Effzeh must operate on a shoestring budget. A long-term rebuilding process seeks to keep things economical and avoid the pitfalls associated with transfer busts.

"Steffen Baumgart fever" steadily subsides in the Bundesrepublik after last year's disappointing campaign. The East German footballing legend and former SC Paderborn 07 trainer captivated everyone with his trademark flat-cap, sideline "method acting", and never-ending supply of headline quotes during the 2021/22 campaign. Baumgart rode the wave and took a team contesting the relegation playoffs in 2020/21 all the way up to the Europa Conference League. Then came last year. Long goalless spells. Horribly boring football. "Baumgart burnout".

Many Germans currently tip Köln for automatic relegation this year. One of the 2022/23 league's worst attacks doesn't appear likely to improve without the departed Ellyes Skhiri and retired Jonas Hector. A roster largely considered to be closer to second-division quality hasn't been upgraded. Watching a double striker set of Davie Selke and newly-acquired loanee Luca Waldschmidt find no openings in the opening DFB Pokal fixture against VfL Osnabrück - for Germans anyway - felt rather depressing.

Lineup—Köln—DFB Pokal (4-1-3-2)

The Pokal fixture maintained the feel of one of those dozen rather useless draws Köln forced us to sit through in the league last year. Die Geißböcke switch off following an early Benno Schmitz wonder-goal and allowed the Lower Saxon hosts back into the match. To Köln's credit, they did take care of business immediately in the first period of added extra time. Substitute Sargis Adamyan and Jeff Chabot smashed home goals in quick succession. A 3-1 victory at least lends the Domstädter a bit of confidence heading into the season.

It generally feels as if Baumgart wishes to retain his regular system from last year, this time without some of the crucial actors that made it work. This serves as the primary reason why pessimism abounds when it comes to this team. They could have some surprises in store for us yet. Most league watchers assume that Mark Uth's long-term injury problems render his career finished. In the event that this assumption is actually incorrect, Baumgart might have a pair of talented direct supporting attackers in the form of home-town hero Uth and new captain Florian Kainz.

Those two can, in principle, elevate a third-rate attacking corps. The entire equation shifts. As it stands, however, expecting the likes of Selke, Waldschmidt, Adamyan, Dennis Huseinbasic, and Linton Maina to score enough goals to keep Köln afloat doesn't seem realistic. The return of strikers such as Steffen Tigges and Florian Dietz from injury....well....doesn't even seem relevant. The goals must come from somewhere. Is it really too late to bring Anthony Modeste back on a modest one-year-deal?
Notes from camp, Köln

Waldschmidt, Uth, Selke and Adamyan did get their names on the scoresheet during a preparation campaign that featured exhibition wins over Erzgebirge Aue, FC Nantes, and even Ajax Amsterdam. At not point did Baumgart really tip his hand tactically. There were plenty of experiments, including letting youth prospect Maximilian Schmid (since loaned out) lead the line in one case. For a time it appeared as if the Kölner trainer might be reaching for a new system. Then came the Pokal. Exactly what we expected. Precisely what we didn't want to see.

SV Werder Bremen

Another team dumped out of the Pokal in the opening round seems to have (not unlike Bochum) squandered an excellent opportunity to return to the "stable in mid-table" class. Some poor results notwithstanding, the Hanseaten were generally considered a solid side by most German football watchers last season. SV trainer Ole Werner's 3-5-2 earned regular praise in the pages of the tactics column. The incredible story of the striking tandem of Niclas Füllkrug and Marvin Ducksch - both of whom look to remain - and the sensational signing of Naby Keïta rendered it a near-perfect offseason.

What happened? The columnist confesses he's still trying to work that out. Keïta's injury obviously didn't help matters. A deep-dive into Werner's tactics during the Pokal fixture yielded some truly curious trends. Werner placed a whole host of players well out of position for no discernible reason. Man-marking in the defensive corps looked awful, but one must take into account that natural forward players Ducksch, Oliver Burke, Jens Stage, Romano Schmid, and Leonardo Bittencourt were tasked with playing very deep. Why?

Lineup—Bremen—DFB Pokal (3-4-3)

Why, indeed. Füllkrug himself took a not-so-subtle swipe at his trainer in his post-match comments. Not a great deal of this made sense. Amos Pieper's early red-card naturally led to Burke, Bittencourt, and Schmid having to drop deeper still. The mistakes built on each other and piled up. Strange to see Werner trying out new tactics when Frank Baumann, Clemens Fritz, and the administrative team augmented the roster in a way conducive to his 3-5-2 this summer. Perhaps one should cut the gaffer some slack after the Pieper sending off and fitness concerns for Mitchell Weiser and Marco Friedl.

The Pokal defeat doesn't necessarily spell doom for the city-staters. Of the six teams covered in this section, the author probably retains more hope for Bremen than any other club. Matters can easily sort themselves out with Friedl and Weiser back in the XI. Everyone then returns to their regular places and the pieces fit back together. A healthy Keïta alongside Stage behind Ducksch and Füllkrug. Weiser and Jung creating reliable danger up the flanks. Burke, David Kownacki, and Justin Njinmah providing additional scoring threats off the bench. It could all come back together.
Notes from camp, Bremen

A pair of unconvincing affairs against Racing Straßburg seemed to presage what happened against Viktoria Köln in the domestic cup. Bremen demonstrated a tendency to fall apart and concede goals early both in the pre-season and at the end of last year's Bundesliga campaign. The team actually played a rather poor "Rück-runde" after the turn of the calendar year. League watchers still recall the sloppiness on set-plays in particular. All signs point to a fairly humbling result in the opening match against Bayern on Friday night. Werner's crew needs to shake off some confidence issues and start collecting points.

FC Augsburg

Fans in the Fuggerstadt surely won't care a whit that German prognosticators tap their team for the relegation race again. We've literally been doing so for twelve straight years. Before one even sits down to analyze the state of this team, the mind automatically pencils them in for the bottom of the table. Surely, it must happen at some point. The Bavarian Swabians can't live the dream forever, can they? How many narrow escapes can one small town survive? It really is absurd.

The FCA never even slipped down to the relegation-playoff place, though they did finish just above it in three of the past five seasons. They did so again last year. A total of 34 points on the Bundesliga's final matchday ordinarily isn't good enough to maintain the class. For Augsburg, it somehow was once again. Whenever Bundesliga diehards find themselves conversing with more casual German football fans, we learn that most of them don't even realize Augsburg are still in the league.

Well, they are. Is this the year they finally abscond? Will anyone even notice if they do? While the columnist has nothing more than sardonic views on the second question, there's more concrete information to report on when answering the first. Enrico Maaßen's FCA did alarmingly lose their opening round Pokal fixture. The team turned in a totally hapless performance against third-tier-side SpVgg Unterhaching. A constellation that truly should have done better played well for maybe 20 minutes.

That was all.

Lineup—Augsburg—DFB Pokal (4-4-2)

The new striking tandem of former 1. FC Union/Paderborn forward Sven Michel and newly-anointed captain Ermedin Demirovic had real trouble furnishing quality finishes. Ideas in general on the approach play seemed totally lacking. Maaßen eventually dug into his deep bench to send on alternate attackers Dion Beljo, Philipp Tietz, and the (of dubious future with the club) Mërgim Berisha. The new offensive trio came close to equalizing near the end of the second half. Unterhaching sealed a 2-0 victory with a goal off a counter at 90+4.

One never truly had the sense that, under relatively inexperienced young trainer Maaßen, this team possessed a distinctive footballing identity. It is such that one can probably wager some safe money on the 39-year-old getting the axe this year. Augsburg tradition usually holds that the head-coach gets fired near the end of the season. A lot suggests that the trend will be bucked this time. Manuel Baum probably feels phantom vibrations on his cell-phone at this point. Some of the players also might be itching to work from their regular positions.

Darmstadt fans would certainly be happy to see the Fuggerstädter go down after the Bundesligsts plucked their best defender (Patric Pfeiffer) and leading goal-scorer (Philipp Tietz) from their promotion campaign. German 50+1 devotees still suspicious of this U.S.-based investor Boldt Football holdings, similarly, wouldn't register any complaints. The FCA front-office, for the fourth consecutive transfer window, shelled out quite a bit of fishy money this summer and they're not done yet.
Notes from camp, Augsburg

Maaßen spent much of the pre-season testing out striker and midfield pairings. The Demirovic-Michel axis brought the most success. Tim Breithaupt and Niklas Dorsch also work reasonably well together, though one wonders if a Dorsch-Maier pairing would work even better. One of the sensations of the previous campaign's Rück-runde, Arne Engels, seems to have been moved to right-back permanently. Pfeiffer, Winther, and David Colina are most definitely the regulars to round out the back-four. One spot of very good news concerns new German keeper Finn Dahmen. He's had a spectacular camp.

SV Darmstadt 98

The 2022/23 2. Bundesliga close-runners-up were considered to be by far the stronger of this year's two promoted sides; at least that was the case until fourth-tier-side FC Homburg confirmed just what deep trouble this side is in with the opening round Pokal dump-out. Yikes. This could get ugly. The Hessians only had the tenth best attack in the second-tier before they lost Philipp Tietz. The loss of Tietz and Pfeiffer to Augsburg actually cost them 16 of the 50 goals they scored in the second division last season. Die Lilien might do even worse than in the 2016/17 campaign.

Something of a shame to see this roster plucked during the offseason after competent club management spent years carefully building up a perennial 2. Bundesliga contender and eventually securing promotion back to the top flight. Many of us greeted Torsten Lieberknecht's appointment in the summer of 2021 with a laugh, but the long-time Braunschweig head-coach proved precisely the right man for the job. Does Lieberknecht have much to work with after seeing his roster raided?

Lineup—Darmstadt—DFB Pokal (3-4-3)

Er...difficult as it may be to fathom, the columnist actually rather liked what he saw from newly-acquired striker Fraser Hornby. The purchase of the totally unknown Scot had German football lovers laughing as hard as they did over the Lieberknecht appointment. The 23-year-old nevertheless has a certain something to him when it comes to maneuvering around in the box. Hornby came close with a pair of finishes. Fellow new acquisitions Fabian Nürnberger and Christoph Klarer also had their moments.

All of that notwithstanding, it doesn't appear nearly enough for this division. Squad captain Fabian Holland and Marvin Mehlem got caught out badly on the counter on two of Homburg's goals. Keeper Marcel Schuhen looked very bad on the third. Lieberknecht needs to put this team in a back-seven immediately and forget about ever sending Nürnberger or Karic forward ever again. For the love of the fans, just batten down the hatches and wait out the storm. This could get "Fürth Fugly".
Notes from camp, Darmstadt

It has not been pretty at all. The Lillies scored all of one goal in six pre-season exhibitions. Interestingly enough, it came against Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool on a nice play involving attackers Braydon Manu and Mathias Honsak. Holland and the defense also showed some collective spirit in holding local Baden teams Karlsruhe and Sandhausen to goalless draws. One can expect they'll be able to keep some teams in this flight at bay and collect points here and there. Unless something radical changes, that's about all one can hope for.

1. FC Heidenheim

The Eastern BaWü border-club finally made it up to the top flight under their long-time trainer Frank Schmidt. The 49-year-old now eclipses the trainer of the other BaWü border club - SC Freiburg's Christian Streich - as the Bundesliga's longest-serving head-coach. The club from this tiny paper-mill burg of some 50,000 inhabitants sprung forth from multiple mergers and a final consolidation some 16 years ago. Schmidt is just the second trainer in the club's history. The club does have business roots, but Germans are accepting of "Mittelstand Financing".

Schmidt has carried the club out of the fourth-tier and into the top flight. They've actually been knocking on the door for quite some time, losing the relegation-playoff tie against SV Werder Bremen at the end of the 2019/20 COVID campaign. That happened to be the year that bigwigs Stefan Schimmer and (more importantly) Tim Kleindienst joined the club. The recently added ringers include Jan-Niklas Beste, Lennard Maloney, and Tim Siersleben. The club put together a decent offseason with attacking additions Eren Dinkci and Marvin Pieringer.

Kleindienst (25 2. Bundesliga goals last season) remains the one to watch. Second division veterans who have been with the side since they first got promoted from the third flight include keeper Kevin Müller as well as midfielder Norman Theuerkauf and Denis Thomalia. Long-time skipper Marc Schnatterer (retired) and Timo Beermann (now of Osnabrück) used to lead this team back when Schmidt was pulling them out of the lower tiers. No one remains from the 3. Bundesliga/Regionalliga days.

Lineup—Heidenheim—DFB Pokal (4-1-3-2)

The Heidenheimers got the job done against fifth-tier-side Rostocker FC in the Pokal. An 8-0 victory featured a blitz-brace from Kleindienst before a quarter-of-an-hour had been played. Pieringer also netted two in his competitive debut for the club and Dinkci recorded a goal as well. Maloney completed a sharp tally off a set piece. All looks to be off and rolling well for the small-town Swabians. There are plenty of good, albeit not fully tested, players in this squad. The supporters of this club naturally won't care all that much how the team does. Seventeen home Bundesliga matches just translates to 17 parties.
Notes from camp, Heidenheim

The team sailed through pre-season undefeated thanks almost solely to an unchallenging set of friendlies scheduled by the club. All of the exhibitions were also kept at home or very close by. Not much of interest to report really apart from the fact that Matthias Jaissle's new Saudi outfit came to town and played a dirty match that had to be broken off. Schmidt has stuck to the same tactical constellation throughout and will doubtlessly be deploying it on matchday one. We'll find out whether or not this dwarf club can punch above its weight soon enough.

The columnist sends warm greetings to all Bundesliga fans out there ahead of another fantastic season! You can catch the release of all Peter's columns (and occasionally catch him goofing off) on whatever the hell they're calling twitter these days @PeterVicey.

Twitter DMs are open for football conversations, corrections, and (if you truly insist) general abuse. 

Full color re-posts of the columns are eventually archived on Peter's website.

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