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2019-20 Bundesliga Preview: Eintracht Frankfurt

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What happens when you sell all your best players and buy Sebastian Rode?

FC Vaduz v Eintracht Frankfurt - UEFA Europa League Third Qualifying Round Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

I have a bit of a soft spot for Eintracht Frankfurt. There’s lots to like about them, so it is easy to understand. Anyone that watched that front three of Jovic, Haller, and Rebic last season must have fallen in love, surely? But I’ll be honest, that’s not why I like them. It’s because their kits have been beautiful for the last couple seasons, and this season is no exception. Just look at this delicious away kit:

Flora Tallinn v Eintracht Frankfurt – UEFA Europa League Second Qualifying Round: 1st Leg Photo by Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

Eintracht Frankfurt aren’t just a pretty kit (though they are definitely a pretty kit). Over 7 consecutive seasons in the Bundesliga, they’ve gone from surviving to thriving. The last two seasons have been two of their most successful ever, but with a great deal of upheaval over the summer, there are questions over their ability to maintain their rise.

Last season

Bundesliga: 7th place – 54 pts (15 W, 9 D, 10 L)

DFL Supercup: Runners up – 5-0 loss to Bayern Munich

DFB Pokal: First round – 2-1 loss to SSV Ulm

Europa League: Semi finals – 4-3 loss to Chelsea on penalties

Frankfurt won the DFB Pokal a couple seasons ago under Niko Kovac, before he moved on to Bayern Munich and was succeeded by Adi Hutter. Under Hutter, they had an amazing season fueled by a big three of Jovic, Haller, and Rebic. Though their defense of the cup was pretty limp, they qualified for the Europa League by finishing 7th, and were a penalty shootout away from a Europa League final.

Hutter likes to play fast, counter-pressing football, and last season they thrived off creating chaos. They play an extremely high press, a result of Hutter’s philosophy, which is built on the belief that 60-70% of goals are scored in the 5-6 seconds after the ball has been won back (I’m not sure if this is true…). They play really high wing-backs – usually those will be Kostic and Da Costa. As part of their press, the wing-backs won’t drop, and will instead push and press. They’re barely wing-backs at this point, instead of out-and-out wingers. This requires some defensive discipline from the likes of Rode and Fernandes in midfield, acting as a security blanket.

Haller and Jovic were absolutely lethal last season. Haller contributed 15 goals and 9 assists, while Jovic scored 25 and provided 7 assists. Combined with Rebic’s contribution, the front three scored almost 50 goals in the Bundesliga, and made up over 80% of Frankfurt’s total goals for the season.

What went relatively unnoticed was Frankfurt’s strong defensive efforts as well. This wasn’t a team forged purely out of the ferocity of their front three, as only RB Leipzig, Bayern, Monchengladbach, and Dortmund conceded fewer. This is especially impressive given the madness of Hutter’s philosophy.

Transfers

Transfers In:

  • Martin Hinteregger (CB) – FC Augsburg - €12m
  • Djibril Sow (CM) – BSC Young Boys - €9m
  • Dominik Kohr (CM) – Bayer Leverkusen - €8.5m
  • Kevin Trapp (GK) – Paris Saint Germain - €7m
  • Filip Kostic (LM) – Hamburger SV - €6m
  • Dejan Joveljic (CF) – Red Star Belgrade - €4m
  • Sebastian Rode (CM) – Borussia Dortmund - €4m
  • Erik Durm (LB) – Huddersfield – Free
  • Rodrigo Zalazar (CM) – Atletico Malagueno - Free

Transfers Out:

  • Luka Jovic (CF) – Real Madrid - €60m
  • Sebastien Haller (CF) – West Ham - €40m
  • Jetro Willems (LB) – Newcastle – Loan
  • Andersson Ordonez (CB) – LDU Quito – €450k
  • Danny Blum (LW) – VfL Bochum – €250k
  • Max Besuschkow (CM) – Jahn Regensburg – €100k
  • Tobias Stirl (GK) – VfL Wolfsburg – Free
  • Branimir Hrgota (CF) – Greuther Furth – Free
  • Patrice Kabuya (RW) – Hamburger SV – Free
  • Noel Knothe (CB) – FC Nuremberg – Free
  • Nelson Mandela Mbouhom (SS) – Released
  • Deji Beyreuther (LB) – Hoffenheim – Free
  • Mischa Hauser (LW) – FSV Frankfurt – Free
  • Tuta (CB) – KV Kortrijk – Loan
  • Rodrigo Zalazar (CM) – Korona Kielce – Loan

Obviously the big changes have been two of Frankfurt’s best players heading out. They lost Haller to West Ham, and Jovic to Real Madrid, for a combined €100m. They have tried to strengthen the squad across the whole pitch with the money they made from those transfers. That includes making loans for Kostic, Rode, Hinteregger, and Trapp permanent. Kevin Trapp returns from PSG, having played for Frankfurt almost 100 times a few years ago.

They’ve also picked up Dejan Joveljic who has drawn comparisons to Jovic, in some part due to their similar origins, but also due to a number of similarities in playing style. I imagine he is a long-term investment, rather than a like-for-like replacement but it is possible he will start to get some playing time this season. He has already got himself on the scoresheet for Frankfurt, having picked up the winner in a 2-1 win over Flora Tallinn in the Europa League. Ultimately though, I think he’ll prove to be an interesting option off the bench, but not a starter (yet).

Finally, they brought in some midfield reinforcements in Rode, Sow, and Kohr. Clearly Rode impressed enough in his time with Frankfurt last season. This looks like it could be about his level, as he clearly wasn’t an elite player but is good nonetheless.

What to expect in 2019/20

Last season obviously revolved around Haller, Jovic, and Rebic, and they’ve lost two of that big three, with some possibility that Rebic may also be on his way out, after rumors of Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan being interested in him. There’s no hiding from the reality that they’ll struggle to replace even 2/3 of that frontline, and there’s real reason for concerns given that they made up 80%+ of the goals scored by Frankfurt last season. If they can keep hold of Rebic, he will become the clear focal point of Frankfurt’s attack. Last season he profited from playing alongside two elite players, both in terms of Haller’s ability to bring others into the game, and in terms of defenses struggling to cover all of them and leaving Rebic with space to work. It remains to be seen how he will cope if he is the focus of opposition defenses.

Unfortunately for Frankfurt, Rebic was really the weaker of the big three, though that is less of a statement about Rebic and more a testament to just how good Haller and Jovic are. Rebic is a real hustler, and conforms to all stereotypes of Croatian footballers (though it would be too much to simply pigeon hole him like that), but he provided 9 goals and 3 assists last season. However, he’s probably going to have to do more than that if Frankfurt are to have a good season.

One of the features they will miss most this season will be Haller’s linkup play. Haller would often come deep to collect in attack, before opening up the game through Jovic or Rebic, but now they’ll possibly be looking to either Paciencia to do similar, or Gacinovic to sit deep and bring wider players in. Paciencia and Gacinovic will now have opportunities to step up and fill the holes left by Frankfurt’s sales. Paciencia especially has bags of talent, so all is not lost.

SV Waldhof Mannheim v Eintracht Frankfurt - DFB Cup Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

Elsewhere they will be looking to Filip Kostic and Jonathan de Guzman to create plenty of opportunities for whatever version of a front line Frankfurt are fielding. Kostic and de Guzman were fantastic creative outlets for Frankfurt last season, both ranking among the league’s best in a number of creative capacities. Kostic provided a total of 10 assists and created 16 big chances over the course of the season, while de Guzman notched up 6 assists and 9 big chances. Both were two of the team’s leading contributors in terms of key passes per 90, but de Guzman especially was strong in this department, providing 2.14 key passes per 90. It is highly likely that whoever is playing in front of them next season will be less prolific, so the onus will be on these guys to provide plenty of chances to make up for the reduction in efficiency.

Finally, Frankfurt will need to maintain their defensive production both on and off the ball if they are to stand a chance of recreating last season’s success. Last season, Hasebe, Hinteregger, Fernandes, and Rode all topped Frankfurt’s pass percentage and dispossession rankings. Their numbers wouldn’t lead the league, but this is in large part due to Hutter’s system. Nonetheless, Frankfurt could really benefit from these guys upping their percentages, retaining and moving the ball efficiently and playing relatively low risk football before the chaos hits full swing. Off the ball, Hinteregger was excellent for Frankfurt last season, and was an extremely active defender, making almost 4 clearances and 3 tackles per 90. He also came up strong in blocked shots and duels won. Meanwhile, Fernandes, Rode, and Hasebe all posted consistently good numbers in terms of interceptions, tackles, and clearances.

Clearly, there were positive performances all over the field last season, which should ease some fears that Frankfurt will be in deep, deep trouble this season. But the extremely heavy reliance on the big three for goals is still of major concern. How far Frankfurt go this season may come down to whether Paciencia or Joveljic can fill enough of the offensive hole left by Jovic and Haller.

Prediction: Top half finish

It’s hard to hide from the reality that Frankfurt just sold their two best players and didn’t exactly fill those spots in the team with anyone that fans can be certain is going to produce. But Hutter’s system creates chances for attacking players, and there’s still bags of talent in this squad. Frankfurt will definitely struggle to recreate the excitement that they produced last season, and they won’t be as dynamic going forward, but there is still a solid team here. Some will be expecting a major slide down the table this season (and there are probably some suggesting they’ll get relegated, because there’s always someone), but I think they can prove the doubters (that I’ve possibly made up) wrong. I am going relatively safe and predicting a top half finish, because I think there’s enough talent in this team to finish in the top half of the table even if they don’t score tons of goals, but there is potential for more if someone steps up to fill the gap.

However, Rebic’s future looks incredibly important for Frankfurt next season. They need to at least have his guaranteed quality going forward, or else a top half finish might even be out of reach. In Rebic they have guaranteed quality, and a player that should be ready to take on a heavier load in Haller and Jovic’s absence. They can’t afford to lose that.