The time is almost upon us once more.
The 2020-21 2. Bundesliga season kicks off on Friday September 18.
Season kickoff is nearly two months later than usual due to the COVID-19 enforced pause that occurred last Spring. As a consequence, and assuming there is not another pandemic related shutdown during the upcoming season, this campaign will not feature German football’s traditional “winter break” in December and January.
Both the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga seasons will more closely resemble an English or Italian season, with almost non-stop league action from mid-September all the way to late-May.
Arminia Bielefeld and VfB Stuttgart, last season’s champions and runners-up, are now in the top flight and have been replaced by 2019-20’s Bundesliga relegation squads, Fortuna Düsseldorf and SC Paderborn.
At the other end of the table, Eintracht Braunschweig and Würzburger Kickers make the jump from the 3. Liga, at the expense of Wehen Wiesbaden and Dynamo Dresden.
An unusual season may very well lead to an unusual or unexpected outcome when it comes to the promotion and relegation fights. Some sides have ambitions of playing in the Bundesliga in 2021-22, whereas others will likely be just trying to survive and stick in the 2. Bundesliga for another season.
So once again, we’re tasked with the following questions for this season’s preview:
Who stands a good chance at the league title and promotion?
Who will be in danger of relegation?
Who will the surprise squads be?
In Part III, we take a look at the rest of the clubs and make a prediction as to who will finish in the Top 3 at season’s end.
The Rest of the Field
The remaining 13 clubs making up the 2020-21 2. Bundesliga are a mix of sizes, styles, and ambitions.
These are squads that could potentially make a run at promotion, but they could just as equally fall on their faces and end up in the relegation fight.
This segment of the 2. Bundesliga is always the biggest and the majority of it is pretty much a giant pile of bleh, but it has produced a fairly significant number of eventual league champions over the years.
2019-20 champions Bielefeld fell into this category, as did 2017-18 champions Düsseldorf.
Leading this segment is last season’s third place finishers Heidenheim.
After leapfrogging Hamburg in the last 2 matchdays of 2019-20 to get third place in the table, they finished level with Werder Bremen in the promotion playoff in July. But they just couldn’t get over the line and lost out on their first ever trip to the top flight on away goals.
Manager Frank Schmidt is the longest tenured skipper in the top 2 flights of German football; he’s been in charge of Heidenheim since 2007, shortly after the current club was formed in a merger. Schmidt is regarded as one of the best manager’s in the second division and he’s steadily and methodically guided and molded his squad into a legitimate promotion contender in recent seasons.
Heidenheim plays a disciplined, high pressure style that is very difficult for opponents to break down and their home ground is one of the toughest in the 2. Bundesliga. At the other end of the spectrum however, Heidenheim struggled to score goals last season and the summer window hasn’t necessarily resolved that issue.
Leading scorer Tim Kleindienst joined Belgian league runners-up Gent in the summer, enticed by the prospect of Champions League football, as did full-back Niklas Dorsch. Holding midfielder Sebastian Griesbeck also left for Union Berlin.
To compensate for the losses, striker Patrick Schmidt returned from last season’s loan at Dresden, attacking midfielder Andreas Geipl joined from Regensburg on a free transfer, and former Dortmund academy graduate Dženis Burnić joined as a potential replacement for Griesbeck.
It’s likely that either Schmidt or Robert Leipertz will lead the line for Heidenheim this season, but unless either of them catch fire, Heidenheim could find themselves in a similar situation to last season; good enough to be in the promotion fight, but not able to score enough to get over the hump.
That’s a nice transition to another of the leaders of this segment: Darmstadt.
In their 3 seasons in the 2. Bundesliga since they were relegated from the top flight in 2017, Darmstadt have been a mid-table side. They finished 10th in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 and through the first 4 months of last season, there wasn’t anything to indicate that they were on the verge of breaking through.
But then, like several other squads last season, Darmstadt followed up a middling Hinrunde with a fantastic Rückrunde. They matched champions Bielefeld in wins (9) and goals scored (30) and hauled themselves all the way up to 5th in the final table, only falling out of the promotion fight in the last few matchdays.
Serdar Dursun returns to lead the attack, supported by Iceland international Victor Pálsson and midfielder Tobias Kempe. Another Bayern youth graduate, center-back Lars Lukas Mai, joined the squad on loan for the season. He replaces Dario Đumić in the Darmstadt defense, after the Bosnian moved to Eredivisie side Twente in the summer.
Returning most of their squad is a big reason why Darmstadt could be a team to pay attention to, but the biggest reason Darmstadt could jump into the promotion fight this season is their new manager, Markus Anfang.
Anfang has been one of the most successful managers in the second and third tiers of German football over the past 5 years. He took over as manager of Holstein Kiel in 2016 and got the club promoted to the 2. Bundesliga for the first time in their history in his first season. Then just a year later, Kiel finished third in the second division and made the promotion playoff, which they lost to Wolfsburg.
He was then hired by Köln in 2018-19 and guided the Billy Goats to the 2. Bundesliga title that season and immediate promotion back to the Bundesliga.
However, just days after clinching promotion in April of 2019, Anfang was suddenly dismissed as Köln manager.
Now while Anfang’s dismissal was surprising, Köln’s reasons for doing so made a bit of sense at the time. It boiled down to the fact that they wanted to bring in a better manager who was more likely to keep them in the top flight for beyond their first season back. Given that Anfang had never managed higher than the 2. Bundesliga, that reasoning was understandable.
But when their “better” managerial hire ended up being Achim Beierlorzer, who’s Regensburg side finished in 8th place in the 2018-19 2. Bundesliga, 14 points behind Anfang’s Köln, and who ended up presiding over a miserable Hinrunde for the Billy Goats before getting sacked after just 3 months, only to be hired by Mainz two weeks later and just barely manage to keep them in the Bundesliga in the final matchdays, it looks more and more likely that Anfang got handed a really raw deal.
This author thinks that Anfang could have done at least as well as, if not better than, Beierlorzer did.
It stands to reason that Anfang will be hungry to prove himself once again and if his two previous seasons in the 2. Bundesliga are any indicator, Darmstadt will score a lot of goals this season.
A lot of goals.
Anfang’s Kiel and Köln sides led the second division in goals scored both seasons, with 71 and 84 goals scored respectively. For comparison, Bielefeld scored 65 goals in their championship season a year ago.
If Anfang can get Darmstadt scoring on that level, they’ll be a dangerous side this season.
Then there’s St Pauli.
Despite winning both legs of the Hamburg Derby for the first time in their history, the rest of St Pauli’s 2019-20 season was abysmal. Because of this, the club made almost a complete overhaul in the summer.
Manager Jos Luhukay left almost the moment the season ended, starters such as Henk Veerman, Waldemar Sobota, and Dimitris Diamantakos moved elsewhere, and loanees Leo Østigård, Viktor Gyökeres, Matt Penney, and James Lawrence all returned to their parent clubs.
Under new manager Timo Schultz, a long-time Kiezkicker player and assistant coach, St Pauli brought in a slew of new players this window. They raided last season’s relegated sides, signing Daniel-Kofi Kyereh and Max Dittgen from Wiesbaden, and Simon Makienok from Dresden. Kiezkicker also brought in youngsters Dennis Smarsch and Rodrigo Zalazar from Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively.
Whether Schultz can mold his new squad into a cohesive and competitive unit it to be seen, but St Pauli are clearly looking to do better than the 14th place they got last season.
We don’t have the space to go into details regarding every remaining club in this segment, but there are things about each that can be briefly noted:
Erzgebirge are a defensive oriented team that’s really tough to beat at home and meh on the road.
Fürth had a decent 2019-20 season, but didn’t do a whole lot in the summer to improve.
Sandhausen is a perennial bottom half of the table finisher that’s never been able to get any higher.
The only consistent thing about Bochum over recent seasons is their inconsistency, and that’s unlikely to change.
Kiel and Regensburg disappointed in 2019-20 after managerial departures and they’ll be looking to get back in form.
Osnabrück and Karlsruher secured safety at the end of last season with weaker squads and will probably be aiming to do the same again.
And that’s all of the 2020-21 2. Bundesliga clubs.
As was said in last season’s preview piece, ultimately, the 2. Bundesliga isn’t as predictable as the Bundesliga is.
Very few people, including this author, saw Bielefeld as a potential league champion going into last season, but they were easily the best side in the second division in 2019-20.
Might we see a similar situation this season, or will one of the heavyweights take the crown or one of the recently relegated Bundesliga sides bounce immediately back into the top flight?
Here’s how this author sees the Top 3 ending up at the end of 2020-21.
Based on his history thus far, Markus Anfang will get Darmstadt scoring early and scoring often. This, piggy-backing onto their excellent Rückrunde form from last season, pushes them up to the top of the table by season’s end.
Düsseldorf leverage their overall squad quality to finish second and get right back into the Bundesliga, although there will be nervy moments throughout the season.
Hamburg go through some growing pains under Daniel Thioune, but put it together by season’s end and just miss out on direct promotion, but make the promotion playoff.
To close with a hot take, Braunschweig’s Martin Kobylański, fresh off a hat-trick against Hertha Berlin in the DfB-Pokal, will finish as the 2. Bundesliga’s top scorer.
One final important note for anyone interested in the 2. Bundesliga.
As part of the new Bundesliga’s new international television contract with ESPN, every second division matchup will be available for viewing on ESPN+.
This is a huge step forward for the 2. Bundesliga in terms of match availability in the US. Every league match will be available on the same platform as the Bundesliga and the DfB-Pokal, so German football fans and even casual observers only have to go to one place to catch all the action.
The 2020-21 2. Bundesliga season begins on Friday with Hamburg hosting Düsseldorf and Nürnberg visiting Regensburg.