Analysis: The 2. Bundesliga Promotion Picture

Analysis: The 2. Bundesliga Promotion Picture

By Neel Shelat

In recent seasons, the 2. Bundesliga has been one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. It has enjoyed the perfect mix of quality, drama, jeopardy, and tactical innovation as well as excellent match atmospheres created by the typically passionate ride-or-die German fanbases.

This season has been no different. Giants of German football such as Schalke and Hertha Berlin found themselves in the wrong half of the table for long periods, with the former flirting with the existential threat of relegation to the third tier before pulling themselves together for a solid mid-table finish. Christian Titz’s Magdeburg continued to stand out with their unique style of play, averaging a league-high 61.1% possession despite being well in the lower half of the table.

Up at the top, Hamburg did it again. The story of each of the last five seasons repeated itself as they looked like frontrunners in the promotion battle throughout the first half of the campaign before floundering at the crunch time and narrowly missing out.

In their lieu, their local rivals St. Pauli, plus Holstein Kiel and Fortuna Düsseldorf have taken up the three promotion places. The title is yet to be decided between the top two but both have already sealed the main prize of direct promotion, while Düsseldorf will have to earn their spot in the top-flight in the play-off against the team that finishes 16th in the Bundesliga.

St. Pauli

After 13 long seasons in the second tier, St. Pauli have finally secured their return to the German top flight and are best placed to win the 2. Bundesliga title as well.

From near-misses at the top, rather uninspiring mid-table finishes and some very close shaves at the bottom, they have experienced it all in the Zweiten Liga since their relegation in 2011. In recent seasons, though, they have been building towards this success with two consecutive fifth-placed finishes leading up to the 2023/24 campaign.

31-year-old Fabian Hürzeler deserves a lot of credit for their promotion, not because he is a key player but because he is the head coach! The Texas-born tactician joined St. Pauli in 2020 as an assistant coach under Timo Schultz, whose dismissal in December 2022 gave Hürzeler his first head coach role at senior level.

Initially, he was only given the role on an interim basis, but his impressive instant impact took the club from the lower half of the table to the brink of the promotion battle and earned him a full-time contract very quickly. So, the youngest head coach in the top three German men’s leagues had the time to lay the foundations for this success in the latter half of the 2022/23 season.

Known for their fanbase’s left-wing ideology, St. Pauli’s tactical approach under their Hürzeler has been quite left-field too. Unlike the more end-to-end transition-based approach German football is typically associated with, their style of play is focused on controlling possession and especially territory. So, stylistically at least, they are closer to Manchester City than, say, Hoffenheim.

While their control-based approach has helped them maintain the league’s best defensive record both in terms of goals conceded (35) and xG conceded (36.3), St. Pauli’s attacking play has not exactly blown opponents away. They only have the eighth-highest xG tally in the league and have often had to rely on sparks of individual brilliance to get on the scoresheet.

Thankfully for them, their players have delivered the goods when called upon. In particular, Marcel Hartel has been the dangerman as he leads the squad both in terms of goals and assists. In fact, no one in the league has more goal involvements than him this season, and no one in the squad has even half as many as he does.

It will be quite interesting to see how St. Pauli will fare in the Bundesliga, not least because of the potential of their unique style of play to either succeed or fail dramatically. The key for them will be holding on to key figures such as Hürzeler and Hartel over the summer while strengthening the squad in other areas – especially up front.

Holstein Kiel

St. Pauli’s success and celebrations have perhaps clouded what has been an arguably even more impressive campaign from Holstein Kiel. The Storks, who were down in the Regionalliga (the fourth tier of German football) as recently as 2013, have finally sealed their first-ever promotion to the Bundesliga.

They are a storied club with over 120 years of history including a German Championship title in 1912, but have been knocking about in the lower tiers post World War II. As a result, their current financial capacity is far from the greatest; their payroll is only the ninth-highest in the 2. Bundesliga this season. So, their success has stemmed from their ability to make the most of limited resources.

Kiel’s squad does not have any star names but rather has been assembled through shrewd signings from the lower German tiers as well as out-of-favour players from the Bundesliga and other nearby European leagues. Their head coach too was a man that not many people had heard of at the time of his appointment.

Marcel Rapp started coaching at the age of 33 after a pretty unremarkable playing career in the lower tiers. He eventually made his way to Hoffenheim’s academy, from where he was picked up by Heidenheim in late 2021 and given his first full-time head coach role. After two solid mid-table finishes, he has taken Kiel to new heights this term.

The Storks have been quite good – though not stellar – at both ends of the pitch this season with the fourth-most goals scored and the joint second-least conceded. In between, Rapp likes them to be quite expansive in their structure with the ball and aggressive in their press without it. What has set them apart from the sides below them, though, has been their ability to keep a shutout and grind out results.

Kiel’s current squad value is about an eighth of the Bundesliga average, and they do not have the financial capacity to change that drastically. They will almost certainly face a tough relegation battle next season, but as Heidenheim have shown this term, there certainly is a place for the minnows in the German top flight.

Fortuna Düsseldorf

Fortuna Düsseldorf will hope to return to the Bundesliga after four seasons away in the play-off, though they might feel a little hard done by only finishing third. According to our Expected Points model, they have been the best team in the league by the underlying numbers, but have been trumped by two significant overperformers in St. Pauli and Holstien Kiel.

In any case, Fortuna will back themselves to get the job done in the two legged play-off against either Mainz, Union Berlin, or FC Köln – something that will be decided by the final round in the Bundesliga this weekend – even though the second-tier side has only won this tie once in the last 11 years. Daniel Thiourne’s side have had the best attack in the second tier this season with an average of 2.1 goals per game with Norwich City loanee Christos Tzolis looking particularly dangerous on his day, so they will hope to power through one of the Bundesliga’s worst defences come the last week of May.

(Cover image from IMAGO)

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