Monday night’s 2-1 victory over RB Leipzig, staged amid fan protests against Bundesliga games being moved to Monday for broadcasting purposes, saw Eintracht Frankfurt leapfrog their opponents and jump into third place in the Bundesliga for the first time this season. The hard fought victory against a fellow Champions League chasing competitor offered further proof that the dark days are in the past for Eintracht, and thanks to some inspired recruitment they’re a side on the up.
“There’s a lot happening at the club at the moment. We’re putting in a lot of hard work at every level…My team has put in an awful lot of effort these last few months, but we’re not done yet.” Eintracht Frankfurt Head Coach Niko Kovac knows plenty about hard work. Born in West Berlin to Bosnian-Croat immigrants, the midfielder had established himself in the first team of local side Hertha Zehlendorf before Hertha came calling in 1992. Thrust immediately into the Hertha first team, Kovac remained a constant in the heart of Die Alte Dame’s midfield for four seasons in the German second division, before catching the eye of Christoph Daum at Bayer Leverkusen. In a career spanning nearly twenty years, Kovac represented some of the most famous clubs in Germany, winning the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich in 2003, as well as representing Croatia at two World Cups and two European Championships. After winding down his playing career at Red Bull Salzburg, Kovac took a job coaching the reserves, eventually being promoted to assistant manager of the first team, before being offered his first managerial role with the Croatia U21s. The sacking of Igor Stimac led to Kovac, along with his brother Robert, being appointed manager of the national team, taking them to the 2014 World Cup. A poor showing at the beginning of the Euro 2016 qualifiers led to Kovac’s contract being terminated, but six months later he’d been appointed manager of Eintracht Frankfurt, who were mired in a relegation scrap. Kovac guided Frankfurt to safety via a relegation play-off and, along with newly installed director of football Fredi Bobic, set about transforming the fortunes of The Eagles.
It’s been a tumultuous few decades for Hesse’s most famous club, with memories of their years as major players in the Bundesliga becoming more sepia-tinged every season. Younger Eintracht fans won’t remember the last time the club lifted a trophy – 1988’s DFB Pokal victory over VFL Bochum – while the position the club currently find themselves in, namely chasing a Champions League place, is completely alien concept to supporters that have followed the fortunes of their club for the past twenty years. In fact, in the late 80s and early 90s, The Eagles were one of the most entertaining, swashbuckling sides in Germany’s top division, posting four consecutive top four finishes, and but for a bout of final day nerves would have won their first Bundesliga title in 1992. With a team that included goalkeeper Uli Stein, Ralf Falkenmeyer, a young Andreas Moller, and Tony Yebaoh, Eintracht tore through Bundesliga defences during the 1991/92 season, scoring 76 goals and posting impressive wins over Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, FC Kaiserslautern and Bayer Leverkusen. Heading into the final game, having lost just five games all season, Eintracht only had to match the results of VfB Stuttgart and Dortmund to secure the league title. The Eagles’ task was made slightly more difficult by the prospect of facing Hansa Rostock who, though mired in the relegation zone, were fighting for their Bundesliga status. Dortmund’s opponents, MSV Duisburg were in the same position, while Stuttgart travelled to Bayer Leverkusen – on paper a much better side, than Hansa or MSV, but with far less to play for on the final day. In the event, Eintracht went down 2-1, with Stefan Boger’s 87th minute winner sealing the fate of Dragoslav Stepanović’s side. Dortmund and Stuttgart both won to leapfrog Eintracht, and Hansa’s heartbreaking victory proved to be in vain, as results elsewhere condemned them to relegation. The Eagles bounced back to finish third again the following season, though didn’t trouble the top spot throughout the campaign, and the goalscoring exploits of Tony Yeboah – 30 in 37 – brought admiring glances from Europe, with Leeds United eventually winning the race for his signature. As Eintracht’s talismanic striker began bothering crossbars in the UK, his former side slowly began to slide down the table, amidst a revolving-door policy at managerial level, with eight coaches taking charge between 1993 and the club’s first ever relegation in 1996. Eintracht then became something of a yo-yo side, with two promotions and two relegations in the proceeding eight seasons, and after five seasons of swimming against the tide the Eagles were demoted once again in 2011 under the stewardship of Kovac’s former manager Christoh Daum. Armin Veh was brought in the following season and immediately took Eintracht back to the Bundesliga, before posting a creditable sixth placed finish on their return. That remains Eintracht’s best finish since 1994, and appropriately enough it was achieved thanks to the goals Alexander Meier, the current incumbent of the captain’s armband at the Waldstadion. Meier joined the club in 2004 and has plundered 136 goals so far, putting him fourth in the list of Eintracht’s all-time top scorers. Dubbed ‘Mr Extraordinary’ by former manager Veh, these days Meier is an experienced head among a host of exciting young talent.
The arrival of Kovac coincided with the appointment of Fredi Bobic to the Eintracht board as Director of Football. Bobic also brought scout Ben Manga to the club from Stuttgart, and a new vision for player recruitment was put into place. Though the club may have fallen away after an impressive start to last season (Eintracht were fourth when the league broke for Winter, but dropped to eleventh in the second half of the season), it appears this time around they’ve nailed the transfer policy. In the summer window ten new faces were brought in, among them the experience of goalkeeper Jan Zimmerman, former Swansea winger Jonathan De Guzman, former Portsmouth forward Kevin Prince-Boateng and former Manchester City midfielder Gelson Fernandes. More pertinently, Eintracht had scouted some of Europe’s most sought-after young talent and struck while the iron was hot. Left-back Jetro Willems arrived from PSV Eindhoven for £5m, right-back Danny Da Costa was brought in from Leverkusen for £1m, winger Marius Wolf arrived on loan from Hannover 96, and Renat Dadachov returned to Frankfurt from Leipzig. The key signing, undoubtedly, has been that of Sebastian Haller. The French striker was on plenty of radars after three impressive seasons with FC Utrecht, but it was Eintracht that took the plunge and splashed out £12m for the target-man’s services. The futher loan signings of Benfica’s exciting Serbian forward Luka Jovic, Fiorentina forward Ante Rebic and Mexican defender Carlos Salcedo further boosted Kovac’s options, and gave the squad a fresh-faced look ahead of the new season.
After a sticky start with just two wins from their opening six games, Eintracht have lost just three in seventeen with wins at Hertha and Wolfsburg impressing in particular. In fact, they boast the third best away form in the league behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, having picked up 21 points on the road so far this season – three more than at home. Their surprise 3-0 defeat at Augsburg in February was only the second time Eintracht had lost away from home this season, and came slap bang in the middle of a rich vein of form in which Kovac’s side have so far won five from six. They’ve also picked up a knack for scoring late and coming from behind, with 19% of their goals this season arriving in the final ten minutes of games, half of which turned draws into wins. They’ve also salvaged ten points from losing situations, most notably coming back from 2-0 down at home to Dortmund to nick a 2-2 draw. Curiously, the knack for scoring late and salvaging points works both ways, and the surrender of a two goal lead at home to Schalke is the perfect example of Eintracht’s dualistic nature. Indeed, Schalke’s two goals in that game arrived in the final ten minutes, and Hoffenheim have also profited from The Eagles’ tendancy to switch off towards the end of games.
Despite those disappointing results, Eintracht are more than holding their own towards the top end of the table, thanks in no small part to the squad that Kovac has assembled. The host of frontline options available the Croatian has meant that goals have been spread evenly, though Haller leads the way with eight, Rebic and Jovic are close behind. Wolf’s creativity has reaped five assists for the young winger, though it’s unsurprising that Timothy Chandler and Willems, the two first-team full backs, have chipped in with assists from wide positions given how much Haller thrives from crosses into the box. At the other end of the pitch Eintracht are also blessed with a rich vein of talent. With Kovac often switching between a back five and a back three, the central defensive options available include Salcedo, Simon Falette, David Abraham, Marco Russ, and Japanese veteran Makoto Hasebe, who between thm have helped earn Eintracht the second best defensive record in the Bundesliga so far this season, and if they’re able to continue limiting the work that Finnish keeper Lukáš Hrádecký is forced into, they’ve every chance of making one of those top four spots their own. The players able to play at wing-back, too, offer a variety of options to Kovac, with Chandler and Willems able to fulfil defensive and attacking responsibilities, while Marius Wolf has also been known to play in a deeper role, the defensive shield of Gelson Fernandes in front of the back three allowing the wing-backs to bomb forward. The biggest revelation for Eintracht this season, however, has been the form of Kevin-Prince Boateng. Often deployed in the centre of midfield alongside De Guzman, though also prone to drift forward and support the attack, many considered Boateng a needless gamble given his recent career trajectory. The Ghanaian rose to prominence during his time in England with Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth, which led to him joining Milan via Genoa. Two separate spells at the San Siro sandwiched two seasons at Schalke during which Boateng enjoyed the best football of his career, but behavioral problems led to his contract being terminated, and after eleven more appearances for Milan he headed off to Las Palmas, but at the beginning of this season his contract was cancelled. Picking up a 30 year old with experience of title races in two of Europe’s top leagues on a free transfer seemed to be a no brainer for Bobic, but even he’ll have been surprised by the performances Boateng has delivered so far this season. With five goals to his name so far this season, Boateng has become something of a talisman for Eintracht, and what initially looked like a case of make-do-and-mend has emerged as a canny piece of business.
If Eintracht are to snatch a Champions League place come the end of the season, they’ll have to fight off some stiff competition. Bayern Munich’s unassailable lead at the top of the league means there are just three places left to play for, and Eintracht are just one of five vying for those remaining spots. Dortmund, having flown out of the traps before suffering a catastrophic lack of form and sacking Peter Bosz have rallied under the guidance of Peter Stoger – the manager they poached from bottom of the table Koln. The sale of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Arsenal in January doesn’t appear to have unduly unsettled the squad, with loan signing Michy Batshuayi slotting in and immediately scoring freely alongside Mario Gotze and Marco Reus. Dortmund are currently unbeaten in the league under Stoger, and look odds on to finish the best of the rest. Bayer Leverkusen have emerged as one of the most exciting sides in the Bundesliga this season, thanks in no small part to the wizadry of Jamaican winger Leon Bailey. Having arrived from Genk last January, Bailey took a little time to adjust to the league, but has emerged as one of the brightest talents in Germany having been involved in 14 goals for Leverkusen so far this season. Backed by a cast of fellow newcomers in the shape of Kai Havertz and Jonathan Tah, along with more established names like the Bender brothers and Kevin Volland, Bailey and Leverkusen are seriously going places and provided they can keep their nerve should be there or thereabouts come the end of the season. Meanwhile RB Leipzig, having given Bayern a run for their money in the early stages of last season, have dropped off somewhat during this campaign thanks in no small part to their European involvement. Regardless, they’re still in the hunt to replicate last season’s top four finish, thanks in no small part to the performances of Emil Forsberg and Marcel Sabitzer, while Schalke have made stylish strides under the watchful eye of Domenico Tedesco, though their propensity to gift opposition a couple of goals head start could hamstring them come crunch time.
If Eintracht have serious designs on Champions League qualification they’re going to have to do it the hard way, with trips to Bayern, Dortmund, Leverkusen and Schalke all still to come. Whether their away form will be enough to see them pick up points from those games remains to be seen, but as Kovac says – they’re not done yet.