FC Ingolstadt 04 are not the Bundesliga’s glamour boys, but like Leicester City in England, they’re making their mark…
This season, the football gods have thrown up more underdog stories than normal. Of course, nothing will edge out Leicester City’s outstanding efforts in the Premier League, but the Bundesliga boasts a number of captivating storylines. When Saturday’s match day 30 action kicks off, perhaps the most enticing game will be between’s two of the league’s most unglamorous clubs: Darmstadt and Ingolstadt.
The pair aren’t everyone’s cup of tea for different reasons. Darmstadt, in their first Bundesliga season since 1988, play rudimentary football, focusing more on physical qualities and pragmatically disrupting the flow of their games against technically stronger teams. In essence, it’s a workmanlike club, playing workmanlike football at the Böllenfalltor, a stadium of concrete terracing which is a like a relic from a bygone era of football.
Ingolstadt are, on the contrary, a modernised, late developer in German football. However, they are tarred with the same brush as Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen are for their links to giant corporations. Supporters of traditional teams in Germany fear the spectre of company-backed clubs succeeding in the Bundesliga. But after dealing with the Audi relationship – the German car manufacturers have their main plant in Ingolstadt and own around 20 per cent in the club and the stadium – the landscape becomes much clearer: what Ingolstadt are achieving this season is remarkable.
Other historically prominent and successful clubs like Werder Bremen, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover languish in a relegation positions. Hamburg, Stuttgart and Cologne, sides previously of grandeur and elegance, are competing with newly-promoted Ingolstadt for the highest mid-table slot possible. If football was a game played on balance sheets, the Bavarians should stand no chance.
Founded in 2004, FC Ingolstadt was born out of the merger of two provincial clubs in the area. With a population of around 130,000, Ingolstadt has never been a sports town. After a series of promotions in their early years, Ingolstadt reached the second division in 2008. In 2013, Ralph Hasenhüttl was prized away from Aalen, whilst Audi purchased a stake in the club of around 20 per cent and the ownership rights to the stadium and training facilities.
Still, despite Audi’s minimal involvement, the club’s promotion-winning season last year bucked the trend of their development. Before then, Ingolstadt were a mid-table, lower-half side in the second division, but impressively won the championship last year ahead of RB Leipzig, Kaiserslautern, Karlsruhe, among others. Unlike Hoffenheim’s surge through the leagues, Red Bull’s venture in Leipzig and the successes of Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, Ingolstadt’s progress is totally self-manufactured and not boosted by endless cash reserves.
Ralph Hasenhüttl, Ingolstadt’s now in-demand coach
The functionality of Ingolstadt’s football has gained increasing praise in recent weeks following impressive wins of Schalke and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga. The head coach Hasenhüttl, dubbed the Alpine Klopp by one German newspaper, was reportedly the latest coach to be tapped up by RB Leipzig, the Red Bull-backed side expected to gain promotion to the Bundesliga next season.
Ingolstadt’s ninth-placed standing in the Bundesliga can be down to the superb defensive structure, which has been installed by Hasenhüttl. The Bavarians afford little space between the lines and press early and with purpose and intensity. Their approach is simplistic in the abstract, but it requires attentive coaching and great attention to detail. Only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have conceded less goals than Ingolstadt this season.
Meanwhile, in attack, they have conjured up the second least number of goals in the division, but still carry a sting on the break. Hasenhüttl has excellently coached a structure in counterattacking situations, triggered by winning the ball in advanced areas and attacking with precise movements. It’s a tactic that is ubiquitous in German football presently, yet Ingolstadt’s execution has been superb.
There are no high-earners or superstars at Ingolstadt who have collected the same number of points as Champions League quarter-finalists Wolfsburg. For many of the squad, Hasenhüttl’s influence has reshaped their careers. Top scorer Mortiz Hartmann came out of 1.FC Köln’s academy with little to show for in his career. Pascal Groß, a set-piece specialist, has gained the trust of Hasenhüttl who has resurrected his career since he was released by Hoffenheim. Danny da Costa is playing regularly following his departure from Leverkusen, while Benjamin Hüber and Marvin Matip are regarded as arguably the best centre-park partnership in the league.
It’s little surprise therefore that 47-year-old Hasenhüttl has commanded increasing interest since Ingolstadt confirmed their Bundesliga status for another season. Leipzig would be a financially attractive package in the Bundesliga, if they achieve promotion, but he wouldn’t have many extra people to add to his Christmas card list. With a position potentially emerging at Schalke this summer, Hasenhüttl will have no shortage of suitors, if he is looking for a new challenge.
When Hasenhüttl’s team visit Darmstadt, it isn’t expected to be one for the connoisseurs or the purists. But both teams are refreshingly challenging the status quo in German football who have made efforts to restructure the way finances are dished out by the league based on popularity and attendances rather than sporting success. For the sake of the game’s meritocracy, powerful stories like Ingolstadt and Leicester are imperative to avoid a closed shop at the highest level.