Markus Weinzierl went to Schalke this summer with a reputation as one of Germany’s brightest young coaches. As Kevin Hatchard explains, he desperately needs a victory this weekend against the club where he made his name.
The shadow of Bayern Munich looms large over Bavarian football, and has done for decades. However, in the past few seasons, other teams from the region have had moments in the sun. Last term, Ingolstadt excelled in their first ever Bundesliga campaign, finishing a respectable 11th. Two seasons ago, Augsburg defied the odds as they finished fifth, qualifying for European competition for the first time in the club’s unremarkable history.
Once FCA got to the Europa League, they thrived. They emerged from a tough group to reach the last 32, and pushed Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool all the way before being edged out. The spectre of relegation was banished by a late-season surge, securing a sixth consecutive season in the German top flight.
The man responsible for Augsburg’s recent triumphs will be at the club’s WWK Arena on Saturday, but he won’t be hoping for a home win. Coach Markus Weinzierl finally agreed to join Schalke in the summer, after the Gelsenkirchen giants wooed him for well over a year. He returns to his former club needing a win, with Schalke languishing near the foot of the table.
After a modest playing career – Weinzierl played over 100 games for Bayern’s reserves, but none for the first team – the Bavarian turned his attention to coaching. At the age of just 33, he was appointed as the head coach of unheralded Jahn Regensburg. He hit the ground running, taking the team into the second tier, but his appointment by Augsburg in May 2012 was still seen as a surprising and risky move. Many columnists – including me – felt Weinzierl lacked the necessary experience to fill the void left by Dutch coach Jos Luhukay’s departure.
Those fears seemed to have been realised for much of Weinzierl’s first campaign with FCA. They collected just nine points in the first half of the season, and appeared doomed to relegation. In today’s trigger-happy world of hirings and firings, Augsburg were incongruously patient. They fully believed in Weinzierl, and he rewarded them by hauling the club clear of the mire.
Weinzierl had earned the chance to develop the team, and did so in stunning style, as the next two campaigns saw Augsburg finish eighth and then fifth. FCA were operating on a relatively small budget – the fee they received from Chelsea for left-back Abdul Rahman Baba was more than they would usually spend on transfers and wages in a year – but Weinzierl showcased an ability to get the most out of his players.
With stability and continuity the watchwords, Weinzierl squeezed every drop of potential out of a small squad. Club stalwarts like Daniel Baier and Tobias Werner excelled, veterans like Halil Altintop were reinvigorated, and lost souls like Brazilian forward Caiuby were coaxed back onto the right path.
In an era of demonstrative super-coaches like Jurgen Klopp, Diego Simeone and Antonio Conte, Weinzierl is a picture of quiet determination. He adores life in the dugout, but his desire for steady consistency is reflected in his touchline demeanour. He certainly isn’t daunted by taking on the best in the business – he masterminded wins over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern both in Augsburg and in Munich – and he has unshakeable belief in the 4-2-3-1 system which has underpinned his success.
Having rebuffed Schalke’s advances in 2015, Weinzierl couldn’t resist the temptation this summer, and took on one of the most difficult jobs in German football. Jens Keller, Roberto Di Matteo and Andre Breitenreiter were all chewed up and spat out by Schalke in the last two campaigns. Despite vociferous support, sizeable financial resources and a stellar youth system, Schalke have repeatedly failed to hit the heights. They have never won the German title in the Bundesliga era, and haven’t qualified for the Champions League in each of the past two seasons.
A top-four finish in the least that is expected of Weinzierl this term, but defeats in the first five games of the league season made for an horrific start. Luckily for the 41-year-old, he appears to have the staunch support of new sporting director Christian Heidel, who made his name by helping Mainz consistently overachieve. Weinzierl turned things around in his first season at Augsburg, and never looked back.
If Schalke show the same patience, they may discover they have finally found the answer to their coaching conundrum. How ironic it would be though, if it was a defeat to Augsburg that saw Weinzierl’s time with the Royal Blues cut tragically short.
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinhatchard