Lowly Die Schanzer’s punt on unknown manager Maik Walpurgis could end in relegation disaster, writes Kevin Hatchard
We live in the era of the super-coach, and there is a strategy savant to suit all tastes. The avuncular Carlo Ancelotti is a players’ coach, always ready to put an arm around his charges if necessary, a quip and a raised eyebrow at the ready. His predecessor at Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola, is a totally different beast. The Spaniard is powered by anxious energy and a relentless drive to pursue his vision of perfection. Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp matches a charisma that bewitches his players with an iron streak that allows him to dismiss those who can’t or won’t follow him, while, down the M62, Jose Mourinho insists on playing the media games that many of his contemporaries have abandoned.
There are outstanding leaders everywhere you look: Diego Simeone, Jorge Sampaoli, 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann (if you haven’t heard of the Hoffenheim coach yet, you soon will), Luis Enrique, Antonio Conte, Max Allegri. It seems it has rarely been so important to have a quality coach at the helm.
The importance of good coaching has been made painfully clear to fans of Bundesliga club Ingolstadt in recent months. Last season, the Bavarians had their first ever campaign in Germany’s top flight, having only existed in their current form since 2004. They had a modestly talented squad, but coach Ralph Hasenhüttl’s exceptional ability to squeeze every drop out of his players helped the team finish 11th, four points clear of the bottom three. To his immense credit, Die Schanzer were never really in danger of the drop.
Hasenhüttl’s success was built on a 4-3-3 formation which allowed his players to be relentlessly competitive in midfield, at least matching the intensity of all comers. A diligently-drilled defence conceded just 42 goals in 34 games – the joint-best record of clubs outside the top three. This made up for a squad that lacked any consistent goalscorers. Lukas Hinterseer and Stefan Lex had been Ingolstadt’s joint-top scorers in their Bundesliga 2 promotion season but ended up netting just eight Bundesliga goals between them.
After a job well done, Hasenhüttl – who in his playing career as a striker was once an unsuccessful trialist at Chelsea – was lured to Leipzig. The likeable Austrian has since further enhanced his reputation by leading the youngest squad in the Bundesliga to the top of the table, dead level with the champions Bayern Munich.
The void left by Hasenhüttl’s departure was always likely to be difficult to fill, and instead of going for experience, FCI took a risk. They hired long-serving Karlsruher coach Markus Kauczinski, who had narrowly failed to win promotion to the top flight when his side lost a relegation play-off with Hamburg.
The 46-year-old was hampered by some key departures before he even started. Tenacious centre-back Benjamin Hübner went to Hoffenheim (for whom he has been outstanding), first-choice keeper Ramazan Özcan chose a well-paid back-up job at Bayer Leverkusen, while enterprising full-backs Danny Da Costa and Robert Bauer also moved on.
Although an opening weekend 1-1 draw at Hamburg was an echo of Ingolstadt’s battling performances under Hasenhüttl, things quickly unravelled for Kauczinski. He took just a point from the next nine league games, and was dismissed. The midfield intensity had vanished, with huge gaps opening up for opponents to break into, and the defence conceded 21 goals in his 10 Bundesliga games.
Kauczinski wasn’t helped by a haphazard summer recruitment policy, but unlike his predecessor, he never really settled on a style of play. Seemingly universally accepted to be a nice guy, he had failed to show he had the ability to make an impact from the dugout at Bundesliga level.
So, just three months into the campaign, Ingolstadt faced another huge decision. Old hands like Jos Luhukay, Mirko Slomka and Michael Frontzeck were linked with the role, but FCI came up with another left-field selection. The hiring of Maik Walpurgis saw a spike in Google searches, and the Bundesliga community eventually learned that the 43-year-old had spent his coaching career outside the top two tiers in Lotte and Osnabrück.
Like Hoffenheim’s Nagelsmann, Walpurgis could prove to be another stellar young coach plucked from obscurity, but there are those in the German media who believe Ingolstadt have simply accepted relegation and gone for a cheap option. Time will tell, but in the age of the super-coach, one thing appears evident: average players can be led to success by a talented coach, but without that excellence in the dugout, disaster swiftly follows. Just ask Markus Kauczinski.
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinhatchard