By Leo Linden
A few weeks ago in this space, we took a look at one of the fastest rising teams in Germany, RB Leipzig. But while they have been able to rise to the top with quality investment from a large corporation, another German side, Eintracht Frankfurt, is in the midst of its own stellar start after an almost disastrous campaign a season ago. A few small tweaks implemented by a new boss have allowed Frankfurt to quickly rise up the table, and while it is hard to tell if they will be contenders for Europe (or the title) come May, at the moment, it doesn’t look like Die Adler –– the Eagles –– are going anywhere.
Frankfurt is one of Germany’s oldest clubs, founded in 1899 and beginning play in largely unorganized local leagues. When the club finally began playing in organized competitions, it found a wealth of success in the South Western regional leagues, taking home eight top-flight titles between 1920 and 1944 and never dropping below seventh.
On the other side of World War II, Frankfurt did not find the same year-in and year-out form, but after winning the Oberliga Sud (the first division for the South of Germany) as well as the Southern German Football Championship (a cup competition for all of the South) in 1959, the club qualified for the European Cup. In their first season in Europe, Frankfurt put together an immaculate run, which included a 12-4 aggregate trouncing of Rangers of Scotland in the semi-finals, before ultimately falling to Real Madrid in the final 7-3.
A few years later, in 1963, Frankfurt became a founding member of the Bundesliga, and though that trophy still eludes them to this day, Die Adler have generally been a stalwart in the top flight. Major titles have not totally evaded Frankfurt, though, as they captured back-to-back DfB-Pokal titles in 1974 and 1975 and added another pair in 1981 and 1988.
With legendary striker Tony Yeboah, the side came close to multiple titles in the 1990s, finishing third in 1990, 1992, and 1993, the middle of which they fell short by just two points.
However, after a couple of close calls with relegation during their time in the Bundesliga, Frankfurt were finally struck with a catastrophic 1996 season which saw them finish 17th, leading to their first relegation. Die Adler bounced back quickly, earning promotion back to the top flight in the 1997-98 season, but they were still toeing the line between the top two flights. Subsequent relegations in 2001 and 2004 were balanced out by promotions in 2003 and 2005, and after struggling in an elongated return to the first division, they slipped back down in 2011 only to recover in 2012.
Still, Frankfurt had trouble really finding their feet in the top flight, and it almost bit them last year. Faltering in the relegation zone in March, manager Armin Veh resigned, and the club made one of its best moves in history, inking ex-Croatian national
From that match on, Frankfurt have never looked back, and Kovac has been pulling all of the right strings. With big wins to start this season over Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen, Die Adler found their form early, and though there have been stumbles along the way, a current run of three straight wins — most recently a 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund — has vaulted Frankfurt into fourth place.
Kovac deserves huge credit for the success, as he has switched the club’s style, midseason, to a back three (sometimes five) with wingbacks that has defended the house brilliantly. Frankfurt has allowed just 10 goals in their first 12 games, third-best in the league, and they have only allowed two in their last six in all competitions.
However, while the defense has been keeping the team in games, the offense has come up clutch when needed as well. In a tide-turning game a little over a month ago against Bayern Munich, Frankfurt were able to equalize through Marco Fabian while down a man with under 15 minutes to play, and they ultimately saw out a 2-2 draw which felt like a big win for the club. It’s those kind of results that have helped Die Adler not only rise up the table, but build the confidence they now have to compete with the league’s elite.
The defense, meanwhile, has been anchored by center backs David Abraham and 19-year-old Real Madrid loanee Jesus Vallejo, who have been flanked by the all-important wingbacks, Timothy Chandler and Bastian Oczipka. The wingbacks are the two highest minute-earners on the squad besides keeper Lukas Hradecky, who is tied for the league lead with five clean sheets.
In short, it has been a whole team effort for Die Adler starting with Kovac and trickling down all the way through the squad. Even with their impressive start, Frankfurt are still major underdogs to finish in a European spot, given all the bigger-money clubs in front of as well as chasing Die Adler. For now, though, they are riding a big wave of success, and if the last year of football has shown us anything, it’s that minnows are closer to the top than ever before. Maybe it’s time to start expecting the unexpected.