After a disappointing run of fixtures that saw Augbsurg lose three and draw one from four Bundesliga matches in a row, Heiko Herrlich was dispatched from the club. The final nail in the coffin was a lifeless performance to FC Köln on Matchday 31, where The Billy Goats scored three goals before half-time to put the game to bed. An inspired set of substitutions and half-time team-talk allowed Herrlich’s men to claw their way back to 3-2, but the loss was a bitter defeat in the end and proved to be his final performance at an Augsburg side that now look set to finish well within the bottom half of the table. Here is a tactical analysis of why Heiko Herrlich failed at Augsburg.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2
Heiko Herrlich never stuck true to one specific formation at the club, using a 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2 and 4-4-2 during his thirteen month spell at the club. The fluctuations in formation might have limited his players in their ability to establish consistency and chemistry, and the team’s ability to establish any sort of rhythm. Amid all the many changes, the most common formation that the German deployed in his short-lived time with the club was a 4-4-2.
Polish goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz has had a decent season in between the posts, with a saves per goal conceded ratio of 2.23 and a save percentage of 72%. But the Pole couldn’t manage to keep the ball out of the back regularly enough, and the four defenders in front of him struggled to adapt to the pace of the Bundesliga. While former Wolfsburg man Felix Uduokhai has shown much promise this season for his robust nature and aerial ability, Dutch defender Jeffrey Gouweleeuw has struggled for what seems like the fourth straight season in the side. Raphael Framberger’s been woeful in possession this season as the team’s first-choice right-back, while Iago’s contributed barely anything in attack as the left-back. In fact, Augsburg’s fullbacks are not typically all that important to their attack, and much more important to maintaining the back-four defensive shape in their mid-to-low-block and winning individual duels.
Daniel Caligiuri continues to be one of the only bright spots in the team and has had an excellent 2020-21 campaign after his smart move away from the disaster that was Schalke 04. The 33-year-old German midfielder’s contributed to Augsburg’s attack with 9 goal involvements this term, the joint most in the team. He sits level in that regard with Swiss midfielder Ruben Vargas, who operates as the left-winger in the team. The 22-year-old’s started only half as many matches as Caligiuri and sits level on goals, showing some potential for what he could do if given more time to shine for another manager. Andre Hahn’s also bagged nine goal involvements, but his tally of seven goals hasn’t been enough to lift Fuggerstädter into the top half of the table. Florian Niederlechner and Michael Gregoristch have been two of Hahn’s most frequent partners up top, with the latter only contributing 3 goal involvements to the former’s 7. With their lack of goals up front, it’s evident to see why Herrlich made so many changes to his team’s formation. Their strikers simply weren’t scoring enough goals in a two-striker system and the team as a whole may have greatly benefited from a creative attacking midfielder like Laszlo Benes.
In addition to their lack of goals and lack of ability to keep the ball out of the back of the net, Augsburg could also never impose themselves enough in midfield. Rani Khedira and Carlos Gruezo would likely do very well in 2. Bundesliga, but lack the necessary gusto to completely dominate games at the top level. Tobias Strobl is their most experienced and versatile midfielder, but he too has not had the best of seasons and has been at the heart of the team’s failures to recover in defensive transitions. In the end, Augsburg don’t really have anything spectacular beyond a decent goalkeeper, a powerful centre-back, and two pacey goal-scoring wingers. But Herrlich still failed to get the best out of his players, and we now take a deeper look into why.
FAILURES IN FRONT OF GOAL
FC Augsburg’s greatest limitation this season has been their struggles in front of goal. And not that they haven’t been hitting the target – instead that they haven’t been taking enough shots or getting into good enough attacking positions.
Augsburg spend 77% of their time in attack in the wide areas. The right-side in particular takes up 40% of that total, with Daniel Caligiuri their most frequent source of attacks. That percentage point has them joint-second in the league for attacks down the right. Despite this, Augbsurg have completed the second fewest amount of crosses per game. This isn’t just a function of being poor at crossing, but simply not looking to get the ball into the box regularly enough.
Essentially, Augsburg have struggled to be direct enough when it pertains to their attacks. They remain far too patient, passing the ball around, working the wide areas, trying and failing to take defenders on, rather than looking for the quickest route to goal. They attack through the middle only 23% of the time in their matches, to which only FC Köln have done less in the league. This means that Augsburg have struggled to break the lines of the opposition and have had limited creativity when building attacks through the centre of the pitch. Had a natural number 10 like Laszlo Benes or even Andre Hahn been used in that position more regularly via a 4-2-3-1, Augsburg may have had better luck attacking through the middle Instead, they’ve fumbled their way through the wide areas.
It is not as though Augsburg don’t have goal-scorers in their team, but rather that they haven’t been playing to the strengths of their potential scorers. All three of their regular centre-forwards pose a threat in the air, Michael Gregoritsch being the tallest of the bunch at 6’4. But Augsburg have no directness nor adequate crossing to their game, which results in the Austrian being very redundant when he’s given a role in the team. While Hahn is the most mobile and versatile of the three, he wants to operate in very similar ways to Ruben Vargas and Daniel Caligiuri, who ultimately already do what Hahn does, just much better.
This has all resulted in Herrlich’s team completing just 9.5 shots per game and scoring just 31 goals, the third lowest in the league in both categories.
While Augsburg have had many defensive woes this season, their greatest issue has been their failure to adequately recover in transition, and their inability to defend in the wide areas. The team seem to focus all of their attention in attack on the wide areas, so it is strange that the emphasis in training hasn’t also been on defending those same wide areas. Herrlich’s team have conceded the most crosses per game in the league this season, with 25 per game, and have conceded several goals from counter attacks. When teams play against Augsburg, they often intentionally work the ball into the wide areas and utilize either overloads or overlapping runs to expand their networks and easily beat Herrlich’s fragile fullbacks. While Framberger and Iago defend 1v1 situations decently well and are particularly good tacklers, the team’s emphasis on width in attack and the subsequent high positions of their wingers means they are not well set up to defend in transition. Their midfielders are also slow in transition, and so Framberger and Iago are often left alone and exposed, with several men galloping forward in those wide spaces.
This issue is also compounded by the fact that the centre-backs and central midfielders lack the necessary concentration and focus to stop late runners arriving into the box. The centre-backs are often caught ball-watching and can be susceptible to duels in the air. Gouweleeuw’s won just 50% of his duels in the air this season, while Framberger and Iago have lost more than they’ve won. Only Uduokhai stands out in that regard with 65% of his duels won, but one capable defender out of four is a recipe for disaster for a team that concede the most crosses in the league.
In the end, opposition teams often have an easy time playing around Augsburg and using pace and power to destroy midfield lines in transition. They do much better when given enough time to set up, with their 4-4-2 block being reasonably effective at stifling opposition teams. They’ve won the third most interceptions per game in the league this season, which suggests that when given the proper chance to find their shape, they can do more damage in stopping the opposition. If they could bring that same stability to defending wide areas and transitions, Augsburg could be a top-half team again.
FAILURES IN POSSESSION
At just 44.5%, Augsburg have kept the second lowest amount of possession in the league this season, behind only FSV Mainz. It’s even worse considering how wasteful they are in creating something out of that possession, and in how slow they are to react when they lose the ball. Fuggerstädter completed 67 long passes per game in the league under Herrlich, the joint-fourth highest total in the league. But they were never all that effective in favouring longer passes, with an abysmal total pass completion rate of 74.2%. As already noted, their midfielders lack the necessary quality to dominate games. Further, despite the right-sided dominance, Caligiuri and Framberger have two of the worst passing records in the league, with the right-back not even tabling above 60%. While they do have decent passers in the team like Reece Oxford, Felix Uduokhai and Tobias Strobl, the team have failed to be direct enough in possession and utilize their moments on the ball for the greater good of the team. Instead, they frequently score goals through individual will of players like Hahn, Vargas or Caligiuri, or scrap their way through set-pieces.
All ends up, Augsburg have been poor this season, and a new manager coming in now has a massive job to do in turning their failures around.
Heiko Herrlich has unfortunately become the scapegoat for a disappointing Augsburg season, sacked from the club after just 42 games. His team were woeful in attack, terrible in defense and ineffective in possession, so the sacking is understandable. Statistically and tactically, Augsburg have been a bit of a nightmare this season, but they do have quality available to try and make more out of themselves in time for next season. Fuggerstädter should focus their attention on being more direct in attack, and faster in recovering defensive transitions. If they can accomplish these two things, the team could easily be a top half team come next season.