In their first Bundesliga season since 1982, Darmstadt defied the odds to survive and secure at least one more season of top flight football. But how did the league's smallest club pull off the impossible?
"It's like the eighth wonder of the world," said Darmstadt’s Marcel Heller, after the Bundesliga team with the league’s smallest budget beat European contenders Hertha Berlin on Saturday to secure German first division football for another season.
The club had already over-achieved in simply reaching the top flight, after winning back-to-back promotions from the third division. Now Darmstadt are in dream land after securing survival in their Bundesliga return. Here's how they did it.
Darmstadt’s 38 goals from the 33 Bundesliga matches played so far this season is not an impressive tally, but the source of their goals reveals one of the keys to the Lilies’ success. A staggering 42 percent (16) of the club’s Bundesliga goals this season have come from set-pieces. The next best side in this regard is Stuttgart (13 goals) and the Bundesliga’s average is only 19 percent.
Dirk Schuster’s side know they are not able to create as many chances as the likes of Bayern Munich or even Stuttgart - Darmstadt have the second-lowest shots per game ratio in the Bundesliga this season - so they need to take advantage of other avenues. Club captain Aytac Sulu has seven of those 16 set-piece goals to his name and is the league’s most potent dead-ball threat, without scoring directly from a free-kick all season.
A goal scorer
From the first whistle of the season, Darmstadt knew they'd be in a race to survive. In that constant fight at the bottom of the league having a goal scorer to rely on is often the difference between picking up points or leaving empty handed.
Only nine players have scored in the Bundesliga for Darmstadt this season (and only three players more than three), making Sandro Wagner’s 14 goals absolutely vital. The tall forward has, like Sulu, scored 6 headed goals - the joint second-most in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Darmstadt would be 13 points worse off without Wagner’s goals.
The former German international started the summer alone in front of an empty Hertha Berlin training goal by order of Pal Dardai, but sent a message to his former employer by scoring the winning goal in the capital to secure survival on Saturday. However the Lillies could be in search for a new front-man over the summer break with Wagner’s eyes set on the English Premier League.
Sticking to a plan
It’s said that the sign of a champion team is being able to win ugly, so perhaps the same can be said for a surviving team. Darmstadt have taken a realistic look at the club’s best chance of success and set out a game-plan to make the best of what they have. They know their strengths and play to them. Their 'plan-A' is direct and includes long balls, hard tackling, constant pressing and dying for every ball.
Schuster does not have the passing talents of Thiago, Julian Weigl or Granit Xhaka at his disposal and so has had to employ a less aesthetically-pleasing tactic. Averaging just 37 percent possession through the season, while producing 75 long balls per game, Darmstadt made it difficult for opponents to beat them by not allowing them time or space. Conceding the second-most fouls in the Bundesliga this season could reflect badly, but not if the fouls are committed in the right areas – most of Darmstadt’s fouls were conceded in the opposition’s half.
Players with a point to prove
One of the many threads woven in to the story of Leicester City’s incredible Premier League winning campaign is that they revitalized the careers of a number of players unwanted by other Premier League clubs. Much of the same can be said for Dirk Schuster’s first Bundesliga Darmstadt side.
Sandro Wagner, Peter Niemeyer, Konstantin Rausch, Junior Diaz, Luca Caldirola and Jan Rosenthal were all released from top flight clubs and signed by Darmstadt before the start of the season. With at least six players experienced in rejection, a feeling of togetherness immediately bound the players in to a tight-knit group.
This feeling of togetherness was enhanced throughout this season, with consistent team selection meaning only 13 players made over 20 appearances in the Bundesliga for Darmstadt. When compared to their closest relegation rivals Werder Bremen (17), Hoffenheim (20), Frankfurt (19), and Stuttgart (18) – it's clear that familiarity has bred success.