Hannover 96 have hit the ground running in their return to Bundesliga this season. Having regained promotion after just one season in 2.Bundesliga, the historic club have already picked up twelve points from their opening six games of 2017. The club’s results so far this year come in stark contrast to their last season in the top flight. That year proved to be a total disaster with only one point to show for the first six matches. In the end, die Roten finished rock bottom in 2016, well adrift of the pack and bound for relegation.
Making a new beginning
Not wanting to dwell on their past mistakes, Hannover picked themselves up and were determined to put their new opponents in 2.Bundesliga to the sword. A fine Hinrunde (first-half season) was followed by a slightly less successful Rückrunde (second-half of season). The latter saw ex-Schalke sporting director and Hannover-born André Breitenreiter succeed Daniel Stendel at the helm.
However, seven wins in the final eleven matches—including a win over champions Stuttgart—were capped off by a draw away to Sandhausen on the final matchday of the season. Thus the 96ers had secured promotion at the expense of bitter rivals Eintracht Braunschweig.
After conceding a hefty 62 goals during that disastrous 2015/16 season—‘bested’ only by Stuttgart—Hannover management determined to stress defending the following season.
Although playing against lesser competition in the second tier, it was evident the club had proportionally improved at the back. Statistically in fact, Hannover’s efforts produced the best defence in the 2.Bundesliga letting in just 32 goals against.
Getting ever better
Promotion in hand, the club used the summer transfer window to bring in even greater depth and quality hoping to further improve upon their previous mishaps at the back. In today’s inflated market, the club’s mixed strategy turned out to be extremely cost effective. Arriving on frees, Pirmin Schwegler and Matthias Ostrzolek brought tonnes of valuable experience. The latter will most likely feature in a rotational role following his subpar stint at Hamburger SV.
Perhaps the best piece of business came in the form of bringing in Julian Korb from Borussia Moenchengladbach for a reported €2.5m. Like the aforementioned duo, the right-back also brings experience, but, at the age of 25, has years ahead of him yet.
Though only six games in, the defence has performed beyond expectations in picking up four clean sheets and conceding just two goals; second only to Borussia Dortmund. Indeed, the back line excels with centre-backs Salif Sané, Florian Hübner and Felipe standing resolute for the most part, especially in the wins over Schalke and Hamburg.
The 96ers were third in terms of goals scored during their ‘year off’ from the top flight. They trailed only Dynamo Dresden and—yes, you guessed it—Stuttgart in that category. Though not having as big an impact as expected, the arrival of Niclas Füllkrug was still a massive coup after a free-scoring season at FC Nürnberg. He has already established himself as an integral part of the squad early into the season. Hannover also capitalised on Stuttgart’s and Paderborn’s state of limbo by signing Martin Harnik and Marvin Bakalorz both as free agents.
While Bakalorz shored up the midfield, Harnik was a revelation up front. He found the back of the net seventeen times in 30 2.Bundesliga games. That after managing a paltry tally of two goals in his final season with die Schwaben of Stuttgart. The Austrian international was Hannover’s top scorer in the last campaign. His form lately has showed no signs of slowing down. He has four to his credit already in 2017.
More hope in bagging enough goals comes in the form of record-signing Jonathas. The Brazilian enjoyed an impressive start to the season with Rubin Kazan. He scored four goals there in five Russian Premier League games. His winner against Schalke made an instant impact to life in Lower Saxony as well.
While not as extravagant a front line as the likes of FC Bayern, Dortmund, RB Leipzig or Hoffenheim, Hannover certainly have a more than adequate attack. At least that is so on paper. They seem well-prepared to avoid falling into the trap of more typical relegation contenders like Darmstadt and Ingolstadt. Both of those clubs mustered less goals combined than each of the top-four teams individually.
Key to future success?
A strong backer of abolishing the famously successful ‘50+1 club ownership rule’, Hannover president Martin Kind believes non-traditional investment represents the future. In fact, Kind believes it is the future for all Germany’s clubs, not just Hannover. Such a shift in policy should allow Bundesliga to become stronger and compete with other top flight domestic leagues. Germany are sometimes seen as lagging behind England and Spain, in particular, on the European front.
After managing to side-step the anti-investor rule, Kind was met with a flurry of banners from fans in Hannover’s first home game of the season. The recurring theme of those being “Kind muss weg” (Kind must go). Ironically, Kind is already aiming to resign from his current positions within the club. His intention, however, is to thereby open the doors for larger investment. The type that could bring Hannover success akin to that now being enjoyed at Bayer 04 Leverkusen, TSG Hoffenheim and VfL Wolfsburg. While the signing of Jonathas seems as an indicator for where the club may be going, coincident international investment will not happen overnight.
Hannover is top four! (…for now, 28 matches to go…)
Hannover did achieve its best home record last season albeit in the second tier. The club dropped only seven points at the Niedersachsenstadion. That is the best since 2001/02. That previous side was just a bit better based only on goal difference. A finish in the top four of the final table—those spots with automatic Champions League bids—is still an uphill task. It is early days. However, Hannover faithful can draw motivation from the examples of Hoffenheim and the recently promoted SC Freiburg. Two teams that, like the 96ers, seem constantly challenged to punch above their weight.