On 28 May, as Wehen Wiesbaden supporters spilled on to the pitch, the rest of the Audi Sportpark emptied. The supporters of FC Ingolstadt 04 could barely believe their eyes and were left to ponder a rapid decline of cataclysmic proportions, with only distant memories of success to reminisce upon.
Having ended in 16th place in the 2. Bundesliga table, die Schanzer were faced with a relegation playoff as they attempted to stave off the drop to the third tier of German football. They won 2-1 away in the first leg, but succumbed to a 3-2 defeat in front of their home faithful, earning Wehen promotion and sealing Ingolstadt’s fate in the process. After securing an 11th-place finish in the Bundesliga only three years earlier, the fall from grace was abrupt. The unthinkable had happened.
The halcyon days enjoyed between 2014 and 2016 are immeasurably far away. Since the departure of the club’s first – and arguably only – truly iconic figure, nothing has quite been the same. When the curtain came down to signal the conclusion of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s tenure at Ingolstadt, it was the end of an era, and one that would prove to be the catalyst for their plummet from the heady heights of top-flight football to what the club’s chairman Peter Jackwerth has described as their “darkest hour”.
Hasenhüttl may not yet be a household name in English football, having taken over at Southampton in early December last year, but recollections only of success exist from his spell in Germany. However, before his exuberant, dynamic RB Leipzig took the Bundesliga by storm and the manager rose to prominence, he honed his philosophy and displayed both tactical prowess and impeccable man-management at the Audi Sportpark.
Founded in 2004, Ingolstadt were a fresh, exciting and intriguing prospect. Die Schanzer made efforts to breach the upper echelons of German football courtesy of financial backing from globally-renowned car manufacturer Audi. The club was formed when fourth-division side MTV Ingolstadt 1881 joined forces with seventh-division outfit ESC Ingolstadt-Ringsee, as the pair merged to create a new project in Bavaria.
Ingolstadt as a city had previously become synonymous with its automobiles and ties with Audi, which had proven to be a selling point for many generations. Until a straight-talking, forward-thinking, Austrian tactician came along, that was. “Before, when you spoke about Ingolstadt, it was known for Audi. It is now known for football because of Ralph,” said Ramazan Özcan, who spent five years at the club before departing for Bayer Leverkusen following Hasenhüttl’s move to Leipzig in 2016.
When the former Bayern Munich II striker arrived in 2013, Ingolstadt were on their knees. Attendances were concerningly low despite the allure of the impressive new stadium, the club’s hierarchy was disgruntled with the proceedings on the pitch, and, above all else, the first-team squad was in disarray.
He came in with the sole purpose of cleaning up the mess that had been left for him; he was in charge of steadying the ship and, having duly delivered in a memorable two-and-a-half years, a number of icebergs have since been hit, with the club now desperately attempting to keep their relevance afloat, away from the clutches of obscurity. It is, in fact, a testament to the influence that the Austrian had that a total of seven managers have been installed following his exit, with the perfect recipe for success – which was constructed and executed to a tee by Hasenhüttl – continuing to elude them.
As stated, the manager hardly walked into a welcoming environment. The team had started the 2013/14 campaign in horrendous fashion, which led to the departure of Marco Kurz at the end of September, with die Schanzer rooted to the foot of the 2. Bundesliga table. After careful deliberation, Hasenhüttl was appointed, with the board at Ingolstadt encouraged by his confident persona, tactical approach and experience of predicaments such as that of their own.
He was by no means a stranger to these kinds of situations. In his most recent job, he had been assigned the unlikely task of keeping VfR Aalen’s heads above water in the 3. Liga. Appointed in January 2011, the Austrian steered them to safety in comprehensive fashion, before guiding them to a second-place finish in his first full season; a miraculous feat given that the south German club had been plying their trade in the Regionalliga Süd only two years prior. Hasenhüttl exited his post after his maiden campaign in the 2. Bundesliga, having led Aalen to the more than respectable finish of ninth, evidently catching the eye of suitors in the division while doing so.
A similar dilemma presented itself at Ingolstadt. It would be an uphill battle even for the best of managers, but as he did so successfully during his most recent stint at the helm of a lowly club, Hasenhüttl made an immediate impact before proceeding to achieve feats of a seismic extent, only enhancing his ever-growing reputation as one of the finest up-and-coming tacticians in Germany.
The managerial post appeared to have been a poisoned chalice. Under Kurz, Ingolstadt had won just once during their opening nine outings, which came in a dramatic 3-2 win over Arminia Bielefeld. They were struggling in front of goal, having found the net just eight times in this bleak period, and were hardly any more inspiring at the other end, conceding on 18 occasions in this unproductive spell.
Hasenhüttl didn’t get off to a flying start, either. An unfortunate 2-1 defeat against Fortuna Düsseldorf failed to portray an indication of the success that would follow, as an upturn in form commenced. Following the loss, Ingolstadt hit a purple patch, winning four times, drawing twice and losing twice in their next eight outings. Another 2-1 defeat, this time at the hands of Kaiserslautern, may have seen die Schanzer enter the winter break with an underwhelming result, but spirits were not dampened, as the club sat in a comfortable 14th place, two months on from their horrendous opening to the campaign which left them rock bottom.
Ingolstadt had amassed 21 points at the turn of the year. Former boss Kurz contributed with four, while Michael Henke – who took caretaker charge following his exit – was responsible for three after a 1-0 away win against Bochum prior to the next appointment. Hasenhüttl’s transformative influence, though, was apparent, with 14 to his name in the brief spell he had overseen.
The manager delivered enthusiasm off the pitch and excitement on it. There was a renewed sense of pride at the club, and optimism was of the essence after it had previously diminished under the stewardship of those who failed before him. He made tactical tweaks, shifted his players positionally, but above all else, united his squad, instigating a change in collective philosophy, creating a togetherness that had hitherto been missing at Ingolstadt.
Emerging players such as Danny Da Costa, Pascal Groß and Caiuby were all allowed to flourish, and although mistakes were inevitably made as tactical adjustments occurred, Hasenhüttl retained faith in the tools at his disposal, ushering a previously-doomed team to the comforts of a tenth-place finish.
The manager has always been open-minded. With his players, he attempts to forge individual and collective bonds, ensuring that trust and chemistry are developed among the group, with synergies formed all across the pitch, as well as off it. From a tactical perspective, while his philosophy is set in stone, he has displayed a similar willingness to learn throughout his tenure as a coach, and this was particularly evidenced by how he responded to his resignation from Aalen.
Having departed the club for reasons linked to sponsorship and overwhelming influence from sporting director Markus Schupp, Hasenhüttl used the summer of 2013 the enhance his knowledge of the game. While most managers would venture off to luxurious locations to make the most of what was, indeed, a well-earned holiday, the Austrian wanted to learn. Fond of mountainous climates and beautiful scenery, he embarked on journeys to and from the surrounding areas of training grounds – notably those of two prestigious Bundesliga clubs – with little more than an open mind, his trusted bike and a pair of binoculars.
Hasenhüttl, hidden and out of sight, examined the sessions organised by Jürgen Klopp – whom he secured his coaching qualifications alongside – at Borussia Dortmund, as well as Lucien Favre’s pre-season preparations at Borussia Mönchengladbach. With unwavering curiosity and a thirst for analysis, he consumed how the pair went about their business and the lessons that were there for the taking, as he sat and awaited the challenge that would present itself at Ingolstadt in the 2013/14 campaign.
“It’s better to be incognito because otherwise everyone is talking to you because they know you – and you can’t concentrate on the training because everyone is talking to you,” he explained about his careful observations. “I was also in Italy when Germany were preparing for the World Cup because it was interesting for me. I’m maybe in this way a little bit crazy, but it made me a better coach.”
This was not to say that Hasenhüttl was reluctant to communicate with his peers, though. In fact, a fundamental aspect of his approach to football is his inclusive attitude and emphasis on humility. At Ingolstadt, this outlook is what helped to enamour him to the club’s supporters; the record-signing was treated with the same consideration as the groundskeeper, and the salient fact was that he was relatable – an ordinary guy with a passion for football and a desire to make the game enjoyable.
It is because of Hasenhüttl’s level of gratitude for hard work, commitment and drive that he resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes to his Ingolstadt team in the first summer transfer window he oversaw. Never one to advocate upheaval, the boss ensured that high-quality additions were made – evidenced by the notable arrivals of Mathew Leckie, Lukas Hinterseer and his former Aalen defender Benjamin Hübner – but worked to reward his charges for their efforts in the previous campaign.
Exciting times appeared to have been ahead at Ingolstadt, but cautious optimism was required. There was a sense of anticipation as Hasenhüttl took charge of his first full campaign, but after an incredible start to the 2. Bundesliga season, the supporters could be forgiven for getting carried away. Die Schanzer didn’t lose once in their opening 13 matches, such was their ability to grind out results from the foundations of a resolute back-line and a relentless, aggressive attacking setup which played to their admittedly-limited strengths.
Hasenhüttl favoured a 4-3-3 shape most regularly, with two creative and energetic midfielders deployed ahead of a sitting player. He instructed his wingers to tuck inside and create overloads in the half-spaces, enabling combination play between the forward players and the midfielders when Ingolstadt had possession for longer spells in matches. Their speciality, however, was displayed by how they approached the game without the ball.
The first port of call was acknowledging whether or not gegenpressing could be initiated; if an opportunity to hunt for the ball in packs presented itself in the opponents’ defensive third, it would be taken, as the team aimed to retrieve possession high up the pitch and in dangerous territory. If the press failed, they would drop into a low block, with the wide players retreating to form a five-man midfield, ergo compressing space between the lines before awaiting a mistake from the opposing player and pouncing.
In order for this style to be rendered effective, capitalising on turnovers was essential. Quick bursts upfield were required, and with the dynamism of players such as Leckie on the break coupled with the vision of the likes of Groß, Ingolstadt were far more productive in front of goal than they were in the preceding campaign.
In 2013/14, they scored only 34 goals, but in the subsequent season, the team notched a far more respectable total of 53, highlighting the fruit that a full pre-season of tactical instruction and discipline from Hasenhüttl would bear. Die Schanzer only averaged 1.5 goals per game – hardly a paradigm of ruthlessness in the final third – but were resilient at the other end of the pitch, drawing on 12 occasions and losing just four times all season as they pulled off a surprise and topped the 2. Bundesliga table, booking their place in the Bundesliga for the first time since the club’s inception.
Ingolstadt amassed a total of 64 points, five ahead of Darmstadt in second place, and scored the joint-most goals in the division alongside Bochum, as the improvements in the attacking third helped the team secure promotion. Within 18 months of being appointed, Hasenhüttl had taken the club to the top flight after he found them in a state of disarray, with third-tier football on the cards. “We found each other very quickly. I have built a close relationship with my players, I’m in love with this team,” said the Austrian at the end of the 2014/15 campaign, and it was easy to see why.
Packed with energy, intensity and discipline, Ingolstadt were a force to be reckoned with. Groß emerged as the key man after the manager identified him as the nucleus of the team, with the German scoring seven times and assisting 23 to stake his claim of being arguably the best player in the 2. Bundesliga. At the back, die Schanzer were shepherded by the dependable Marvin Matip, whose experience and composure helped to provide a calming influence on a generally youthful squad. The front three were reasonably proficient; Leckie scored seven and assisted as many, while Hinterseer and Stefan Lex bagged nine each.
Hinterseer would prove to be a favourite of Hasenhüttl’s. He was signed from Wacker Innsbruck – a club in the manager’s homeland – in 2014 and played a key role in Ingolstadt’s triumph. In a later interview, the forward aptly explained the manager’s philosophy, detailing the physical demands that he placed upon the team: “You could see his vision, how he wants to play,” the Austria international said. “He explained his way of football as not only on the pitch but for everybody at the club. That made my decision to go to Ingolstadt. We were chasing the ball like 11 dogs over 90 minutes. His idea of football was to play easy, no big risks at the back, but always attacking and pressing forward.”
Hinterseer summarises Hasenhüttl’s footballing ethos well. There is a collective emphasis on winning the ball back high up the pitch and vertically penetrating teams with overloads and quick passes through the lines to manufacture goalscoring opportunities. But the intricacies of the manager’s system are what makes it tick: the pressing triggers; the positional rotation among the forwards; the intelligence to know exactly when to narrow the team’s shape and when to stretch the play; how best to exploit space. It quickly became clear that this coach was simply too good to manage in the second tier.
If Hasenhüttl had gained the Ingolstadt’s trust and respect with his high-octane approach to the game, he earned their admiration and adoration with his personality. His former striker Hinterseer hailed the manager’s tactical nous, but above all else, reserved praise for his man-management. “There was a lot of passion before games, you would get fired up as a team,” he recalled. “If you’re losing, he was always able to find the right words. You feel better immediately after speaking with him and get your confidence back.”
Hasenhüttl was strict on his Ingolstadt squad, unconditionally firm but fair. He worked them relentlessly hard, demanded no less than their everything and, ultimately, reaped the rewards as they secured promotion to the Bundesliga. The secret to their success, though? Respect. The manager held a belief that if mutual respect, appreciation and understanding was developed, which involved uncompromising trust in his tactical approach, the prize would be magnificent – and it was.
The players, evidenced by the comments made since by the likes of Özcan and Hinterseer, grew incredibly fond of the manager. Matip – the older brother of Liverpool defender Joël – once described Hasenhüttl as the “figurehead of the club”, having sparked the transmutations at Ingolstadt. It was not just the players and the supporters who admired the Austrian, but the owners as well.
In the summer of 2013, months prior to his appointment at the Audi Sportpark, the club made battling at the top of the 2. Bundesliga within the next five years their long-term goal; this was, after all, an organisation that had been active for less than a decade. The charismatic Hasenhüttl wasted no time, however, and excelled, beating the target by a remarkable three seasons as die Schanzer rose to the top flight for the 2015/16 campaign.
Somewhat inevitably, debates surrounding the worthiness of Ingolstadt becoming a top-flight club brewed. Having been funded by wealthy investors and only emerging as a professional football team in 2004, they were not exactly welcomed to the Bundesliga with open arms, as they were resented for their absence of tradition and pedigree.
Managing director Narald Gärtner was wholly dismissive of these claims, however, and insinuated that those who had voiced discontent towards the club’s progress were jealous: “We’ve achieved in the past 11 years what other clubs used to speak of taking 30 or 40,” he said. “That’s why there’s all this talk about ‘traditional’ clubs – here we’re writing our own history.” Jackwerth, the chairman, echoed these thoughts and also insisted that the club would not be spending big in the market despite investment from Audi: “We are not a company team, and our budget will be that of a newly promoted club.”
The club’s business reflected this conservative approach in the transfer market. Ingolstadt spent just €6.2m, a meagre outlay for a team hoping to secure safety in the Bundesliga. Just six senior players were recruited – most of whom did not even establish themselves as mainstays in the starting line-up – and Hasenhüttl continued to place an emphasis on rewarding those who had elevated the club to previously unseen heights.
Upon the club’s promotion to the top flight, there was little mainstream acclaim nor anticipation for their meteoric rise. It was seemingly assumed that this untested squad would put up a valiant fight for their right to be in the division before quietly sinking back down into the 2. Bundesliga, not to be seen again for the foreseeable future. Those who did expect little of die Schanzer, however, were proven wrong, and Hasenhüttl believed that the shortage of public attention was actually beneficial for his men, as it was “perfect for athletic development”. There was nothing to distract the Ingolstadt players, and the manager was able to easily keep the squad grounded ahead of a historic season.
Hasenhüttl is a firm believer that undivided focus and dedication, with the absence of unnecessary distractions, is the way forward. This ethos, exemplified by his response to the peaceful environment which was created by the media’s neglect to publicise Ingolstadt’s accomplishments, remains relevant to this day.
In his current job at Southampton, he has banned the players from using WiFi at team hotels as he feels an addiction to activities such as gaming can have similar effects to that of alcohol or drugs. “I think it’s something you have to force actively against, and I will do this,” Hasenhüttl said earlier this year. “I did it in my last club [RB Leipzig], we had also problems with players, they were playing until three o’clock in the morning before a game. You have to be active and to help protect them because it’s not a small problem because if you are honest, it’s the same as alcoholism or getting addicted to drugs.”
The hard work and focus on Ingolstadt in pre-season saw them kick their Bundesliga tenure off with a bang. Their first fixture came away at Mainz, who finished 11th in the previous campaign. The odds, as ever, were stacked against Hasenhüttl’s men, but a stoic display of defensive quality and a goal from Hinterseer secured an unlikely three points in die Schanzer’s maiden top-flight outing. Soon after, however, Ingolstadt were brought straight back down to earth at the hands of a brutally dominant Borussia Dortmund side. As a sell-out crowd of 15,000 flooded into the Audi Sportpark, Thomas Tuchel’s team dismantled the hosts with a comprehensive 4-0 win.
Hasenhüttl brushed his squad down and encouraged optimism and belief. Following a humbling against one of the division’s behemoths, Ingolstadt bounced back and secured another win on the road, this time at Augsburg. People began to slowly take notice of the newly-promoted team for their unique style; they bucked the trend of sides who sat deep and aimed to soak up pressure, instead pressing aggressively and playing on the front foot. What followed, after a 0-0 home draw against Wolfsburg, was something of a watershed moment when the Bavarian club travelled to Werder Bremen.
Ingolstadt, having endured a cold introduction to the top flight, boasted a warm figure at the helm, and it took little time for fans of the league to fall in love with Hasenhüttl. What makes the manager so special is his personality; he is by no means egotistical, nor arrogant, but relatable. He is unapologetically human, and his outpouring of emotion meant that he was the name on every Bundesliga aficionado’s lips as the team neared their third win of the campaign in enthralling circumstances.
Away at Werder, Ingolstadt had held firm. It was a cagey affair between two evenly-matched teams, with the visitors still adjusting to their new surroundings. However, deep into stoppage time, die Schanzer were awarded a penalty. Moritz Hartmann stepped up to take the decisive spot-kick for his side in the 93rd minute, and some could hardly bear to watch – including one manager on the touchline.
Hasenhüttl’s nerves got the better of him, and in unintentionally comedic fashion, he hurried back to the dugout, proceeded to hide behind the away bench, before sheepishly re-emerging and celebrating in tandem with the roar from the travelling Ingolstadt faithful when the ball struck the back of the net. The painstaking experience of helplessly watching a last-minute penalty is one that no football fan is particularly fond of, and Hasenhüttl acted on behalf of the entire Ingolstadt faithful, as emotion overcame him.
The 1-0 win marked the team’s fourth clean sheet in five games – a commendable feat for a newly-promoted outfit who had encountered seasoned Bundesliga clubs so far. Their form somewhat waned, with just one win coming in their next seven outings, but they continued to produce eye-catching displays, with an intriguing tactical system arriving in the top flight. The quality – or lack of, rather – of players did let the team down at times, though, as three of the matches they lost during this period were by one-goal margins.
Ingolstadt only managed to score a paltry 33 goals in their 34 Bundesliga clashes in 2015/16, but their defensive prowess combined with expertly-executed set-piece routines saw them ease to an unexpected finish of 11th. Hasenhüttl’s emphasis on creating high-quality chances from dead-ball situations was apparent: 60 percent of the goals – 20 of 33 – that were netted by the team came from either penalties, free-kicks or corners.
Their style wasn’t aesthetically pleasing in some spells, but intensity was a priority, and the high-octane approach employed by Hasenhüttl earned him praise. Ingolstadt would play long passes into dangerous zones of the opponents’ defensive third – many of which were unsuccessful – but this was a facet of the philosophy. A failure to win the header or retain possession from the ball upfield would initiate the press; second balls were met with crowds of black and red shirts, intensely working to suffocate the opposition players and create turnovers high up the pitch.
This was something that Pep Guardiola alluded to ahead of Bayern Munich’s clash against Ingolstadt in December 2015: “Up until now, they’ve done an insanely good job,” the Spaniard said. “When you analyse a team that hasn’t allowed a lot of goals, the first thought is that they are standing deep in their own half. That’s not the case with Ingolstadt. For example, against Gladbach and Dortmund, they pressed up-front. That’s how they haven’t allowed a lot of goals, the entire team comes back in defence.”
Bayern proceeded to run out as 2-0 winners, but the visitors certainly made life difficult for Guardiola’s side, showing bravery and working hard to suffocate them when possible. Following the match, the Spaniard hailed Hasenhüttl’s men as the best team they had played to date in the 15/16 season.
Ingolstadt would employ man-to-man pressing in the Bundesliga, attempting to nullify the main sources of creativity on the opposing team, with the intention of stifling their creative influence from deep areas. This tactic worked to a reasonable extent against sides who relied on ball circulation from the back and in holding midfield, such as Guardiola’s Bayern, but what was missing upon the retrieval of possession was an end product. Their wastefulness was represented by the sparse total of 33 goals they scored all season – the lowest of any team in the division.
However, Ingolstadt rightfully earned plaudits for their efforts at the other end of the pitch. They conceded just 42 goals, bettered only by Bayern, Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen, who made up the top three. The team continued to grind out results; ten draws, evenly spread at home and on the road, and ten clean sheets all season made for an impressive record and acted as an embodiment of the meticulous coaching that was involved in organising the resolute defensive structure.
What was equally impressive was how Hasenhüttl’s coaching and approach to life in the top flight allowed for a plethora of players to thrive. Inexperienced assets such as Groß and Hübner showed signs of quality upon their introductions to the Bundesliga, while the more seasoned players like Matip and Lex also displayed their credentials. With a blend of experienced heads and unheard of gems, Ingolstadt had all the necessary cogs to function like a well-oiled machine; each and every player was aware of their role, owing to the careful work of the manager on the training pitch, perhaps inspired by the focus on chemistry and understanding displayed by the likes of Klopp and Favre.
The most notable moment of Hasenhüttl’s first venture in the Bundesliga was the incredible scene at Werder early on in the campaign. However, other standout wins followed, as the manager masterminded a 3-0 trouncing of Schalke on home soil before seeing his side dismantle Gladbach in a 1-0 win, also at the Sportpark. As the season drew nearer to its close, the boss revealed that he would be moving on to greener pastures in the summer. He rejected Ingolstadt’s offer of a contract extension and agreed to lead an exciting new project at RB Leipzig.
Hasenhüttl’s work with die Schanzer was done. It was a tale of overachievement; from the word go, the manager had defied the odds to steer a once-doomed club to unheralded success, and he bolstered his reputation enormously while doing so. Those who had doubted his ability to thrive in the top-flight despite his work in the second and third tiers were duly silenced, and he received a send-off from the Ingolstadt faithful that was fit for a hero. After all, he was as close to one as the club could have ever hoped for, and is, to this day, apotheosized for his exploits.
The team ended the campaign with three consecutive defeats, and it wasn’t the end to the fairy-tale that Hasenhüttl had hoped for. However, in his final game as manager at the Audi Sportpark, he was bid farewell with an impassioned tribute from the club’s supporters. As black and red flags swept through the air, and banners reading ‘Danke Ralph’ emerged, the Austrian was visibly moved. Ingolstadt may have lost the match 2-1 at the hands of champions Bayern, but the result paled into insignificance as die Schanzer waved goodbye to a legend.
He addressed the media following the game and was unable to fight back the tears on what was evidently an emotional day, as he broke down in front of all the journalists and cameras before him, displaying the vulnerability and human nature that saw players and supporters take to him in Bavaria. Guardiola, sat to the side of his opposite number, embraced him following the conclusion of the press conference, displaying unspoken commendation and appreciation for the gargantuan job that he had overseen.
Hasenhüttl is a fantastic coach, but first and foremost, a good man. The psychological and emotional connection he develops with players and supporters arguably matters more than the complex tactics which he implements on the pitch, and he leaves a lasting impression on those with whom he crosses paths.
After going their separate ways in a more than amicable breakup, the manager’s immediate trajectory would be far different to that of the club he left behind. He led RB Leipzig to an unprecedented second-place finish in the Bundesliga in his first campaign before steering them to a still-respectable sixth in his last season in Germany to date. Hasenhüttl is now in charge of Southampton, where he drew from his experiences at Aalen and Ingolstadt to steer them to safety amid the threat of relegation from the Premier League last term.
For die Schanzer, however, it has been downhill since. They have struggled in their quest for stability and are now in the midst of a downward spiral. Following the departure of their much-loved boss, they succumbed to relegation from the Bundesliga. They then proceeded to finish ninth in the second tier during the 2017/18 campaign, and last season, they couldn’t find themselves another Hasenhüttl to stave off relegation to the 3. Liga.
Ingolstadt face an uncertain future. Low attendances, more managerial changes and the struggle to reclaim relevance may now occur once more following their plummet to the third tier. The bad days are so often a reminder of just how special the good ones were, and the memories of Ralph Hasenhüttl at Ingolstadt are just that.
By Luke Osman @LukeOsmanRS