A week has passed since it became clear that 1. FC Magdeburg had successfully evaded relegation to the Regionalliga and that they will be playing in the 3. Liga again next season, but to FCM supporters it probably still feels a bit surreal. When Christian Titz arrived in Saxony-Anhalt’s capital on February 12, the club was hopelessly stuck in the relegation zone, languishing in lowly 19th. It was deemed an impossible task to fix this team and keep them up. And yet, here we are.
Magdeburg’s 3-0 win over Saarbrücken – the result that confirmed their safety – was the culmination of a great escape, the crescendo of one of the most impressive and scintillating turnarounds you will see in a long time. In the space of merely three months, Christian Titz transformed this side from reeling also-rans who seemed all but down into the hottest team in Germany’s third division – hell, they might just be the most in-form side in all of Germany right now!
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Titz, though. When he first took charge of the team, things certainly didn’t go according to plan. In fact, three games into the 50-year-old’s reign, rather than turning their fortunes around, the side’s struggles had only been exacerbated and the drop appeared increasingly inevitable. FCM had just lost their sixth consecutive match for the first time in the club’s illustrious history and the situation looked dire, especially since the teams around them all had games in hand still. A massive problem plaguing them was the lack of attacking impetus: the 1974 Cup Winners’ Cup winners only found the back of the net once in that rotten six-game spell and were boasting the second-worst offense in the league with a measly 20 goals scored in 25 games.
However, the final game of that unfortunate run – a 1-0 defeat to Wiesbaden – proved to be a game-changer. Yes, Magdeburg suffered defeat, but they were dominant and unlucky to come away empty-handed. According to Titz, it was this encounter that restored the team’s belief in themselves. “It might sound strange because we lost, but the team knew afterward that they will win games,” he told MDR. “The realization that they can compete with and without the ball gave the players strength.”
This newfound energy was already on display just a few days later in a rescheduled match against Viktoria Köln. The hosts from Cologne took an early lead, but Magdeburg soon hit back and then played themselves into a frenzy. Titz’s men proceeded to hang four on a hapless Viktoria as they picked up a massive three points. This result was ultimately the catalyst for their absurd upturn in form; FCM went on to win all but two of the ensuing ten games – no 3. Liga team has picked up more points than Magdeburg since Titz’s arrival; only Hansa Rostock can match FCM’s haul of 29 points. The 11-game league unbeaten run that they currently find themselves on is longer than those of Ligue 1 leaders Lille, Russian champions Zenit, or even WSL winners Chelsea! Furthermore, the three-time DDR-Oberliga champions have become just the third 3. Liga club to avoid the drop after only picking up 21 points from the first 25 games.
It’s an incredible achievement from the whole team, but two men, in particular, undoubtedly deserve the lion’s share of the praise: Christian Titz (obviously) and Baris Atik. Titz, who had been out of a job for almost a year after parting with Regionalliga powerhouse Essen due to the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, has become a bit of a meme in recent years, but there was a tangible air of expectation around his hire considering that he still is somewhat of a household name. However, nobody could ever have anticipated him to be quite as successful as he turned out to be.
Of course, goals catch the eye – and Magdeburg have scored quite a few of them in recent weeks – yet Titz’s rejigging of the defense has arguably been just as impressive as their goalscoring exploits: FCM have had to pick the ball out of their net just six times in the last eleven games and goalkeeper Morten Behrens has impressed so much that he has already been snapped up by 2. Bundesliga side Darmstadt for next season.
The fact that Titz has been able to improve Magdeburg’s fortunes so swiftly speaks to the quality that was already in this squad; their confidence may have been shot before the man now heralded as a savior arrived, but, on paper, they were still a more than capable 3. Liga team, and this was a persuasive factor in convincing him to join the club in the first place. From the moment he arrived, he was confident that they’ll survive. “When I took this job, I recognized that we had a competent squad here. I looked at the team, the players, I knew that we had the quality.”
In terms of the system he employs, he has experimented with different variations of either a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-2-3-1 in defense that morphs into something resembling more of a 2-1-4-3 in the attacking build-up. Whatever the formation, the core principles are the same: build out from the back through Behrens; one of the midfielders drops deep and acts almost as a sweeper; overload the center of the park and then use the space provided out wide; and keep the full-backs high since they’re an integral part in the attack. Of course, as is almost customary with German coaches, there is a degree of Gegenpressing involved, as well. Titz’s ideas found fertile ground in Magdeburg’s squad. Players like 20-year-old youngster Andreas Müller and Thore Jacobsen have taken to their new coach’s pressing game like fish to water.
His system is also somewhat unique in that he frequently utilizes a double ten. Against Kaiserlautern back in March, Baris Atik and Sebastian Jakubiak, the nominal tens on the day, were drifting around in the half-space, causing all kinds of problems. Particularly Jakubiak was almost unplayable that day, he was all over the place, sometimes dropping deep alongside the more withdrawn central midfielders and at other times playing almost like a winger.
Once Magdeburg find their rhythm during a game, it’s over; they become nigh on unstoppable. Their interchanges are fluid, their passing is zippy, and they are thoroughly press resistant. The fact that a lot of their midfielders are very reliable and versatile has certainly made Titz’s job a lot easier. The aforementioned Müller, for example, has been used as both the deep-lying midfielder that tucks in between the center backs and as one of the more advanced midfielders, essentially playing as a ten like he did against Bayern II. In that same game, Baris Atik deputized as the center forward, which just further drives the point home that this side is blessed with a fair bit of versatility.
Speaking of Atik, let’s discuss him for a bit because he has been nothing short of a revelation since his January arrival. Personally, I was surprised that he was without a club for half a year. I have always maintained that he is a solid 2. Bundesliga player, so when Magdeburg picked him up, I was definitely intrigued. A few months on from his unexpected rocking up in the 3. Liga, it’s fair to say that sporting director Otmar Schork struck gold with Atik. So far, the former Turkish youth international has scored seven goals and notched eight assists in 13 appearances for his new club.
After Magdeburg’s opening goal versus Duisburg at the weekend, commentator Lenny Leonhardt described Atik, who racked up yet another assist, as out of this world – “he’s like an alien playing on a foreign planet”. High praise, but totally deserved for a man who has been the visual manifestation of Titz’s ideas since his arrival. Atik plays football with a kind of swagger that few other players in the division can match; he just exudes creativity and composure, two characteristics that are invaluable in the eyes of his coach.
In many ways, Atik and Titz are a match made in heaven, the two have been waxing lyrical about each other since they first met. Following a 2-0 triumph over Bayern’s reserves, Atik was asked about Titz’s coaching credentials. “To be honest, he’s a top coach,” he told Magenta Sport. “I don’t know if he belongs in the 3. Liga; in my opinion, he should be in a much, much better league because of how professional he is, his plans, his ideas. Even during my time in the second division, I rarely came across anyone like him.”
Titz’s men have two games left to play in the 3. Liga, one is away at Uerdingen, the other a home fixture against Unterhaching, both sides are in the relegation zone and the latter is already down, so there’s a decent chance that Magdeburg will keep their ridiculous run of form intact. The last match of their 20/21 campaign is the final of the regional cup where they will face fellow 3. Liga outfit Halle with qualification to next season’s DFB-Pokal on the line.
With Magdeburg guaranteed a spot in the 3. Liga next season, what was originally dubbed “Mission Impossible” has already been achieved by Christian Titz. Should they also go on to qualify for the Pokal, the 50-year-old – who is already deified in the city – will have turned a season that had the club on the brink of implosion into a successful one, all in the space of merely three months. It really cannot be overstated what an inspired hire – and what a great addition to the 3. Liga – he has been.
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