Liverpool have been drawn against FC Augsburg in the first knockout round of the Europa League, providing Jurgen Klopp with familiar opposition.
When the enigmatic Gianni Infantino conducts another European draw, there always seems to be a strong sense of narrative.
As Arsenal drew Barcelona and Chelsea drew Paris Saint-Germain once again in the next stage of the Champions League, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Klopp’s new side would come up against German opposition in the Europa League‘s round of 32.
It isn’t quite a reunion with Borussia Dortmund, but Klopp will be very familiar with Augsburg nonetheless—though this is the first time they have met the Reds in a competitive outing.
So who are Augsburg, and what can Liverpool expect in their February encounters?
Manager: Markus Weinzierl
Markus Weinzierl took over as Augsburg manager in 2012, assuming the role from Jos Luhukay at the end of the 2011/12 campaign, with Lukukay moving to join Hertha Berlin.
This represented a major step up for Weinzierl whose only previous managerial position came in charge of Jahn Regensburg, who he had just led to promotion from 3. Liga.
Without Weinzierl, Jahn’s fortunes were short-lived, and they now reside in Regionalliga Bayern, Germany’s fourth tier.
This goes some way to show Weinzierl’s influence, and the German manager has led his side to 15th, eighth and fifth in the Bundesliga in the last three campaigns, qualifying for the Europa League for the first time in 2014/15.
Weinzierl was the mastermind behind Augsburg’s victory over Bayern Munich in 2014, ending Bayern’s 53-match unbeaten streak and securing Augsburg’s first ever win over the Bavarian giants.
At Augsburg, Weinzierl typically utilises a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to that used by Klopp at Dortmund, exploiting the pace of his wide players and the physicality of his centre-forwards.
He will be hoping to seal another famous victory, or two, when he leads his side out against Liverpool, and speaking after the draw Weinzierl described it as a “special” encounter.
“Liverpool are a cult and Jurgen is a huge name in Germany so I’m happy for the whole club,” he explained.
“We will do everything in that we can. This game is something special. We will be underdogs against Liverpool but this is a role we like to assume. We have courage and confidence.
“Jurgen Klopp knows us and will not under-estimate us.”
Augsburg will go into these games as underdogs, but Klopp will be aware of a number of key threats within Weinzierl’s squad.
Taking a focal role in Weizierl’s 4-2-3-1, right-sided attacker Alexander Esswein has been a near ever-present for Augsburg this campaign.
Blessed with immense pace and a swiftly developing tactical mind, Esswein provides industry and flair on the right wing for Augsburg, and has scored three goals in 16 Bundesliga appearances so far this season.
Capped at every youth level for Germany, a full international callup has so far eluded the 25-year-old.
Spearheading the Augsburg attack and combining with Esswein, Raul Bobadilla has become a key player for Weinzierl since his move from FC Basel in 2013.
A regular fixture in the Paraguay national team, Bobadilla was Augsburg’s top scorer in 2014/15, utilising his strength, power and agility to break through Bundesliga defences, as well as working to create openings for his attacking team-mates.
Playing in a floating role at the tip of Augsburg’s attack against Liverpool, he will be eager to make his mark.
Weinzierl’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper, Marwin Hitz has stabilised his position between the sticks at Augsburg over the past three seasons, after joining from VfL Wolfsburg in 2013.
A strong shot-stopper with great reflexes, Hitz’s key attribute comes in his high concentration, and made headlines in February when he scored a late equaliser in Augsburg’s 2-2 draw at home to Bayer Leverkusen.
Hitz has so far kept four clean sheets in 16 Bundesliga games, but fared much better in 2014/15, when he completed nine successful shutouts in 25 games.
Though Esswein, Bobadilla and Brazilian winger Caiuby take up important roles in the Augsburg attack, top scorer in the Bundesliga so far this season is experienced right-back Paul Verhaegh, who has netted five times in 14 appearances.
The former Vitesse defender is a staple in the Augsburg back line, and Weinzierl will be hoping his top-level knowhow will aid his side against the Reds.
Form, and History with Jurgen Klopp
Struggling to contend with a busy fixture list in their first season in Europe, Augsburg have suffered a major drop in form so far in 2015/16, with Weinzierl’s side currently 13th in the Bundesliga table, on 16 points.
Big defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach, Hoffenheim and Dortmund in the league have hampered their progress, but since that loss to Klopp’s former side in October, their form has improved.
In their last 10 games, Augsburg have lost just twice, winning six—including a 4-0 victory away to Stuttgart and a morale-boosting 2-1 win at home to Schalke on Sunday.
Augsburg finished second in Group L of the Europa League, behind the dominant Athletic Bilbao, securing their progress in the final round of fixtures with a dramatic 3-1 win away to Partizan Belgrade.
Needing a scoreline of 3-1 or better to overtake Partizan in second, Augsburg left it late, with Bobadilla scoring in the 89th minute to send his side through to the next round.
Klopp will be aware that matters of form will be largely irrelevant when it comes to February’s two-legged tie, but the former Dortmund manager will cling to his strong record against Augsburg as he looks to progress beyond the round of 32.
In eight Bundesliga games against the Fuggerstadter, Klopp lost just once, winning five and scoring 20 goals, conceding an average of one per game.
His biggest victory over Augsburg came at the first time of asking, with a goal from Mario Gotze and a Robert Lewandowski hat-trick sealing a 4-0 win at the Westfalenstadion.
The last time he lined his side up against Weinzierl’s outfit, however, Dortmund lost 1-0, with Bobadilla the goalscorer once again in a smash-and-grab victory for Augsburg.
His knowledge of the intricacies of the German game, and experience against Weinzierl’s Augsburg, will be key as Klopp plots for important victories in February, but this will be no foregone conclusion.