After a few seasons where goals and assists were hard to come by at FC Ingolstadt 04, Pascal Groß and die Schanzer has exploded this season and they both seem to be in unstoppable form. He seems to be on for a quite phenomenal campaign but can the 23-year-old maintain it?
The beginning: VfL Neckarau and Hoffenheim
Groß grew up in Mannheim, near Hoffenheim, and he joined the Sinsheim side in 2007. He was originally part of the local VfL Neckarau team, with six of their players moving with him to Hoffenheim that year. He was joined by Marco Terrazzino und Manuel Gulde, who, like Groß, both went on to play for Karlsruher SC. The now-Ingolstadt midfielder spent three years at the club, enjoying spells with the under-17s, under-19s, second team and the first eleven.
It was at Hoffenheim where he gained his first call-up into the German youth ranks, not long after he'd nabbed a goal in their 6-4 win, over Borussia Dortmund, in the German youth championship final. From there, he went on to make six appearances for the first team and was a fixture in the other sides. Groß wanted first team football, seemingly, and despite the twenty-six goals and seven assists from a little over sixty games in the lower-tier Hoffenheim teams, he wasn't getting a look in.
The big break: moving to Karlsruhe
So, in January 2011, both Groß and Terrazzino made the move to Karlsruher SC. He made little impact in the Rückrunde, even though he scored the winner against FSV Frankfurt, going on to record just three appearances. In the second season, he became much more important. A rough Hinrunde meant he was available for seven games, but the latter part of the year seen him as an almost ever-present.
Unfortunately, both player and club would taste a bitter end to the campaign. His regular season was solid if unspectacular, two goals and two assists, as Karlsruhe finished sixteenth and faced Jahn Regensburg in the relegation play-off. Groß scored the equaliser in an initial 1-1 draw, but the second game ended 2-2 and the Wildparkstadion side were relegated to the 3. Liga.
From the Rhein to the Donau: a new start in Ingolstadt
That summer, he left on a costless to join FC Ingolstadt and signed a deal until 2014. The central-midfielder fitted in instantly and became an integral part of the Bavarian side, missing all but two games in his first season there. Earning a solid kicker grade of 3.52, alongside two goals and an assist, meant Groß had made a decent start to life in Ingolstadt.
His second term represented further improvement. He was absent for a further four games and added two goals and four assists in those twenty-eight games. The main reason for his exclusion was the coach at the time, "The coach was a decisive factor. Under Marco Kurz, for the first time I was not part of the starting lineup, it was a hard time," said Groß, but Kurz was soon replaced and Ingolstadt's number ten was restored to the starting line-up.
This was something that he was extremely grateful for, "Ralph Hasenhüttl has let me play immediately and gave me the confidence in a personal conversation. At my age, that's the most important thing." The Austrian coach was instrumental in his extension at die Schanzer, as his contract would have run out that summer, which tied him down to 2016. Coincidentally, Hasenhüttl also had his deal prolonged until 2016.
The current season and his fantastic form
That brings us to the 2014/15 season. Hasenhüttl's ways were beginning to take hold after almost a season in charge and Ingolstadt were looking more and more impressive every week. The tenth placed finish was their best since promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, this wasn't too special but there was a record brewing from last season that was historic.
To start that season, Ingolstadt began well. A few draws and some wins gave their fans hope that they could avoid another nervy end to the campaign. Before the game against VfR Aalen, Pascal Groß had picked up a goal and assist; nothing amazing. Then, out of nowhere, he produced all four assists in a four-one win. This was just the highlight of a series of impressive run of results and performances from both. As is evident below, he was an influence throughout the game.
It was on matchday ten that the record fell; a 1-0 win culminated in the eighteenth away game unbeaten for Ingolstadt, making them the first team to go unbeaten for this long away from home. That was sandwiched in between five straight wins and followed by two more draws, before falling to defeat at 1. FC Nürnberg and ending the record at nineteen.
Oddly, that seemed to spur on Hasenhüttl's men and they won all but one of their remaining five games. Groß' own run had started before that, from Union Berlin to the final test of 2014 against Darmstadt, he contributed a goal or an assist in every single match; a period of seven games. A quite phenomenal run that has seen him earn plaudits throughout Germany and acclaim as one of the best players in the division.
His strengths: why is Groß tearing up the 2.Bundesliga?
So, what exactly has made Groß so special this year? Apart from taking on the role of a leader, it's his two midfield partners who have been there to help him: "I do believe that I have developed in my third year here to guide players. I'm a guy who wants to take responsibility. In midfield the other two should not be forgotten: Roger shows an enormous strength in tackles, and Alfredo Morales has already scored and assisted goal."
Apart from being part of, arguably, the best midfield trio in the league, Groß can hold his own as an individual and has some pretty fantastic stats to back that up. First up, his set-pieces. Above is the wonderful costless-kick against Darmstadt, a top of the table clash, which sent Ingolstadt into the lead. This isn't an isolated incident, his dead-ball delivery regularly causing headaches for the opposition defences, who simply can't withstand the dip, pace and curl of the costless-kick.
Another feather in his cap, is ball retention and distribution. The Ingolstadt number ten is almost always on the ball and at the heart of everything good that the Bavarians produce. His high number of assists obviously shows he can play the killer ball, but in the difficult away games, such as against him promotion chasing, former-club Karlsruhe, he can put his foot on the ball and make sure that his side don't lose the ball. To have a player that isn't afraid to take charge is a blessing, especially in the promotion clashes.
His passing is of extreme importance to how Ingolstadt play. Alfredo Morales and Roger, along with one of the 2 .Bundesliga's tightest defences, mean that Groß is used as a quarter-back style player. He has to dictate the pace of any attacks and needs to be able to pick out the crucial ball on any counters, especially with Danny da Costa and Mathew Leckie bursting down the sides, the more offensive-minded midfielder of the trio has the ability to send them racing through from any range.
To put his creativity into context with the Bundesliga, Groß has created a chance every 11 minutes and 49 seconds, Arjen Robben edges him by just a minute; the Dutchman averages a chance every 10 minutes and 50 seconds. This is also reflected in the kicker grades. The Ingolstadt midfielder can boast a 2. Bundesliga high of 2.39, but Robben beats him with an outstanding 2.04. When putting his eleven assists into perspective, only Cesc Fabregas (12) has more in the so-called big-five leagues in Europe and their respective second divisions.
Last but not least, is his tackling. Despite having the assurance of Roger, Morales, Marvin Matip and Benjamin Hübner immediately behind him, Groß is more than happy to do his fair share of the dirty work. Playing in a more advanced role than the other midfielders, when he wins the ball back it gives Ingolstadt an edge, as it is further up the pitch and allows for the emphasis to be switched from defence to attack much more quickly.
The future: can he lead die Schanzer to the Bundesliga?
Where can Groß end up, then? Well, if the first half of the season is anything to go by he'll be in the Bundesliga with Ingolstadt next year. However, it'll be a huge surprise if no top-division club make a move for him in January; whether he leaves or not is another matter, especially given his loyalty to die Schanzer. Though, if they don't make it to the plateau of German football, a move to the promised land will surely be on the cards.
For now, all he'll be thinking about is getting Ingolstadt into the Bundesliga and continuing his quite incredible form. If he keeps providing and adding the odd goal or two, there'll be more than just German clubs scurrying for his signature.
Stats via transfermarkt, Bundesliga Latest (@BL_Latest) and Bundesliga.de. Quotes via kicker. Photos from kicker, Karlsruher SC and FC Ingolstadt.