Kaiserslautern Quietly Stride to the Top

With one week remaining on the Bundesliga calendar Kaiserslautern find themselves firmly in 10th place with the chance of finishing as high up as 7th by the end of the season.  With the meager expectations placed on a newly promoted club, the Red Devils have exceeded all odds and raked up a quite impressive campaign.  Despite limited resources and a modest combined squad value (only St. Pauli have a lower per capita market value) Marco Kurz’s men have quietly gone under the radar of a storied season and have rightfully reaped the rewards of all their hard work.

Their win at Wolfsburg this weekend marks their fifth in 8 matches, a run characterized by a surprisingly sturdy defensive display and a clinical instinct for goals.  Steeped in the tradition of the great Fritz Walter, Kaiserslautern have rediscovered their form when it mattered and their perseverance has paid dividends as the Red Devils look to have their strongest Bundesliga finish in a decade.

Several factors contribute to their successful season including astute player management, resourceful tactics and the improved performance of several key players.  Dortmund are rightfully garnering all the praise this year but it is worth shedding a light on Kaiserslautern’s outstanding first season back in the top flight.

Tactical Set Up

Kaiserslautern line up with a straightforward 4-5-1 but underneath it are several subtle variations. The backline has remained pretty steady throughout the season with Rodnei and former Dortmund player Amedick in the center with Jessen and Dick in the fullback positions.  Those variations in particular occur in midfield.  Ilicevic has been their most potent winger and has filled in rather effectively on either flank while Tiffert and Moravek have been constants in the center of the pitch.  Those players aside, Kurz has rotated in the remaining positions wherever needed.

Kaiserslautern's formation and line up this season.

The real key have been Moravek and Tiffert who share duties in central midfield and really have been the heart of this Kaiserslautern team.  Thanos Petsos is sometimes utilized as a pure destroyer to anchor the two but for the most part it has been the efforts of Moravek and particularly Tiffert that have driven the Red Devils forward.

The closest comparison to Kurz’s Kaiserslautern this season would be the famed Leverkusen side of the early 2000’s.  Leverkusen were then coached by Klaus Topmöller who got the best out of a young Michael Ballack by creating a free role for him.  By placing a defensive minded player behind him in Carsten Ramelow and a more conventional #10 in front in Yildiray Bastürk, Ballack was freed of any distinct responsibility and had the freedom to run freely and influence matches.

Similarly, Christian Tiffert plays a free role in Kaiserslautern’s midfield.  Kurz has used players like Petsos and Bilek in the “Ramelow role” while Moravek is their answer to “Bastürk”.  As a result, Tiffert enjoys more time on the ball than most other players on the team and is able to effectively orchestrate from all areas of the pitch.  Unlike Ballack though, Tiffert plays a more reserved role instead of ghosting into the box and sits outside the box ready to supply his teammates.

Lakic (highlighted player) and how close he plays to his teammates.

Occasionally Kurz has alternated in the absence of certain players or when the situation called for it and fielded two strikers and this flexibility has been a large factor in their successful season.  Having said that, Lakic has primarily been their preferred lone striker.  The Croatian has netted a staggering 22 goals in all competitions this year including goals in key wins against Bayern, Stuttgart and Schalke.  Rather than be just a target man, Lakic plays relatively close to his teammates and likes to receive the ball deep, which is why he often has some of the highest passing completion percentage.  This is also done to avoid man marking scenarios and to open up space by his wide players or the forward runs of the likes of Moravek who often times play as high up the pitch as the striker himself.

Away form proves crucial

With the renowned support at the Fritz Walter stadium it is disappointing to see how poor Kaiserslautern have been at home this season.  Only St. Pauli have won less games in front of their home supporters.  On the flipside they have been quite remarkable on the road.  Only Dortmund, Mainz and Leverkusen can claim better record of away wins.  It takes a certain mentality to raise your game away from home and it is telling of the work Kurz has done with his side.

The Red Devils started both halves of the season rather poorly but bounced back both times.  They lost only twice in the last 8 matches leading into the winter break and gained 6 important wins at Bremen and Nürnberg.  Similarly, they lost only twice in the last 10 matches, a run going back to February.  Of those 20 points, 13 have been won on the road including impressive wins at Stuttgart, Gladbach, Wolfsburg, all sides fighting hard against the drop.

The rejuvenation of Christian Tiffert

Tiffert's influential role in data form.

Against Woflsburg, Tiffert was instructed to patrol the half way line and orchestrate from deep rather than join most of the attacks. That has largely been the role undertaken by him throughout the season as we mentioned before.  With 16 assists to his name, Tiffert is behind only Ribery (17) in the league, made more impressive considering the resources a player like Ribery has at his disposal compared to Tiffert.

The 29-year old has enjoyed the best season of his career under Kurz and has blossomed into a very mature playmaker.  No longer restrained to a wide role as he had been in the past, Tiffert has been able to influence games with great liberty and even the statistics bear the proof of the blossoming midfield boss. Tiffert has a total of 2003 ball touches so far this season and completed 1185 of his passes (69% completion rate).

Tiffert's varied distribution against Schalke

In Kaiserslautern’s biggest win of the season, a 5-0 win over Schalke, Tiffert completed 40 passes and had a total of 127 touches on the ball, more than anyone else on the field and directly set up 3 of their goals.  Despite playing a central role, Tiffert has a tendency to drift more to the right and that is where he conducts a lot of his play but the ex Stuttgart player’s influence goes beyond just that section of the pitch.

Conclusion

Kaiserslautern can go into the summer with their heads held high as few would have expected them to finish as high as they have.  They twice overcame dour runs of form to finish strong when things looked most bleak.  Despite that joy though they already face a difficult hurdle in having to find a  replacement for their influential striker Lakic who will join Wolfsburg on a free next season.  It will be interesting to see how Kurz copes with yet another obstacle in his way.  So far the Red Devils have defied the odds and proven their detractors wrong and who would bet against them at this point?

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

12 Comments

  1. Just found this — great stuff! I’m still stunned by how well we finished the season. I’d be happy just to stay up this next season, which will be very difficult considering the players we need to replace (Lakic, Moravek especially.) It’s been a great season, though, and I’m still enjoying how I felt when I saw the result on the final day of the season. Pure joy.

  2. Good point. That’s probably exactly why Lakic is told to play so close to his teammates and drop so deep. Makes it easier to link up, make dummy runs, pull defenders, etc. Kurz has effectively “modernized” Kaiserslautern that way.

    1. Mobile forward – check
    2. Deep lying playmaker – check
    3. Wingers who cut inside – check
    4. Shifting midfield

    It’s all there! Well most of it anyways.

  3. In some of the Lautern matches I watched this season, it seemed Tiffert had great awareness of where Lakic was, moving out of the space in the center of the pitch to allow him the lung-busting run that would catch the opposition out and allow Tiffert to notch another assist.

  4. Vielen Dank! I thought their season deserved highlighting. Impressive stuff. Curious to see where Kurz takes this team

  5. Thank you for the kind words! The first time I watched Kaiserslautern this season and saw Tiffert’s role it reminded me of that Leverkusen side. I wonder if this was deliberate from Kurz.

  6. Nice to see someone from abroad mention my favourite team. We’re very proud to hold the league with the second smallest budget in the league (after St.Pauli).

    Best regards from Kaiserslautern

  7. Excellent analysis of a side that has done so excellently in the Bundesliga this season, using a tried and tested formation but with the flexibility to change it when the need arises.

    Your comparisons of players to the Leverkusen system of the early 2000’s is excellent and spot on.

    An interesting read, thank you!

  8. Great article! at times kaiserslautern were slipping into relegation zone , good to see them back , they are a club with history and tradition that enriched the Bundesliga culture through the passing years

  9. Thanks for this article, Cris. Kaiserslautern and Marco Kurz deserve a great deal of credit for overcoming adversity throughout the season and ending the campaign on a high note. Tiffert has been wonderful.

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