Can Tuchel do it again? A Review of Mainz’s Hinrunde and their chances to turn it around

New stadium. New start. But a difficult Hinrunde for Mainz.  Jonathan Lines takes a look at Mainz’s tumultuous season so far, what was behind their slow start, and prognosticates on their chances to turn it around in the second half.

As Mainz finished the 2011/12 Bundesliga Hinrunde just two points above the relegation zone, it’s difficult to avoid comparisons between this campaign and the landmark one which preceded it. The Carnival Club reached dizzy heights by leading the way for much of the first half of last season along with Borussia Dortmund, before finishing in a superb 5th place. By the end of the campaign, Lewis Holtby and André Schürrle had become amongst the league’s most influential players, and inevitably joined (or rejoined) clubs with greater stature than Mainz’s own during the summer. This time, before a ball had even been kicked, Mainz’s new season was being defined by those no longer at the club, and all the pre-season talk was of the departures of Holtby, Schürrle and the equally important Christian Fuchs. Mainz had lost its best players. Little else seemed to matter.

Bundesliga Fanatic’s own Anne Gilles thought that, given the loss of these players, journalists and experts were “quick to conclude that Mainz must therefore be doomed, set to spiral into mediocrity or even the relegation battle.” As it transpired, Mainz broke for winter in 14th place in the Bundesliga, two points above 16th-placed Kaiserslautern. But we’ll revisit Anne’s scepticism over the impact of those departures later on.

Mainz's season got off to a rough start with elimination from the Europa League.

With no fewer than nine summer signings, Mainz’s season began early with a Europa League qualifier, the start of the club’s first European campaign. After being dumped out at the preliminary stage by Romanian side CS Gaz Metan Medias, Mainz recovered to start the new league season exactly where they had left off in the last. The Coface Arena opened for Bundesliga business in front of 32,443 fans to a superb 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen and their headline summer signing Schürrle. A sign of things to come? Unfortunately not. After a 2-1 win at SC Freiburg on matchday two, Thomas Tuchel’s side then went nine without a win in the league.

The first two games in that sequence were a 4-2 home reverse to Schalke 04, the start of the ‘Coface Curse’ (that opening day win against Leverkusen was followed by five straight home defeats), and a 1-1 draw away to Hannover 96. These two games exemplify Mainz’s season so far. Much of what you need to know about Mainz’s 2011/12 Hinrunde can be traced to these two matches.

The ‘Coface Curse’ and Mainz’s on pitch problems

Both were hugely entertaining games, in which the Rheinland-Pfalz club more than played their part. Mainz’s game is based on intense pressing and disciplined and energetic work-rate off the ball. In both games, they consistently committed remarkable numbers to attack, all the more impressive away from home, as part of their high-energy style. As such, they tend to play a fluid and attractive game when in possession and can be great to watch. Their goal against Hannover, within two minutes of the kick-off, was one of the best team goals of the season so far.

But this intense playing style has led to fatigue late in matches, as evidenced again in these two games. Against Schalke, a two-goal home lead was squandered as the visitors hit four to win the game, and the two decisive goals were scored in the last ten minutes. Against Hannover, the team’s performance level dropped considerably over the course of the match, and they were lucky to escape with a point as Hannover dominated late on.

Exemplified by the capitulation against Schalke, Mainz have an awful record during the closing stages of matches this season. The club’s goal difference, taking just the last ten minutes into account, is an astonishing -6, from a total goal difference of -7, dropping crucial points to lose against Schalke, Borussia Dortmund and, most disappointingly, Augsburg; and giving away winning positions against Nürnberg and Köln. Theoretically, Mainz might be challenging for a European position rather than battling relegation at the half-turn but for this unwanted record, having lost seven points from the closing stages of games.

It’s not just this penchant for conceding late goals which has cost them. Going back once more to their home defeat Schalke in August, they were troubled by another problem at the back too, that of set-piece defending. Three of Schalke’s four goals came from set-pieces that day, as have a few others against Tuchel’s side this campaign.

This brings us back to the polemic presented by Anne Gilles before Mainz’s season kicked off. Did the media give, and have they indeed since given, overdue credence to the loss of Mainz’s most important players from last season – Holtby, Schürrle, Fuchs – like she indicates? Have they badly missed their former stars, or have other on-field problems, like the ones given here, hindered the Carnival Club’s progress?

Replacing the likes of Schürrle and Holtby was tougher than expected for Tuchel.

Given the line of this argument, that question would seem to answer itself. There are clearly other factors at play, primarily because Tuchel has attempted to build a team to exist in and for itself, rather than feel the absence of those missing. But that’s not to say that these losses haven’t contributed to Mainz’s comparatively disappointing season so far as well. Firstly, the lack of a regular goalscorer or creator has been of concern. Admittedly, Mainz have scored 22 goals from the Hinrunde’s 17 matches, something which does not immediately point to them missing departed attacking players. Meanwhile, replacement signings have fared reasonably well, with wide player
Nicolai Müller, midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger and striker Eric Choupo-Moting showing glimpses of their talent and proving to be fairly astute purchases.

Having said that, the team’s midfielders and strikers haven’t performed as well as might have been hoped, and no single midfield or attacking player, with the exception of Andreas Ivanschitz towards the end of the year, and possibly Marcel Risse at a more consistent level, could have been considered to be in particularly good form. The strike force of Choupo-Moting, Allagui and Ujah have managed just nine between them so far, a far from impressive stat. Scoring goals may not be as pressing an issue going into the second half of the season as the defence, but having a reliable source of goals would certainly help to no end.

This is where the loss of Schürrle and Hotlby has been felt, although perhaps not quite to the same extent or in the same way as had been expected. Mainz have been missing a player with the ability to influence a match, by scoring or creating important goals, in the way that these two did last season. And it’s no accident that Mainz’s results took a turn for the better in November when experienced Austrian international Andreas Ivanschitz started to step into that role and fill the creative void in the team.

Tactical changes

Ivanschitz (l) was one of the few bright spots of Mainz's Hinrunde, helping his side to a surprise win over Bayern.

It was a subtle formational change from coach Tuchel – from a flat 4-4-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond – which has given both Ivanschitz and Nicolai Müller license to roam and influence the final third. Ivanschitz’s form and influence has improved drastically, finishing the Hinrunde as the club’s top league goalscorer this season with five. His ability was the decisive factor as Mainz ended their poor run with a 3-1 win over VfB Stuttgart in November, as he delivered a fine performance, and helped finally lift the ‘Coface curse’. This was followed-up a few weeks later by a characteristically high- energy team display to stun Bayern München 3-2 – the new stadium’s finest moment so far – a match in which Ivanschitz again excelled.

It is encouraging that Tuchel has had the confidence in his squad to both rotate (a feature of the club’s season, given that only one player, Choupo-Moting, has played every game) and alter set- ups, even from the effective diamond, in order to combat other teams’ strengths, notably a switch to 4-5-1 at Köln in December, a well-implemented change which saw them come to within five minutes of an admirable away win, only to concede another late goal and be held to a draw. Tuchel has even shown a readiness to depart from his footballing philosophy when the match situation demands it. “We had to win ugly. It was right that we did that”, as Ivanschitz put it after the win over Stuttgart.

Looking to the Rückrunde

It is difficult to dispute that Mainz’s Hinrunde has been a disappointment. What can be debated, however, is how likely the club is to face a relegation battle in the second half of the season, or to pull away from it. In theory, Tuchel’s team can definitely steer clear from their current precarious position. Improved form indicates that the coach, and the players, are finding their rhythm and are heading in the right direction. Added to that, Tuchel’s policy of rotation will keep his players fresh for the rest of the season, an important factor, especially given their style of play.

Having said that, the club can ill-afford a poor run similar to the one at the start of the season. The new players, having had time to settle in, along with those already settled in will have to deliver if the club is to improve its league position. Concentration and set-piece defending will have to be further worked on, especially late in matches. Even in the 3-1 win over Stuttgart, they conceded first despite having the better of the play. Making costly mistakes when playing well was too prominent a feature of Mainz’s Hinrunde, and must be eradicated in order that the club reap the rewards promised by its high-energy game and fluid attack, its adaptable formation and its effective rotational policy.

There is plenty to be positive about, and Mainz have shown recently that they aren’t far from achieving a respectable mid-table position. But if all else falters, they are in safe hands with their coach Thomas Tuchel. An innovator and philosopher, whose unique training methods are aimed at improving footballing intelligence, speed and agility, he is universally respected, not least by those he has worked with, having been described as “extraordinary” by Lewis Holtby. More importantly, he is versatile and perceptive enough to see his team reach the goals he sets. “I’m not going to judge our current state by our position in the league and points total. We didn’t do it last season when we
were high up”, he said earlier in the campaign. Tuchel will be looking for similar discipline and focus from his players during the Rückrunde, in order to stay clear of relegation and keep the wheels of development in motion at Mainz.

Follow Jonathan on twitter @JonathanLines1

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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

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