Season Preview – 1. FSV Mainz 05 – Tuchel at a crossroads

Most people still fondly recall Mainz’s memorable season back in 2010/11 as Thomas Tuchel’s team whirled their way through the league with youthful exuberance and eye catching football culminating in their best ever Bundesliga finish.  Now, that’s both a bad and a good thing. It was an unforgettable and even historic season for the club and put Tuchel and many of his young players on the football map but on the other hand, it also set an unrealistic bar for the club and what followed was an exodus of players and a rather forgettable season last year.

Therein lies also the club and Tuchel’s biggest challenge this upcoming season.  Few, if any, are expecting a similar finish as in 2010/11 but there remains the feeling that the team is still not playing to its potential.  Tuchel’s own dissatisfaction with how last season went underlines his struggle to fully realize his vision on the pitch and in that sense this season is a crucial one. After taking a great step forward in 2011 a large step back followed and now Mainz are at a crossroads which could very well decide the direction of the club in the coming years.  A level of consistency has to be reached in both performances and results to avoid losing key players again and keep the team competitive and out of the relegation battle.

Transfers

In

Shawn Parker (Mainz 05 II)

Junior Diaz (FC Brugge)

Chinedu Ede (Union Berlin)

Tobias Schilk (Mainz 05 II)

Out

Eugen Gopko (unknown)

Mohamed Zidan (Baniyas SC)

Zoltan Stieber (Greuther Fürth)

Sami Allagui (Hertha Berlin)

Fabian Schönheim (Union Berlin/loan)

Malik Fathi (Kayserispor/loan)

Deniz Yilmaz (SC Paderborn/loan)

Mario Gavranovic (Schalke)

Peter Sliskovic (Dynamo Dresden/loan)

Surprisingly enough, after their disappointing season last year, Mainz have been one of the quietest sides during the summer transfer window.  Even more surprising perhaps is the fact that Tuchel sold two of his best goalscorers last year in Allagui and Zidan.  Club favorite Zidan in particular came as a surprise.  He returned to the club halfway through the season last year and scored six goals in his first six games. He was an instant success all over again. Waning performances towards the end along with disagreements between the club and player over his contract were irreconcilable at the end though and both parties decided to part ways. Zoltan Stiber was also let go after never quite managing to adapt having been unfortunate with quite a few injuries.

Mainz did make some good additions.  Young striker prospect Shawn Parker was promoted to the first team and Costa Rican left back Junior Diaz was brought in to help out in an area of the pitch that has been rather problematic for the team in recent times. The biggest and quite possibly most important transfer was Union Berlin’s Chinedu Ede, a more attack minded midfielder who can play anywhere across the front line.  A quick player with great dribbling and technical ability, Ede will make Mainz’s attacks more dynamic and their transitions quicker, something that Tuchel always emphasizes.  Even more important for Mainz though was the need to hold on to their star players, especially after what happened in 2011.  In that sense the summer was a big success. The club was able to extend Adam Szalai’s contract until 2015 after interest from several Bundesliga clubs and convinced rising star Jan Kirchhoff to stay despite inquiries from Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.

Preparation

Mainz’s summer went according to expectations for the most part.  They lost their last preparation match 1-0 against Sandhausen but did get wins over Hungarian side Szombathelyi Haladas and third team division Wiesbaden.  They also got a respectable 1-1 draw against Austria Vienna during their training camp there. More important than the results though was Tuchel’s opportunity to experiment with different formations and

What to expect and how they’ll line up

The Claudio Ranieri of German football, Tuchel has garnered a reputation as the Bundesliga’s resident tinkerman,  changing lineups and formations more than almost anyone else in the league.  While that has its obvious drawbacks it can give a team a useful and unpredictable flexibility.  Part of Tuchel’s rotation is forced by injury, and Mainz have not been lucky in that category in the last couple of years, but the other is down to his own tactical acumen and desire to strive for something better.  Tuchel is always looking at areas where the team can improve and ways to optimize each individual’s output.  He is not beyond using players in unconventional positions or changing formations once, twice or even three times in a match.  That’s part of what makes Mainz such an exciting team at times but also why they struggled to find consistency during Tuchel’s time in charge.

In pre-season Tuchel alternated between a 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 used towards the end of last season. Ivanschitz, Choupo-Moting, Szalai, Ujah and Parker were all used up front interchangeable during their summer preparations.  Szalai and Choupo-Moting will be the preferred partnership should Tuchel line up with a 4-4-2 but Ujah is making good progress and will provide a good alternative for either first choice striker.  The fact that Tuchel has used Ivanschitz up top is also interesting though and an indicator that he might want even greater flexibility in attack.  The acquisition of Ede means Tuchel can also field a 4-3-3 with Ede and Müller out.

One of the problem areas for Tuchel remains the left back spot.  In the aftermath of Christian Fuchs’ departure in 2011 Mainz failed to adequately replace him and ended up using a myriad of players in his place.  The 33 year old Zabavnik and new signing Diaz have both been struggling with injuries meaning that Caligiuri, normally a midfielder, has been Tuchel’s first choice on the left and will likely continue to be at the beginning of the season.  Similar problems exist on the right side with Pospech suffering niggling injuries throughout the summer as well.  Tuchel said he would use Bungert there as a replacement.

It also remains to be seen whether Tuchel will ease Ede into the line up over the course of the Hinrunde or throw him in right away.  Polanski was the last player to join the team after his extended vacation following the EUROs so Ede might just take his place at the beginning or he might slot in on the right instead of Müller.  Either way, Ede will most likely be the guy Tuchel uses based on his opponent and interchangeably.

In terms of style they will continue to play a high pressing and quick combination game.  Fitness is a greatly emphasized by Tuchel and so is tactical flexibility.  Mainz start games exerting a lot of energy and probably resemble Borussia Dortmund most closely in that regard.  Mainz do tend to wane as a match progresses and thereby invite teams back into the game which is another thing Tuch will be looking to rectify.

Mainz’s projected lineup

Prediction

For the most part, Tuchel kept last season’s core group of players together and made some important additions in key positions.  Tuchel wanted cover for each player on the pitch and it looks as though he has that now if all players are fit. Don’t expect Mainz to have another historic season but they should improve on last year’s disappointing season.  A midtable finish is very likely and something to build on going forward.

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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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