Hinrunde Review: Schaaf’s Werder back to its entertaining ways, but not healed

The last couple of seasons under Thomas Schaaf have been a trying time both for the longest-serving coach in the league and the fans of the green and whites. Whilst the defense turned out to be as leaky as it ever was, Werder didn’t manage to live up to their reputation of scoring goals left, right and centrem ending the 2010/11 season on a dire 13th spot and the 2011/12 season on 9th.

Something had to change, Thomas Schaaf and Klaus Allofs figured when they sat down to analyze what had gone wrong in the previous season. Both men have played a significant role in turning the team from the Weser into a club which competes for a European finish year in and year out, but the last two seasons had not yielded any sort of satisfactory results.

Allofs gets creative

Given the failure to qualify for a European competition Werder were forced to get rid of a number of their best earners. Marko Marin was sold to Chelsea for 8 million Euros, Tim Wiese’s and Markus Rosenberg’s contracts weren’t extended and Claudio Pizarro chose to join Bayern instead of being the only star left in Bremen team in dire need of rebuilding. 30-year-old Brazilian centre back Naldo was eventually sold to Wolfsburg for around 5 million Euros, forcing Thomas Schaaf to field an almost entirely new team going into the season.

Back in 2002 Werder Bremen faced a somewhat similar situation, with Marco Bode, Dieter Eilts, Frank Rost and Torsten Frings leaving the club during the summer transfer window of the 2002/03 season. Challenging as that may be, Thomas Schaaf regards such dramatic changes on a optmistic note as he explained in 2004:

Klaus and I have fantasies about a player’s potential, about what we can ask from a player, and which direction his development can take. Those fantasies help us to form the players, allowing them to take the next step. And this can work out, as long as the player is willing to participate.

Klaus Allofs did the best he could with what little funds he had at his disposal trying to replace the players who had left the club. Upfront Nils Petersen was brought in on a loan from Bayern München and Eljaro Elia joined the club for 5.5 million Euros from Italian champions Juventus. Midfielder Kevin de Bruyne was sent from the Stamford Bridge to the Weser to gather some valuable first team experience. Allofs chose to make Sokratis’s loan permanent paying Genoa 3.5 million Euros for the services of the Greek. Furthermore, Czech right back Theodor Gebre Selassie and centre back Assani Lukimya were brought in to strengthen the shaky Werder defense.

A new system: From the diamond to a 4-1-4-1

With all the new signings in place Werder descended on the season with a hint of optimism and a new formation in place. During the summer’s analyzing session Thomas Schaaf had figured out that his 4-4-2 midfield diamond wouldn’t suit his new crop of players, deciding to change the formation to a 4-1-4-1 system. Zlatko Junuzovic was moved into the holding midfielder’s role, whilst Aaron Hunt and Kevin de Bryune were allowed to roam freely ahead of the Austrian, providing the creativity in the centre of the pitch. Elia and Arnautovic were re-united after their Twente days and moved to the wings, providing support in the middle for lone striker Nils Petersen.

Both de Bruyne and Hunt have used their chance well, shining on a number of occasions. Even Austrian bad boy Arnautovic has picked up his game, playing his best season in Werder jersey so far scoring five goals himself whilst rendering 5 assists to his teammates. Despite all these positive, there are a number of factors preventing Werder from being in the top half of the table.

Stats: Ineffective Werder

The last couple of season hadn’t given the Bremen supporters much to cheer about, and furthermore, one can seriously doubt if Werder were living up to Thomas Schaaf’s ideals at the time. The coach formulated his vision of playing football like this in 2002:

It is important to me that we are able to offer something to our audience throughout the entire 90 minutes. Nevermind, if things go badly. A spectator should be able to say: What those guys are doing is great, they enjoy it. Or at least: They are giving it all they’ve got. And you can see those things. Even if a team is playing badly, and the task ahead looks insurmountable, you can tell if they are giving it their all.

The entertainment value has been as great as last season for the fans of Werder’s opponents. The green and whites are currently right on track to concede as many as the 58 goals they conceded last season after this season Hinrunde, having conceded 29 goals in the first 17 matches of this Bundesliga season. Crashing out of the cup in the first round to 3rd tier side Preussen Münster wasn’t the most promising start to the season, but Thomas Schaaf’s men managed to get things back on track after the Bundesliga season started. Most Werder fans would argue that their team have created more chances than in previous seasons, playing more entertaining football in the process.

The statisticians following the Bundesliga can confirm that claim. Werder are currently 8th in the table when it comes to creating chances. 168 chances have been created so far this season by Schaaf’s players, but only 28 of them have ended up at the back of the net. Put in simpler terms: It takes Werder 6 chances to score 1 goal. (By comparison: The most effective team in the league are Hannover. Every fourth chance Mirko Slomka’s Reds create result in a goal.)

Problems against the big boys

Last season saw Werder score most of their points against the teams from the lower half of the table as well, whilst the green and whites picked up a measly 2 points against the top 5 in the 2011/12 season. The team have also kept up their habit of conceding goals late in the game. 15 out of the 29 goals Werder have conceded came after the 60th minute of their Bundesliga matches(only Hoffenheim have conceded more goals(17) after the 60th minute).

Midfield dynamo Zlatko Junuzovic pointed out in a recent interview with kicker that his team should have secured more points. Junuzovic stated furthermore that Bremen could have gotten at least a point from all of their 17 matches in the Bundesliga. The poor conversion rate has especially shown in the matches against the table toppers. Werder have only taken three points from their matches against the top 5(a rather fortunate 2-1 away win against SC Freiburg), and only 13 points in their matches against the 11 teams who are above them in the table(out of a possible 33).  Werder are faring slightly better against the teams below them in the table, taking a 1.5 points per match against them on average.

Allofs leaves the club

Off pitch drama from the Weser has become a rarity of late. Klaus Allofs managed to change that for a little while, however. The former striker decided to leave his position as the CEO and sporting director of Werder Bremen after 13 years, joining VfL Wolfsburg on November 14th. Allofs’s transfer dealings have earned him a reputation as a shrewd business man, a savvy negotiator and as a man who can spot a bargain. Thomas Schaaf was less than amused after his former partner decided to leave the club in the middle of the season.

Allofs has been replaced by Thomas Eichin, who formerly played in the Bundesliga for Borussia Mönchengladbach and 1. FC Nürnberg. Eichin has no experience as a sporting director in the Bundesliga, having only been in charge of the business affairs of the German ice hockey team Kölner Haie. Eichin and Baumann are going to face a tough challenge replacing Klaus Allofs, given the former Werder sporting director’s vast network and excellent instincts on the transfer market.

The road back to Europe: A look ahead

Werder Bremen are still in the running for the Europa League spots the team were aiming for at the beginning of the season, being only four points behind Freiburg in 5th. The green and whites have made up for some of their player losses and play once again a more entertaining brand of football. However, one can’t help but feel that a player like Pizarro would have done the team a world of good at times, given Werder’s poor conversion rate.

In order to reach a 6th place finish Werder need to sort out a couple of issues. The team has still a considerable weakness in its defensive behavior, gifting their opposition far too many towards the end of the match. According to the local Thomas Schaaf has tried to address just that by increasing the team’s fitness level and focusing on the transition from attack to defense during this winter’s training camp in Belek.

Thomas Schaaf and Frank Baumann didn’t see any need whatsoever to re-structure the team for a second time in 6 months during the winter transfer window. Central back Francois Affolter returned to Young Boys Bern after a disappointing year in the Werder jersey, and was replaced by Croatian under 21 international Mataeo Pavlovic. Schaaf was overjoyed about the new signing, claiming that ”Mataeo has the quality to move us into the right direction.” The youngster is probably likely to sit on the bench despite Schaaf’s praise, given Sebastian Prödl’s and Sokratis’s performances during the first half of the season.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 30-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball and on the @AufstiegPod.

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