Niki Zimling – Mainz’s new midfield dynamo

The January transfer market was deemed to be yet another quiet one for Mainz 05 but in the last week of the window the team made a couple of moves. In a matter of hours defensive midfielder Eugen Polanski was sold to Hoffenheim for €3.000.000 whilst Niki Zimling came from Club Brügge for at least €2,000,000. A rather unknown player in Germany, but the Danish international was held in high regard in Belgium and could prove vital in Mainz’s quest for European football next season.

The club, however, knew of Zimling from videos and appearances for the Denmark national team and they saw him live in a friendly in January between Club Brügge and Mainz. He was on the shortlist for a possible future buy. Things sped up when it became evident that Eugen Polanski wanted to leave for Hoffenheim, but Mainz sporting director, Christian Heidel only wanted to approve the move if it was possible to get Zimling this winter.

Club Brügge were reluctant to let go of their regular midfielder, however, Mainz were pressing on and Zimling wanted the move, too. Heidel admits the transfer fee is high compared to what Mainz usually spends but they are very confident in Zimling. As a regular for one of Belgium’s top teams Champions League qualification is never far away and the Danish midfielder does not mind swapping European dreams for weekly matches in front of thousands of Bundesliga fanatics.

“The Bundesliga is one of the biggest leagues in Europe. From a sporting point of view it was a really hard challenge to say no to. The daily matches in the Bundesliga are of such a high level. Of course, the Champions League is a dream but it’s not the most important thing – the daily training and matches are”, said Zimling to a few days after his move.

The 27-year-old had a talk with Thomas Tuchel calling him “a very ambitious coach who demands a lot of hard work from his players, but who also wants to play football. That fits with who I am”.

Who is this Niki Zimling though? Born in 1985 he started his footballing career in a variety of clubs just outside Copenhagen (including Brøndby IF) and finally found his professional home in Esbjerg fB, a club from the town with the same name on the Danish west coast, not far away from the German border. During his spell from 2005 to 2009 he played 81 matches and scored 16 goals earning him the Danish Under 21’s Player of the Year and Player of the Year in the club in 2006/07.

His solid performances earned him a move to Italian side Udinese in 2009, but he struggled getting into the side and was sent on a loan move to NEC Nijmegen in Holland in 2010. Here he found his feet playing 26 matches and scoring 4 goals and captured the attention of Club Brügge who bought him for €500.000 in 2011. Zimling repaid the faith instantly playing a big part in the club’s fine 2011/12-season in which they came 2nd – the highest finishing position since winning the league in 2005. Zimling’s performances were good enough to get him nominated for Danish Footballer of the Year in 2011 alongside Christian Eriksen (who won), William Kvist and Michael Krohn-Dehli.

The same period saw Zimling getting back into the Danish national team for which he had made his debut back in 2008. As a result of an injury to Christian Poulsen, Zimling was selected to team up with his childhood friend and former colleague, William Kvist, in the midfield of the Danish team playing Iceland in the Euro 2012 qualifier. He did a superb job and was selected in the next three games, too – including the 2-1 win over Portugal which secured the number one spot in the group. He featured in all of Denmark’s three games in the “Group of Death” during Euro 2012, but he was injured after 16 minutes against Portugal, jeopardizing his appearance versus Germany in the last game of the group stage. He did feature, he was subbed off after 79 minutes though, just one minute before Lars Bender made it 2-1 for the Germans.

Type of player

The comparison with the man he’s replacing is obvious. However, Zimling is not the spitting image of Eugen Polanski with the Pole being a bit more aggressive and probably a better tackler too. Zimling would ideally be given free rein in the midfield with license to push forward. His two goals already shows that he likes to push up to the edge of the box, getting involved in the attacking play.

He is not a William Kvist neither. Their partnership in the Danish national team consist of Kvist being the classic midfielder doing a lot of defensive work and moving the ball quickly and safely to his teammates whilst Zimling looks to charge from box to box getting involved in both defensive and attacking work. Should one compare him to a Danish midfielder in the Bundesliga, he’s more of a Leon Andreasen than a William Kvist, and probably looks to do the same work as Pinto at Hannover 96 or Lars Bender at Bayer Leverkusen.

Niki Zimling has seemingly  established himself at Mainz already, with two goals in his two recent games against Wolfsburg and Freiburg (in the Pokal), potentially proving a real asset to Tuchel’s plans for the future. Mainz are going to enjoy the Dane’s tireless work rate and his solid passing skills in the build-up play. Zimling is the type of player who can be deployed as a regular central midfielder or as the more offensively minded player in a midfield trio (as he did against Wolfsburg).

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Martin Krag is a football writer and analyst living in Denmark. He covers German football for and runs the Danish language Bundesliga blog Follow Martin on twitter @martinkrag

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