Monday Morning Center Back: Reviewing Bundesliga match day 17

It is funny, is it not, how results overwhelmingly color the perception of a player, trainer, or coach?

Granted, sports is necessarily a results-driven endeavor. Even with the existence of the draw, football ultimately wants to sort everything, to a degree, into either the “winner” or “loser” pile. Hence, when reflecting on the Bundesliga season’s first leg, we have to look at where the wins, losses, and draws lands clubs in the table at the halfway point, even if the circumstances and paths taken to get to those spots tell stories much more complex than “relegation zone” or “mid-table surprise.”

Even the way FC Bayern has dominated this season cannot be simply encapsulated as, “They’re running away with the title,” though that’s a fine summation, if I do say so myself. You can’t know what Pep Guardola’s ultimate intent might be for his side, but his focus on the idea of perfection runs with the need to win matches and titles.

Bayern conceded just their fourth goal of the season Friday night, which was one notable item from their 1:2 win at FSV Mainz. Another was that the three points were not secured until Arjen Robben’s delivered the match winner in the 90th minute.

Everything that happened before the match-deciding moment, though, had Twitter ablaze with talk of Bayern potentially losing, with Mainz not giving the normal amounts of great respect given Bayern on the pitch, running their asses off, and taking a lead after 21 minutes when Elkin Soto put a shot from near the goal line through the legs of Manuel Neuer, who’d probably have dropped to his knees to defend the shot if he’d not gotten so use to balls simply not getting by him, almost ever.

Bayern were being treated like an ordinary football team, and Neuer looked incredibly ordinary when Mainz took the lead. But, was it a relatively even match, as one might expect in a battle of mortals?

The answer depends on your frame of reference. Kaspar Hjulmund’s team worked hard for a not-undeserved lead they held for all of three minutes (which is incidentally how long it seemed Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger stood over the ball after the referee’s whistle before Schweini drilled an undefendable equalizer into the top corner of the net.

But when you look at things a bit more holistically, Bayern did what they do, which is to win. They didn’t dominate possession to quite the degree they usually do, nor did they force keeper Loris into masonry mode, but nor did they ever look overly concerned at how the match was playing out.

So, kudos for Mainz for taking what has become a novel approach at taking a loss from Bayern, but also maybe let us tone down the overwhelming response of “Mainz deserved a point” that followed the loss (FC Köln fan sidebar: Especially as Mainz had received an undeserved point just three days prior in their visit to Köln!). We’ve all grown so used to the way most teams approach a Bayern match that a team actually going after the pending champions makes us over-correct in how we see it, to the point of Robben actually saying after the match that he felt sorry for Mainz, but “that’s football!”

Sidebar: Leave it to Robben to try to say something in a complementary manner only to come off as a bit of a condescending villain. That’s Robben!

If I’m gonna sink, I might as well go to the bottom

Bayern’s eleven-point lead at the top of the table is a fairly cut and dry story. How SC Freiburg and Borussia Dortmund have found themselves spending the winter break level on points in the direct-relegation spot is anything but.

The BVB and Werder Bremen entered their Saturday meeting at Weserstadion knowing that a loser had a fair chance of being at the bottom of the table for Christmas. Considering that Bremen had surrendered twelve goals over their preceding three matches and that it is widely presumed (though, decreasingly so) that Dortmund will eventually just start winning matches and steering clear of the relegation discussion, victory for the Black and Yellow side seemed a decent bet.

And then Werder simply had other ideas on the matter and put together one of their best performances of the season, getting goals from Davie Selke and Fin Bartels en route to their 2:1 win, lifting Bremen to 17 points and the relegation playoff spot.

Not only did Bremen put a nice cap on the first half of the season with the win, but also drew level on points with two other candidates for the drop, which is also within just two points of tenth place, all which seemed unlikely to achieve even by season’s end when the Robin Dutt era bottomed out in late October, much less by the mid-way point of the season.

Viktor Skripnik’s time at Bremen is a fine story, and how Bremen returns from break having had a full preparation period under their new coach will definitely be compelling to watch in 2015, but their Saturday win serves largely as another chapter in the horror story that has been Dortmund’s season to date.

Allegedly, the BVB collapse has been such an attention hog, Bayern has considered returning Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski to Dortmund so they can score some goals and allow attention to be focused back on themselves.

Allegedly . . .

Dortmund’s ten losses is the most in the league. Their 18 goals scored is fourth-fewest, with Christoph Kramer’s own-goal giving them one more than both Freiburg and Köln . Only four clubs have conceded more goals than the BVB’s 26 goals against.

The numbers are damning.

Yet, when you watch a Dortmund match, they often look like a team on their way to securing sincere victory. They’ve put forth a few clunkers for sure. Their effort at Eintracht Frankfurt would stand as testament to that, but is not exemplary of Dortmund’s failings.

Rather, the overwhelmingly simple explanation for their fall to the bottom of the table has been a lack of a finishing touch to the many chances they produce.

If only the solution to such an issue were quite as simple as the diagnosis.

Then again, would you rather be in need of an offensive finisher, which might come through the transfer window or even someone on your roster stepping up while in need, or would you like to be saddled with the puzzle Christian Streich has to solve?

Freiburg was thoroughly outplayed for most of the first half by visiting Hannover 96 Sunday, but between Roman Bürki and his goal posts and crossbar, the match was headed into the break without a score until Christian Günter found Mike Frantz in the middle of the penalty area, and the midfielder-turned-striker delivered his third of the season for a surprise lead for the SCF.

Freiburg then came out after the break looking the superior side, even getting a bit of luck when referee Günter Perl failed to pull the red card for Marc-Oliver Kempf’s hauling down of Lars Stindle from behind, when Kempf clearly was the last defender. When Kempf headed home a Jonathan Schmid corner, it looked like fortune was smiling on Freiburg.

But then, it was a big fat case of “ball don’t lie.”

Kempf was the culprit in a stumbling turnover of the ball to Stindl, when the Hannover captain sprinted with the ball into the Freiburg area and crossed to Leonardo Bittencourt, who cut the hosts’ lead in half.

And then, for the fifth time in the Hinrunde, Freiburg snatched a draw from the jaws of victory when Bürki opted to boot away a ball rather than scoop it up, finding Joselu outside the area. Joselu, being one to not have scored six goals by accident, took his seventh to equalize three minutes into added time.

So, while Klopp and his sporting director will look for a goal-scoring solution, Streich will be looking for a way to either shorten matches so they last no more than 87 minutes or . . . how do you fix something like that?

Players from both clubs clearly are aware of those trends that have sabotaged their season, which often serves only to compound the problem. You press too hard to avoid making the crucial mistake and you get taken out of your game.

Time away from the game might be the best thing for both sides, but they’ll also both return knowing the situation.

Sometimes, though, appearances are not deceiving

If anything, you have to wonder how Hertha BSC are even one point clear of the drop zone.

Just four days after blowing an 0:3 first-half lead in Frankfurt, Jos Luhukay’s squad found themselves down 0:3 to visiting TSG Hoffenheim not fourty minutes into their Sunday match, which ended an 0:5 blow-out with fans vocally expressing their displeasure with their club in a very non-Christmas-y manner.

It was a John Anthony Brooks own-goal and a pair of penalties converted by Sejan Salihovic that put Hertha on the ropes. Luhukay eventually threw caution to the wind, inserting both Salomon Kalu and Sandro Wagner for Peter Pekarik and Ronny, putting three strikers on the pitch at once. The gamble did not pay off, though, as Roberto Firmino got a ball to Sven Schipplock in a position where Schipplock could simply dribble into goal. The Brazilian national did it again in the 84th minute when Peter Niemeyer dispossessed him at the edge of the area and then inexplicably dribbled back toward his own goal line rather than pass to a teammate. Firmino took the ball back and slotted it to Sebastian Rudy, who was the only player moving toward the Hertha goal, to provide the final score.

Hertha has benefitted from some great goalkeeping performances by Thomas Kraft and has used some late goals to snag a few unexpected points from matches in which they’d been grossly outplayed. Otherwise, the 35 goals allowed so far, which is second-worst only to Werder Bremen, would have them mired in the drop zone rather than hovering just above it.

Luhukay said after the match that “Christmas will not be so happy for us,” but it was unclear whether he was saying that as “I think I might lose my job,” or, “I may still be captain of this sinking ship after all.”

Quite the opposite was the mood by Hoffenheim boss Markus Gisdol, who said he was happy to “lay their 26 points under the tree and enjoy,” after his crew ended their five-match run of road matches without a win to enter the holiday just one point outside a European spot.

Why we should ditch English week

Do we want the league to look like English league football? Nein!

Two scoreless draws in one day is just not very Bundesliga-like.

All I’m compelled to say about the matches is that the Schalke draw with Hamburger SV was a bit more thrilling than was Stuttgart’s with Paderborn.

Stuttgart versus Paderborn, thanks to a historical meeting between the clubs’ coaches, had the better back story, though.

On the final match day of the 2000-01 season, Huub Stevens and his Schalke 04 charges needed a victory and a Bayern loss in order to win the league. Bayern was playing at rival Hamburger SV, while Schalke was hosting SpVgg Unterhaching.

Led by striker Andre Breitenreiter, Unterhaching needed a win and for Energie Cottbus to drop points to avoid the drop.

Breitenreiter put Unterhaching on the board first just three minutes into the match, but even an 0:2 victory proved to be unsustainable for the overmatched visitors, as the highly motivated Schalke side settled into championship form to run away with the 5:3 victory that had fans celebrating a title.

Until the large monitors in the stadium showed Bayern central defender Patrik Andersson stepping into a free kick to get his first goal of the season, snagging a point and a championship for the Bavarians and bringing many of the 65,000 at Parkstadion to tears as they watched the title they’d been celebrating suddenly evaporate into thin air.

Flashing back to the most-recent meeting of the two men from that match which featured eight fewer goals and an immeasurable amount less drama, Stuttgart used the point to stay above the bottom three, while Paderborn can spend the winter break reflecting on an unexpectedly productive first half of their first Bundesliga season, which has them in the middle of the table at tenth. Though, when they are ready to confront the realities, the fact that only four points currently separates them from Freiburg and Dortmund at the bottom will have Breitenreiter and crew realizing they’ve won none of their last seven.

Your weekly Alexander Meier update

Eintracht’s cult idol converted from the penalty spot for his league-leading 13th goal of the season. Tin Jedvaj provided service by taking Takashi Inui down in the penalty area, for which the young Croatian received a bit of a dressing down from Stefan Kießling.

This led me to wonder whether Kießling didn’t receive the same sort of dressing down when he took a clear dive just outside the penalty area in the hopes of a free kick, but getting instead a yellow card. After all, his coach is a big fan of players who want to play football, and diving at slight or near contact is not really the same as attacking goal, is it Roger?

Anyhow, Eintracht outplayed Bayer in the first half and got the 1:0. Bayer was quite a bit better than Eintracht in the second half and got a Karim Bellarabi equalizer in the 83rd minute.

And, in a moment of non-bias where Leverkusen is concerned, that Julian Brandt kid needed just 19 minutes to show that Bayer has a real prospect on their hands. He’s only 18 years old, but looked simply great in his time on the pitch.

Tip of cap to FC Augsburg

Augsburg overcame Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker’s volleyball moment and the Max Krus conversion of the succeeding penalty kick for the call of a hand ball, winning 2:1 over visiting Borussia Mönchengladbach and securing a winter break spot in a European spot, as well as a club record for their best ever Hinrunde in the Bundesliga.

Between their loss and Leverkusen’s point, Mönchengladbach dropped to fourth place.

Brief visit to fan-boy corner

It’s hard to be disappointed with 1. FC Köln’s first-half performance, even though they’re well within the relegation discussion, points-wise.

It’s also hard to be disappointed with their performance Saturday in Wolfsburg, even though they ultimately came away empty-handed after Naldo headed home a Kevin DeBruyne corner in the 78th minute, capping the 2:1 victory that put Wolfsburg firmly in second place with 34 points, six more than Leverkusen in third.

The Billy Goats’ defense was terrific, but Wolfsburg’s talent eventually overcame the effort.

More is always wanted on “Planet Effzeh,” but Köln fans also can admit that 19 points was a fair effort for a promoted side . . . at lest those who admit that their club is a promoted side.

Wolfsburg, likewise, will be entrenched in a defense of their second-place standing, rather than pretending they’re in pursuit of Bayern.

The Wolves have a more-achievable task from the big dreams category in aiming to win the Europa League.


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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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