Monday Morning Center Back: All Hail Mighty Werder Bremen?

Wake up today and greet your new overlords of the Rückrunde!

You know . . . the only Bundesliga club to start the year by taking nine of nine possible points?

No, not Wolfsburg. Yes, they blasted Bayern Almighty in that high-profile Friday night opener to the second half of the season and, yes, they are looking fairly stout with KDB playing like an MVP and now adding Andre Schürrle just to let everyone know they’re not messing around, but they needed a late goal in their midweek tilt at Eintract Frankfurt to salvage a point.

That draw, coincidentally, took a bit of steam out of what surely would have been the dominant narrative this week. With Bayern taking just one point at home from Schalke Tuesday, the Wolves could have cut five points off Bayern’s eleven-point mid-term lead in the span of just five days, perhaps breathing some life into the zombie story of a legitimate title race. Even with Bayern stumbling out of the blocks, their eight point lead seems fairly safe.

Our smoking-hot side of the English week wears green and white alright, but rather than the corporation-backed club with the hot start but lukewarm support, think of a traditional club that seems to have been in a bit of a daze the last few seasons and spending more time worrying about relegation than celebrating three-match winning streaks.

Werder Bremen, led by Viktor Skripnik, is a perfect three-for-three in the new year after downing Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 at WeserStadion Sunday, and now a club that spent Christmas in the bottom three has, in the span of eight days, moved into eighth with as many points as any club not currently in a European spot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veAKyXu7aTI

Sidebar: Bremen fans were making hip-hop love letters to The Skripniker even before the current run. Werder supporters want to love.

Now, if you’re paying much attention, you know that Werder’s upward propulsion through the table was aided by an incredibly tight league. As of today, it’s just eight points from seventh place to last. It’s another six points to sixth place and Europa League placement.

Four of Werder’s next five opponents are currently on the good side of that gap to Europapokal glory, so the Green-and-Whites will get a bit stiffer a test than what was given them by Hertha BSC and 1899 Hoffenheim, Werder’s first two victims.

But today’s conquered visitor was one of those top-six sides. Die Werkself may not always click along like the offensive juggernaut they aspire to be, but they collect points on a very consistent basis. The only team to beat them their prior nine outings was runaway league leader Bayern. To be fair, Leverkusen put plenty of pressure on their hosts in the second half and looked ready to take control of the match.

But the result went, once again, Bremen’s way.

And you can’t even simply point to a new acquisition or any single player making a giant step forward for Bremen (though . . . good gravy look at that Junuzovic free kick below this paragraph!). There just seems to be a higher level of collective responsibility on both ends of the pitch driving what has to be called “improvement,” regardless of how it plays out by season’s end. I doubt any sober Werder fan is going to tell you everything that has troubled the club over recent seasons has suddenly been repaired, but I also doubt you’d find even a drunken one, even with a Robin Dutt tattoo perhaps, who’d say they don’t see a better team each match day under Skripnik.

So brace yourself, Bremen faithful, for the visits from Augsburg, Schalke, and Bayern, as well as the trip to Wolfsburg, that lie ahead. Even when at home, the Bundesliga road can be rough.

But with The Skripniker driving, have faith and try to enjoy the trip.

Loris Karius Brain-Fart or the undeniable genius of Pal Dardai?

Look . . . I’m not sure Pal Dardai gets three points in his Hertha BSC coaching debut if it’s not for Loris Karius simply not paying attention.

Hertha certainly looked very organized the first quarter-hour of the match and capably seized the few opportunities to counter from their fairly deep-sitting.

On one such early counter, Daniel Brosinski took the ball away from Valentin Stocker in a fairly normal battle and send the ball deeper along the left flank for Gonzalo Jara to collect. Stocker pursues the ball he lost toward Jara, at which point the defender passes to his keeper for a clearance upfield.

Just boring football over-explaining in writing so far, right?

But then, Stocker sees no reason to simply make a u-turn and chase a potential landing spot for Karius’ ball. Rather the Swiss attacking-mid simply continues running on a looping right turn toward Karius, which would be of no more note than to say (not for the first time on the afternoon, it should be said), “Hey, that Valentin Stocker is sure putting in some effort today,” except Karius apparently too no notice of Stocker whatsoever.

Well, that of course changed once the blue-and-white jersey entered the keeper’s peripheral vision, but even suddenly rushing to launch a kick, it was far too late. Karius’ follow-through gets a whole lot of leg, Stocker goes tumbling, Mainz teammates’ hands go to head knowing what’s about to happen, and . . .

Jens Hegeler’s penalty shot broke a remarkable run of ten goals conceded by Hertha since the last time they’d scored since Peter Niemeyer put them ahead 2:4 in Frankfurt to set-up Alexander Meier’s injury time dramatics.

Back-up keeper Stefanos Kapino got to make his Bundesliga debut Saturday by facing Hegeler from the spot, but seven minutes later, he too would be victimized by Stocker, who took the deflection of his attempted pass to Roy Beerens and turned it into a shot on goal. Stocker didn’t score, but his shot drew sliding clearance efforts from the two Mainz defenders running with the play, so when the ball bounded off the post toward the edge of the goal area, Beerens was unchallenged in cleaning up for an easy 0:2.

Hertha captain Fabian Lustenberger took an unfortunate yellow early in the second half and then a well-deserved yellow four minutes later, which put Mainz on even terms, personnel-wise, which served only to help the home side even out some statistics, as they simply couldn’t finish anything, despite a few intensely close calls.

Certainly, offer applause to Dardai, though hold off on the hip-hop tributes, at least until we know whether this was just a combination of new-coach lift plus inexplicable ball-handling from Mainz’s keeper or if Dardai is going to have a lasting impact on a team that appeared to be in a flat-spin toward the second division under Jos Luhukay.

Different approaches to crisis management

Party like it’s 2013

If you JUST followed through on your annual new year’s resolution to start watching German football, then you’re not going to believe it when I tell you that both Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund won over the weekend.

If you’ve ignored the league since being forced to sit through the all-German Champions League final from two seasons ago, you’re probably not going to believe that such happenstance is even newsworthy beyond the usual reporting on the two Bundesliga clubs that have a high-enough profile to generally be covered in your neck of the woods.

But, yeah, the two clubs which have dominated the league the last few years both won, which is a first for both in 2015.

It’s clearly a much bigger deal for Dortmund to have gotten their 0:3 win at SC Freiburg, so let’s start with them.

The BVB surrender the red lantern as the league doormat, but don’t quite escape the relegation zone, getting only to 16th. A win could have put Dortmund as high as 14th if Hertha and SC Paderborn (scoreless draw in Köln) would have cooperated, but “NOT LAST” plus a win probably is enough to temporarily wash away all the bitterness of the midweek home loss to FC Augsburg.

Now . . . let’s face it. If Freiburg has a bogey team, it’s Dortmund. Freiburg has now won just three of 31 meetings with Borussia and can claim only eight draws. The goal-balance stands at 70:33. Dortmund couldn’t have requested a better opponent for a needed feel-good day at the park.

Dortmund dominated early, but even so, the pass that set-up the first goal of the match has to be credited to Mike Franz who hit Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s run more perfectly that he likely could have done had he been trying to do just that. Aubameyang, rather than forcing a high-percentage shot, laid-off to Marco Reus for a can’t miss at the all-important first-goal-of-the-game.

This is not to downplay Dortmund’s dominance, because they were dominant, but the problem, for the most part, hadn’t been that the BVB is incapable of controlling play, rather that they don’t finish enough of the many, many chances they create in most of their matches.

Attribute it to whatever you wish, but things looked a lot more Dortmund-y Saturday. Good news for die Schwarzgelben, but bad news for Mainz come Friday night?

Bayern is not facing quite the identity crisis that Jürgen Klopp’s crew is battling at the other end of the table, but the champions’ 0:2 win at Stuttgart doesn’t seem to be calming nerves of those a bit shell-shocked by the way their beloved footballing giants were neutered by Wolfsburg in the Rückrunde launch, much less having to pretend to be thrilled with taking a point at home by Schale, pointing to playing down a man for much of the match after Jerome Boateng’s clumsy challenge and dismissal.

Arjen Robben’s strike for the 0:1 just before half was beautiful, as was David Alaba’s free-kick to double the visitors’ lead, but Bayern never quite looked like the same club that dominated the league in the first half of the season, all the way down to Pep Guardiola sitting on the bench like a chastised schoolboy, rather than putting on his usual animated display, after what was likely some interesting discussion of his touchline antics during the Schalke match.

Gone are the big grins of professional men who look to be having the fun of schoolkids at play, laughing among themselves as they make light work of a decisive 90-minute victory. In their place are serious looks of men at work, sometimes wondering why the game doesn’t seem quite as easy or fun as it once did.

I’ve been saying in this space for a while now that the title race is BEYOND OVER, and I still believe that. Bayern doesn’t have to look like their having the time of their lives to choke the life out of any other side’s afternoon. The fact that you can even look at them as being on a rough patch while cruising to a two-goal shutout on the road speaks to the level of professionalism in the player ranks, regardless of demeanor.

Give it a month of Bundesliga results and some Champions League wins and expect the smiles to return to Bayern.

And, let’s face it, who would you rather face: happy Bayern or pissed-off Bayern? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

 NOT on a winning track, whatsoever . . .

With the big two both getting rid of the goose egg in the 2015 win column, the list of teams yet to collect three points from a match has been whittled to five.

We’ve already mentioned that VfB Stuttgart took the loss to Bayern. Their point in Köln is all they have to show for their efforts this year, putting them at the bottom of the table. They don’t score too often and aren’t too good at stopping opponents from scoring themselves. It’s a dangerous combination, unlikely to help in the struggle against the drop.

Hannover fell to Hamburger SV in the Saturday night match, largely on the strength of Marcelo being used to deflect both HSV goals past Ron Robert Zieler in the 2:1 at VolksparkStadion. Hannover had a surprisingly strong first half, but have slowly drifted into the muck of the non-European segment of the table with just one win from their last nine.

Hamburg, of course, became somewhat infamous for their nine-goal, four-win Hinrunde, but have now strung together consecutive victories on the back of a virtual landslide of goals, scoring five over the span of four days. In need of the points, don’t expect the HSV to care too much about having been largely outplayed in Paderborn or having needed the aid of an opposing player to help find the back of the net. They’ll just be glad of the padding above the bottom three.

Similar to Hannover, Paderborn is another club with a surprisingly strong start that has since largely been forgotten, Andre Breitenreiter’s gang got their first point of 2015 in a draw at fellow promoted side 1. FC Köln. The result was just enough to keep them from dropping below Borussia Dortmund, but the alarm is necessarily still sounding in eastern Westphalia, with just two points now separating the SCP from absolute bottom thanks to the extension of the winless streak to ten.

Eintracht Frankfurt started their year by taking the same beating from Freiburg that Bayern took from Wolfsburg, but have since taken a point each from Wolfsburg and Augsburg, the latter from Sunday’s final match of the weekend, which ended 2:2. This match marks now the third time Eintracht has followed a loss with consecutive draws this season. It almost seems wrong to include them here, but the fact is that Frankfurt have not won this year, so here they are. Plus, their laissez-faire defense has finally caught Werder for the dishonor of most goals allowed. Hoffenheim took those honors last year and finished semi-comfortably in the middle of the table. Thomas Schaaf seems to have his club similarly directed.

But, finally, yes, let us talk about Hoffenheim . . .

Dietmar Hopp’s plaything is the only team to lose all three matches to start the year. They’ve been outscored 8:2 so far, though they left Wolfsburg shaking their heads a bit as their hosts scored three goals on nine shots, while Hoffenheim got ZILCH from 16. Credit to Kevin DeBruyne who seems to just routinely put together sensational performances these days and also to Andre Schürrle who looked instantly comfortable in his new digs, but you wouldn’t say Hoffenheim was simply played off the pitch Saturday, whatever the scoreboard says.

Even so, the early-season thoughts that Markus Gisdol had managed to get his defense organized, leading to a run of nine unbeaten matches, can now be put aside. The goal differential has skewed into negative territory and instead of being right on the heels of Europa league placement, Hoffenheim is just atop the also-ran clutter.

Does hope arrive over the next two Saturdays in the form of a visit from Stuttgart and a trip to Freiburg?

Seriously, I have no idea what we should expect, which is why I love this league.

True Grit

Confession: when it comes to European Competition, I always root for Bundesliga sides.

ALWAYS!

Read that to mean, “even Bayern.”

Hence, I didn’t love Roberto DiMatteo’s Chelsea side that “parked the bus” to get to penalties in the Champions League final and then win it. I am not a fan of “negative football,” whatsoever.

Now, I have not yet rewatched that match, but having watched diMatteo’s work more closely now that he’s at Schalke . . . I’m not so sure “park the bus” is really the right description for his philosophy. There’s no doubt that it’s a defensive orientation, but what I saw Friday night in their 1:0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach was a high-energy defensive effort that frustrated their opponent into semi-submission.

Sure, Schalke opted to defend first and foremost, but the individual efforts by players in that defending was truly beautiful to behold and made me remember how much I do not understand about defensive football tactics (or football, for that matter).

I’m certain some Schalke matches are, indeed, “unwatchably” negative affairs, but this was not among them. If you avoided watching this battle after hearing it was dull, go see it. If you watched it and found it dull, watch it again with an eye toward individual challenges and positioning.

The rest of you who already know are shaking your heads at me right now, but HEY, I am still learning, which is meant to be an honorable quality in an adult!

 

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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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