The move started close to the touchline as a result of Mainz’s tenacity in hunting in packs.
Leroy Sané, the ultra-talented, precocious youngster who’s emerged as the main prong of Schalke’s attack over the past year or so, was shut down virtually on the touchline by Mainz’s left-sided duo of Gaëtan Bussmann and Jairo Samperio, while his passing option to ex-Mainzer Johannes Geis in midfield was closed down by Yunus Malli.
Faced with pressure, the German international relented under pressure by French full-back Bussmann, who’d already opened the scoring on the night with his first Mainz goal in four appearances for the club, all coming since usurping Pierre Bengtsson as Mainz’s starting full back.
Despite some contact, referee Manuel Gräfe waved play on and the ball found its way to Jairo, perhaps Mainz’s most sung hero since the winter break, who allowed his teammates to catch up before poking an intricate pass past three Schalke men towards Christian Clemens, who deftly nudged the ball past Joël Matip towards Malli.
All the while, an arced run by midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger, Mainz’s skipper and a totem of the team in midfield, evaded everyone, making his way into the area. Baumgartlinger had never scored a Bundesliga goal for Mainz in 112 games, and so things looked momentarily safe for Schalke, but as a Malli cross looped past everyone towards the big Austrian, and time seemed to slow down, Baumgartlinger made no mistake, nodding home from close range past Ralf Fährmann in the Schalke goal.
The captain had prodded his team ahead against Schalke with his first league goal in a Mainz shirt, having joined the club in 2011, and he made no secret of his delight, screaming with joy right in front of the Mainz ultras behind the goal.
Mobbed by teammates, even goalkeeper Loris Karius sprinted the length of the pitch to join in with the jubilations, and after the game ended ten minutes later, Baumgartlinger was invited to lead the traditional post-game rendition of the Mainz carnival song Humba Täterä. It was a fitting tribute for a man who has become a hugely important part of Mainz’s success in recent years, someone who it seemed just couldn’t find the back of the net.
Nullfünf in 15/16: What’s the Narrative?
Many of the recently propagated narratives of Mainz’s current season focus on two very important stories; namely, the future of club manager Christian Heidel (a story particularly important on Friday night as Heidel is rumoured to be leaving the club he joined as manager in 1992 for the evening’s opponents, Schalke) and the form of the so-called M&M partnership between Japanese forward Yoshinori Muto and Kassel-born playmaker Malli.
That’s with good reason: Heidel is a huge part of Mainz’s success over the course of the last two decades, while Muto and Malli have scored fifteen of the club’s twenty-seven league goals this season. Perhaps the main reason, though, for Mainz storming back up the table in recent weeks – after Friday night’s action they sat briefly in fifth position, having navigated some tough fixtures recently with three consecutive wins – is actually the midfield partnership of Baumgartlinger and Danny Latza.
Balance in Midfield
Baumgartlinger’s primary task for Mainz is to circulate the ball in midfielder, and it is a task which the Austrian has excelled at this season with an average completion rate of 83% of his passes. At his best, the Austrian’s passing can be imperious, misplacing just three on Friday (at a rate of 89% completed), and of regular starters only Niko Bungert is more effective at getting the ball to his man – from defence, an area of the pitch where a lot more time and space is afforded than in Baumgartlinger’s midfield berth. He operates as the more defensive minded of Mainz’s two midfielders, making a significant amount of interceptions more than Latza (52 over the course of 19 games compared to 39 over 18) and also acting more efficiently in the tackle, completing 63 this season compared to Latza’s 30.
This isn’t to say Latza is playing worse, or at least not significantly worse; the ex-Bochum midfielder functions in a more attacking role, trying to link the midfield to the attack – where much of the team’s highly touted talent is – the aforementioned duo of Muto and Malli, but also Jairo, who has been as incredible as both this season, and Christian Clemens, who has contributed well in recent weeks too – by acting as the legs of the team.
Much was made recently of Latza’s running performances for Mainz – he was imperious against Borussia Mönchengladbach two weeks ago, running almost 14 kilometres in a team which set this season’s record for distance run over ninety minutes. Running in itself isn’t a virtue, though, and Latza’s running is hugely useful for Martin Schmidt’s men, working as a key component of Mainz’s high press and also allowing him to lay on chances for the team; only Malli has created more chances for Mainz this season than Latza, with 28 key passes compared to Latza’s 25, but from a more attacking position and in more games; Malli has been an ever-present.
Looking at the numbers, it’s baffling that the partnership hasn’t been made more of by the mainstream press; Latza’s overcome essentially being signed as back-up to Fabian Frei to become the true successor to Geis in Mainz’s midfield – partly helped by an injury to the Swiss midfielder on Matchday three, of course, but Frei hasn’t had a look-in on the starting eleven since returning to fitness over the winter break, while Baumgartlinger has pushed his already-impressive game to new levels under Martin Schmidt.
More Praise to Come?
Perhaps the real answer comes down to goals; football fans, especially fans watching other games and looking for the key storylines in the form of highlight packages, obviously see them as more important than the underlying play which precipitates them happening. Latza hasn’t scored for Mainz yet, Baumgartlinger has only just broken his league duck for the club. Perhaps the Baumgartlinger-Latza midfield will, in coming weeks, be due more praise.
But really, if Friday night proved one thing, it is that Mainz’s success comes down to their strength as a unit rather than through individual excellence – a cliché often given as a back-handed compliment to untalented teams, but a true compliment worthy of this highly talented Mainz team too, who are tactically solid and balanced from back to front but blessed with the flair to decide games. At the moment, Mainz are looking good in their attempt to bring Europa League football back to Rheinhessen, but the next five games could prove crucial in this; despite recent form they still have to take on Leverkusen at home, plus Bayern and Dortmund away from home in the next month.