Football today, particularly for the bigger teams in the more successful leagues, is a squad game. Teams have to be prepared for the realities of injuries, fatigue, loss of form, or suspension and have players available to slot in to every position who know the system that the team plays. At the same time teams know that it is often cheaper to develop their own young players, rather than have to pay large amounts of money to bring players in from elsewhere. However, in order to keep these players fit and game ready, and to train them, it is important to have a competitive structure so that they get experience and regular game time. Some sides send players out on loan to other teams, often in lower leagues. Many of the big European clubs maintain reserve teams.
In Germany, the history of reserve sides is an interesting one. Up until the end of the 2013/2014 season it was a requirement for all professional teams in the top two leagues to maintain a reserve side. Rather than create a whole new league for them, those teams were incorporated into the lower league system. Since 2005 all reserve teams have carried the Roman numeral II after the name but, prior to that, the reserve teams of professional sides had the designation of Amateure. Between 1974 and 2008 those teams were even allowed to compete in the DFB Pokal (provided they qualified through the normal system) and that is how the DFB Pokal final in 1992/93 saw Bayer Leverkeusen beat Hertha Berlin Amateure 1:0 in front of 76 000 people at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
However, maintaining a reserve team costs a significant amount of money over and above the spending a club would do on their first team. It means spending more on wages for both players and coaches, on kits and facilities, and the other incidentals that keep a football team afloat. It also means spending a significant amount of money on travel to take those teams to and from the games that the team needs to play in order to maintain their match fitness. It even means maintaining a second home ground on which those teams can play when scheduling means that the reserve and first teams are playing home games on the same day. Which is why, at the end of 2013/14 the requirement to maintain a reserve team was removed.
As a result, while most of the teams in the Bundesliga still maintain reserve squads, two clubs (Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen) removed their reserves sides from competition at the end of 2013/14, while RB Leipzig shut down their reserve team at the end of the 2016/17 season. In the Bundesliga 2, Erzgebirge Aue, Darmstadt 98, VfL Bochum and 1. FC Heidenheim have no reserve team, while Dynamo Dresden withdrew their reserve team from league competition and instead entered it in a friendlies competition with the reserve teams of Chemnitzer FC, Hallescher FC, Sparta Prague, FC Slovan Liberec and FK Teplice (the latter three are all clubs in the Czech Republic but closer to Dresden than many teams in other parts of Germany). While not having reserve teams the aforementioned clubs still maintain youth squads at U19, U17 etc.
Of course, there are rules related to the reserve sides that do still exist. For most clubs the reserve team operates as an under 23 side (and have U23 attached to their names) and this is reflected in the rules which say that a player who is under 23 can freely move between the first and reserve teams, while older players must have a four game break between matches for the reserve side and the top team (effectively making it impractical to store your older players in the reserves). Another rule affecting the teams is that the highest league a reserve team can play in is the 3.Liga. Some would argue that Bayern have found a way around both these rules by using their financial power to maintain the other Bundesliga sides as their reserve teams, simply offering higher wages to any player that attracts their interest once they have developed sufficiently, but I digress.
What it does mean is that a reserve team in the 3.Liga can never win promotion and if, by some strange chance, the first team for a reserve side in that league was relegated to the 3. Liga their reserve team would also be relegated, no matter what position they finished in (this last event has not yet happened). However, of the fifteen Bundesliga sides that still maintain reserve teams, two (SC Freiburg and Schalke 04) have their reserve sides in the fifth tier Oberligas, twelve find their sides competing in the fourth tier Regionalliga system, and only one, SV Werder Bremen II, is currently playing in the 3.Liga (Mainz 05 II were relegated at the end of 2016/17). Given how this season has gone it is unlikely that SV Werder Bremen II will still be in the 3.Liga next season, as they are currently sitting in 19th place, fifteen points behind VFL Osnabrück with only six games remaining, the first of which is tonight. Assuming that their relegation does happen the 2018/19 season could be the first one in the history of the 3.Liga that does not feature a reserve side (Hamburger SV II are leading the Regionallia Nord so the possibility is still there that they could get promoted).
In some ways it will be a shame if this does happen because it has been good to see a team of younger players testing themselves against players who are frequently older and more experienced than they are. However, from a pragmatic perspective it is much cheaper to transport teams around the Regionalligas, which are all geographically much closer (hence the name) than to cover the length and breadth of Germany in the national 3.Liga. Unfortunately, it is not as if they are attracting lots of spectators to their games to offset some of the costs. While SV Werder Bremen’s Bundesliga side has averaged crowds of just over 40000 so far this season, their reserve team has an average of 1400 making it easily the smallest average crowd size in the 3.Liga. Even that number is slightly deceptive because both 1.FC Magdeburg and Hansa Rostock organized large groups of travelling supporters (to achieve crowds of 4810 and 5600 respectively) and without those two games the average home crowd is 882 with the smallest crowd so far being the 387 who watched the game against FC Würzburger Kickers. In contrast 1.FC Magdeburg have been averaging close to 18000 fans per game, with a high of 20817 (against Hansa Rostock).
Although this is my first visit to the Weserstadion Platz 11 (the home ground for the reserve team, but part of the complex that includes the Weserstadion of the Bundesliga side) this will be the third time I have seen SV Werder Bremen II play this season. Most recently, I was present last week when they were the better team on the day but managed to concede a last minute goal to go down 3:2 away to Sportfreunde Lotte. Earlier on in the season I was present at the reverse fixture to tonight’s game where, in another tight match, they lost 1:0 to VfR Aalen. At that stage they were still being managed by Florian Kohfeldt who has since gone on to manage the SV Werder Bremen Bundesliga side, taking them from 17th place without a win, to the relative safety of 12th with nine wins in their last eighteen games. That is another good thing about reserve sides; you get to see some coaches and players before they move on to bigger things; Eggestein, who had played well against Lotte last week, had been called up to the Bundesliga side as well. In contrast to their Bundesliga side, the reserve side has not won for the last 28 games. Their opponents tonight VfR Aalen are sitting safely in 10th place but last week were beaten 5:0 by Paderborn at home, so both teams have something to prove.
It is about 3 km from the main train station to the Weserstadion complex (depending on which route you take) and for a reserve game there are no special buses, so if mobility is an issue you might want to grab a taxi. However, the walk is fairly flat and for the last part of the trip involves walking beside the Weser river. For an evening game, you can see the lights of the smaller Platz 11 from quite a distance. This ground is also used by the Werder Bremen women’s team but tonight it was given over to the under 23 side. There were about twenty VfR Aalen supporters down in the visitors section, but they had brought their drummer so even though there were no chants or songs from the home support there was still some entertainment. As we were preparing for the game I was amused by the playing of ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers as the penultimate song before the game (although I had only traveled 330 kms). Even more amusing was the Werder Bremen team song, which is sung to the tune of ‘Daydream Believer’ by the Monkees.
The game began quite frantically, and within twenty seconds we saw the first shot on goal by VfR Aalen’s leading scorer Matthias Morys (thirteen goals so far this season) which needed a great save by Oelschlägel to keep it out. After two more minutes Morys produced another good shot, this time from the right, but it was slightly too high. At this point it looked like it might be a tough night for SV Werder Bremen II but Oelschlägel was in really good form and gradually Bremen started to work their way back into the game. After they had conceded all three goals from high crosses into the box the previous week I had expected Aalen to take a similar approach (and from a couple of corners Bremen did look vulnerable) but Aalen seemed to prefer to work up the middle of the park with Morys as the focus of their attack and most of their crosses, when they did go up the flanks, being sent across low because he is not overly tall.
At the other end VfR Aalen’s goalkeeper, Bernhardt, was also giving a good performance. After 9 minutes he made a strong save from a good shot by Kazior. In the 24th minute Bremen’s Schmidt produced a strong low shot that Bernhardt was also able to keep away. Just a minute later Eilers from Bremen was forced off the field by injury, which was a shame because he had only just come back into the side after a period out injured. However, rather than this disrupting the team, within a few minutes we were treated to a goal. This time it was Schmidt who was the provider, sending a good free kick to the head of Kazior on the six-yard box and Bernhardt had no chance as he directed it into the bottom left corner of the goal. As they had last week, Bremen had an early goal, the only question was, would they be able to hang on to it?
At least for the remainder of the first half it seemed that they would. Aalen were struggling to get to the ball with the Bremen team competing for everything. They also seemed to be anticipating most of Morys’s runs and flicks with the defense cutting everything out. Both sides saw a number of players fall over appealing for fouls and cards (sadly even the under 23s seem to have fallen into this habit) but the referee, Börner, was allowing play to continue as much as possible and seemed to be able to discern the distinction between a foul and a fair tackle reasonably well. In the 39th minute it seemed Aalen might finally have spotted Bremen’s weakness, a high corner from the right found Stanese’s head, but Oelschlägel made another good save and we went into the break with Bremen still leading 1:0.
As the second half began VfR Aalen’s head coach, Peter Vollmann, sent on Müller and Vasiliadis for Bär and Trianni and the team instantly looked more threatening. Vasiliadis demonstrated both times I had previously seen Aalen play that he was a hardworking ball-winning midfielder and that was immediately apparent again. In the 49th minute he won the ball in the center of the pitch and Aalen tried to find Morys, but his shot was blocked. In the 56th minute Stanese tried another good shot from distance but it went wide to the right. On 60 minutes it was revealed that tonight’s crowd was only 201 people, easily the lowest crowd for this 3.Liga season but still 51 more than the record low for SV Werder Bremen II (against SV back in the 2008/9 season).
Although few in number the fans who had come to see Bremen play were going to go home happy. There were some moments of tension and a couple of plays where it looked like tempers might explode (most notably when Morys was brought down, yet again, when it looked like he might get through on goal and he clearly said something to a Bremen defender which made it clear what he thought of their tactics). However, unlike last week, there were no late surprises and the team looked much more solid defensively. VfR Aalen have to be content with a split series but, depending on the result between SV Meppen and Hallescher FC on Sunday should stay in much the same position on the table. Survival for in the 3.Liga for SV Werder Bremen II may still be highly unlikely but, because FSV Zwickau and VfL Osnabrück play each other on Sunday, their relegation has been delayed until at least next week. Most importantly, they have put their winless streak behind them.
With five more MatchDays left in the 3.Liga season (having been to three games in the last seven days) there is only one team left for me to see at home. I am looking forward to getting to Fortuna Köln and doing at least one more report from this league for the season. I hope you are enjoying reading them as much as I am enjoying the opportunity to explore Germany while experiencing lots of interesting football.