Given Bayern’s death grip on the league title, Bundesliga partisans like myself crave the surprises that pop up each season. One annual surprise has become the club who makes a head-turning run on a Europa League spot. Going into their suddenly surprising seasons, these clubs didn’t promise much in Bundesliga preview narratives and die Sonderhefte or in pre-season fans polls predicting the end-of-season table. In fact, many of these surprising clubs were viewed as relegation fodder. Past examples of this pattern are the likes of Hannover 96, SC Freiburg, FC Augsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hertha Berlin, and Mainz 05.
Speaking of 1.FSV Mainz 05, die Nullfünfter fit this profile nicely. Readers of Sport Bild tipped Mainz to finish this season in 15th place, while the editors of 11Freunde tipped M05 to finish in 13th place, and Kicker‘s readers tipped the club to finish 16th place. Not exactly inspiring. For myself, I had Mainz pegged for the relegation along with Nürnberg.
The reasons for this Mainz-related skepticism are obvious. Last season, Mainz finished 14th place (36 points and -14 GD) in what seemed like a slightly lucky over-performance. Yes, the optics looked bad deep into the Rückrunde. Mainz played an ugly brand of Fußball in 2017-18, scoring the 5th fewest goals, possessing the ball the at the 2nd lowest rate (45.6% per match), and created the t-1st fewest “big chances” during the season. Moreover, the squad struggled to get ball to the likes of Yoshinori Muto, M05’s forward who had the Bundesliga’s fewest contacts per match of all active players (!). Defensively, in Sport Bild‘s “Sünder-Bilanzen” table (“sinner balance” table), Mainz came in 3rd on account of the 508 fouls, 59 yellow cards, and 3 red cards earned by its players. Making matters worse, it’s not even that M05 was particularly effective—not even winning 50% of its defensive challenges.
When I watched Eintracht Frankfurt demolish M05 3-0 on matchday 27, I thought the Karneval Kids were d-o-o-m-e-d. From matchdays 21-29, Mainz occupied the relegation playoff spot, only to pull off magic tricks, like defeating RB Leipzig 3-0 and BVB 1-2. So the club’s 14th place finish felt surprising by season’s end.
With the likes of SC Freiburg and especially VfL looking revamped for the 2018-19, Mainz looked like the top flight’s doomed team of those who precariously remained in the top flight from a season ago. The prediction of many (me included!) was that Mainz probably would be embroiled in the relegation battle royalé by season’s end.
But here we are. After three matchdays, Mainz have won 2 matches and drawn 1, good for 6th place on GD along with the other four 2 win and 1 draw teams. Of the two wins, the opening day 1-0 win over VfB Stuttgart has been the biggest surprise, although I found this last weekend’s come-from-behind 2-1 over FC Augsburg to be more impressive.
Of course, we’re talking about an extremely small sample size of matches—much too small for me to make any predictions. And much too small, really, to conclude anything from. Moreover, you skeptics out there can certainly conclude that Mainz has been a bit lucky in these three matches. For example, the “BundesligaAsExpected” account on Twitter, gives the club’s MD 1 win over VfB basically as a coin flip. Yes, I get it. We really can’t know much about how this Mainz side will shake out by die Winterpause, let alone season’s end. So I don’t presume to make any special predictions.
However, I do want to draw attention to what could be a surprising narrative this season.
If you are anything like me in forming your football/Bundesliga opinions, you pegged M05 close to the table bottom at the season’s start. And now, after the whoppingily huge sample size of 3 matches (I know, I know), this judgment of Mainz already looks a little silly.
I mean, just look at Mainz’s roster. The list of names is definitely an upgrade from last season, yet I don’t think many Bundesliga followers noticed. Did you? The club did some nice transfer market business. The three big signings are Jean-Philippe Mateta (striker for 8 mil. €), Pierre Kunde (midfielder for 7.5 mil. €), and Moussa Niakhaté (centerback for 6 mil. €). The Sport Bild Sonderheft summarized these signings under the title “Geschäfte mit Franzosen” (“Business with the French”). The article highlighted Mainz’s recently-hatched plan of signing young French (or with ties to France) talents, which was described as “eine Win-Win-Situation” (I don’t think you need me to translate this one), benefiting both club and players. For the club, Mainz retools its roster with fresh and exciting talent, hoping to make big profits on the players’ eventual sale to bigger clubs. For the players, well, they get some of that now renowned Bundesliga training for the young, et al, etc, which of course all the big clubs love to see when signing the starlets, it seems. For better or worse, the Bundesliga is considered Europe’s premier training ground for talent, so in this sense Mainz is merely following in the steps of SC Freiburg, RB Leipzig, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund, and virtually every other Bundesliga club who have actively recruited the top young talents from abroad.
So far, Mateta, Kunde, and Niakhaté have played in all three matches this season. Kunde especially has grabbed the camera lens with his wide territory of activity and passing ideas. Mainz seems intent on playing these three French-connected players, and playing them a lot this season.
Additionally, the supporting cast looks fascinating. After a China exodus, Anthony Ujah is back in the Bundesliga, playing as an impact sub for Sandro Schwartz’s Mainz. Meanwhile, the Austrian Karim Onisiwo looks improved in attacking midfield, while Mainz’s own academy talent Ridle Baku tantalizes in the defensive midfield. Finally, the 21 year old Spanish fullback Aarón Martín Caricol (on loan from RCD Espanyol) might be the best player on the roster after three matches.
I’m not trying to say, at least not exactly, that this Mainz squad is bound for Europa League qualification glory. Or bound to create a redux of the Boy Band days. The sample size is just waaaaaaaay too small. Who knows. However, I am drawing attention to what actually looks like an roster full of ambitious young players and fascinating journey men. Putting these elements together gives us the prospect of enjoying what could become a very exciting collective unit by season’s end; the thing is poised around the Niakhaté-Kunde-Mateta spine, which could only be intact at Mainz for this single season. Throw in the likes of Onisiwo, Baku, Ujah, Stefan Bell, etc. and this side could dent the Bundesliga narrative in a fun way.
Now that I’ve typed all this, it seems obvious that Mainz looks slightly exciting this season. Thank you, God of Hindsight. But it sure wasn’t obvious even a couple weeks ago. The phenomenon of at first not noticing this particular Mainz side reminds me of what psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky dubbed the “representiveness heuristic.” Here, a “heuristic” is a sort of mental shortcut we take to make a judgment about something. Sometimes, such heuristics (Kahneman and Tversky famously identified four heuristics) can mislead human judgement. In this case, representiveness refers to the degree to which we label an event as representing what appears to be its parent population. In other words, our judgement is based on what we perceive to be a sort of prototype situation that we then read into the new event we are trying to understand.
At the end of last season, Mainz certainly resembled the prototype relegation struggle-bound club. After the slow, but steady, trickle of talent leaving the club (e.g. Abdou Diallo, Yoshinori Muto, Suat Serdar, Yunus Malli, Loris Karius, and Julian Baumgartlinger being the most recent examples), the roster finally seemed to have bottomed out. The attack looked absolutely feckless, while the defensive overcompensated with aggressive tactics. The looming 2018-19 looked grim. Trying to imagine and predict Mainz’s 2018-19 was as easy as evoking the prototype of the surely-lame-duck-dead small market club sadly needing a lower league restart.
Of course, Mainz could still be in trouble by the time May rolls by. However, something tells me this fate won’t be case. At least not during this season.