It is hard to believe that it was only eight-and-a-half years ago when Werder Bremen won a historic league and cup double, the first in their history. This was achieved under the tutelage of long-serving manager Thomas Schaaf, who is coming under increasing pressure after his beloved Werder’s lacklustre underachievement this season. With the vast majority of German clubs growing in strength and with German football in a healthy state, Werder represent a paradox in German football, with their fortunes having declined in recent years.
Key to this success were manager Thomas Schaaf and general manager Klaus Allofs. When the pair joined Werder in 1999, they were struggling at the foot of the Bundesliga, unable to move on from the successful reign of Otto Rehhagel.
Under their guidance, the club soon re-established themselves as a force in German football. They identified rough diamonds and turned them into gems, before selling these players for a major profit and this process was successfully repeated on a number of occasions.
Success came at a cost, with many of their key players moving on, either to Europe’s premier clubs or for more money than the modest club from Bremen was prepared to pay. While many clubs would suffer an immediate fall from grace as a result of this, Werder seemed to be the exception to the rule.
This policy allowed them to remain near the top of German football for most of the decade. Five consecutive top-three finishes between 2004 and 2008 brought about regular Champions League football to the Weserstadion. Two DFB Pokal wins and a runners-up medal in the last-ever UEFA Cup saw the side enjoy continued success. However, Werder’s second golden era was nearing the end.
As per usual, the pre-season of the 2010-11 season saw the loss of their key player yet again: this time it was the turn of midfield maestro Mesut Özil. When he joined the club in 2008, he stepped into the shoes of Diego with ease, allowing the club to maintain their high standards. His replacement Wesley, who was viewed as one of Brazil’s best talents, was a major disappointment and the loss of a playmaker arguably saw the start of their downfall.
That season saw them finish in 13th place – their lowest finish since Thomas Schaaf took over in 1999. This should have been a wake-up call to the club to invest in players proven in the Bundesliga to take them back up to the top.
Instead, they tried to find gems – either from abroad or players with limited Bundesliga experience – for little money the next season. It is fair to say that only two of the 10 signings –defenders Sokratis Papastaphopoulos and Aleksandar Ignjovski – have represented good value for money.
They ended up finishing in 9th that season. It represented progress from the previous season; but they were still a long, long way from where they should be finishing. Again, it is the dodgy transfers that are to blame, with money not being utilised on finding the right players.
This pre-season saw a similar story emerge. Marko Marin departed to Champions League winners Chelsea; top-scorer Claudio Pizarro rejoined Bayern Munich; and defensive rock Naldo joined Wolfsburg for just over £4million. It was the same story as in previous seasons for Werder: only three of the 11 signings had any prior Bundesliga experience.
While some of the signings have been brilliant, such as intuitive midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and the lethal Nils Petersen, most haven’t worked out as expected. So far this season, they lie in 14th place, only six points ahead of Augsburg in the relegation play-off spot.
Is mercurial manager Schaaf to blame?
Werder’s continued believe in their transfer strategy of signing young and unproven players has been a significant factor in the club falling from regular Champions League competitors to a mid-table club in recent years. But, could long-serving boss Thomas Schaaf also be responsible for this dramatic downturn?
So far this season, they have fielded a total of 20 players, one of the smallest amounts in the league. Many of this group are clearly in need of more time adjusting to the higher playing standards in the Bundesliga, which highlights another problem in itself and suggests that Werder do not have a squad good enough or big enough to hit their previous heights.
Despite this loyalty, Schaaf still does not know his best team. At centre-back, Sebastian Prödl and Assani Lukimya effectively share the role of the second berth; while a number of players have been used in a variety of positions, such as Clemens Fritz and Aleksandar Ignjovski.
Not knowing his best eleven can link to him struggling to find a formation to suit his team. His favoured 4-1-4-1 formation has been abandoned in recent weeks for a 4-2-3-1, but this switch has not seen any changes occur.
Defensive problems are something that has besieged them in recent seasons, and it is no coincidence that this is a major factor that has lead to their downfall. Schaaf has failed to resolve this in recent years, and this is something they are paying the price for. A lack of pace and strength is exposed against teams who play with strong-minded wingers and sides which are full of creativity.
In the past two seasons, they have conceded 61 goals (2010-11) and 58 goals (2011-12) in 64 Bundesliga games, at an average of just over 2 goals a game. With eight games to go, it looks like Werder will concede even more, with them having shipped a league high 51 goals already.
How can they resolve this?
Werder should have enough to avoid a potential relegation battle this season, but they need to pick up their form quickly in order to do so. This summer will be crucial to their long-term future. Loan stars Kevin De Bruyne and Nils Petersen either need to be signed permanently or they should be replaced adequately. They need to open their cheque book and sign players who are both proven at Bundesliga level and youngsters who are good enough now and for the long-term. Schaaf himself pointed to that fact in an interview in January, stating that Werder were going to sign more experienced players during the next transfer window.
While he may have faltered in recent years, Thomas Schaaf needs to be given the full backing of the board and the club’s fans. After all, Werder Bremen without Schaaf is like a car without wheels. It is he who took Werder to one glorious era. And it is he who can help lead them to another one. But this all depends on what he and new sporting director Thomas Eichin do this summer.