May 25, 2017

All Hail Werder Bremen!

The angsty undercurrent running through Bundesliga-related talk right now involves the fate of die Traditionsvereine (Germany’s “traditional clubs”) during this time when the vaunted 50+1 rule is being assailed by events and market logic. You know, some of the usual suspects: the promotion of RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim’s recently found glory (damn, TSG is hawwwwwt!), VfL Wolfburg’s annoying existence, rumblings about Chinese investors just dying to throw money at Bundesliga clubs, the rich getting richer / poor getting poorer, Kaisterslautern sucking bad in the 2.Bundesliga, 1.FC Nürnberg wandering in the Sinai desert, H96’s Martin Kind disavowing the 50+1 rule, … I could go on with this chronologically jumbled list.

According to the angst-addled narrative, which is probably mostly correct, die Traditionsvereine are in trouble during our confusing and cross-pressured times, as these encumbered organizations totter around somewhat aimlessly in trying to secure footballing success. Clubs like VfB Stuttgart, Hannover 96, Hamburger SV, Werder Bremen, 1.FC Nürnberg, and 1.FC Kaiserslautern all seemed roped down by tradition’s strictures as they try to find a path toward success — and preferably one that doesn’t involve, at least according to the officially sanctioned point of views, abolishing the 50+1 rule, Chinese investors, business models, or market logic. You know, soulful success. Success that isn’t purchased from the devil of modernity. Yet things only seem to get worse for these storied clubs, who molt coaches like snakeskin and waste millions of Euros on stupid transfers. Indeed, troubling times for die Tranditionsvereine, possibly even raising the question about these creaky institutions simply becoming lost causes.

These end times demand an avenger of lost causes.

By which I mean Werder Bremen, of course.

Look, I could say a whole lot more about the fate of die Traditionsvereine, and I’m sure I will at some point, but really I’m using this opening hook as an occasion to talk about Werder, who is transforming its once unlucky season into a beautiful and joyful creation.

Don’t look now, but the Rückrunde belongs to Werder Bremen. Sure, Bayern is handing out “Bayern Treatment” beatings left and right this spring, but the FCB has done this so frequently in preceding seasons that the Bavarians have transcended the Bundesliga’s space-time continuum and become like distant deities in some quasi-Deistic drama. Bayern owns everything, which means you can bracket the club away into nothingness and write about the likes of, say, Werder Bremen instead. At least this is the writing trick we’ve learned to use during Bayern’s uninterrupted run of Bundesliga titles.

So Werder Bremen.

Werder has won 5 of the last 6 matches. And if luck had been any different, it could have been something like 7 of the last 10. Just take a look at a list of Werder’s Bundesliga fixtures since die Winterpause:

  • Lost: 1-2 vs. Dortmund.
  • Lost: 1-2 vs. Bayern.
  • Lost: 3-2 @ Augsburg.
  • Lost: 0-1 vs. Mönchengladbach.
  • Won: 0-2 @ Mainz 05.
  • Won: 1-2 @ VfL Wolfsburg.
  • Won: 2-0 vs. Darmstadt.
  • Drawn: 1-1 @ Leverkusen.
  • Won: 3-0 vs. RB Leipzig.
  • Won: 2-5 @ Freiburg.

Let’s back up. At the Rückrunde‘s opening, Werder was 15th in the league table. Then the back-to-back losses to giants Dortmund and Bayern. Heartbreaking losses, too — matches that should have been draws at the very very worst. Then two more back-to-back losses to FCA and Gladbach. Those damned fickle footballing gods! However, amazingly, Werder was *only* in 16th place after these four straight losses, thanks to equally poor results from Ingolstadt and Darmstadt.

(Werder Bremen’s form through Matchday 26 in the 2016-17 season. Source: WhoScored.com)

Werder should have been buried after this disastrous run, especially considering the moribund build-up over the last couple seasons culminating in what looked like a (merciful) slide into relegation. So what happened next? Well, 5 wins in 6 matches, including impressive wins over Mainz, RBL, and Freiburg. Oh, and even more impressively, Werder kept 3 clean sheets during this run. If you’ve been following the Bundesliga for the last three seasons, you’ll know how miraculous this feat is for Werder and its beleaguered keeper, Felix Wiewald. Hell, any circumstances that make Werder’s defense and Wiewald’s keeping look good deserve mention in “Stories of the Season.”

Which is why I find Werder’s recent tied-for-league-best form remarkable. Only Bayern has been better these past six Matchdays.

On one hand, it’s puzzling. Werder seemingly have nothing to play for, but the empty and cliched “pride” we like imagine our sporting favorites play for. (Maybe they do.) However, mere pride seems like a too fallow ground for explaining the turnaround, if indeed Werder emerge from this six match stretch of wonder with sustained success.

On the other hand, it’s not puzzling. Werder have been bad luck bears all season, especially during those first four gutting Rückrunde losses. Movement toward the statistical mean is a simple explanation for the turnaround. And yet. And yet football players are not mere entities governed by statistical rules. Yes, they are governed by statistical rules, but they’re also governed by psychology — by dread, by fear, by distraction, by boredom, or even by pride. In this sense, football clubs are intricate organisms, strangely cross-pressured by determinate forces and indeterminate choices. Something or many things is driving this lovable Werder team forward. And I’d reckon that buried somewhere in the heart of it all is new coach Alexander Nouri, who followed in the “failed” Viktor Skrypnyk’s steps as coach of Werder’s reserves.

I find Nouri compelling, but probably because I don’t know much about him. A couple internet-gleaned facts: his father is Iranian, his mother German; he’s a dual Iranian and German citizen; prior to Werder, he coached VfB Oldenburg’s reserves and regulars; and there’s Nouri’s criticism of president Trump. More precisely, I find his mannerisms and demeanor compelling: the folded arms, pensive face, shadowy brow, long sleeves. I try to imagine the team talks, training sessions, and video sessions with this man. He belongs in a novel, I think. Anyhow, I single Nouri out, because clawing out of the relegation zone with 5 wins in 6 matches gestures toward things like luck, motivation, tactics, and coaching.

What I’m trying to say in the previous paragraph is that Nouri surely (right?) plays a big part in Werder’s happy reversal. But your guess is as good as mine about precisely what part he’s played in the turnaround. Hence all my imaginings, because coaches naturally become the heart of such stories. On the surface, Werder seem to be playing similarly now and back in October when Nouri replaced Skrypnyk. Look, I’m sure the deep dive Football Manager-styled tactics analysis can overturn many a stone of explanation here, but in a narrative sense, there’s a story of continuity; that is, Nouri’s Werder has never given up or in. This mentality is what I’ve come to love most about Werder this season. And who better to attribute mentality to than a coach?

That, and seeing Max Kruse get his groove back.

After transferring in from VfL Wolfsburg, Kruse was out with an injury until late November; his first appearance was on November 20th in a 2-1 loss at Eintracht. A couple matches later, Kruse found his scoring touch with a goal against Ingolstadt. He scored again a Matchday later against Hertha Berlin. Then he was quiet during a long stretch till the four straight losses that began the Rückrunde, scoring in back-to-back matches against Bayern and Augsburg. After short scoring dry spell, Kruse scored both goals in his side’s 2-0 win over Darmstadt. Finally, on Matchday 26 (this past weekend), Kruse scored a wonder goal against Freiburg in his side’s joyful 2-5 away win:

For my money, Kruse is the key player in Werder’s turnaround, contributing far more than his 7 goals. Kruse stabilizes teammates surrounding him, like Serge Gnabry, Thomas Delaney, Florian Grillitisch, Robert Bauer, Fin Bartels, Zlatko Junuzovic, or Max Eggestein. For example, Kruse averages more Key Passes per match (2) than shots (1.6). He’s always had a knack for Key Passes, and on his day, I’d contend, he’s one of the Bundesliga’s finest playmakers. Moreover, what’s nice for Werder is that Kruse, at this stage in his career — he’s 29 — is not going to be scooped up in some big money transfer. Those days are behind him. Kruse is here to roost, so as other talent come and go (e.g. Gnabry or Delaney), Werder can anchor itself around Kruse.

This possibility itself is another remarkable thing about Werder Bremen this season. In fact, a couple years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Max Kruse as leader of any club, let alone a relegation flirter like Werder. After his rise to stardom via Freiburg and Gladbach, Kruse crashed hard, tripping over humiliating “off field” incidents, like one involving poker, or “tapes” of a certain bawdy kind. At the the time, Kruse had reached his professional zenith (Lego figure!) and presumptive place on Jogi Löw’s die Nationalmannschaft. After these incidents, Kruse’s fall came fast, and moving to VfL Wolfsburg for a season didn’t help rehabilitate the suddenly troubled playmaker. As his man bun grew, Kruse’s stardom shrunk. Then Werder came knocking.

I’ve always been fascinating by Max Kruse, even crushing on him. So it goes without saying that I love seeing him thrive at Werder. However, even more I love seeing a player, like Kruse, find himself, by which I mean find himself in the place where he belongs. Currently, this is definitely the case with Kruse. Having him “back” adds another unit of joy to the Bundesliga for me.

But here’s the punchline, even after Werder’s six match turnaround and Kruse’s reemergence, the club is only in 12th place. It’s sort of a cruel joke, no? Of course, clawing out from 16th place doesn’t happen in only a couple Matchdays; we BVBers certainly know from Kloppo’s last season in charge! Yet this is the Bundesliga, which means a congested midtable, which means that Werder is only 5 points from a Europa League spot, which finally means that 12th place is really not a place, but rather a placeholder in an interval covering places 7-15 in the table. The Bundesliga is known for this midtable phenomenon.

Besides, if I’ve learned anything at all from Nouri-led Werder it’s that one cliche has become delightfully true: play hard every match and results will come. And Werder always play hard. I winced just typing this cliche. However, a cliche becoming true for a moment is a wonderfully affirming thing.

So paradoxically, the Rückrunde belongs to a 12th place club — a club that also happens to be a Traditionsverein. In this sense, Werder Bremen is the right club for the right moment. Alle Hagel Werder Bremen!

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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