December 14, 2017

Checking in on the Early Days of Werder Bremen’s Florian Kohfeldt

It’s old news now, but in case you missed it, Werder Bremen and 37-year-old coach Alexander Nouri parted ways following a 3-0 home defeat to Augsburg.  This move came with little surprise as the team had failed to win any of its first 10 league games this season under Nouri.

That 3-0 defeat against Augsburg, which left Bremen sitting at 17th with just five points from five draws, made us forget that only four teams (RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim, and Borussia Dortmund) earned more points than Werder since Nouri took the job back in September 2016.

Nouri’s hiring followed a certain logic for Werder. After Julian Nagelsmann’s success with Hoffenheim, many clubs tried the same approach of hiring promising “laptop coaches” in order to replicate TSG’s achievements. And yes, there have been some successful stories, such as the 36-year- old Hannes Wolf in Stuttgart or Domenico Tedesco with Schalke. But not all the copies are close to the real thing, as Nouri’s hiring showed. For example, “The team doesn’t seem to be listening to his instructions,” Bild recently reported, with the main problem being up top as Bremen had only scored three goals this campaign under Nouri.

When Nouri was first hired, he didn’t have a strong link with the club, unlike Viktor Skripnik, who both played and coached extensively at Werder before assuming head coaching duties in 2014. Furthermore, Nouri’s only previous coaching experience were a season in the fourth tier with Oldenburg before he took the job at Bremen as under-23 coach when Skripnik had been promoted to the first squad, replacing Robin Dutt.

So much for the Nouri experiment.

After firing Nouri, Werder appointed former under-23 coach Florian Kohfeldt on an interim basis. Despite the fact Werder Bremen lost 2-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt in their first match with Kohfeldt in charge, the side looked improved, which was enough to convince Werder to promote the 35-year old to permanent coach until the end of the year, although Baumann candidly admitted he talked to other coaches before made the final decision to stick with Kohfeldt.

 

With a full two weeks at his disposal, following the international break, Kohfeldt had time to make “two, three things in terms of tactics change,” with a specific goal: “we want to get behind the opposing line as fast as possible.” This strategy worked as Werder Bremen enjoyed their first win of the season, a 4-0 trashing of Hannover 96.

So what changes has Kohfeldt introduced?

First and foremost, the Kohfeldt abandoned the back-three Bremen utilized under Nouri, opting instead for a 4-3-3 formation. The main goal with this switch, as Kohfeldt himself stressed, is to make play less defensively, and in turn playing more aggressively than previously under Nouri.

That said, Kohfeldt’s 4-3-3 shape is flexible. His interior midfielders, Thomas Delaney and Maximilian Eggestein (“Kilometer-König” according to Kicker) are free to push forward in attack. The wingers Fin Bartels and Zlatko Junuzovic often swapped sides and also move into the half-spaces. Meanwhile, central forward Max Kruse often drops back and has been part of the linking game up top. Flexibility.

Kruse, returning from a long-term injury, has apparently been revitalized under Kohfeldt’s care. Against Hannover, the 29-year old forward scored a hat-trick, netting his fifth goal in two games under Kohfeldt. Promising stuff.

Kruse’s upfront movement also provide the Grün-Weiß some spatial control in the middle through a kind of diamond with the forward occupying its top and Philipp Bargfrede occupying its bottom. Inside this diamond configuration, Kruse can also act as an attacking midfielder, rather than just a pure striker. Again, flexibility.

Against Hannover, first Kruse’s goal came following a Bargfrede’s pass. The 28-year old midfielder should become a key part into Kohfeldt’s playing a pivotal role as deep-lying playmaker. To achieve this role, Bargfrede needs to improve his level of play, as he’s averaged a 79.4% pass completion rate so far, while adding just 1 assist and 0.2 key passes per game. To become a more reliable link in build-up play, Bargfrede needs to raise his completion to the 80s, percentage-wise, while looking for frequently to make key final 3rd passes.

Further down the pitch, fullbacks Gebre Selassie and Ludwig Augustinsson also seem to be more offensively oriented under Kohfledt, being given more freedom to push higher up the pitch than under Nouri. Furthermore, Werder’s buildup, which has been problematic under Nouri, looked improved against Hannover.

In terms of pure stats, it’s still too early to judge if 4-3-3 should improve Werder’s offensive efficiency. Other than the away loss at Leipzig this past Satuday, Werder’s new 4-3-3 produced 29 shots and five goals (17.24% efficiency) in the previous matches under Kohfeldt, whilst Werder registered 116 shots and three goals (2.58% efficiency) from the 3-4-1-2 shape they used for 877 minutes under Nouri this season.

Defensively under Kohfeldt, Werder defend in a 4-1-4-1/ 4-4-2 shape (except for first half against Leipzig), constructing two compact banks of four. Obviously, Kohfeldt’s more offensive mindset leaves open the door for Bremen to be caught on counter, but, so far, their xGD for the 4-3-3 formation is positive (0.78) while it was negative for 3-1-4-2 shape (-3.06) under Nouri. Sure, Werder’s defensive efficiency stats need more time for clear patterns to emerge, yet the signs so far are good. Moreover, against Hannover, Werder’ defense wasn’t sufficiently tested so questions remain when Bremen will face opponents more suited at counterattacking as happened against Leipzig.

On this game, Kohfeldt reverted Bremen to the 3-1-4-2 they often utilized under the previous regime, with Fin Bartels – starting from the right –  and Delaney supporting Kruse up front.

The pass map of @11tegen for Werder’s game against Leipzig.

No matter how flexible this system is, the key point over was that Bremen played in a centrally-oriented way, which prevented Leipzig from passing the ball through the middle. This plan worked because, in Leipzig’s usual 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 system, RBL’s wingers try to overload the midfield and find gaps between the opposite’s lines. Unfortunately for Werder, Leipzig’s counter was lethal as the home side took the lead.

Kohfeldt switched back to a 4-3-3 system in the second half, following the substitution of Ishak Belfodil for Lamine San; however, this adjustment didn’t work out, and Leipzig found new gaps for running counterattacks.

The ExG from the game between Leipzig and Werder.

Of course, time will tell us if Kohfeldt can keep Werder Bremen from relegation, but, during a time in which the 70-years old Jupp Heynckes has revitalised Bayern Munich, Baumann (speaking about Kohfeldt’s appointment) rightly pointed out that “It’s about individual skills, not age.” And so far, the signs are positive for Werder on this account.

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