This is the first in a series of Bundesliga Fanatic previews as we prepare for season kickoff, less than three weeks away.
1. FSV Mainz 05 is poised at a delicate moment. With the club coming off its best season ever – a 5th place finish in the Bundesliga and Europa League qualification – it’s easy to take a rearview mirror tack, focusing on what is being left behind. The media are certainly doing so, reminding Bundesliga fans constantly that Mainz 05 has lost its stars – André Schürrle, Lewis Holtby, and Christian Fuchs. Journalists, when they bother to pay attention to this upstart little Karnevalsverein (carnival club), are quick to conclude that Mainz must therefore be doomed, set to spiral into mediocrity or even the relegation battle without the much-vaunted Bruchweg Boys.
Pessimism is easy. But Mainz have not achieved two top-ten Bundesliga finishes in a row by accident. There is a strong foundation and philosophy being laid in place in Mainz, and instead of wallowing in nostalgia, the club is marching onwards with head held high and a clear vision for the future. A key factor in Mainz’s continuing success is that the club is in exceedingly safe hands. Coach Thomas Tuchel, one of the youngest and most talented trainers in the Bundesliga, is sharp, creative, and passionate – rest assured he will have a thoughtful plan to cope with the challenges of the Europa League and get the most out of his squad. Manager Christian Heidel, whose guiding influence over the last couple decades is the main reason Mainz is in this position at all, has carefully sculpted the club toward this moment, personally scouting and signing several new talents as well as orchestrating the construction of a brand new stadium. The club’s only stated goal is simple and humble: remain in the Bundesliga. Toward that end, plans are humming along nicely, and most of the pieces are already set in place for another fun season in Mainz.
Mainz is happy to be a club that attracts and develops young talent before sending them on to bigger clubs, and that philosophy is quite evident in the nine (!) first team signings that have been made for the coming season. All but one are under 25 years old and have diverse origin stories, from a Nigerian playing in Norway to a Hungarian playing in Germany to a Danish league champion. In fact, curiously enough, none come from the first team of a rival Bundesliga club. This is in keeping with a transfer policy that has identified relatively obscure talents – Sami Allagui from 2nd tier Greuther Fürth, Ádám Szalai from the Real Madrid reserves – and lifted them to success in the top flight of German football. At the same time, increased resources and an ambition to be a competitive Bundesliga club for the foreseeable future have led to the most expensive transfer season in Mainz’s history. Last season, limited funds and a lower profile meant that many talents came in on one-season loans. This worked in the short-term – Holtby, Fuchs, Fathi, and Risse were all important contributors – but it led to post-season unheaval, though in the end Mainz managed to retain both Risse and Fathi. This year, in contrast, all nine newcomers have signed multi-year contracts, some arriving for relatively steep fees that Mainz is able to afford thanks to the sale of Schürrle (~€ 10m) and the greater revenue generated by a new, larger stadium. In addition, the promise of European football and the sharply rising star of Tuchel have served to make Mainz more attractive than ever to hungry young players.
Let’s take a look at the new carnival kids:
Anthony Ujah – Striker
Twenty-year old Nigerian striker Anthony Ujah is Mainz’s most high-profile signing this year. He was snatched from Norwegian club Lillestrøm for something in the region of €3m, Mainz’s most expensive transfer ever. His pedigree suggests he will live up to the price tag, having scored 32 goals in 45 appearances in the course of one and a half seasons with Lillestrøm. Though Norwegian defenses may not be world-class, Ujah has an undisputed nose for goal, possessing an incredible sense of positioning and a solid shot with either foot. Six feet tall and strong, he also has a good presence in the air. Ujah is the result of a search for a prolific striker that Heidel and Tuchel undertook in light of the departure of Schürrle and the injury to Szalai. Several clubs demonstrated interest in Ujah, including Brøndby IF, CSKA Moscow and FC København, but Mainz’s qualities convinced Ujah this was the place for him. He said, “I read about several interested clubs but the Mainz coach (Thomas Tuchel) gave a positive impression from the very moment I first spoke to him. In football, there are many things that are more important than money and some of these things Mainz appear to have.” Ujah seems like a motivated and ambitious young man and he may be able to provide the necessary potency to the Mainz attack.
Zoltan Stieber – Winger
The signing of Hungarian winger Zoltan Stieber was announced way back in March as part of a flurry of midseason signings as Mainz braced for a summer of change. Stieber arrives at Mainz after a strong season with 2. Bundesliga club Alemannia Aachen for around €1m. He was the league’s leading provider, conjuring a whopping 17 assists, and contributed 10 goals to boot. Previously, the 22-year old Hungarian played for the Aston Villa reserves, and though he failed to make a breakthrough to the first team, many Villa fans felt that his sale was a mistake. He also spent a year on loan with League One team Yeovil Town where he became something of a local hero. In his time at Aachen, Stieber consulted with his teammate and former Mainz man Benjamin Auer as well as long time friend and current Mainzer Szalai; both praised the club and convinced Stieber this would be a great move for him. Small, fast, and wicked with a ball at his feet, Stieber’s dazzling skill and goofy smile serve to win over fans’ hearts. It’s hopeful he will do the same at Mainz, filling the boots of the dearly missed Bruchweg Boys. Stieber regards this as his second opportunity to make an impact on a major European league, and he is determined to make the most of it.
Zdenek Pospech – Right back
Czech right back Pospech is the old man of the bunch, clocking in at a whopping 32 years old. He comes with experience to match at both international and club level. He has 26 caps for the Czech national team, and he has won the Danish title three times with FC København, for whom he has played 108 games in three seasons and proved an important element of the team as an attacking fullback, scoring 13 and assisting 22 goals. He also played in the Champions League with FCK last season when they impressed by reaching the first knockout round, and he was even named to the UEFA Team of the Week after FCK beat Panathinaikos. Pospech’s move to Mainz was not premeditated; Tuchel went to FCK to scout another player, and Pospech caught his eye with his dynamic play on the right flank. Pospech is clearly delighted at the opportunity, as he felt that at the age of 32 his chance of playing in a top European league was past. His experience is an important addition to the Mainz XI, especially with the Europa League looming. In the specific case of right back, Pospech fills a need that is not so much urgent as augmenting; Niko Bungert and Radoslav Zabavnik did a solid job there last season, but neither contributed much coming forward. It is likely that Pospech will be a starter from day one and will add a potent element to Mainz’s play on the right flank.
Julian Baumgartlinger – Holding mid
Austrian international Baumgartlinger comes to Mainz from Austrian Bundesliga side Austria Wien. The 23-year old is familiar with German football; he spent his youth progressing through the ranks at 1860 Munich, all the way from the U-14s to the senior side. He went to Austria to expand as a player, but his goal has always been to return to the Bundesliga and play in the top flight. Contact from Mainz was therefore a pleasant surprise, and it’s clear he didn’t take long to make up his mind – five days after first speaking with Mainz, terms were agreed. Baumgartlinger has played an important role for Austria Wien, featuring in 61 games in his two seasons with the club, and he recently impressed in Austria’s EURO 2012 qualifying match against a lackluster Germany. He’s a strong, intimidating holding midfielder with a talent for bundling people off the ball and maintaining possession. He isn’t much for scoring goals but that’s not his purpose; he’s there to assert control over the midfield. He’s already impressed in training, adapting well to the demanding pace at Mainz, and he’s got a good chance to make the starting XI – at least some of the time, knowing Tuchel’s penchant for rotation.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting – Striker
Choupo-Moting is a 22-year old striker who is a full-fledged Cameroonian international, playing alongside superstar Samuel Eto’o. He has been with Hamburg since 2004 but has struggled to break into the first team and comes to Mainz with the hopes of earning a regular place. He nearly transferred to FC Köln in January, but the move was stymied by – of all things – a faulty fax machine. This little stroke of chance may prove to be a boon for Mainz. A versatile attacking player, Choupo-Moting posses a good first touch and a constant ambition to score. His signing is something of a small coup, as he comes on a free transfer and has enormous potential. If the man of the curious name finds his stride with Mainz, his acquisition could prove to be a master stroke of transfer dealings.
Yunus Malli – Central attacking mid
Malli is a 19-year old central attacking midfielder who was nicked from the amateur squad of Borussia Monchengladbach. Gladbach were not thrilled to lose their young prospect, but Malli decided that Mainz held better opportunities for him, including the promise of training and perhaps playing with the senior squad. Mainz is rightfully developing a reputation for the support and advancement of young talent, and acquisitions like Malli are one of the benefits of such a reputation. Malli was brought into fill in what Tuchel calls a “Talentplatz” (talent’s place), which describes a player that straddles the boundary between the reserve and senior teams. These players, of which Tuchel maintains about 3 at any given time, practice with the squad and get playing time with the seniors if they are deemed ready, but always get minutes with the reserves as well. Incredibly, from this initial borderline role, Malli is already pressuring for a starting place. His performances in the training camp in Flachau are bringing praise from all sides; while some of his fellow young newcomers are still tentative and trying not to make mistakes, Malli has internalized the speed and ambition of Mainz training and dived in headfirst. He is ambitious but humble, determined to earn his way into the squad and Bundesliga appearances. He seems well on his way, and is a talent to keep a close eye on.
Nicolai Müller – Winger
Of all the new attacking talent, Müller may be the most direct replacement for the beloved Schürrle, at least on paper – he’s a pacey right-footed left winger with a talent for cutting inside defenders. While admiring Schürrle’s talent, Müller resists the comparison and is determined to make his own mark on the squad. The 23-year old was brought in from 2. Bundesliga side Greuther Fürth, following in the footsteps of his ex-Fürth teammates Sami Allagui and Marco Caligiuri. Müller came through the youth ranks at Eintracht Frankfurt but was let go for being too small (Frankfurt released another player around that time for the same reason by the name of Marko Marin – sound familiar?). Now Müller finally finds himself with a chance in the top flight and he is eager to make the most of it. Competition for minutes will be stiff, but he’s made a good start with a strong performance in the recent friendly against Legia Warsaw, including a neat half-volley goal.
Deniz Yilmaz – Striker
Yilmaz spent 6 years in the Bayern Munich reserves, playing 116 games and scoring 33 goals. The 23-year old center forward was named to the Bayern first team squad or bench a few times, but never managed to make it onto the pitch. He along with the rest of the reserve team wallowed at the bottom of the third tier for the 2010/11 season and they were ultimately relegated to the fourth division, which Yilmaz couldn’t even help to avoid as he was laid up by injury for the tail end of the season. Mainz snapped him up on a free during the spring, and if nothing else he provides another attacking option. It is an open question as to whether he will flourish in the Mainz system, as with all of the new players, and he may or may not prove to be a pleasant surprise.
Fabian Schönheim – Left back
Schönheim is a left back from the third division side SV Wehen Wiesbaden. Previously he played for Kaiserslautern in the first division, but they were relegated after his first season and he spent four years in the second division. After taking a step down the ladder to Wiesbaden, he has suddenly been given an opportunity to jump all the way back to the top and play in the first tier. The 24-year old was signed when it was believed Fuchs would remain as starting left back, but after Fuchs’s sudden departure there was a sticky time when Schönheim was Mainz’s only dedicated left back. That situation was resolved when loanee Malik Fathi was signed back on a permanent basis, and Schönheim is likely breathing easier because of it. He is broad shouldered and a physically imposing, 6’3” (1.91 m) , so his presence should be an asset, but adjusting to the speed of the first division and of Mainz’s style in particular is taking some time. It is likely that Schönheim will mostly occupy a substitute role in the near future. Nevertheless it is important to have options at a position as prickly as left back and Schönheim is a welcome addition to the squad.
While the new talents are exciting and mysterious, one should not overlook the core that Tuchel has already worked hard to construct. Nikolce Noveski remains steadfast in his role as captain and tireless center back. Keepers Heinz Müller and Christian Wetklo are both equally qualified to step between the sticks, and it is to the team’s benefit that they will be forced to better each other for a starting spot. Sami Allagui, Marcel Risse, Andreas Ivanschitz, Florian Heller, and Marco Caligiuri will all be looking to build on strong seasons and become more integral parts of Tuchel’s attacking plan. Elkin Soto, soon to return from Copa America action, and Eugen Polanski will square off with newcomer Baumgartlinger for the holding midfield roles. As during last season, the lineup will likely be ever-changing, adjusted to suit the task at hand. Predicting Tuchel’s personnel choices is hard enough without nine unknown quantities, but a possible starting XI could be: H. Müller – Pospech, Bungert, Noveski, Fathi – Baumgartlinger – Risse, Ivanschitz – Malli – Allagui, Ujah. The 4-4-2 with midfield diamond has been making appearances in preseason friendlies and will likely be used frequently, as will the 4-3-1-2. Many players will get a chance to make an impact, and with so many new attacking players, chances are high that Tuchel will land on a few potent combinations up front, though it may take some time. Furthermore, the defense has solidity and depth at every position and may very well be frugal in goals conceded again. Mainz has all the pieces in place; now it is a matter of setting them into action.
A New Home
When you turn on a Mainz home game this season, one major change will be immediately evident: Mainz has a brand new stadium! The Coface Arena was constructed over the last year and is a significant ingredient of the club’s ambition to become a fixture in the Bundesliga. The new stadium has a capacity of 34,043, of which 13,800 are standing places, a unusually high ratio. The stadium is designed in the English style, with steep stands coming close to the pitch, all fostering an intimidating and invigorating environment. The most eye-catching design features are the corners, each of which are open and filled with a large window to allow light to come in. The upgrade was desperately needed. Mainz says farewell to the Stadion am Bruchweg, built in 1929 and capable of holding only 20,300. The stadium was expanded and updated in a hodgepodge manner over the decades, yielding a homely eyesore of a stadium that, while beloved by the local support, could no longer live up to the demands of modern football. In fact, it actually took a long time before the people of Mainz felt any fondness for the Bruchweg due to its origin story; the club was forced into the stadium by the Nazis in the 1930s and thus for a long time it served as a reminder of things best forgotten. More recent successes have engendered fondness, but there is a general sense of anticipation and delight about the move to a new home. This is a major landmark in the club’s history, and the hope is that it signifies the beginning of a new era. The development coincides nicely with Mainz’s qualification for the Europa League, and the club will have a home to be proud of when it welcomes opponents from abroad.
Buy nine new players? Check. Build new stadium? Check. Navigate the qualifying rounds of the Europa League while getting off to a strong start in the Bundesliga and staying in the DFB Pokal as long as possible? Stay tuned. Tuchel and his squad of eager youngsters certainly have their work cut out for them. Mainz have a delightful warmup on their plate in the form of the LIGA Total! Cup, which will christen the Coface Arena on July 19th and 20th. The guest list is impressive: Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, and Hamburg. Mainz faces off with Dortmund on the 19th in what should be a thrilling clash of exuberant attacking football as both teams try to hit top gear in the run up to season kickoff. Mainz-Dortmund matches always have a special familial feel thanks to Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp’s close ties to Mainz as both player and coach. Then Mainz will face either Bayern or Hamburg.
After that thrilling appetizer, Mainz will launch into its competitive season on July 28th with the home leg of its Europa League third qualifying round tie. Mainz has been drawn against the winner of the tie between Finnish club Kuopion Palloseura (Kuopio PS) and Romanian club Gaz Metan Mediaș. Kuopio PS won the first leg 1-0. Neither should pose a serious threat to Mainz’s chances of advancement, but Tuchel will have to be careful as anything could become a banana peel to his relatively young and inexperienced squad. Mainz will travel to either Finland or Romania for the second leg on August 4th. In the meantime, Mainz will begin their DFB Pokal campaign on Sunday, July 31st against SVN Zweibrücken, a fifth tier club playing in the Oberliga Südwest. Zweibrücken earned entry into the DFB Pokal by winning the Südwestpokal, a competition that was incidentally won five years running from 2001 to 2005 by the Mainz 05 amateurs.
As if all that weren’t enough, Mainz launches into a brand new Bundesliga season on August 7th with a home match against last year’s runners up Bayer Leverkusen. Two weeks later, Mainz welcomes Schalke 04, so that’s three freshly ex-Mainzer – Schürrle, Holtby, and Fuchs – coming back to face their old club in its new home within three weeks of the season’s inception. Mainz fans will be happy to see their beloved Bruchweg Boys again, but will also hope they will be taught a new song by startup group the Coface Kids (you heard it here first!). Mainz’s first seven fixtures are: Leverkusen (H), Freiburg (A), Schalke 04 (H), Hannover (A), Hoffenheim (H), Kaiserslautern (A), and Dortmund (H). No walk in the park, certainly. And if all goes well in the other competitions, Mainz will have a generous sprinkling of Europa and DFB Pokal fixtures to contend with simultaneously.
When the Bundesliga burst off the starting line last year, Mainz lived a dream, knocking down all comers for seven weeks (including the mighty Bayern München – in München!) and becoming the talk of Europe. Chances of that happening again are slim. But Tuchel knows his task. His squad may look a little different, the context may be new and a bit strange, but the heart that lifted Mainz to impossible heights still beats strong. Die Nullfünfer have a simple aim: to make the fans happy with their brand of positive, energetic football. The odds are they will succeed, whether they finish in 5th or 15th.
Photo Credit: Mainz05, Zaunsturm1905, Mainzer Rhein-Zeitung
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