Oct 5, 2010

Achieving the impossible: Mainz begin to believe that they can win the Bundesliga

By Henri Neuendorf

Seven wins in seven games, this is where the record stands for the best ever start to a Bundesliga season. Bayern Munich and Kaiserslautern held the record jointly, and last weekend the unlikeliest of teams matched it.

Only two seasons ago Mainz 05 was still playing in the second tier of German football, and now they are unbeaten at the top of the table. This form is not down to fortune or luck, Mainz have collected some notable scalps. Wolfsburg, the Bundesliga champions of 2009 were beaten 4:3, champions league participants Werder Bremen were disposed of 2:0 away. Two weeks ago Mainz convincingly beat last season’s double winners and champions league finalists Bayern Munich 2:1 in Munich. Last weekend before the match, the travelling Hoffenheim fans applauded and cheered as the Mainz players emerged from the team bus. Mainz then went on to beat Hoffenheim 4:2. At this point the pundits and the press started to whisper and utter the unthinkable: can this team win the league title?

The architect of this success is the leagues youngest and least experienced manager, Thomas Tuchel. Tuchel emphasis effective man-management to bring out the best in his players, he has been described as an “older brother” managing with authority but also with humanity. Tuchel has implemented several rules to this effect, for example, players and staff must address each other by first name, which would seem normal to most people but is highly unusual in Germany where formality is engrained in the workplace, and in a league where authoritarian disciplinarians such as Felix Magath and Louis van Gaal are regarded as ideal managers.

Tactically, Tuchel’s team is characterized by a high-tempo, direct passing offense, and a tenacious press defense, typically found in the premier league. However the team’s greatest asset is the tactical flexibility that allows them to change formation depending on who they play against in a way that exploits their opponent’s weaknesses.

Tuchel has built a squad of young, hungry players and intelligent loan signings. 20-year-old midfielder Lewis Holtby was loaned from Schalke 04 for 100,000 Euros. Whilst his old, more prestigious club toils in the relegation zone, he is leading his new club to glory. 19-year-old striker Andre Schurrle is a product of the Mainz academy and is the club’s top scorer with 4 goals from 5 matches. 22-year-old Adam Szalai of Real Madrid went on loan to Mainz to play first team football; he has scored 3 goals in 7 matches, including the winning goal in the historic win over Bayern Munich. These are just three examples of how the squad was constructed.

Whilst watching Mainz it also becomes clear that the players are really enjoying their time together playing football. The club already has a reputation as being a party club and their current team is doing everything to live up to this name. The goal celebrations are amongst the most innovative that I have seen and they are executed to perfection. It becomes clear that celebrations appear to be practiced on the training pitch as meticulously as corners or free kicks; such is the character of this club.

Only time will tell whether Mainz can sustain this remarkable run of form, or how long it will last. People are beginning to whisper about whether they can do the impossible, to win the league title, however the pundits and the journalists are reluctant to raise their voice on this issue at risk of looking foolish should this fairytale come crashing down to earth. Club president Harald Strutz recently said of his club’s success “Mainz 05 really is a wonderful story, that does not necessarily need to end.” I hope that he is right.

Regardless of where Mainz finishes in the league, the implications of this run are much more far reaching than most people recognize. Mainz have shown that in a time where money rules football, in a time where rich oligarchs and sheiks seek to buy success by paying superstars outlandish wages to kick a ball, there is still hope for fans of small clubs who have not benefitted from substantial foreign investment to be successful and to celebrate. And it shows that there are still some kids left who play football not for the money, but for the love of the game.

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