By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

Bundesliga Tactics Talk: Round 16

The final round of Bundesliga action in the current calendar year produced all manner of interesting twists. German footballing enthusiasts - while sad to see the action paused - still have much to ponder over the coming winter break.

Our final recap column of 2023 breaks down all the action with draw-ups for Köln, Union Berlin, Bayern, Bremen, Mainz, Frankfurt, Gladbach, Darmstadt, and Hoffenheim. Some very interesting 2024 storylines are already beginning to emerge!

Bundesliga Tactical Banter: Round 16

The "Schick Statement"

The "Xabi Alonso Apostles" of German football officially have more reason to rave over the man we consider to be the Bundesliga's best trainer. The head-coach tasked with steering the league-leaders always seems to have the right answers. Xabi clearly thinks three steps ahead. This was evidenced by his squad selection against Bochum on Wednesday. His personnel choices reflected the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations tournament. Odilon Kossounou and Edmond Tapsoba took a seat in favor of Piero Hincapie and Josip Stanisic. Most significantly, Patrik Schick replaced Victor Boniface.

The release of the team sheets immediately rendered it clear that Xabi would use the final league fixture of the calendar year as a dress rehearsal for the coming month. The B04 gaffer needed to give the squad he will need to rely upon for up to six consecutive matches in January a run-out. It is important to note that the absence of Tapsoba and Kossounou did yield some adverse effects. Opponents pressed high up the pitch boldly. VfL skipper Anthony Losilla took Granit Xhaka out of the game. Some of the issues associated with Leverkusen's build-up-play out of the back were once again apparent.

As the two teams played an essentially evenly-matched game over the course of the opening half-hour, one really felt the absence of Kossounou. The Ivorian's long dribbles out of the back weren't there. As a result, Leverkusen's attack often appeared too stagnant. Schick's conversion of a 30th-minute penalty enabled Xabi's team to break out of the cycle. Just two minutes after the opening goal, Jeremie Frimpong set up Schick's 2-0. Schick completed a brace before the opening 45 was finished, polishing off a very well-designed Alejandro Grimaldo corner. Issues settled.

Boniface would later come on to score off the bench. The obligatory bit of "Florian Wirtz magic" enabled us to head into the winter break totally unconcerned about any problems this team might potentially have. Leverkusen now have the historic distinction of being the first-ever Bundesliga side to remain unbeaten through the first 25 competitive matches of a season. The thinning out of this squad next month almost seems immaterial. Schick's performance, for the moment at least, places all concerns on the back-burner. The title-contenders have little to worry about.

In light of the fact that the columnist has also been heaping no small amount of praise on Bochum as of late, we'll include a few positive words about Thomas Letsch's Revierklub before moving on. The 1848ers certainly held their own against a monstrously good opponent in their final match of the calendar year. The attacking flank tandem of Christopher Antwi-Adjei and Takuma Asano produced some promising early chances. Losilla and the still very-much in form Patrick Osterhage did well to clog up the Bayer midfield.

Left-back Bernardo and center-half Keven Schlotterbeck contributed some nice stops. Danilo Soares, Philipp Förster, and Moritz Broschinski - while not the most impactful bunch - provided some impetus off the bench. Germans take a shine to Bochum for good reason. "Badass Bochumery" remains alive and well in all German footballing circles. This proud NRW club wraps up the calendar year six points clear of the relegation zone. It's not inconceivable that they can pull farther away from the pack once play resumes. Bochum appear on the right track.
The "Stuttgarter Snap-Back"

Apropos teams that concluded 2023 on a high note, Sebastian Hoeneß' VfB Stuttgart rapidly recovered from their 0-3 dusting at the hands of Bayern to deliver their own easy and breezy 3-0 beat-down of FC Augsburg. Scenes at the newly re-christened MMH-Arena were most stirring as the team headed overt the FanKurve to celebrate their completely unexpected and totally improbable success thus far this year. Everything went right for the Swabians in their final home fixture. Deniz Undav, Serhou Guirassy, and Chris Führich all got their names on the scoresheet.

Undav opened the scoring from a well-rehearsed set-piece variation that, while not working as originally intended, did allow an alert Angelo Stiller a chance to set his colleague up with some deft improvisation. Stiller pocketed another assist on Führich's 3-0 with a brilliant through-ball. The former Hoeneß FCB II protégée sparkled consistently, earning well-deserved "man-of-the-match" honors for his incredible performance. Undav and Führich were also impressive throughout. One of this column's selected gems, Maximilian Mittelstädt, keeps delivering the goods as well.

Last year's relegation-playoff winners simply treat us all to quality football. Whether in open play or on dead balls, the Württembergers exude maturity, class, and precisely targeted preparation week in and week out. Hoeneß' existing system functions like clockwork. Naturally, the matter of how well the squad can hope to perform with Guirassy out on AFCON duty lingers. The VfB trainer doesn't possess the amount of options that Xabi Alonso does. Leverkusen are lauded as title-contenders in the above section. Here, we still have a team that must continue to scrap for a top-four-place.

Just like in the above section, however, it's fair enough to place such problems on the back-burner for now. FCA captain Ermedin Demirovic was left to lament the fact that Stuttgart defeated his team via unrivaled superiority all over the pitch. Demirovic went so far as to say that the Swabians humbled him in a manner not even Bayern could. The Augsburg skipper found himself denied by rising VfB keeper Alexander Nübel twice and forced into several tactical fouls. Eleven victories in the first half of the season for Stuttgart. Solid stuff, even though they were playing the league's 11th-placed team.
"Home-free Heidenheim"

A late Matthias Ginter own-goal enabled Frank Schmidt's 1. FC Heidenheim to top Christian Streich's Freiburg 3-2 in one of the most sensationally signifiant results of the round. Wow. The tiny club from the Albogen region have now collected twenty points with one match-day in the "Hin-Runde" remaining. Attainment of the 35 points generally considered to be sufficient for Bundesliga survival seems very realistic now. One certainly fancies the FCH's chances against Köln when league play resumes after the break. Twenty-three points from one half of the season is huge.

Heidenheim managed to turn the tide on home soil yet again. The superior Breisgauer went up early when Merlin Röhl played Lucas Höler through on the 7th-minute 1-0. Streich's 4-2-3-1 (with Röhl anchoring as a ten whilst Roland Sallai and Ritsu Doan worked the wings) stood as tall as a ramrod spine. The BaWü hosts found no way through until a monetary lapse enabled Eren Dinckçi to equalize in the 52nd. A penalty conversion from Höler put Freiburg back ahead 2-1 in the 64th. Schmidt's substitutes nevertheless shined as the comeback was completed.

Loads of great news for the FCH with regard to the contributions off the bench. Kevin Sessa and Stefan Schimmer were both involved in Tim Kleindienst's 2-2 in the 84th. Omar Haktab Traoré asserted himself and forced the game-winning goal out of Ginter at 90+2. Interesting that Schmidt opted to drop Traoré from the XI for only the second time this season. Match-day starting right-back Marnon Busch did a remarkably good job in Traoré's absence. Schmidt really knows how to get the best out of his talent. Another season of top-flight football is in reach thanks to him.

The year obviously concluded on a more dour note for "Fluctuating Freiburg". If the author were to chose one word to describe how it felt covering Streich's various tactical shifts over the first half of the campaign, he would go with "exhausting". So many injuries. Far too many variations. Glory in Europe followed up by plenty of total duds in the league. Freiburg's low-points it always seems to come down to some specific mistake committed by a specific player. Ginter, Nicolas Höfler, and rookie keeper Noah Atubolu were easily the most egregious offenders in this regard.

In the latest loss, Sallai lost sight of his teammates on a couple of promising attack charges that broke the plane of the box. In one particular case, Sallai missed a wide open Michael Gregoritsch on a play that could have put the game to bed.  Substitute Junior Adamu also made some raw passing errors and blew his mark on the game-winning goal. Defenders Manuel Guide and Lukas Kübler didn't have their best days defending the SCF left. Freiburg are surely the team most in need of this coming break the most.

The "Burning Questions": Round 16

Is there any hope for Köln?

Might as well lead with the carnage! For many weeks now we've been covering the continuing descent of Germany's cathedral city side. The ever-committed and sincere Steffen Baumgart haws tried just about every personnel permutation that he can think of to lift the Dömstadter out of their rut. One could tell through Baumgart's demeanor and mien that he was heavily preoccupied and invested in this team. Broadcast cameras caught the Effzeh trainer aiming laser-like focus on his players. Behind the all the deep intent, however, one could also discern increasing doubt.

A separation seemed inevitable once Baumgart decided to speak up on his view of the coming January transfer window. News that the front office planned to cash-in on one of his better players, Dejan Ljubicic, compelled him to express frustration with Christian Keller and his administrative team. Baumgart openly criticized Keller's ultra-conservative approach to managing the squad's talent. The conviction that both men possessed about working together officially dissolved. An intractable rift opened up. Baumgart no longer wanted the job. Departure via mutual consent came yesterday.

Yesterday proved a dark day indeed for this beleaguered club. Shortly after the split with Baumgart came, news broke that the international Court for the Arbitration of Sport (CAS) rejected Köln's appeal in a transfer-ban dispute. Keller's stubborn refusal to negotiate with NK Olimpija Ljubljana over what - some could argue - was a paltry sum in the grand scheme of things makes the Köln managing director look even worse now. Facing members of the assembled media at a Friday presser, Keller vowed not to resign and stressed the importance of soldiering through.

In the opinion of the columnist, Keller merely whistles on his way past the graveyard. No sane observer can look at the inactive and paralytic nature of the 47-year-old's managerial reign and consider it acceptable. Keller's penurious style - manifested both in Köln's front office and on the DFL supervisory board - has cost this club everything. The roster he's parsimoniously put together consists of players with no chemistry and no real chance of competing on a Bundesliga level. The board will act at some point. This administrator's days are numbered.

The transfer ban effective counts as a moot point at this juncture. There's no sense ruing the fact that Keller's hands are tied. Even if the CAS had ruled differently, Keller's self-imposed handcuffs would have prevented him from seeking any real upgrades in the first place. The relegation fight must be contested with the existing actors. In an exercise that - readers may consider themselves forewarned - won't at all be pretty, we'll take a look at Baumgart's final tactics in Wednesday's 0-2 league loss to 1. FC Union Berlin.

Lineup—Köln—Match 16 (4-2-3-1)

Five changes from Sunday's embarrassingly bad league defeat to SC Freiburg saw Rasmus Carstensen, Denis Huseinbasic, Linton Maina, and Mark Uth replace Ljubicic, Florian Kainz, Benno Schmitz, and Luca Waldschmidt. Dominique Heintz filled in for the suspended Jeff Chabot in central defense. This German football watcher happens to consider those rotations downgrades in every last respect. It came as no real surprise that the Geißböcke couldn't hold their own. Baumgart also didn't bother to do his homework. Nenad Bjelica's trusted 4-1-4-1 wasn't mirrored.

Were there any positives?

Huseinbasic and Eric Martel looked far more confident on the ball than one might have expected. The Rhinelanders did a fairly decent job in possession and in the midfield duels over the course of the opening half-hour. Huseinbasic also strode forward to test FCU keeper Frederik Rønnow on one occasion. Carstensen supplied some offensive sizzle near the end of the first 45. The Dane too tested Rønnow and Jan Thielmann turned a promising rebound just wide. On balance, one could say that Baumgart's team were the slightly better side in the first half.

How did it all fall apart? 

Köln deserve credit for continuing to push and remaining the more active side shortly after the restart. Davie Selke forced another good save out of Rønnow. The fact that this squad simply doesn't have any real top-flight finishers nevertheless came back to haunt them. Much of Martel's solid work was completely erased when the former Leipzig man got toasted by Benedict Hollerbach on the 55th minute 1-0. The concession of the goal paralyzed the whole team. Martel made more mistakes. Heintz and Timo Hübers immediately went out-of-sync and Union dominated the rest of proceedings.

What are the major issues? 

Those can be found all over the pitch. The team has no go-to-striker. Linton Maina has now definitively proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that he's not capable of working the attacking flank at this level. Thielmann and Uth may never again be the players they once were after their respective recent injury bouts. Florian Kainz continues to look all out of sorts in large part because Baumgart deployed him at way too many different positions. The "midfield by committee" approach has led to nothing but fatal errors. The defensive corps - thanks to Keller - is completely unbalanced.

Did Baumgart's final switch offer anything? 

The Effzeh trainer eventually got the memo that he needed to mirror the Union 4-1-4-1. Ljubicic entered for Thielmann at the hour-mark. Uth moved up to a roving eight position. Kainz, Waldschmidt, and Florian Dietz replaced Martel, Uth, and Selke on a triple-change in the 74th to complete the re-format. What quickly crystallized exhibited great potential on paper. In practice, more passing/tackling errors simply led to Union gaining full control of the match. David Datro Fofana finished off a nice one-two with Kevin Volland for the decisive 2-0 in the 78th.

Lineup—Köln—75th minute (4-1-4-1)

Phrew. In the quest to replace the departed midfield monster Ellyes Skhiri, the talented Ljubicic counts as probably the most effective solution. That statement in itself offers little hope as the Austrian will almost certainly be departing for greener pastures next month. As noted above, Huseinbasic did a reasonably decent job of holding his own in midfield in the initial constellation. He - just like Martel - wilted fast after Union scored the opening goal and summarily failed to handle his second assignment in the eight-slot. It proved way too much for the young man to handle.

Fullbacks Carstensen and Max Finkgräfe had their moments on the attacking side of the ball in the first-half, but were far from convincing on their marks throughout. Heintz - perhaps still recovering from the muscle memory of his role as a makeshift left-back - had trouble working out his slants with Hübers and was late on many of his tackles. Waldschmidt and Dietz barely saw any of the ball. Kainz's body language, unsurprisingly, suggested that he wished to be elsewhere. it's never a good sign when the captain can't raise his shoulders above a shrug.

How binding is the transfer ban?

The more tangential football fans may appreciate some extra detail on this matter. The columnist must regrettably report that, having taken a closer look at the legalese, this happens to be one of the most airtight footballing legal mandates he's ever seen. Köln cannot sign or loan any new players, not even free-agents. There also appears to be no real legal recourse for another appeal. The club doesn't have a separate arbitration court with which it can even lodge an appeal. This really is the new reality, and that's not something that many football chroniclers have encountered. This is a real ban.

The top priority for Keller and his team will be to sign as many youth academy players to professional contracts as possible. Baumgart's departure at least opens one door just a crack. Youth phenom Justin Diehl may be persuaded to stay with promises that the new coaching regime will guarantee him a chance with the pros. Somehow, Keller must find a way to tackle this task ASAP. It might be the case that he'll need to install a new head-coach who can reach out to Diehl first. What the precise order-of-operations is the columnist cannot say. Diehl just seems an apt starting point.

Anything new with Union?

A brief check-in with Bjelica's Eisernen seems in order. For all their recent capriciousness, the Köpenickers succeeded in getting the job done against their relegation rivals. Thirteen points to close out the calendar year ensured that the crisis-stricken East Berlin club will spend the winter break above the relegation zone. One personnel change to his starting XI saw Bjelica actually boot the linked-with-a-depature Sheraldo Becker out of the match-day squad for disciplinary reasons. Andras Schäfer took Becker's starting spot. The previous 4-1-4-1 widened out considerably.

Lineup—Union Berlin—Match 16 (4-1-4-1)

Volland and Hollerbach continued to ride their hot form. The winter break comes at an unfortunate time for these two attackers, whom Bjelica can largely rely upon to work the wings. Rani Khedira grew stronger as the game progressed and did even better once Alex Kral came on to pair with him for the final half hour. Bjelica turned straight to David Datro Fofana after the slumping Kevin Behrens produced nothing in the opening half. The Chelsea loanee - a pariah in the eyes of the previous coaching regime - scored a magnificent goal.

The talent level on this roster always suggested an uptick at some point. Bjelica enters the break with plenty of positive trends to build upon. There's certainly no shortage of personnel work ahead of manager Oliver Ruhnert and the FCU office during the coming winter break. Cutting a particularly burdensome piece of dead weight in the form of Leonardo Bonucci (a signing that made absolutely no sense to begin with) might work as the perfect "palette cleansing start". Ruhnert has already proven that he can build around a coach's system.

Odds for a 2024 recovery appear strong.
How are "Tuchel Tactics" looking?

Just as impressive as they were in the previous round. Just when it appeared as if it would never happen, some evidence that the German giants acted intelligently in bringing in the right coach begins to emerge. Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidzic - though definitely not pleased about spending their holidays unemployed - can take some solace in the fact that they did hire the right trainer. Footballing circles across the Bundesrepublik remain abuzz with discussions over Tuchel's unexpected early Christmas gift.

The FCB trainer found his long sought-after "holding-six": Aleksandr Pavlovic. The 19-year-old earned his second consecutive start after Tuchel decided not to employ any personnel changes from Sunday's rollicking victory. Tuchel did make some adjustments to the shape in the correct anticipation that former Bayern trainer Niko Kovac would keep with recent trends and line Wolfsburg up in a very narrow formation. Bayern's previous 4-1-3-2 became a double-staggered 4-4-2. After an early stalemate, this clicked:

Lineup—Bayern—Match 16 (4-4-2)

Dayot Upamecano eventually unlocked the VfL 3-4-3 with a pinpoint vertical for Thomas Müller in the 33rd. Müller, who had been knocking on the door for quite some time with his own efforts, then serviced Jamal Musiala on the 1-0. Ten minutes later, the pattern repeated. Upamecano played Müller in. This time it would be Harry Kane who benefitted from Müller's service on the 43rd-minute 2-0. Tuchel can find fault with the fact that Maximilian Arnold pulled a goal back shortly after his team doubled the advantage. In large part, however, the Bavarians kept control of the game from that point.

A razor thin 2-1 scoreline doesn't necessarily generate too much concern. The tight Bayern defense mostly limited their opponents to longer-range efforts. Whenever Kovac's Autostädter crept into closer range, Manuel Neuer stood tall in easily his best game since returning from the long injury layoff. Bayern had numerous chances to increase their lead on the counter, with Musiala, Leroy Sané, and Raphaël Guerreiro turning in some especially impressive work. Defenders Alphonso Davies, Min Jae-Kim, and (later off the bench) Matthijs de Ligt engendered confidence.

Are Bayern back on track?

FCB attacking dominance returned in the final calendar year fixture. Pavlovic (along with Sané) also looked on the level from set-piece-plays. Guerreiro genuinely appears to be fully fit for the first time since joining his new club. So many components click at present for the record champions. One can reasonably expect a lot to carry over to the New Year, not to mention a much better transfer window from the Christoph Freund regime. To the disappointment of those of us not necessarily behind the giants, it's likely the case that a big corner has been turned.
Did Ole Werner switch things up?

He did indeed. It's not exactly a frequent occasion that we have something new to report on the Werder front, but the SV trainer graced us with something different in Tuesday's 1-1 draw with RB Leipzig. Interestingly enough, Werner's switch from his regular 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3 probably stemmed from the false assumption that Rose would deploy his own occasionally-used 3-4-3. That didn't happen. The Hanseaten struggled to find their feet against the German Red Bulls for a good long while. Eventually, however, this novel constellation proceeded to produce some results.

Lineup—Bremen—Match 16 (3-4-3)

Werner apparently felt comfortable enough with the progress of young attacking prospect Justin Njinmah to hand the young lad a start. Either that, or the flagging form of striker Rafael Santos Borré necessitated something of a desperate shake-up. Njinmah's presence did allow Borré to see more of the ball and get a pair of close-range efforts off before the end of the first half. The youngster also continually impressed with his pace on counterattacks. The much-maligned Felix Agu also commanded respect with his speed.

This new formation maintained a fresher and brisker feel to it. Leonardo Bittencourt and Jens Stage played as if they received a "B-12" shot in their arms. Njinmah's equalizer - scored in the 75th minute - was an absolute stunner. The speedster absolutely recommended himself for a spot in the starting XI in just his second start of the season. The 23-year-old now has one tally as a regular to add to his two goals from the bench. If nothing else, Werner sent a strong signal to slumping starters like Romano Schmid and Olivier Deman with this move.

A 3-4-3 in 2024?

Njinmah's equalizer did come after Schmid replaced Borré and Werner re-formatted to the old 3-5-2. Werner isn't truly the type of trainer to switch things up radically unless he believes that a change can produce reliable results. Schmid remains far too talented to warm the bench permanently. Stage probably needs to work alongside Schmid on the buttressing support axis. Should Njinmah ultimately end up displacing Borré, Bundesliga diehards will have to contend with their own personal disappointment at losing out on a popular player. It nevertheless looks like this is coming.
Why is Terzic still in charge of Dortmund?

The "Wortschatz" section of our last column introduced the BVB discussion by referencing Dortmund's "Jahres-Endgespräch" (end-of-year meeting); an assessment-driven conference during which Edin Terzic's fate would be decided. Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Mainz meant that there would be no such meeting. The "Jahres-Endgespräch" got bumped up to before Christmas, morphing into another German word used to describe a corporate sitting in which all stakeholders must meet. The Dortmund board held a "Krisensitzung" (a "crisis summit") to decide whether to proceed with Terzic.

Early reports suggest that both Terzic and BVB sporting director Sebastian Kehl have emerged from the crisis summit unscathed. This actually doesn't surprise us league watchers, who have long argued that Terzic's proven record in turning things around during the second half of two league campaigns (2020/21 and 2022/23) mean that he should be given a chance to continue to work with a side suffering through a transitional year. A third turnaround isn't out of the question at all. The Champions' League form backs this up.

Lessons from the latest draw

The BVB trainer stuck with his 4-2-3-1 from Saturday's draw with Augsburg, switching only the returning Mats Hummels into central defense over Niklas Süle and giving Marcel Sabitzer the start over captain Marco Reus. Sabitzer played alongside Emré Can in midfield while Julian Brandt moved up to take over Reus' role in the ten-slot. The strategy worked reasonably well. Dortmund established a clear advantage. Donyell Malen and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens came very close to scoring before Brandt finally secured the 1-0 with a beautiful free-kick lifted over the wall in the 29th.

Bynoe-Gittens hit the wrong side of the post on one of his early chances. Sabitzer and Niclas Füllkrug found themselves similarly unlucky during a late first-half push that surely should have seen Dortmund double their advantage. The Westphalian hosts turned in a 14-3 shot advantage in the first-half. Mainz equalized against the run-of-play and completely out of nowhere off a corner in the 43rd. Though the team didn't manage to recapture their pacey and playful spirit in the second half, ideas and courage remained discernible.

What one seems to have with Dortmund is a tired team still seeking out its identity following the losses of such key actors as Jude Bellingham and Raphaël Guerreiro. As negative as such a statement sounds, the manner in which the squad behaves as a collective still strikes a different tone than that of the one we league observers have seen under other coaches such as Lucien Favre and Marco Rose. Whereas previous incarnations of this team always sent us spiraling over to the dreaded "mentality debate", a Terzic-coached side can at least elude this hated conversation.

Bundesliga commentators may rightfully be accused of turning into "Terzic apologists" for no other reason than the fact that we're sick of discussing the coaching situation at Dortmund. The columnist fully concedes that he may be guilty of this. It's possible that we simply wish that this club will back a trainer through thick-and-thin instead of grasping for one of the league's other purported hot commodities. A local lad with a passion for the club seems like the type to help oversee the team through a painful and challenging rebuild. We'd like to see a likable character stay in place for once.

Does Siewert deserve to lead Mainz? 

Time to address the other head-coach involved in this match. News that Jan Siewert would be gifted a permanent position broke whilst this column was being written. Those focused solely on Siewert's record may find this a tad perplexing. The newly-appointed FSV trainer has, after all, delivered only one win during his seven matches in charge. Despite the fact that the Rheinhessen have often deserved to win many of their subsequent league fixtures, the results still haven't been forthcoming.

Siewert made four changes to the side that lost to Heidenheim over the weekend. Silvan Widmer (back from his bout with illness) replaced Danny da Costa. Jae-Sung Lee, Stefan Bell, and Karim Onisiwo also took the place of Jonathan Burkardt, Nelson Papela, and Ludovic Ajorque. A much more defensive-minded formation wasn't terribly effective and (in this case) was lucky to hold Dortmund to a draw. Sepp van den Berg's equalizer came off a dead-ball. Only Marco Richter created something from open play.

Lineup—Mainz 05—Match 16 (5-2-3)

This squad still requires a tremendous amount of work. Bell did okay defensively, but the double flank-stacks on either side of him routinely blew their marks. Dominik Kohr was probably the only player carrying his weight from a defensive perspective. One should note that Kohr remains one among many FSV actors forced to serve as an alternative in a central defensive role amid a raft of injuries this season. That - combined with the hope that Andreas Hanche Olsen and Maxim Leitsch can help round out the back once healthy again - gives this team some hope.

A litany of hypotheticals 

Mainz administrators Christian Heidel and Martin Schmidt are clearly hoping that a number of things fall into place over the coming months. The latter has even admitted as much in his public comments. Staying the course amounts to not "rocking the boat" whilst patiently waiting for injuries to clear, certain players to regain lost form, and still others to rediscover their enthusiasm for the game. The "injured" camp includes the aforementioned defenders, attack contributors such as Nelson Weiper and Leandro Barreiro, and keeper Robin Zentner.

The mot important player who needs to round himself into form is long injured former Germany U21 captain Jonathan Burkardt. Those needing to desperately rediscover their both their touch and their passion for the game include strikers Ludovic Ajorque and Karim Onisiwo, as well as attacking midfielders Lee-Jae Sung and Ayment Barkok. At present, Marco Richter is genuinely the only offensive actor bringing consistent effort and drive to the team. Everything else works out on a hypothetical level, yet hasn't materialized in practice yet.

Whilst contemplating their decision, Heidel and Schmidt may have felt as if there wasn't any real alternative but to place trust in this status quo. The most obvious risk to doing so concerns the fact that Siewert doesn't appear to be the type to light an urgent fire under an assemblage of players either struggling with their confidence or overall will to play for the club. Siewert - a committed student of his predecessor - keeps things comfortable, cozy, and (to utilize Danish parlance) "Hygge". Matters can, naturally, be too "Hygge" for a team's own good.

We shall see.

"Weekly Wortschatz": Round 16

"Launische Diva"

Even those only loosely affiliated with German football may be familiar with the famous nickname Eintracht Frankfurt fans christened their team with some 30 years ago. The wild swings of Eintracht in the 1990s - which saw the club go from a regular European Cup participant and title-contender to a team suffering two relegations - earned the SGE the "Launische Diva" ("moody diva") moniker. The aughts weren't much kinder to SGE supporters. Two more relegations in the next decade ensured that the handle would stick.

Now that the club has been officially well-established in the top flight since the 2012/13 campaign, not to mention captured an Europa League Championship and participated in a Champions' League campaign, far fewer SGE ultras find themselves employing the old title to describe their club. With an increased amount of respect and trust, Frankfurt is more commonly referred to as the "Diva von Main" ("Diva of the [Rhein] Main"). The name pays homage to the fluctuations of the past while crediting what the club for its recent accomplishments.

Any readers who may potentially find themselves in the Eintracht stands can still find immediate camaraderie with the German supporters by trotting out the old "Launiche Diva" sobriquet. It's almost guaranteed to elicit a wink and a nod from SGE fans. The term might even find its way back into popular usage in light of everything that's going on with Dino Toppmöller's team as of late. Whew. More wild swings! More topsy-turvy stuff from the league's most bonkers and un-settled squad! No other top tier trainer has come anywhere close to employing as many tactical variants as Toppmöller.

An unequivocally dire prediction directed at Toppmöller's SGE in the previous column did not end up coming true. The RheinMain Adler bounced back from their recent humbling at the hands of Bayer 04 Leverkusen to top Gladbach 2-1, earn their sixth league victory of the season, and clinch spot in the European-qualifying section of the table over the winter break. Toppmöller's zany and totally unpredictable constellations undoubtedly deserve to be scrutinized as often as possible. We'll gladly take advantage of the latest opportunity.

Lineup—Frankfurt—Match 16 (4-1-4-1)

Three changes from the previous XI led to the 4-1-4-1 reformat. Marmoush returned from suspension, giving Toppmöller the chance to deploy a natural striker up top. The team's leading goal-scorer took the place of makeshift winger Aurelio Buta. Ellyes Skhiri also returned from a brief injury layoff. Curiously enough, the Tunisian nabbed the starting slot of his natural partner Hugo Larsson. Philipp Max replaced Niels Nkounkou at left-back on the only straight swap from Sunday's set-up.

With so many components in different places than they were just days before, it came as no surprise to watch this selection have great difficulty getting into any sort of a rhythm. What forward play the team could manage seemed to cost quite a bit of energy. Way too many bow-arc passing sequences through the back four. Mario Götze and Fares Chaibi seemed to have no idea what to do with the ball once gifted with it. One grew tired and stressed just watching them.

As is often the case with this team - the Bayern match notably excepted - play into the final third appears to sap both energy and nerves. Gerardo Seoane's foals grabbed the lead off a set-piece in the 27th. Eintracht literally managed nothing in response until Chaibi found himself through on goal thanks to a BMG defensive error in the 55th. The squad generated nothing on its own accord. This held true even after Toppmöller exhausted all five of his substitutions.

Lineup—Frankfurt—84th minute (4-2-2-2)

As the match entered injury time, the best chances still belonged to the visiting Westphalians. The Hessen hosts were a bit fortunate that BMG defender Maximilian Wöber was sent off on double yellows following a stomp on Chaibi's foot in the 88th. Seoane pulled his own sub, Nathan Ngoumou, off in order to introduce additional center back Marvin Friedrich. The disarray at the back helped the SGE out immensely. Friedrich and his fellow 90th-minute sub Fabio Chiarodia never got into the game. Two goals came in quick succession to deliver the unlikely victory.

Buta notched the 1-1 after Nkounkou and Willian Pacho capitalized on a failed clearance from sweeper Julian Weigl at 90+2. Chairodia handed Robin Koch the 2-1 winner on the last play of the game at 90+7. This result reminded one very much of the round ten affair in the 2022/22 campaign that saved Oliver Glasner's skin. This incarnation of SGE repeatedly succeeds almost in spite of itself. Every time things reach a potentially dangerous tipping point, they win eminently important matches at precisely the right time.

Is there an applicable adjective available to describe this "diva" at this point in time? A fair question. She doesn't really appear "moody" as that would insinuate that she's unreliable in addition to being unpredictable. She's not necessarily "whimsical" either as the knack for getting the right results remain anything but arbitrary. Perhaps we'll just stick to the locale. This Diva belongs to the Rhein. Toppmöller somehow found a way to cut through the chaos without actually deriving order from it. Crazy stuff. One looks forward to what comes next.

A quick check on Gladbach

Of some interest on the BMG front, Seoane's foals have looked consistently impressive in recent weeks despite the fact that both of their lead strikers - American Jordan and Czech Tomas Cvancara - remain out due to either injury or illness. Robin Hack has been starting up front. The former Nürnberg and  Bielefeld man registered two assists in last week's draw against Bremen. Seoane moved him out to the wing and let Alassane Plea work the lead striker role this time. The same XI from Friday night lined up differently.

Lineup—Gladbach—Match 16 (4-1-4-1)

The match maintained the feel of a midfield slog for long stretches, which in no way diminishes a lot of the hard work turned in from Weigl, Rocco Reitz, and Manu Koné. Hack did a serviceable job on the wing, as did his counterpart Franck Honorat. Koné and Honorat missed a few chances they could have converted and Cvancara remained largely quiet after his introduction in the 77th. A disappointing string of results (winless in three since the win over Hoffenheim on match-day 13) leave this still promising team in 12th place over the break.

That's unfairly low.

They remain capable of much better.
"gefühlter Sieg"

German footballing enthusiasts received a wonderful dose of the unexpected when six goals went in during Tuesday night's Hoffenheim-Darmstadt fixture. Given the current state-of-affairs at Darmstadt, this columnist sincerely doubted that Torsten Lieberknecht's Lillies had three goals left to contribute over the next few months. Out of nowhere, three tallies suddenly came. SV striker Luca Pfeiffer at long last broke his Bundesliga duck. Talented Union Berlin loanee Tim Skarke recorded a brace. Darmstadt thrice came back from a one-goal deficit to restore parity. Some match this was.

Though the point gained still wasn't enough to lift Lieberknecht's side off last place in the table over the winter break, the mood inside the Darmstadter camp remained optimistic and jovial. The SV trainer described the result as a "gefühlter Sieg" ("perceivable victory"). One can hardly fault him for feeling that way. Lieberknecht wished his lads "renewed energy" amidst their holiday gatherings "with family and friends". A relieved Pfeiffer thanked his coach for believing in him. An elated Skarke hailed his team for "sticking together" and "never losing belief in ourselves".

Matters mysteriously took an upward turn for the newly-promoted side in this final fixture of the calendar year. Lieberknecht was also quick to credit his team with finally implementing his preferred tactical plan. The SV98 gaffer continues to run a 3-4-3 with a deep-seated false nine. The constellation has evolved in recent weeks to render the false-nine into more of a vertically pocketed anchoring ten. Tobias Kempe assumed that role this time. Pfeiffer worked a more advanced deployment. At long last, Skarke occupied his natural left lane slot.

Lineup—Darmstadt—Match 16 (3-5-2)

Bartol Frantic ran an excellent drive in the 23rd, some ten minutes after Hoffenheim opened the scoring from the penalty spot. The sequence ended with Pfeiffer netting a well-deserved equalizer. Exciting end-to-end action ensued. Skarke very nearly gave his side the lead before Ihlas Bebou put the Sinsehimers back ahead in the 28th. Lording over upwards of 60 percent possession, the Lillies fought hard in search of another equalizer over the course of the rest of the first half. Skarke remained very active, seeing some two close-range shots blocked.

The 2-2 would come not long after the restart. This time Clemens Riedel broke through and played a nice one-two with Skarke in the 57th. Pellegrino Matarazzo's Kraichgauer then grabbed their third lead of the game after a Riedel mistake allowed Bebou to record a brace in the 66th. Pfeiffer took advantage of an Ozan Kabak mistake to set up Skarke's brace on the 85th-minute equalizer. The final goal was fluky and did come off a dead-ball. The Hessians can nevertheless head into the holidays with their heads held high.

More Matarazzo grumbling 

Understandably enough, the TSG trainer went with the inverse expression when commenting on this particular draw. Matarazzo noted that he had just experienced a "gefühlter Niederlage" (a "perceived loss"). Much seems still amiss in the case of Hoffenheim. Seventh-place in the table on 24 points at the winter break qualifies as respectable, yet still far below what one expects from a roster this laden with talent. The RheinNeckar club have won just one of their right league fixtures since defeating Stuttgart on match-day nine.

Woeful home form also carries on. Matarazzo's men have to date won just two of their eight games at the PreZero Arena. At a Friday presser, the American trainer lamented the fact that his team continued to drop points left and right. He specifically referenced the last five run of games against Mainz, Gladbach, Bochum, Leipzig and Darmstadt. Five points were gained. Matarazzo insisted that he expected nine from such a field. The author has some grumbling of his own to do.

Lineup—Hoffenheim—Match 16 (4-4-2)

Such a formation buries actors with offensive potential - most notably Grischa Prömel and Anton Stach - far too deep for them to have a meaningful impact. Prömel and Stach ended up missing long-range efforts in this tie. Matarazzo does have some cause to gripe about the ongoing propensity of his defenders to commit errors. Kabak, John Anthony Brooks, Kevin Vogt, and Kevin Vogt were all culpable on goals in this one. The back-three clearly needs a bolt-locker sweeper to provide assistance. Why this player happens to be Stach rather than Florian Grillitsch makes no sense.

Grillitsch was eventually introduced in the 54th. Robert Skov also relieved Marius Bülter at the half, leading to a pronounced downfield shift on the second axis. The later-match re-format - not for the first or last time when it comes to this coach - looked precisely like the sort of constellation that Matarazzo should have begun the match with. Were it not for Kabak's fatal error on the 85th-minute free-kick, all three points would have remained in Kraichgau on this day. Stach, Prömel, and Andrej Kramaric are all in the right positions.

Lineup—Hoffenheim—55th minute (5-3-2)

If Matarazzo can resist the urge to overthink and over-tinker, he may very well have himself a winner here. Consistency along the back-line naturally isn't a problem to be solved via positional arrangements. That must be addressed on the training pitch. Going either with a highly chained sweeper or wingbacks as opposed to wingers can still at least help lend more coverage to the back and open up better potential on the counter up the middle. In any event, settling this highly unbalanced squad into some automatisms surely couldn't hurt.

A talented roster needn't deal with "perceived losses".

Thanks so much for reading! You can catch the release of all Peter's columns (and occasionally catch him goofing off) on whatever the hell they're calling twitter these days @PeterVicey.

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