Bundesliga News

Bundesliga Tactics Talk: Round 18

By Peter Weis   @PeterVicey

Along with the official start of the 2023/24 "Rücke-runde", the first midweek edition of our "Tactics Talk" feature here on Bulinews arrives. As has been the case in the past three years the version of this column features the added "Spiegel Specials" section that looks at the second half of the season through the lens of the first.

The new publication slot will enable us, at times, to add greater depth to the analysis via the examination of tactics in some of the midweek fixtures involving top flight clubs. As an example, our first installment contains a look not only at Köln's tactics in the Saturday league fixture, but also a look at the team's performance in a Sunday test match.

Köln are joined by Bayern, Bremen, Leipzig, Freiburg, Hoffenheim, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Bochum in getting their turns on the tactics board this week. As always, the major talking points from all of the latest in the league receive comprehensive coverage.
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Photo: Hayters - Pressbox/OneFootball

Bundesliga Tactical Banter: Round 18


A Sleeper in the Swabian Alb

The later publication time of this column likely means the mere existence of a Heidenheim-Wolfsburg fixture over the weekend has already been forgotten. German footballing enthusiasts may not have even been aware that it was scheduled to take place to begin with. The tiny small-town club squaring off against the VW company team? Meh. With the possible exception of Heidenheim-Hoffenheim, no match-up engenders less interest among the domestic populace than this one. Did these two even meet in the "Hin-Runde"? Apparently so. Not exactly a match for the ages then either.


The columnist sees no need to sugarcoat. Here we witnessed the most boring match of the round., Observers got an early chuckle out of the fact that Heidenheim ultras - like other German fans across the Bundesrepublik - threw chocolate coins onto their own pitch in protest of the new DFL licensing  deal, probably knowing full well that their small club didn't have the staff to fully clear the playing surface. Oops. Perhaps the two disallowed Heidenheim goals owed a little something to karma. FCH striker Tim Kleindienst might have been better in the air without having to constantly watch his step.

Another point gained for sleepy little Heidenheim takes them one step closer to another season of Bundesliga football. Niko Kovac's Wolfsburg, meanwhile, fall back into a familiar pattern. An amazing team featuring some world class combo play from Jonas Wind and Vaclav Cerny gave the Autostädter a blitz-start. Then, predictably, the machine stalled. The BaWü hosts wrested control of the match back while the neon-greens scored an own-goal and produced almost nothing more of note until the end. Kovac's VfL slide to 11th-place in the table. Heidenheim remain in 9th.

Enough said here.

Kovac back on the "chopping block".
A Sleeper in Bavarian Swabia

The round's capper too didn't furnish us with the greatest football. This despite the fact that Sunday evening's Augsburg-Gladbach fixture featured plenty more changes, one additional goal, and even a nifty comeback narrative. To be fair, these two sides had quite a lot to live up to after that 4-4 goal-fest on opening day. It didn't help that a clash of two mid-table sides had the misfortune of following the Bremen-Bayern shocker in Sunday's early kick-off. All the same, the tallies weren't especially pretty. This held true for BMG striker Jordan's 1-0 and the two subsequent FCA goals.

Augsburg trainer Jess Thorup did employ a rather interesting 4-4-2 double-diamond inverse pivot. Ermedin Demirovic and Philipp Tietz worked the wings ahead of false-nine Ruben Vargas. The constellation functioned as intended before and after Jordan's opener. Midfielders Arne Engels and Fredrick Jensen put the Fohlenelf 4-2-3-1 under considerable pressure, forcing mistakes out of their opponents. Joe Scally, Franck Honorat, and last week's hero Robin Hack lost a lot of crucial balls. Eventually, the Fuggerstädter found a way of banging in two more of their own.


BMG trainer Gerardo Seoane suddenly inherits some serious re-thinks ahead of Leverkusen this coming weekend. Readers of the "Americans" column may be interested to know that Scally's poor performance - and Stefan Lainer's comeback - probably means the CFG New Yorker is headed back to the bench. Jordan honestly looked rough even though he's now on a two-match scoring streak. Alassane Plea got most of the Gladbach chances off from the ten slot. Time to put the surprisingly resurgent Frenchman back on top.

Probably enough said here too.

More interesting stuff to get to.

The "Spiegel Specials": Round 18


Bayern-Bremen (4:0, 0:1)

The seemingly impossible leads the way in the first "Spiegel Specials" section of the 2023/24 column. Questions abound. How on earth did this happen? With all of the administrative shifts in the front office of the record champions over the past year, who's really responsible for a roster and squad that suddenly looks horribly unbalanced and amateurishly put together? Should Bayern suffer another set-back in a title-race slipping out of their hands, will Thomas Tuchel's coaching regime even end up lasting a single year? Will Tuchel even last another bloody week at this point?

Every Bundesliga diehard in the Bundesrepublik has a theory. Early talk at the kiosks on Monday morning centered around the FCB's off-site Portuguese training camp. Some say that Bayern coddles and spoils its stars under the Iberian sunshine, leaving them unable to perform once easy-jetted back to the German cold. Before one dismisses this theory outright, it did actually look as if the champs were having problems upshifting during the first 70 minutes of Sunday's loss. Believe it or not, there's something to this seemingly shallow conjecture. The mighty Bavarians look "cold-cramped"

Other arguments:

The "dribbling artists" case

This one isn't new. The theory holds that Bayern don't have strong sixes to engineer solid foundational build-up play. It went into slight overdrive at the beginning of this season when evidence mounted that Joshua Kimmich and Leon Gortetzka individually evolved into players no longer capable of working their partnership in the same way they did in the past. The case then proceeds to look at the playing of Leroy Sané, Jamal Musiala, and Kingsley Coman. These pacey "dribbling artists" create their own moments of magic, yet invariably suffer without someone pulling the strings beyond them.

This argument found support during the first half. Bayern - in the same 4-4-2 as last week with Coman taking the place of Thomas Müller - couldn't execute clean attack charges. A mid-half adjustment from Tuchel, in which Kimmich was moved back to the "holding six" role in a 4-1-4-1, only made matters worse. Bremen's Justin Njinmah was a tad unlucky to have his 1-0 chalked off for a foul just prior to the counter rush. The opening 45 at the Allianz concluded with the guests looking like the more solid footballing squad. Bayern only had a few long dribbles from the "artists".

The "midfield mess" case

Raphaël Guerreiro (again preferred to Goretzka in midfield) seemed to have great difficulty playing through the SV press. Tuchel's use of Guerreiro in midfield (an idea he absolutely stole from Edin Terzic) begins to produce genuinely lousy results. The Portuguese international seems to get in the way of a back-four struggling with its own problems. Fullbacks Alphonso Davies and Konrad Laimer stutter-stepped on bow-arcs that couldn't get out of the back. Matthijs de Ligt, looking understandably distracted as of late, made positional error after positional error against the Bremen counter.

A midfield without well-drilled string-pullers leaves the back-chain prone to needless confusion and synchronization mistakes. Tuchel repeatedly states that he likes the way his squad trains during the week. At this point, however, the finished article doesn't appear as if they are training on specifics at all. Heaven knows what Tuchel is drilling these guys in. Whatever it is, one certainly isn't left with the impression that it has anything to do with upfield movement. The team couldn't even get the basic triangles right in this case.

The "poor adjustments" case

Difficult to find support for this one. Kimmich, not to mention Sané, made no secret of their displeasure with Tuchel's decision to go with a 3-5-2 following a triple substitution in the 64th. Kimmich voiced his displeasure at getting the hook. Broadcast cameras caught Sané's mien and body language tanking at the extra defensive work his new assignment brought him further back on the left. The introduction of Goretzka, Müller, and Mathys Tel gave us this during the final FCB push.

Lineup—Bayern—65th minute (3-5-2)



The columnist thinks that all three subs brought their own bit of fresh impetus into proceedings. Tel in particular turned in a spectacular shift. The young French phenom got two great efforts off. A bizarre sequence in which a Tel effort banged off the post and SV keeper Michael Zetterer somehow didn't result in a goal. Sané, Kane, and Müller all got their looks in late too. Zetterer helped the Hanseaten out down the stretch big time during the final push. The primary reason why these tactics didn't work concerned more errors from de Ligt on an inverted pivot. There Tuchel erred.

Respect for Bremen? 

Ole Werner's sharp decision to ditch his recently deployed 3-4-3 and return to a 3-5-2 doesn't exactly qualify as a stroke-of-genius. Anyone preparing to face Bayern knows full well that a crowded and compact midfield remains the only way to stand a chance against the favorites. Bremen's game-plan mostly centered around playing for the counter. Several starters in Werner's XI nevertheless do deserve specific praise. Jens Stage, Romano Schmid, an the entire back-three did extremely well in this:

Lineup—Bremen—Match 18 (3-5-2)



Simple, yet effective. SV hero Mitchell Weiser handled most of the counter charges. Axial partner Felix Ago impressed less. Njinmah and Nick Woltemade astounded to the point that some observers surely gave them a standing ovation. Wow. Two 3. Liga level strikers working deep drops and regularly holding the ball up strongly against the mighty German giants. Werner had no choice but to turn the duo with Marvin Ducksch suspended and Rafael Santos Borré giving the club a soft slap in the face. Double wow. Woltemade and Njinmah played fearlessly.
Prognosis: Enjoy the show

This column immediately precedes the Wednesday night make-up fixture between Bayern and Union Berlin. This encounter bears all the hallmarks of one of those Bayern "reaction" games. If the "Bavarian Bears" fail to respond in the "Don't-poke-the-bear" fashion, then one can reasonably expect that Tuchel's coaching seat shall become "unbearably" hot. Lots of references packed into that last sentence. The writer grows tired of the "reaction cliche". Lets go with something different; something very Edmond-Stoiber-like. It fits. Trust the author on that one. Look it up if need be.

In all likelihood, Bayern will respond with a big win. Some FCB player will give the "reaction" line in a post-match interview. We'll report on it and next week's tactics column will contain at least two draw-ups for Bayern illustrating how Tuchel turned it around. Same old, same old. It does appear as if the inevitable day on which Bayern fail to furnish their "reaction" draws nearer and nearer. At present, one might even presage that it will come before this season is out. There are only a finite amount of "reactions" to be had in life. Bayern can't keep putting themselves in this position.
Köln-Dortmund (0:1, 0:4)

Our check in with Dortmund won't last especially long this week. The fact that die Schwarzgelben vastly improved upon their meek 1-0 victory over the cathedral city side in the campaign's opening round isn't necessarily very relevant. The same applies to the fact that Edin Terzic's crew opened up the new calendar year with two consecutive wins. They did so against the undisputed worst two teams in the league. Not a huge deal. More significant litmus tests await, though there's still something to be said for steadily improving amid winning the fixtures that one must.

Tactically speaking, Terzic maintained the same 4-1-4-1 constellation as last week. Salih Özan hung closer to the defensive line in order to help out the woefully out-of-shape Niklas Süle at the back. Süle only started because Emré Can sustained a knock. In terms of personnel, Jamie-Bynoe Gittens forfeited his starting place in the service of fellow Englishman Jadon Sancho. Donyell Malen moved over to the right to make way for Sancho on the left. Everything else remained the same.

Dortmund Talking Points

Most of the talk surrounding this match revolved around a minor tiff between Sancho and Füllkrug over who would take a 58th-minute penalty. The set-piece variation on which Donyell Malen opened the scoring had some cheekiness to it. Watching seven Köln markers stand as still as rooted redwoods in the box nevertheless tells one everything one needs to know about the 12th-minute 1-0. Yikes. Pretty much any other German top tier side would have had someone brave enough to stick a leg out. One shouldn't witness such a flagrant "group freeze" at this level.

Overall, Dortmund's set-pieces were very poor. A number of defensive errors at the back - from Süle, Nico Schlotterbeck, and the still very rusty looking Thomas Meunier - could have yielded an early lead for the Domstädter. New KOE trainer Timo Schultz's side simply don't possess the finishing quality. Linton Maina (a regular target of this column) was again the worst offender. Dortmund's second-half featured much stronger play as well as an encouraging debut from 19-year-old center back Hendry Blank. Terzic lucked out when injury kept Süle in the cabin at the half.

Most of Dortmund's 3.08 xG came after the second goal when the cathedral city hosts opted to give up. Brace scorer Malen and his fellow Dutchman Ian Maatsen received plenty of accolades in the German press. Maatsen set up Malen's second in fine style. Later substitutes Bynoe-Gittens, Giovanni Reyna, and Youssoufa Moukoko all combined on a gorgeous fourth goal. Lovely, but not truly a sign that Terzic lords over a cracking bench. Gio himself looks to be gone before its time to kick off this weekend.

On die Geißböcke:

The check in with Köln is not for the faint of heart. Missing (among others) leading goal-scorer Davie Selke to injury, Schulz was forced to deploy Jan Thielmann at the top of the attack. Dejan Ljubicic worked higher up than he ever has before on the wing. An okay enough (for the 2. Bundesliga) midfield double-six pairing of Eric Martel and Denis Huseinbasic held out for as long as they could. Max Finkgräfe did about as well as one could expect against the BVB right. Keeper Marvin Schwäbe kept the scoreline low for a while. It's still ramshackle as all hell.

Lineup—Köln—Match 18 (4-2-3-1)



Phrew. After the few positives elucidated above, we've a surplus of negatives to discuss. The blown marks, shoddy finishes, and atrociously dumb/naive touches were legion. Horrible stuff from right-back Rasmus Carstensen throughout. The Dane found himself culpable on three of Dortmund's four goals.  Skipper Florian Kainz tanked in the position he's supposed to thrive in. Ljubicic failed to sort his feet out in his novel assignment. It's almost criminal that this squad retained no clue as to how to use the space that Dortmund accorded them.

A double substitution from Schulz in the 63rd saw Faride Alidou and Justin Diehl enter on behalf of Maina and Ljubicic. The ensuing attempt at a more attack-minded late match 4-3-3 format left one wondering whether one should laugh or cry. How on earth can something like this constitute the "drive trident"? About the only nice thing one can say concerns the fact that the soon-to-depart Diehl showed some spunk. A sign of desperate times indeed. This desperate club even scheduled a secret test fixture against Bochum on Sunday to test out something else.

Lineup—Köln—63rd minute (4-3-3)



The less said about this the better.

And what of the "secret test"?

Lineup—Köln—"Geheimtest" (4-4-2)



Better ideas at least. Plenty of potential starters for a secret Sunday "snap-back" match. This constellation definitely exhibited more stability than the one that lost in the open league fixture. The attack nevertheless remained harmless as this XI found themselves easily dispatched 0-2 by the Bochum reserves. Jaka Cuber Potocnik, Steffen Tigges, and Damion Downs all failed to provide fresh impetus in auditions off the bench. It simply goes from bad to worse with this beleaguered side. Last week's prognosis appears rosy by comparison.
Prognosis: Not a prayer

Kölner fans - as they actually are want to do on occasion - are more than welcome to fill their famous cathedral and offer up benedictions for the local football team. It just a'int happening. One thing Bundesliga diehards can look forward to concerns the personnel decisions Schultz will turn to in order to attempt and interject something into this historically harmless attack. The paltry amount of league goals this team has scored could soon lead them into "Tasmania Berlin" territory. Where will the goals come from? Only divine providence one assumes.

The ultra nerdy among us begin looking at the height statistics of the likes of Downs, Tigges, Dietz, and Sargis Adamyan. Thielmann understandably stood no chance against the BVB defensive ranks as he's far too short to compete in the air. Diehl and the currently injured Waldschmidt stand no chance of leading the center of attack. Downs and Dietz look to lead the line in upcoming matches against Wolfsburg, Frankfurt, and Hoffenheim; games it would come as a massive surprise to see this team even have hopes of competing in.

Can this team survive?

It becomes a theological question.
Leipzig-Leverkusen (2:3, 2:3)

Lest anyone think that we're giving what was a marvelous Saturday evening "Top Spiel" short shrift, the paean to the glory to all things football that was Leipzig-Leverkusen simply didn't have all that much interesting going on tactically. What a fabulous football fixture! Some set of score-lines too. Merely looking at the repeating set of numbers heightens the belief that everything is destined to break the way of Germany's red company team this year. Köln search in vain for divine providence. Their rivals and neighbors are nonetheless the ones with the Football Gods on their side.

This happened to be one of those fixtures in which Xabi's patient "hands off" approach paid off. The designated 3-4-3 he keeps in place for the league missed a beat or two when right-wing back Jeremie Frimpong succumbed to injury. The subbed on Nathan Tella eventually got into the swing of things; scoring a vital equalizer just after the restart on what was - incredibly - a perfect mimic of one of Frimpong's attack-lane cuts. Insane stuff. Die Werkself can do no wrong; at least if one takes the goal they conceded off their own corner out of the equation.

This highly anticipated match between two pre-season title contenders certainly left German football lovers talking endlessly at the kiosks and coffee shops on Monday morning. There remains significantly less to write about it in a tactics-based column. Both competent coaches have their system. The competing systems each had their moments. Marco Rose's RB-system 4-2-2-2 played a marvelous first half. As the Saxon gaffer himself put it, instances in which either too many touches or too rash decisions hindered the ability to convert chances cost them the match.

Lineup—Leipzig—Match 18 (4-2-2-2)



There isn't all that much justification for including Rose's predictable constellation in this week's column apart from the fact that we haven't done it in a while. Some may be interested to know that RB initially lined up precisely the same way against Leverkusen on match-day one. The formation remains strong from top to bottom. The only real caveat in this match remained the young Nicolas Seiwald; a green talent yet to get the hang of his advanced midfield assignment. The choice to use Mohamed Simakan over Benjamin Henrichs at right-back might be debatable. The author backs Rose's decision.

German fascination with the technically gifted Xavi Simons continues to border on obsession. The mere thought of the Dutch talent leaving our league already at the end of the season has some of prepared to get online fundraising/public relations campaigns going. Benjamin Sesko - who absolutely sparkled in this match - quietly amassed seven goals across all competitions for this club whilst most of us falsely spoke of him losing out his starting spot to Yussef Poulsen. Rose worked the ultra-talented Slovene to an acceptable acclimatization level while we weren't looking.

Dani Olmo looked silky smooth in his return match. Xaver Schlager demonstrated his exceptional strength on the ball in the set-up to the opener. Loïs Openda polished off the 2-0 wonderfully. The Belgian does remarkably well to silence his critics whenever they begin to crawl out of the woodwork. In summation, we behold an excellent team here. Their two-game league losing streak (a three-match winless run) naturally hurts their top four prospects with Dortmund encroaching. One tentatively still expects them to begin picking up points soon. Not pleasant news for BL diehards, but true.
Prognosis: A huge match to circle

When it comes time to break out the sharpie and have a look at this weekend's fixture list, the columnist strongly suggests giving Leipzig-Stuttgart the circle. Easily the best offering of the 15:30s shall serve as a huge indicator of whether Rose can get this talented squad into gear. Leipzig lit up the Swabians at home in the 5-1 massacre that kicked off the campaign's second round. Having permitted Stuttgart to remain in the top-three thanks to their two losses in the new calendar year, the German Red Bulls cannot mess up this chance to overtake VfB on a head-to-head.

Leverkusen-Gladbach - selected as the Saturday evening "Top Spiel" - doesn't require a circle as no other matches are pitted against it. The author absolutely advocates making time for it as we have another match-up that produced a lopsided result in the "Hin-Runde" that might turn out differently. So much breaks the Werkelf's way that one has the sense that harsher odds must kick in at some point. Bayer's overall work in open-play here bordered on mediocre. The set-plays producing goals weren't spectacular and the fatal error on the RB second proved that Xabi's team have issues there.

Both the title-race and the quest for the top-four remain red-hot. Leipzig must respond now. Leverkusen's lead at the top has to be taken in context. A direct "Bayer-Bayern" duel beckons in a mere two weeks time. Slip ups from Germany's red company team are not permitted. All this talk of Leverkusen achieving the undefeated season can evaporate quickly in just a few short days. The entire equation shifts if the record champions can steal a six-pointer. Xabi's team simply have to keep collecting threes from all of their league fixtures. 

The "Burning Question": Round 18


How are Hoffenheim crumbling?

As hinted at in the latest "Americans" column - not to mention on the airwaves - some grousing about the tactics of TSG trainer Pellegrino Matarazzo must be vented. The Columbia "Mathe-magician" keeps making questionable personnel calls both ahead of kickoff and during his later-match adjustments. First and and foremost, the opening hand. Matarazzo compensated for the absence of the suspended Grischa Prömel by moving Andrej Kramaric over to the left on the second axis to make way for Finn Ole Becker.

Last week's ineffective formation was tweaked to push sweeper Anton Stach as well as wingbacks Marius Bülter and Pavel Kaderabek further up the pitch. An already stretched 4-2-2-2 became even wider. SC Freiburg trainer Christian Streich had the perfect answer for this. The Breisgauer stormed out of the gate in the budding Baden-Württemberg derby. A nicely double-staggered 4-4-2 brought out the best in current captain Vincenzo Grifo. The famed "Italian from Pforzheim" immediately put the Sinsheimers under pressure.

Lineup—SC Freiburg—Match 18 (4-4-2)



The gripping affair quickly developed into a "captain versus captain" duel. TSG skipper and keeper Oliver Baumann bailed his team out on numerous occasions before Grifo gained the upper hand by taking out the entire back three in the lead-up to Lucas Höler's 37th-minute 1-0. Grifo continued to shine consistently until he looked equally as impressive in a direct-duel with Stanley Nsoki on the 2-0 in the 55th. Beautiful stuff. What more can one say apart from a reiteration that Matarazzo's personnel selection at the back is totally wrong.

So much of Streich's plan worked to perfection in this one. It turned out to be one of those weeks for the top-tier's top "cult trainer". He got his tactics right on the pitch. He got his politics right at a pre-match presser. Our "national treasure" even got a little lucky when - after Hoffenheim fought back from the 0-2 deficit to restore parity - his shorthanded side was even able to take the lead back and snatch all three points. As for the adjustments Matarazzo made later in the match, there didn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to the changes.

Lineup—Hoffenheim—61st minute (3-5-2)



Umut Tohumcu entered for Becker on a straight swap. Ihlas Bebou relieved Kaderabek on the right rail. Robert Skov took over for Marius Bülter on the left. The midfield crunched together while the back-three flattened out. All of this happed after Wout Weghorst pulled back the 1-2. Nothing about this directly addressed the SCF staggers. All tanking members of the back-three inexplicably remained in place, though Florian Grillitsch did partially redeem himself with a nice through ball on Maximilian Beier's equalizer.

In general, this team simply isn't set up to defend well against the ball. Kramaric's deployment further back - along with similarly curious assignments for the likes of Prömel and Stach - produce far too many midfield turnovers. Roland Sallai's shorthanded goal against the run-of-play constituted a perfect example this. Don't be surprised if they continue to struggle in upcoming fixtures against Heidenheim and Wolfsburg. Europe slips out of a high-priced roster's grasp. The TSG brass must surely begin to contemplate a change.

"Weekly Wortschatz": Round 18


"die Hosen voll machen"

Another delicate one. Seeing as how we led last week's column with a phrase on the vulgar end of things, the writer seeks to tread carefully here. It's definitely not the case that we want to start a trend. "Gutter humor" won't become the order of the day. We'll quickly flit through the linguistic relevance of Eintracht Frankfurt striker Sasa Kalajdzic's post-match interview and arrive at the football as soon as possible. The SGE's newly-acquired Austrian forward described his team's blowing of a 2-0 lead against Darmstadt in the Hessen-derby as a case of Frankfurt "loading up their pants".

Ahem. Right. Everyone should get the basic idea here. The only real point to be made is that Germans extend this metaphor to all manner of adverse situations. To be stuck in a rut is described as "die Hose Voll zu haben" (to "walk around with loaded pants"). Whenever something goes seriously awry, Germans remark that it's "in die Hosen gegangen" (to "go into the pants"). A case of heartbreak causes the heart to "rutsch in die Hose" (to "sink into the pants"). Even the most brilliant Germans can be obscenely course and crude at times. Examples abound. Everyone from Mozart to Luther.

The English - true to form - constructed their metaphors with more class; befitting from people who refer to a bathroom as a "water closet". When something goes seriously awry in English, it doesn't go "in the pants", but rather "down the toilet" or (even more politely) "down the [plumbing] tubes" The specific piece of refuse used to describe a disaster absconds from the metaphor. Isn't that nice? Of course, modern American and British slang doesn't shy away from literal translations of the German phrase. It gets even worse than the author's translation of Kalajdzic's words. Much, much worse.

What exactly happened in Darmstadt?

Dino Toppmöller's side - as Kalajdzic correctly pointed out in some of his less indecent comments - stopped playing football. SV trainer Torsten Lieberknecht deserves credit for getting it spot on with two major tactical adjustments. Opposite member Toppmöller, meanwhile, switched his team into an offensively hamstrung constellation far too early. The Lilies plucked a point off their neighbors and rivals just at the very beginning of an SGE fixture list that could have seen Frankfurt rattle off some momentum and collect 12 straight points.

Perhaps we'll go with American slang after all.

Eintracht totally "sh**t the bed here"

A perfect early narrative

Toppmöller kept last week's successful set-up in place. Everyone in black maintained their positions in the SGE 3-4-3. Everything proceeded perfectly in the early going. Niels Nkounkou - likened to Filip Kostic by a fawning German press picking up on his form surge - proved that he's a monster force to be reckoned with. The 23-year-old French left wingback popped two quality efforts on target before finally netting the 1-0 in the 33rd. Dominant Eintracht had a deserved lead. The larger Hessen club led in scoring chances by a 5:1 ratio.

Often maligned German attacker Ansgar Knauff - who enjoyed his fair share of chances in the first-half - doubled the advantage six minutes after the restart. Though Kalajdzic inadvertently supplied the assist with a scuffed shot, the fact that Knauff scored in two consecutive matches surely left the German Eagles soaring with confidence. All was well with the RheinMain Adler. Those of us typing up the match report had the tone of the story nailed down. Frankfurt cruise. Luca Pfeiffer misses chances. Done. Article filed.

Then everything changed.

Lieberknecht's first adjustment

The SV trainer's 3-4-3 worked as a pale mimic of the Eintracht one. Nkounkou cooked off Darmstadt right wingback Matthias Bader frequently and all too easily. On the other side, Fabian Nürnberger (recently returned) struggled to handle Eric Junior Dina Ebimbe. The newly paired SGE six duo of Mario Götze and Hugo Larsson - put together due to Ellyes Skhiri's tour-of-duty with Tunisia at AFCON - performed well yet again and kept full control of the flow. Buttressing attackers Tim Skarke and the newly-acquired Julian Justvan found no space.

Lineup—Darmstadt—Match 18 (3-4-3)



Lieberknecht ditched this at the half via the substitution of midfielder Andreas Müller for defender Matej Maglica. A back-four quickly crystallized. Skarke and Nürnberger both moved up. Comically enough, the Lilies re-formatted into a "Leipzig" 4-2-2-2. It came as no real surprise to see this too prove ineffective. Such a thing as "high-octane" Darmstadt doesn't exist; at least not with Luca Pfeiffer leading the line. As noted above, match-reporters had this one written and ready to file as soon as Pfeiffer began missing chances.

Lineup—Darmstadt—46th minute (4-2-2-2)



Toppmöller's big mistake came three minutes after Justvan pulled the first goal back in the 61st. In defense of the SGE trainer, locking things down with a 2-0 lead wasn't the wrong idea. Eintracht keeper Kevin Trapp's error on the 1-2 couldn't have been foreseen. That notwithstanding, the fact that his side now possessed a slender one-goal-advantage probably should have compelled Toppmöller to scratch the idea of bringing Aurelio Buta on for Donny van de Beek in the 63rd. What materialized invited Darmstadt to play on.

Lineup—Frankfurt—65th minute (5-4-1)



The hosting Hessians gradually began to believe that they could indeed grab that second goal. Noticeable pushes forward from Müller and Bartol Franjic yielded some late chances. Captain Fabian Holland missed out on the best opportunity to level the scoreline with his flash over in the 88th. To the delight of tactics-heads everywhere, the eventual equalizer came from Lieberknecht's decision to throw his tallest and strongest central defender forward. Whenever that late tactics succeeds, it makes for the best moments.

Lineup—Darmstadt—90th minute (4-2-4)



Christoph Klarer banged home to the 2-2 at 90+5. Few complaints from us in the reporting class about having to re-write our story. Klarer's first-ever top flight goal gave us an even better narrative to write on. While this best-ever version of the "Hessen Derby" in the first division didn't leave us with much hope that the relegation race narrative might shift, we've a faint heartbeat in the beaten-down ranks of the Lilies to contemplate. Do they suddenly have hopes of turning things around?

A glib answer to SV hopes

Gerrit Holtmann's arrival excites, but it remains unclear just how Lieberknecht can fit his new attacking option into his tactics. Nürnberger and Skarke already populate Holtmann's preferred left-hand side. Kudos to the SV front-office for closing a couple of solid January deals under serious financial duress and without a sporting director. A problem - and not a totally unforeseeable one - is that the two additions don't really constitute well-targeted pick-ups. Justvan got his name on the scoresheet thanks to Trapp's error. SGE defender Tuta messed up on the equalizer.

A long way to go here as this doesn't prove anything really. Frankfurt (as the columnist searches for a clean term) "shot themselves in the foot". There we are. One can describe self-sabotage in all manner of non-ribald ways. Best to treat this result as an off-label aberration and avoid the off-color language. The prediction holds that Eintracht rebound to win their next three fixtures. Darmstadt proceed to lose or draw their next five and enter March without having snapped the winless run.  
"einen Zacken aus der Krone brechen"

Now we're talking! A good old medieval German idiomatic expression so old and archaic that it comes pre-packaged with its own pronoun and grammatical case. The full German expression - one can find in any of the tome-like German dictionaries people like this writer still keep on their shelves - reads: "sich [+Dativ] eine Zacken aus der Krone brechen lassen". Whew! That's how we do it in the old Holy Roman Empire! Zero chance a non-native German speaker can get that one out without inadvertently splashing saliva all over an unsuspecting innocent conversational partner.

What are we referring to here? None other than the controversially delayed VfB Stuttgart-VfL Bochum match. For anyone wondering why the chocolate coins thrown onto the pitch aren't being covered here, it's because "Schokoladentaler" was already used in the Wortschatz section of the Round 15 column. We happened to be ahead of the game with that one. As a result, we get to discuss the one match-delaying incident this weekend not directly related to the ultra protests. Bochum-Stuttgart, nearly abandoned, kicked off the second half 45 minutes late for other reasons.

The traveling Stuttgart supports brought an innocuous enough "Cannstatter" banner to the Vonovia Ruhrstadion on the Castroper Straße. A standoff ensued when Bochum security officials, altered by the local fire brigade that the emergency exits lanes were being blocked by the banner, engaged in intense negotiations with the VfB ultras to take their pennant down. It took quite some time for the Cannstatter fans to accede. A frustrated Thomas Letsch later remarked that he personally felt as if there was no reason for either side to "lose face" at his post-match presser.

At least, that's how this author translated it. Letsch literally went for the medieval German with the "Zacken aus der Krone brechen" metaphor. It literally translates to "having a spike knocked out of one's crown". Is there an English equivalent left over from the days of the multi-kingdom post-Roman pre-Norman Saxon occupation? By all accounts, there could be. If there is one, however, this columnist isn't aware of it. Again, that's how we do it in the old Holy Roman Empire! We kept our meaningless fiefdoms together a full eight centuries longer than those of the Isle!

Letsch's choice-of-words left this linguist feeling nice and cozy on a cold German winter's night. Modern Germans typically use the straightforward translation of "to lose one's face" ("das Gesicht verlieren"). Hell with that. Baden-Württemberg native Letsch went with the BaWü phrase. No one knows how to go medieval like the Swabians. Stuttgart fans - Swabians themselves - got a taste of their own dialect from a man who grew up not too far from their own town. The Württemberger Kings (aka medieval Stuttgart) got plenty of spikes knocked out of their crowns.

Ahem. We return to football. Just how many spikes have been knocked out of the VfB Stuttgart crown after two consecutive losses to begin the new calendar year? Note that we were fairly charitable to Sebastian Hoeneß' side following the Gladbach defeat last week. Call him crazy, but the columnist still feels magnanimous this time. True, the VfB attack produced zilch during an atrocious first-half that literally gave Serhou Guirassy replacement Deniz Undav nothing to work with. Then there was Bochum's opening goal. Unfortunately, we've also already used "Fehlerkette" in the Round 15 column.

The "Chain-of-Errors"

Some five minutes after the long delay, all went to pot. A passing error out of the back from Angelo Stiller sent the ball straight to Christopher Antwi-Adjei. The quick-witted German-Ghanaian winger flicked over to Matus Bero, who then toasted Dan-Axel Zagadou. VfB keeper Alexander Nübel also looked sluggish on the 50th-minute 1-0. Bochum had the lead despite looking significantly worse than their opponents in the match up to that point. Without club-man Kevin Stöger in the lineup, Letsch's crew were about as hopeless as it gets.

Defending a slender lead

Letsch gave Hoeneß' team almost a full quarter-of-an-hour before shelling up his shape. Stiller and Jamie Leweling missed their chances to equalize. Undav got another half-chance in. Chris Führich squandered what space he was given on the left. The Württembergers simply couldn't thaw out after the interruption. By the time Letsch brought Ivan Ordets and Moritz Broschinski on for Gonçalo Paciencia and limp Stöger replacement Philipp Förster, it really was all over. The final re-ordering rendered it next to impossible for Stuttgart to play through the press.

Lineup—Bochum—66th minute (4-2-3-1)



One doesn't get past this without some clever trick in re-ordering the midfield. Hoeneß tried to do so via his lone substitution of the match. The introduction (and long-awaited return) of Roberto Massimo for Atakan Karazor allowed Stiller to drop back on a basic "sling-shot" version of a split-stagger. The hosting Rervierklub read the re-format immediately and took advantage on the counter. Antwi-Adjei was unlucky not to score. Bero too could have bagged a brace on the very same day he netted his first German top-flight goal.

Lineup—Stuttgart—76th minute (4-2-3-1)



Stiller - a specific subject of praise in last week's column - largely handled this well. His finishing error notwithstanding, Hoeneß' former FCB II and TSG protégée made his mentor proud once again. The subtly-tweaked constellation nevertheless summarily failed to produce anything of real note. Skipper Waldemar Anton produced the only real chance after everyone poured forward at the very end. This counts as a very poor result from the league's surprise third-place sensations. They reman in the top-four only by virtue of the fact that Leipzig keep losing.

The VfB crown

Again, the assessment of this team's prospects remains relatively rosy. A medieval German monarch typically donned a crown full of many spikes. Hoeneß' squad - with key players still out at both AFCON and the AFC - traverse a rough patch of upcoming fixtures against Leipzig, Freiburg, and Leverkusen (in the Pokal). The last match constitutes a scratch as there's really nothing for the team to lose. As noted above, however, anything and everything remains possible against the snake-bit German Red Bulls. Stuttgart also pounded Freiburg 5-0 in the "Hin-Runde".

Watching this team play, one doesn't have the sense that they play forward without a sense-of-purpose. They still maintain some fight-and-bite on the charge; even after the banner-incident made it difficult for them to loosen up the stiff shackles of the cold. A deeper and more talented side conceivably could have found a way through Letsch's ultra-conservative formation. Stuttgart don't need to be something they aren't, however. They simply need to recall that overachieving permits one to play looser and more creatively. They can un-shackle themselves in the coming weeks.

Fear not, VfB fans.

This crown still has many spikes.

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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