Bundesliga News

Bundesliga Tactics Talk: Round 20

By Peter Weis   @PeterVicey

The latest installment of the Bulinews comprehensive recap fixture arrives, replete with all the necessary information to get all fans of the world's best footballing beat up-to-date.

This week's edition not only takes all nine league fixtures from the previous round into account, but also covers Tuesday's Leverkusen-Stuttgart Pokal tie and Wednesday's Mainz-Union Berlin makeup match.

The full list of teams receiving draw ups this week includes Darmstadt, Stuttgart, Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, Frankfurt, Mainz and Union Berlin.

The more linguistic-centric nature of the column also continues on for all those interested in picking up parts of the world's most fascinating language and culture.

All are once again cordially invited to come along!
Jonathan Tah.
Jonathan Tah.Photo: Fuguito/CC-by-SA 3.0

Bundesliga Tactical Banter: Round 20


Bochum's "Nachspielzeit-Allergie"

Just as was the case in the "Hin-runde", we've a even-stephens draw between Bochum and Augsburg to discuss. Unlike in the first half of the season, however, there aren't alliterative compliments to be paid to Thomas Letsch and his squad. The Revierklub allowed a wonderful opportunity to distance themselves from the relegation pack slip through their fingers. A massive three points at home appeared in the bag. Letsch looked like a genius selecting Moritz Broschinski to lead the line over Philipp Hofmann and Gonçalo Paciencia. The VfL trainer then proceeded to make all the right in-game moves during what should have ended in a 1-0 victory for the Castroper Straße crew.


Broschinski netted what should have been the 1-0 with an awe-inspiring bicycle-kick in the 33rd. Two makeshift fullbacks - Bernardo on the left and Tim Oermann on the right - clamped down Augsburg's attempts to get some penetration up the flanks whilst simultaneously running promising counters of their own. Veteran skipper Anthony Losilla and the consistently impressive Patrick Osterhage ensured the hosts kept the midfield traffic under control. Two of Letsch's personally groomed wingers - Mats Bero and Christopher Antwi-Adjei - generated chances to increase the lead. Letsch reverted to a back-five with the introduction of Keven Schlotterbeck for Kevin Stöger in the 69th. Everything stood in place.

What happened? Bero and Schlotterbeck's fellow sub Moritz-Broni Kwarteng missed capital chances to put the game to bed. An Ivan Ordets handball penalty in extra time gifted reliable Augsburg penalty taker Ermedin Demirovic a chance to equalize late from the spot. For the third time at home this season (after a 2-2 draw against Mainz in round nine and a 1-1 draw with Bremen in round 17) Bochum let themselves be robbed of points in the "Nachspielzeit" ("injury time") in front of their own fans. Sunday's edition of "Sport-Bild" spoke of an "allergic reaction" to successes that could get this team out of the relegation conversation. Six additional points would have left Bochum close to clinching safety.

Entering this fixture, a draw felt about right for these two sides. A very poor overall performance from Jess Thorup's Fuggerstädter nevertheless left one felling as if the visiting Bavarians were very lucky to escape with a point. Thorup's new 4-4-2 diamond with new acquisition Kristijan Jakic continues to struggle maintaining its shape. Elvis Rexhbecaj and Fredrik Jensen have difficulty operating deep, as evidenced by poor ranged efforts during the match. The attacking corps of Demirovic, Ruben Vargas, and Philipp Tietz (later augmented by Sven Michel and new-acquisition Pep Biel) produced little of note from open play. Letsch's side dropped some huge points here. This shall be worth remembering at the end of the season.
Bayern's "Volspultaste"

Not a particularly nice week for Gladbach fans. The chance to cleanse the palate of Saturday's league loss to the German giants with a berth in the DFB Pokal semi-finals had to be postponed due to inclement weather. Perhaps some Fohlenelf enthusiasts can take solace in the fact that no one bothered to talk about their team's performance against Bayern in the league. Thomas Müller's post-match interview and Thomas Tuchel's post-match comments both immediately hit the "Volspultaste" ("fast-forward button"). No time to talk about a poor Gladbach performance that featured egregious errors from BMG fullback Joe Scally and Moritz Nicolas. Insofar as the German press was concerned, it was straight on to Bayern vs. Leverkusen.

Takeaways from Bayern's 3-1 win over Gladbach remain fairly scarce. Some news outlets chose to focus on the fact that the champs excel whenever rising midfield phenom Aleksandr Pavlovic makes and appearance. There's something in that fact. Pavlovic netted his second tally in as many weeks. The FCB have won all nine league fixtures in which Pavlovic has featured. In their second outing working tougher, central defenders Eric Dier and Matthijs de Ligt improved immensely. The latter notched his second league goal of the season to place a lid on the match. Once the Bavarian engine got rolling last Saturday, Tuchel's charges coasted to a comfortable win. One can't really say much else about it.

The collectively pushed "fast-forward button" now applies to Bayern's post-Tuchel Era. Most German news sources - admittedly in search of sensationalist headlines - have already written the current FCB trainer's obituary. For many of us league watchers, the end of this misunderstanding does seem inevitable. The record champs just completed a highly ambitious January transfer window; quite possibly the best we've seen from the giants in three to four years. Pressure mounts on Tuchel now that he has targeted editions such as Dier, Sacha Boey, and Bryan Zaragoza. As unfair as this commentator finds it, the "loss of the locker room" talk burgeons and threatens. A dismissal won't be far off should they lose to Leverkusen this Saturday eve.

The "Spiegel Specials": Round 20


Darmstadt-Leverkusen (1:5, 0:2)

Leverkusen themselves - along with Tuesday DFB-Pokal opponents VfB Stuttgart - had their own "Volspultaste" to push in the league over the weekend. Werkself trainer Xabi Alonso obviously had to rotate quite a bit against lowly Darmstadt in preparation for the much higher stakes fixture a little over 48 hours ahead. Xabi introduced a quintet of fresh players in order to rest preferred actors. We watched newly-signed Spanish striker Borja Iglesias make his debut in the starting XI. Adam Hlozek also got the nod over Jonas Hofmann. Jeremie Frimpong - clearly combatting some mental issues in the 0-0 draw with Gladbach - received a rest. Nathan Tella came on to make his starting debut at right-wingback.


As the above juxtaposed score-lines make evident, Germany's red company team weren't nearly as dominant against one of the Bundesliga's newbies as they were in the "Hin-runde". Iglesias and Hlozek lived up to their reputation as bench players with largely ineffective performances. Xabi still earns the proverbial "gold star" for managing his personnel exceptionally well. The decision to include midfield talisman Granit Xhaka despite the fact that the linchpin risked suspension on four yellow cards ended up being a well-taken risk. Tella's brace genuinely makes it look as Xabi can do no wrong. An out-of-position player scoring both goals? This has to be this team's year. 

Moving on to Bayer's Pokal performance, such an incredible comeback win further buttresses the whole "destiny" case. One couldn't help but reflect on Jonathan Tah's incredible journey over the past three plus years as soon as it became apparent that the resurgent German national team defender's goal would prove the winner. Wow. Anyone up for a reminder of how low Tah sunk after committing the error that cost Leverkusen a place in the title-race just prior to the mid-point of the 2020/21 campaign? Amazing how far the 27-year-old has come. Thank goodness he opted to remain in German football. This columnist bid him a premature adieu when his spring form surge pointed to a sure-fire departure.

In any event, Xabi's squad appear well poised to square off against Bayern in the coming "Top-Spiel". So much breaks their way. So very many things click at precisely the right time. At present, there isn't much of anything new to report on tactically from the Werkself trainer. The usual league 3-4-3 succeeded against Stuttgart with only like-for-like changes from the B04 dugout. Iglesias and the recently returned Amine Adli relieved Patrik Schick and Hofmann in straight swaps in the 63rd. Adli - as all of us have come to expect at this point - shone brightly in his "super sub" role. Really quite the special player he is. On just about any other team, he'd be starting.

Are Darmstadt better staffed?

Some nice skilled maneuvering from the Lilies during the January transfer window at least delivers SV trainer Torsten Lieberknecht some much-needed reinforcements. Prospects for the league's last placed side were about as grim as it gets at the beginning of last month. Despite not even having a sporting director in place, this club's front office managed to swing some deals. Attackers Gerrit Holtman, Julian Justvan, and Sebastian Polter all arrived on loan. These signings complement some of the quality Lieberknecht - Tim Skarke most notably - that Lieberknecht already possesses. Matters could improve further thanks to the return of Fabian Nürnberger and Marvin Mehlem.

Lineup—SV98—Match 20 (4-4-2)



Holtmann and Skarke remained far below their best against the heavily favored opponents. Polter - surprisingly enough available in relief immediately in spite of his recent hernia surgery - noticeably made an impact off the bench. Mehlem, also introduced as a sub, probably needs more time to get back into form. Some decent chances to score came from both the starting set-up and the relief actors. Some of the developments involving other relegation-race teams do engender some hope that the Hessians can quietly keep themselves in contention for a Bundesliga stay.

Important to note that we're still discussing a team winless in their last 13. It shall prove interesting to see what Holtmann and Polter (two former VfL Bochum teammates) can bring to the table. Central defender Christoph Zimmermann - one of Lieberknecht's favorite projects - defends with a great deal of passion. Belief in the defensive ranks always yields some hope. The author confidently declares that this team isn't nearly so bad as to slide into the type "2021/22 SpVgg Greuther Fürth" territory. Relegation isn't quite a certainty yet, though it is still rather likely.
Prognosis: Tipping the "Top Spiel"

Those who skimmed through the Darmstadt content will be pleased to know that this section does contain a quick and fearless tip for this coming Saturday evening's "summit meeting" between the league's top two teams. Who shall prevail in the highly anticipated Bayern-Bayer rematch? Xabi's Werkself. No question about it. The confidence Leverkusen carry from the Pokal victory cannot be understated. Bayern - while facing problems that are largely overblown - unquestionably aren't a team comfortably capable of keeping the lead.

Leverkusen go five points clear!

Tuchel gets thrown into boiling hot water.
Freiburg-Stuttgart (0:5, 1:3)

Our second "Spiegel Special" contains similar lessons to the first. Both Stuttgart can Leverkusen did the double over teams the met during the first half of the campaign, albeit with far less dominant score-lines. Just about anyone could have predicted that based on the forthcoming Pokal fixture. In the case of Sebastian Hoeneß' Swabians, Stuttgart can absolutely be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas after blitzing to a 2-0 lead inside of ten minutes and watching Merlin Röhl get sent off on a straight red in the 18th.

Hoeneß' first set of post Dan-Axel Zagadou tactics furnished a brisk answer to the question as to whether the loss of one of the squad's defensive mainstays would matter much. Skipper Waldemar Anton went on a long deep carry up the pitch to set up Deniz Undav's 1-0 in the 3rd. The on-fire Undav then turned provider on Chris Führich's 2-0 in the 7th. Wonderful work from Undav on both goals. Enzo Millot probably should have put the game to bed even before Röhl was sent off, but spurned an excellent chance in the 14th.

Hoeneß mixed it up from last week, reformatting his 3-4-3 into a 4-2-3-1. It essentially functioned flawlessly. Freiburg only found their way back into the game courtesy of the multiple interruptions in play due to the hometown fans peppering the pitch with tennis balls and chocolate coins. The outmanned and outclassed Breisgauer got a chance to catch their breath. Lukas Kübler's 1-2 at 45+11 came off a well-worked Vincenzo Grifo corner. Christian Streich's team pulled one back off a dead-ball. They had nothing to offer from open play.

Lineup—VfB—Match 20 (4-2-3-1)



Hoeneß stuck with his 4-2-3-1 throughout the match, only reorganizing into a back-five when Pascal Stenzel relieved Maxi Mittelstädt in the 82nd. Everything continued to operate as smooth as butter. Undav never ceased to shine and could have scored more. At least the potential new German national team striker got his name on the scoresheet thrice. His assist on Mittelstädt's 3-1 in the 74th meant he bagged a brace of assists. Hoeneß crew survived a couple scary moments at the end after dominating possession for 90 minutes, mostly because their heads were already in Tuesday.

The tactics of the Pokal fixture

Hiroki Ito's return from international duty - combined with the fact that Hoeneß naturally tried to mirror Xabi's 3-4-3 - meant that we initially got something more akin to what the Württembergers used in the league last week. There was plenty of personnel shifting as Undav moved back to his slot up top, Rouault shifted rightwards to make room for Ito, and Enzo Millot moved out of the midfield upon the return of Atakan Karazor. This arrangement - not unlike in the round 14 league encounter between these two teams - punished Leverkusen unrelentingly in the opening 45.

Lineup—VfB—DFB Pokal (3-4-3)



Hoeneß went all in with a visibly more aggressive 3-4-3. Sorting through what the VfB trainer was attempting to do during the later stages of this match proved a very difficult exercise. All the author can offer up is something of a "best guess". Review of the final 20 minutes didn't reveal something clear on the overhead cam. The introduction of Leweling for Millot in the 62nd appeared to push Undav over to the wing. Leonidas Stergiou's replacing of Mittelstädt made for all manner of strangeness. The (delayed) substitution of Mohammed Dahoud suggests Hoeneß simply might have trashed his plan.

Lineup—VfB—71st minute (5-4-1)



Some real intrigue on the right-hand-side Stergiou, Vagnoman, and Undav worked what almost appeared specific set of overlap/underlap designs. One can probably assume that Hoeneß deliberately prepares some prefabricated charges on a flank stacked fairly deep on the roster. Angelo Stiller - for all intents and purposes - is the new Wataru Endo. Hoeneß' former protégée can play anywhere and everywhere. Dahoud's arrival might even mean we begin to see Stiller get some shifts as a ten. Projecting VfB line-ups and tactics certainly won't get easier down the line!
Prognosis: Europe cemented by March?

Oh yes, VfB enthusiasts! Consider the upcoming fixture list: Mainz, Darmstadt, Köln, Wolfsburg, Union Berlin, Hoffenheim, and Heidenheim. Any Cannstatt crew members out there concerned about any of the forthcoming seven (!!) league opponents? The Swabians tore through the first five of them in the Hin-runde, only tripping up against Hoffenheim and Heidenheim when Serhou Guirassy got hurt. Undav's rough form at that time (actually still pretty decent) counts as totally irrelevant now. We've indeed much to look forward to as pertains to this team. Strap in for a fun and successful ride!
Heidenheim-Dortmund (2:2, 0:0)

Dortmund fans might be a tad irritated with the author for hyping up Edin Terzic's BVB with a lead section last week right before die Schwarzgelben delivered a total dud. Another draw to discuss. This one hurts more when one takes Tim Kleindienst's massive misses into account. Dortmund were in many respects lucky to escape with a draw here. A woeful first half during which they could only manage a paltry 0.11 xG. There really wasn't any danger apart from Donyell Malen's disallowed offside goal the one-time Jamie Byone-Gittens forced FCH keeper Kevin Müller into some involvement.

Of course, Dortmund deserve some slack due to all the players missing with injury. Jadon Sancho joined the long list of unavailable actors unable to make the trip to the away fixture. One continues to feel Julian Brandt's absence whenever watching this team. Slotting Bynoe-Gittens into Sancho's place in the previous 4-4-2 appeared to adversely affect the other left flank actors Youssoufa Moukoko, Marcel Sabitzer, and even  Ian Maatsen. One could make the case that Terzic should have switched matters up sooner, but the columnist does believe the initial constellation was steadily improving.

Did we see the famous 3-2-2-2?

We did. Right after a triple substitution at the hour-mark. Emré Can, Marius Wolf, and Bundesliga debutant Ole Pohlmann replaced Bynoe-Gittens, Thomas Meunier, and Salih Özcan. All three new introductions played well, though Pohlmann still looked understandably green. Maatsen moved much better in midfield. Sabitzer appeared more comfortable on a slant switch. Moukoko and Niclas Füllkrug looked better. None of it produced a goal. One can nonetheless find reasons to respect what the squad produced in this.

Lineup—BVB—60th minute (3-2-2-3)



A second reformat near the end may have not been necessary. Terzic felt perhaps compelled to give the returning Ramy Bensebaini a test drive from the Algerian's natural left-back position. In light of the fact that Maatsen had already moved into midfield, it was worth a shot. Bensebaini took over for Moukoko in the 75th. Maatsen slid more central. Füllkrug and Nico Schlotterbeck got late efforts in on FCH back-stop Müller in the third shape. A light critique for upfield assignments involving Can and Pohlmann is in order. Otherwise, this was largely okay.

Lineup—BVB—76th minute (4-1-4-1)



The German press has been kind enough to tally up the combined net worth of the players Dortmund presently find themselves without. The total value of the nine players missing? Nothing short of €210 million. That pretty much says it all. No sense in beating up the perennial also-rans just yet. One should also stress that the point gained allows them to maintain fourth place in the table. The so-called "third Terzic comeback" remains ahead of schedule; even more so than the first two. Dortmund bashers should lay off the club's apologists for now.
Prognosis: A solid February

With injuries clearing, there shouldn't be any reason why nine points cannot be snatched from upcoming league opponents Freiburg, Wolfsburg, and Hoffenheim. The upcoming match against Christian Streich's Breisgauer offers up plenty of hope. Streich's team appear truly ready to plummet. Last week's assessment turns more dire still after what we witnessed against Stuttgart. One always hesitates to declare a "Dortmund Dawn" as...well...it's Dortmund. The author does so anyway. There should be no talk of a crisis; at least not this month.

The "Burning Questions": Round 20


Must we really discuss Wolfsburg?

Sigh. The "comprehensive" nature of this column regrettably demands it. While certainly not averse to covering Germany's green company team in these pages over the years, the columnist does feel as if he's long since rammed into the "creative wall". How many ways are there of describing a team that habitually and reliably underachieves? The same story repeats itself week-after-week and year-after-year. Since the departure of Oliver Glasner following the 2020/21 Champions' League qualification season, three successive trainers failed to get the VWers in gear.

No consistency from this crew over the course of some 88 (!) league fixtures. Brief spurts of energy followed up by long-stretches of imagination-less attacking football. The fact that the VfL administrative team considered (of all people) Kevin Behrens to be the solution to the latest rut elicited some serious cackles. Wolfsburg's latest transfer window reads like a joke. Niko Kovac's most recent lineup felt like a joke. Marcel Schäfer's backing of Kovac following the eyesore of a draw against Hoffenheim simply has to be a bloody joke!

Lineup—WOB—Match 20 (4-4-2)



Phrew. The author has no good answer as to why Kovac got it in his head that Jonas Wind might work as a service striker. Nothing about either the Dane's build or game suggests that this experiment would lead to success. The game-plan (assuming there was one) exhibited zero functionality in a torrid first-half full of midfield turnovers and defensive mishaps. Last week's lame 4-2-3-1 looked brilliant in comparison. Wind popped up in some space from time to time, but didn't really challenge TSG keeper Oliver Baumann with his medium range efforts.

A staggered "Plan B"

Kovac responded by yanking what many of us consider to be his most reliable player as of late, Vaclav Cerny, at the half in favor of Mattias Svanberg. One could tell that Kovac likely invested some thought into his re-format. Whenever a single personnel change at the half leads to such a radical change in shape, a coach usually follows it up with some staggered like-for-like swaps to keep the squad fresh in a previously drilled constellation. Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell if Kovac's plan worked. An injury to Vranckx forced the VfL trainer into a double swap in the 56th.

Lineup—WOB—46th minute (4-1-3-2)



Ridle Baku relieved Joakim Maehle. The ultimate hero of the match - Lovro Majer - took Vranckx's place. Within seconds of his introduction, Kovac's fellow Croat scored the first of his two goals. In the process, Majer became the latest VfL actor to save Kovac's bacon. Something suggests that all of these narrow escapes for the current head-coach shall ultimately hurt this team in the long-run. The northern "Autostädter" receive no fresh impetus this year. A minimal amount of motivation likely translates to a lower mid table finish. Ho hum.
Must we really discuss Hoffenheim?

Double sigh. A "comprehensive" column. Sarcasm aside, there is an interesting take-away from the 2-2 draw between two of the more unpopular teams in Germany. Namely, the fact that Pellegrino Matarazzo handles a task virtually identical to that of Kovac with superior skill. These two well-financed clubs remain notorious for building completely unbalanced rosters; something common among teams so flush with cash that the administrators running them don't really need to think outside the box. Matarazzo presently settles into more sensible personnel management.

Lineup—TSG—Match 20 (4-4-2)



A very clean and neat midfield diamond brought out the best in the lower axis attackers. Those of us screaming for weeks that Grischa Prömel and Anton Stach needed to be deployed further upfield got a chance to give our larynxes a rest. Andrej Kramaric actually looked very comfortable in his more advanced role as well. Umut Tohumcu - in a rare start - impressed with some of his ideas and resisted an assist. It appears as if the TSG trainer has figured out a way of given the potential-laden top-axis striker set of Maximilian Beier and Wout Weghorst proper support.

Problems persist in the defensive corps. Stanley Nsoki's left-back deployment counted as yet another failure for the French prospect. In recent weeks, it almost even seems as if the 24-year-old's complacency infects the rest of the back-line. Matarazzo urgently needs another solution when it comes to ranks he's also had to resort far too many times this season. Nsoki must go. Jay Brooks won't be available this weekend due to accumulated yellow suspension. Ermmmm...is it too much to ask that we see a natural left-back start for this team?

"Weekly Wortschatz": Round 20


"Schunkeln-Bremse"

Time for the Wortschatz section to get into the "carnival spirit"! Who doesn't love the festive atmosphere that comes with the first major holiday of the calendar year? Germans - protestant, catholic, atheist, jewish, or football-worshippers alike - all love the catholic pre-lent festivities so much that we get set preparing for them on November 11th no less. Think that the southern United States holds the monopoly on pre-lent debauchery? Think again. Germans - believe it or not - are known to let loose every so often as well. We engage in our fair share of "shunkeln."

English verbs also beginning with "s" serve as the most apt translations of "shunkeln". Three choices ("to sway", "to swing", and "to shimmy") immediately crop up in the mind. These three English options also likely immediately conjure up images of uniquely German celebrations. Any reader cognizant of the fact that Germans remain genuinely lousy dancers turns his or mind to Oktoberfest sing-alongs at the Hofbräuhaus, arm-in-arm rhythmic swivels in football stands, or three-deep carnival waves on the parade sidewalks. That's about as close to dancing as Germans get.

The "carnival-centric" Wortschatz section this week takes us two of South-West Germany's great "carnival cities". As fate would have it, supporters of both Köln and Mainz desperately need something to celebrate. It's a time of "tiny victories" for the relegation-threatened clubs of these two towns. Any excuse to "shuffle" to-and-fro is most welcome. At the end of the day, one could say this about not only Germans, but indeed any member of the human race. Linking arms over shoulders and sway to the music beats remained alone cold and untouched.

Our brains have evolved to manufacture certain chemicals in specific situations. Communal activities invoking camaraderie release oxytocin into the wiring of the complex engine working within our cranium. Getting together for some "schunklen" gets the helpful endorphins rolling. By contrast, stewing and simmering alone and untouched clogs the brain up with high-stress hormones like cortisol. Dangerous stuff that. As any creative person who spends too much time alone will tell you, too much solitude leads to memory-loss and mistakes. 

Timo Schulz's 1. FC Köln gave a sold out crowd at the RheinEnergieStadion "something to sway about" last Saturday evening with a most unexpected 2-0 win over visiting Eintracht Frankfurt. Köln's famed Südtribune - along with the rest of the arena - engaged in all the "shunkeln" like only the denizens of the cathedral city can. No one saw this result coming. Newly installed Köln trainer Timo Schulz commemorated his first victory. After the head-coach kept it appropriately modest at his post-match presser, Sunday's "Sport Bild" noted that Schulz called for a "Schunkeln-Bremse".

This on-the-spot German linguistic connotation translates to "a pump of the brakes" on celebrations. The verb "bremsen" and the noun "Bremse" simply and straightforwardly refer to one activity Autobahn loving Germans don't engage in happily. We don't like using the "brake pedal" in our cars. Hell with that! We hate using the brakes so much in the fast lane that we flash our lights at the cars ahead of us rather than slowing down for our own safety and security. Interesting to see these two German words combined. "Swaying" and "braking" usually don't fit together.

Are Köln beginning to "fit together"?

Eh. Some of the grades doled out to die Geißböcke in the German press were - in the opinion of the author - grossly inflated. Faride Alidou and Jan Thielmann received near top-level marks after scoring goals. Left-back Max Finkgräfe drew comparisons to German footballing hero Jonas Hector. That's wholly premature. One fully expects Finkgräfe to be plunking his exhausted and frustrated rear on the pitch much in the manner Hector did three years ago the way this season is going. That's about the only genuine comparison that deserves to be made at this point.

Everyone certainly enjoyed the lovely scenes at the Effzeh fortress on Saturday evening. Schulz's decision to stick with his 4-2-3-1 begins to produce dividends. Dejan Lujubicic starts to thrive in Linton Maina's old spot on the left. German youth internationals Thielmann and Eric Martel are improving. Captain Florian Kainz finally appears to have found his legs. The Sky interviewers responsible for conducting post-match interviews on Saturday night couldn't help but ask the Köln players about the emergency "secret Sunday test fixture" two weeks ago.

The interviewees gleefully noted that Schulz had promised them Sunday off after the big win. All of the German papers printed "Kölner hope" pieces on Sunday and Monday morning. Both the Süddetusche and FAZ maintained that the Rheinhanders had every right to dream. Kicker and Sport Bild worked in the "schunkeln" references. Despite all of this, the column remains unconvinced. This was about a clear a case of "SGE self-sabotage" (a common phenomenon) as it gets. Most of the sources reporting on the surprise result addressed that angle too.

Lineup—SGE—Match 20 (4-4-2)



Duh...three split-staggers in a sweeper constellation? Dino Toppmöller threw a wonderful chance at a win away. A team stacked with talent seemed deliberately configured to run straight into the compact Kölner press. Optically speaking, the RheinMainAdler weren't all that bad in possession. It nevertheless came as no surprise to watch them fail to find the punch in the final third. Presence on the flanks wasn't built into the match-plan. Eric Junior Dina Ebimbe and Niels Nkounkou - off kilter an unsynchronized - had a horrible first half.

Toppmöller reacted by introducing Fares Chaibi for Ebimbe at the restart. He also wisely jettisoned the "step-stone" stagger of his attack. Ellyes Skhiri maintained his sweeper role while Mario Götze and Hugo Larsson moved back into more workable positions. Chaibi and defender Tuta generated some half chances, but overall play didn't really improve. As the hour-mark approached, the sense that this affair appeared destined for a goalless draw increased. Neither side wanted the ball.

Lineup—SGE—46th minute (4-3-3)



The consequences of Nkounkou's disastrous first half carried over to the second. The Frenchman received his second yellow for a flagrant foul on Alidou in the 66th. Alidou then netted the 1-0 off the subsequent free-kick. Hrvoje Smolcic gifted Köln the second with a wayward pass out of the back some 13 minutes later. Everything fell apart for the Hessians. Tuta became the second SGE actor dismissed on double yellows in the 83rd. Toppmöller suitably got grilled in the two Frankfurt papers-of-record. He, his staff, and his team again let important points slip through their fingers in a vulgar fashion.

Signs of hope from Schulz

The main difference between Schulz's coaching regime and that of predecessor Steffen Baumgart has undeniably produced its first major victory. Schulz, in strong contrast to Baumgart, ditched the over-reliance on crosses that left this team's attack too predictable. The new Kölner trainer's reliance on the diminutive Jan Thielmann to lead the line whilst taller strikers such as Steffen Tigges, Florian Dietz, and Damion Downs either warm the bench or watch from the stands earned a laugh in some German footballing circles.

The time has come for those of us cackling at this idea to withdraw our guffaws. Schulz's plan worked. Period. Good on him for slowly turning the Baumgart tanker around. A pair of upcoming fixtures against Hoffenheim and Bremen might produce points with the actors involved in this approach acting more confidently. The cathedral city side's win pulls them up to the relegation playoff place. If they can stay there, chances of avoiding the drop effectively triple. Can they hope to cling to that perch and keep swaying?

Er....let's talk about other bad teams.
"Fastnacht"

Our second piece of "carnival" vocabulary - following some clarification - will take us to Mainz. We've actually already gotten into the details of Germany's "shrove Tuesday" in one of the columns from a couple years back. The rich and detailed story of this Swabian-Alemannic feast day actually makes for great reading for all the history buffs out there. The columnist highly recommends further reading for those interested in how Europe's pagan and druidic roots incorporated the proliferation of Christianity over the course of the millennia. It's all a bunch brilliantly baroque fun.

Germany being a very old and historically fragmented country means that "Fastnacht" celebrations and traditions vary wildly in all the southwestern towns no matter how close together they lie. So it goes in a land once comprised of endless localized tiny little medieval fiefdoms. Hopping from village to village at this time of year makes for an intriguing adventure. The costumes, colors, and rituals associated with the holiday are all different. The specific celebration dates don't exactly conform either. We'll thus began with a foundational calendar circle to start with.

"Fastnacht" (literally "fasting night") generally begins to take place week prior to the pre-lent celebration everyone is more familiar with, "Mardi Gras". The festival most commonly kicks off on the Thursday preceding "Fat Tuesday". The basic concept is the same. Before all the sacrifices associated with lent arrive, everyone must empty their larder of all the stored butter and meat they're set to abstain from. Some Germans still refer to carnival as "Fasching" ("fasting"), though that's become more of an Austrian, Swiss, and Pennsylvania Dutch term over time.

As is the case with the more well-known French variation of the holiday, festivities usually center around costume balls and parades. Unlike in the "Mardi Gras" tradition, German floats throw chocolate instead of beads. Costumes typically fall into two categories. Some go straight for the traditional "jester look" by dressing up as clowns or pierrot. Others reach back to more pagan forest figures such as nymphs, sprites, or fairies. One gets all the goofballery out of one's system and all the stored lard out of the pantry before the more somber time commences.

What connotative aspect of "Fastnacht" leads us to the current state of struggling FSV Mainz 05? Let's pick two. One of Germany's main carnival cities generally tends towards clown makeup on the dress-up front. Applicable enough as their football team presently plays like a bunch of clowns. From the Palatinate capital, we'll take you across to the ocean to the German diaspora. German settlers in Pennsylvania dropped the "t" when it came time to christen a seasonal pasty. The wretched play of the 05ers reminds one of a deep-fried, yet half-baked, "Fasnacht" doughnut.

Oh man, is this team in trouble. Two lumbering and lardy performances from Jan Siewert's side to discuss this time. We'll begin with Saturday's 0-1 loss to SV Werder Bremen. Siewert literally couldn't wait to unpack his sugary sweet "Fastnacht/Fasnacht" treats. New January transfer acquisitions Nadiem Amiri and Jessic Ngankam - as predicted - went straight into the starting XI. A Mainzer side donning their always eagerly anticipated "Fasnacht" jerseys and proceeded to take on one of the league's more mediocre sides.

Results?

Lineup—FSV—Match 20 (4-2-3-1)



...were terrible. Within two minutes, defender Anthony Caci sent a poor attempt at a clearance directly off teammate Tom Krauß' backside. SV striker Marvin Ducksch seized upon the opportunity to give the Hanseatic guests the 1-0 lead. One positive revolved around the fact that new signing Nadiem Amiri's enthusiasm for his new club carried over to the pitch. The former German international put in some good work from the ten slot and also justified Siewert's faith in putting him in charge of set pieces with some decent dead-ball deliveries.

Amiri nevertheless didn't really get the help he needed in his debut. No one else in Fastnacht colors had much to contribute. Ngankam proved a total dud in his debut. Jonathan Burkardt and Karim Onisiwo - moved back to the wings in what amounted to a lazy and half-baked tactical afterthought - looked most uncomfortable in their new positional assignments. Krauß got one decent effort off in the first half. Apart from that, this team looked about as unappetizing as any German-influenced doughnut. It's simply not something we do well.

More "half-baked" ideas

Missing hungrier (and more appetizing) youngsters such as Brajan Gruda and Nelson Weiper to injury, Siewert had little choice but to give the struggling Ludovic Ajorque another go up front. The previously successful Frenchman - who has missed two penalties and scored just one league goal this season - entered for Burkardt in the 63rd. Ten minutes later, Marco Richter relieved Krauß. A 4-1-3-2 reformat at least allowed the team to get some high verticals in for Ajorque, Ngankam, and Onisiwo.

Lineup—FSV—74th minute (4-1-3-2)



Overall, however, this still mostly sucked. Monday's "Süddeutsche Zeitung" described Siewert's Rheinhessen as "Klempner ohne Werkzeugkasten" ("plumbers without a tool box"). An interesting way of painting the picture, though the author still prefers his undercooked doughnut metaphor. Siewert can't bake worth a shit. If one wishes to liken this team to any sort of ineffective set of professionals, it might as well be the police force. One can easily catch members of the team strolling about like dough boys. Ajorque is one of the worst offenders.

Still more "half-baked" ideas

Horrible weather in the Palatinate capital on Wednesday night as Mainz and Union Berlin got set to contest their round 18 make-up fixture. Torrential rainfall very nearly rendered the playing surface untenable. Not far away in Saarbrücken, Gladbach's quarterfinal Pokal tie was postponed due to the downpour. We proceeded only by virtue of the fact that top-tier Mainz possesses more volunteers and more pay-rolled groundskeepers. In hindsight, few might have complained about a cancellation as what we saw barely qualified as a "football match".

Lineup—FSV—Match 18 (4-2-4)



To be fair, an audacious 4-2-4 from Siewert did yield some action on both ends during an entertaining opening ten minutes. Leandro Barreiro and Sepp van den Berg found themselves unlucky not to score on an early corner. FCU strikers Kevin Volland and Benedict Hollerbach produced some close calls on their side. Fairly soon, matters settled into a soggy stalemate. The two teams traded goals deep into first-half injury time that ran nearly 15 minutes thanks to more anti-DFL protests from the Union ultra block. Those of us in attendance honestly got nothing out of the second 45.

Seriously "half-baked" ideas from Siewert

All three of the FSV trainer's personnel changes - Ajorque, Danny da Costa, and Edimilson Fernandes - counted as abject failures. Moving Caci out wide to left back didn't work either. One really wonders what runs through Siewert's head at this point. Was there any real reason to bench skipper Silvan Widmer in favor of da Costa? Why isn't one of this rosters better offensive actors (Marco Richter) not starting? How can it be that two consecutive late match reformats involved swapping out an attacker for Dominik Kohr?

Lineup—FSV—71st minute (5-3-2)



We saw something similar late on in the Bremen match. Siewert toys around with the idea of dropping Ajorque farther back and keeping Kohr on a central vertical axis deployment for use as a late emergency striker. This seems as wasteful as the profligacy associated with carnival itself, as clownish as the costumes associated therewith, and as senseless as the idea that stuffing German pastries into one's mouth will do anything other than send calories straight from the lips to the hips.

Oh man, is this team in trouble. A coach without a clue now faces a tough stretch of games against Stuttgart, Augsburg, Leverkusen, Gladbach, and Bayern. A 14-year-run in the top flight appears to be coming to an end. Kaiserslautern fans prepare to welcome their rivals back to the second division. Strange to see it unfold this way. Virtually all of us thought that Bo Svensson - like predecessors Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel - would keep this club up and launch his career in the process.

It simply wasn't to be.

Are Union relegation candidates too?

Yep. The situation at the capital city's Köpenick side mirrors that of Mainz in that none of us thought we'd be discussing relegation prior to this season. Urs Fischer - like counterpart Bo Svensson - appeared to have the situation well at hand. Anyone claiming to know that Fischer and Svensson would be among the first head-coaches to get the axe this year is an outright liar. The continuing deterioration of the situation at Union also wasn't exactly foreseeable. Union and Mainz's stay amongst the relegation pack was generally considered to be temporary. That's not the case now.

Time continues to pass. As it does, neither side shows any signs of rebounding. Union's loss to Leipzig on Sunday, coupled with the midweek result, leaves one deeply concerned about die Eisernen. Nothing resembling a footballing thesis emerges from Nenad Bjelica's nascent coaching regime. Bjelica's return to the touchline probably won't help matters either. The FCU gaffer never really had any ideas to begin with. These days, coaches have the ability to communicate directly with their staff from the stands. One assumes that this gunk later against Mainz came out of Bjelica's head:

Lineup—FCU—64th minute (3-2-3-2)



What? How is this supposed to work? Robin Gosens operates too far afield while Janik Haberer works too far back. Aïssa Laïdouni has no experience as a direct ten. Likewise, Andras Schäfer never featured at six before. It remains true that - with Christopher Trimmel serving a suspension and Josip Juranovic out injured - Bjelica and staff found themselves short of options at the right-wing back position. That's when some creativity is called for. The usual 3-5-2 couldn't be maintained. Stacking a back-four or back-five with central defenders constituted a better, though not ideal, option.

We commemorate a significant milestone upon reaching this match-day. Namely, the fact that it was at precisely this point in the "Hin-runde" when everything fell apart for Urs Fischer's FCU. Four months later, the squad isn't anywhere near back to being on a steady course. The columnist himself took a deep dive into the literature this week to try and find some answers. After reviewing several pieces - including an excellent assessment from Union expert Christoph Biermann in the latest edition of "Elf Freunde" - the broad strokes amount to delicately poised tactics stacked like playing cards.

Do Union have any more cards to play?

Only "the fool".

These jesters aren't in for a fun carnival.

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.

Twitter DMs are open for football conversations, corrections, and (if you truly insist) general abuse. Full color re-posts of the columns are eventually archived on Peter's website.


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