By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

Bundesliga Tactics Talk: Round 26

The latest round of Bundesliga action left lovers of the world's best footballing beat with a great deal to ponder over the final international break of the season. Several league fixtures of the highest quality sent us soaring into the March intermission. Our comprehensive recap feature, as always, tackles it all.

The latest installment contains draw ups for Wolfsburg, Augsburg, Union Berlin, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Köln, Stuttgart, Hoffenheim, Freiburg, and Leverkusen. The big questions about how this campaign will wrap up all receive treatment.

As we settle in for the stretch run, perhaps the most intriguing question of all concerns whether or not Xabi Alonso's league sensations can complete an undefeated season. The column offers up its stance on the matter in the concluding section.

Bundesliga Tactical Banter: Round 26

The "Foal-Woes"


Rather distressing to reflect upon the fact that - following a 2-1 win over Heidenheim in the reverse fixture - we led the Round Nine column with an enthusiast headline celebrating Borussia Mönchengladbach's long-awaited awakening. Ugh. The columnist can only offer up his most heartfelt apologies. Looking back can be downright painful at times. He must cop to writing the specific lines "Relax, Fohlenelf enthusiasts. They're good. We really mean it this time". A new season begun with such optimism ended up proving nothing more than yet another "false dawn". BMG fans must reckon with the same, sad filler tale. The the author's credit, he did flash warnings about the impending Pokal fiasco both in last week's column and last Monday's pod. 
  
How was it so obvious that this team was headed for collapse? The nonsensical personnel rotations from trainer Gerardo Seoane served as the most obvious tell. Seoane's attempt to pass off his whimsical selections off as "competitions" was one of those faux excuses so bleeding bad it hurts. One cannot fool the committed league watchers. We know full well when a coach has no idea what he's doing. Other signs that this squad remain very poorly coached include the fact that they've now squandered 27 (!!) points in the form of blown leads this season, only work the ball forward vertically late in matches, and remain well below the rest of the league in average distance covered, attempted dribbles, and duels engaged in. This team flat out quits at times.

It's not an uncommon occurrence at all for a heavily rotated squad to have difficulty garnering consistent motivation. On 28 points through 26 match-days, the foals find themselves on their weakest points total since Michael Frontzeck's men had to contest the relegation playoffs at the end of the 2010/11 campaign. Seoane's tenure must be considered a monumental failure in light of the fact that - with most all of disinterested actors from the ill-fated Marco Rose Era finally shipped out this summer - this year was supposed to serve as a fresh start with a new group of players excited about rallying around this project. It hasn't come to pass, largely because Seoane has no discernible thesis to guide his talent.  

Younger prospects like Luca Netz, Rocco Reitz, and Fabio Chiarodia have burgeoned a bit while still leaving one with the impression that they could have developed quicker. Middle aged talents like Manu Koné, Nathan Ngoumou, Florian Neuhaus, Maximilian Wöber, and Franck Honorat haven't been used regularly and properly. It didn't take a stroke of genius from FCH trainer Frank Schmidt to crack Seoane's latest 4-1-4-1 this week. A triple substitution at the half from Schmidt turned a 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2. Eren Dinkçi and Jan-Niklas Beste worked behind Tim Kleindienst and Marvin Pieringer. Kleindienst, Pieringer, and Jan Schöppner knocked on the door until star man Dinkçi finally netted the 1-1. Too easy against this team. Way too easy.
 

Bayern's "Musiala Magic"


Apropos things that are "way too easy", we arrive at Bayern's totally predictable dismantling of Darmstadt. One naturally doesn't wish to skim over this one as there remain plenty of interesting talking points to glean from Saturday afternoon's 5-2 victory. Before getting to the most obvious one, Torsten Lieberknecht's Lilies merit some mention for standing tall in their first home fixture since the debacle against Augsburg two rounds back. For the first half-hour at least, the Hessen hosts managed to preserve some dignity in the total mismatch against the record champs. A well-thought out 4-4-2 (Lieberknecht brought back the disgraced Jannik Müller along with two others in order to aptly alter his tactics from last week) held firmly for a while.

It naturally never really looked as if we might be in for a big surprise, not even after the re-deployed up front Tim Skarke scored the opening goal. Thomas Tuchel's FCB - unquestionably appearing far more relaxed since the question of their head-coach's future was settled - had this one well at hand throughout. Pretty much everyone in Bayern colors sparkled in this one. New (delayed DFB call-up) Aleksandar Pavlovic retained a remarkable amount of composure for a 19-year-old. Pavlovic played an important role in initiating the sequence leading to the equalizer. Of course, Pavlovic's fellow DFB youngster Jamal Musiala proceeded to steal the show once - following a disjointed start to the second half - the time came for Bayern to kick-start the rout.

Musiala's form in recent weeks constitutes a huge story; one that engenders some hope in all of us disenchanted Nationalmannschaft fans. The 21-year-old's fearless manner of taking on all comers with intrepid dribbles returns just in time for the Euros. We've some hope to cling onto. More good news from our perspective includes back-to-back tallies of the bench from Serge Gnabry, more encouraging work from Joshua Kimmich and Leroy Sané on their right vertical partnership, another performance from Thomas Müller that featured plenty of refined touches, and some more mature play from Leon Goertzka in the new "libero role" Tuchel recently devised for him. Germans shall take whatever embers of hope we can get.

In general, the national team partnership that awakens enthusiasm in German football lovers the most remains Musiala and Florian Wirtz on the second axis in a traditional Julian Nagelsmann 4-2-2-2. The (still, on average) oldest average national team roster we've ever seen relies heavily on these two gems. If we can manage to avoid humiliating ourselves in the coming summer tournament, these two must be at the top of their game. The most uplifting takeaway from league action this weekend has to be solid confirmation that both youngsters are definitely feeling confident. With some degree of trepidation, the author will note that the fact that Wirtz and Musisla are both thriving on leftward slants might pose a problem.
 

The "Spiegel Specials": Round 26

Wolfsburg-Augsburg (2-3, 1-3)


At long last it has come to pass! Crabby grumbling about Niko Kovac's tactics goes all the way back to the beginning of last season in this column. Absolute certainty that he would not be allowed to continue too work for Wolfsburg dates all the way back to the November international break. How on earth has this travesty been allowed to carry on until now? What the bleeding hell was Marcel Schäfer - who has long known that he's had the wrong man in the position - thinking? We have actually speculated on Schäfer's mindset earlier in these pages. The thought process?

Probably  - as has been suggested in this space before - that Kovac could guide the team to a comfortable lower mid-table finish at the end of this year. A clean break could then come over the summer. All parties involved could save both face and money. Alas, Kovac couldn't even delivery the bare minimum. Relegation threatens. The former Eintracht Frankfurt and FC Bayern München gaffer must exit under an embarrassing cloud. It counts as highly unlikely that we shall see Kovac ever work in German football again. Best of luck to him doing....whatever Heiko Herrlich does these days.

How did it all end?

Lineup—WOB—Match 26 (4-4-2) 
 

In something of an unlucky fashion one must say. Kovac's latest concoction furnished an exceedingly dominant first half against the visiting Fuggerstädter. Later "tragic hero" Patrick Wimmer seized the initiative to score the opening goal just inside of ten minutes. A VfL onslaught in which the team could have easily scored five more goals in the next six minutes followed. Mattias Svanberg, Maximilian Arnold, Jonas Wind, and high-deployed Ridle Baku (twice) all came close to scoring the 2-0 between the 9th and 15th. The German Wolves kept control of matters right up until the break.

Was Wimmer's straight red justified? 

Not at all. Ordinarily reliable match official Dr. Felix Brych - sitting in charge of the VAR review team in the famed "Kölner Keller" got this one totally wrong. Wimmer's tackle on FCA fullback Kevin Mbabu didn't merit a sending off as the Austrian winger technically wasn't the last man standing between Mbabu and the goal. VfL defender Maxence Lacroix still had a chance to intervene. A strange sight to see this false on-pitch ruling be allowed to stand even though match official Timo Gerach got it completely wrong. Gerach and the whole crew received failing marks in all major German press sources.

How did it all unravel? 

One feels some slight sympathy for Wolfsburg as - despite delivering their best played first half of the entire season - the fact that none of it would matter quickly became apparent. Arnold deflected the 1-1 into his own net whilst attempting to defend an Arne Maier free-kick before it was time to head into the tunnel. Facing a full 45 minutes down a man, Kovac couldn't afford to run a more conservative 4-4-1 after the restart. A more risk-oriented 5-2-2 gave the Bavarian Swabians all the invitation they needed to completely turn the game around.

Lineup—WOB—46th minute (5-2-2) 
 

At least the ten-man constellation remained compact enough to keep matters level enough in open play. Kristijan Jakic eventually banged home the 2-1 after some pinball in the box off a 61st-minute corner. The VWers demonstrated some courage in search of an equalizer, even running approach play in the 4-4-1 with Wind (and later Amin Sarr) at the top of the key. As bad a turn as things had taken for the ultimately defeated side, matters still could have turned out differently for Kovac's crew.

The 3-1 (and Jakic's scorer's brace) came courtesy of a bad goalkeeping error from VfL back-up Pavao Pervan in the 79th. Pervan started between the sticks on short notice following Koen Casteels' late withdraw with shoulder issues. A confluence of factors simply all covered on this cursed team on one particularly heinous day at the office for everyone involved. Wimmer exited the pitch in tears. Squad captain Arnold froze on the playing surface after the full time whistle lost in consternation.

Sometimes it just isn't one's day.

The status of Augsburg's UEL hopes 

No, the columnist wasn't joking last week. The tepid, vapid, and (frankly) genuinely uninteresting race for the final two Europa League places in the Bundesliga table registers a real heartbeat. Jess Torup's FCA appear motivated to claim their spot in Europe next season. They wish to step up. We're happy to watch them try and climb. Good old "Rot-Grün-Weiß" earned their fourth consecutive league win this weekend; something they last accomplished when Markus Weinzierl led them to the UEL nearly a decade ago.

Thorup's 4-4-2 diamond continues to gel. Of some consequence, the two lone January acquisitions also begin to thrive in it. Jakic's brace caps a rising run of form from the Frankfurt loanee. The Croatian's last four matches serving as Thorup's sweeper have been quite good. Whispers currently abound that the Fuggers are prepared to shell out €5 million to purchase Jakic permanently from the SGE. Versatile Spanish attacker Pep Biel - one of the FCA trainer's old protégées - now comes on regularly late to work as a very deep ten.

Lineup—FCA—66th minute (4-4-2) 
 

Very intriguing to observe how the Danish gaffer implements a methodical and effective match-plan from start-to-finish. It's all very simple, yet eminently satisfying stuff. The "Sleepy Bavarian Bürger" now qualify as real "sleepers" to quietly snag sixth-place from Dino Toppmöller's woefully inconsistent Eintracht Frankfurt. Some story it makes for that SGE loanee Jakic, of all actors, may prove the most influential force in making it happen. The author sincerely hopes that others apart from Bundesliga diehards take some time to appreciate this development.
 

Prognosis: End of the WOB Wobble


Pivoting back to Wolfsburg now, the Bundesliga diehards must contend with some news they'd rather not hear. Namely, that Wolfsburg will likely stabilize under newly installed trainer Ralph Hasenhüttl. Whenever a non-50+1 club with an expensive roster flirts with relegation, German football lovers find themselves getting excited. We (not so secretly) relished in the prospect of Hoffenheim potentially dropping down around this time last season. Unfortunately,  the VfL administrative team of Marcel Schäfer and Sebastian Schindzielorz got their act together just in time to rob us of this possibility.

The amount of talent on this roster almost renders Hasenhüttl's job too easy. A fresh impetus, with an emphasis on a return to the basics, should prove more than sufficient to lift this team above the relegation fray. Doubtful that - like at the end of the 2016/17 and 2017/18 campaigns - will be watching the northern Autostädter contest the relegation playoffs. The new gaffer barely has to lift a finger to install the required "automatisms". It's not too late at all to throw a decent 4-4-2 together here. Wimmer and Kevin Paredes can work the wings. Tiago Tomas serves behind Wind. It call comes together in attack.

Wins against Bremen and Gladbach after the international break would give Hasenhüttl's side 31 points on the season with six match-days remaining. That may well be enough to secure safety against the current relegation field. The team receives a chance to pick up more easy points with fixtures against bottom table sides Bochum, Mainz, and Darmstadt before the current campaign concludes. Hassenhüttl simply has what it takes to coax serviceable enough play out of what remains an exceptionally talented roster. No relegation dreams for Bundesliga purists. That's simply the way it is.
 

Union-Bremen (0-2, 2-1)


Almost a perfect mirror! One could definitely sense this one coming. FCU trainer Nenad Bjelica's tactics continue to round themselves into form. The man appointed to take charge of die Eisernen deserves immense credit for not trying to attempt anything too drastic with Urs Fischer's shattered mess too early. Bjelica took some time to get to know his side, and even now only employs surgical tweaks. This time - reacting to Yorbe Vertessen's inability to thrive in the lead-striker slot - Bjelica slid the Belgian back behind a new nine. Vertessen shared a tight axial pairing with the talented Brenden Aaronson.

Lineup—FCU—Match 26 (3-4-3) 
 
 

The attack didn't magically click right away. It didn't need to. The Köpenickers manufactured a victory against the visiting Hanseaten in the way one became accustomed to watching the old Fischer sides do over the last few years. A stubborn five-man midfield press broke up the approach play of the opponent. After some time, this forced frustration-fueled fouls out of the more elegant and playful side. Union instigated the roughhousing themselves, incurring the first three bookings out of the six yellow cards doled out in the first half. Ole Werner's men then submitted to the tone with three cautions in nine minutes.

Once Werder were knocked off their game, the capital city hosts began to look more dangerous. Aaronson, Lucas Tousart, and Robin Gosens all got looks in during a late first-half flurry taking place in the two minutes of added time. Union picked up where they left off just after the restart. Some marvelous prep work from Aaronson eventually found its way to Vertessen's boot via Gosens in the 50th. Vertessen - albeit with a little bit of assistance in the form of an offside Mikkel Kaufmann screening SV keeper Michael Zetterer - stuffed home the 1-0.

Two minutes later, Aaronson polished off the 2-0 following a very nice give-and-go with Vertessen. The two buttressing support attackers did extremely well to parlay their momentum against a shellshocked Bremen side. Tousart and Gosens kept up their game late into the match, both nearly adding an additional goal. The back-three functioned about as well as a unit since Kevin Vogt arrived to step in as its new anchor during the January transfer window. The work put in on both sides of the ball from Diogo Leite and Danilho Doekhi genuinely impressed.

Mixed parts of the FCU game 

Gosens' defending still leaves much to be desired. Bjelica's open invitation to the German international to focus on his attack prowess left one wincing a tad. Given how exploitable this team is down the flanks, the last thing the Irons needed was for their coach to draw more attention to it. One could assume that this statement constituted a clever ploy. The double-six set-up of Tousart and Rani Khedira managed Werder's play down the wings reasonably well with well-timed slide outs. Presuming that Bjelica laid a trap nevertheless counts as a stretch. The Croatian isn't that brilliant.

Otherwise solid FCU keeper Frederick Rønnow committed a bad blunder on the corner kick that led to Bremen's pull-back goal. Set-piece defending in general didn't appear up to snuff in this win. Way too much space was accorded. Bremen nearly equaled Union in the xG tally tanks in large part to chances conceded off of dead balls. Werder remain - in the columnist's opinion - a very poorly put together side. Vertessen, Aaronson, and semi-decoy Kaufmann had five very weak actors - Senne Lynen, Olivier Deman, Anthony Jung, Julian Malatini, and Milos Veljkovic - to work against.

A better team would have scored more.

And what of Bremen? 

Er...go ahead and forget everything the author said (both in print and on air) about Nick Woltemade finding his unexpected calling as an eight last week. Called into action courtesy of the fact that Romano Schmid had to sit this one out on an accumulated suspension, the Germany U21 international couldn't sort his feet out slanted right on the second axis. Woltemade managed to perform serviceably when Werner took the ineffective Lynen off in the 64th and moved him back into central midfield to make way for Leonardo Bittencourt. Maybe Woltemade's real calling is that of a six....or not.

Justin Njinmah - known to play above his level at times this season - came crashing back down to earth again with one of those matches befitting of his inexperience. Some bad misses here, indicative of the pacy striker's less physical build, made one wonder if Woltemade might not have been the better choice to serve alongside Marvin Ducksch in the 3-5-2. Malatini (lack of other options notwithstanding) probably shouldn't have been allowed to play at all after what we witnessed last week. Christian Groß could have been used on the back line. Some bad choices from the trainer here.

The Hanseaten (four league losses, one draw, and two narrow one-goal victories in the last seven rounds) drop in form mostly because the persistent injury problems in the back ranks leave Werner scrambling for solutions. The offensive problems stem from the fact that (from the departures of Niclas Füllkrug and Raphael Santos Borré to the absolute disaster that has been the Naby Keïta signing) so little has gone according to plan this season. In a very specific sense, the year can be viewed as a success in that Werner has all but secured another season of Bundesliga football despite these issues.

Pointed criticism remains in order.
 

Prognosis: "Retten und klettern"


Long-term German league enthusiasts maintain great affection for this common turn-of-phrase. As the season winds down, the time to begin thinking about how teams might end up performing next year starts to germinate. The rhyming German couplet literally translates to "rescue and climb." With a little poetic license, one can go with "saving and springing" or "freeing then flourishing". It's by no means too early to get excited about the prospects of both these teams next season. With some targeted offseason tweaks, it's conceivable that both could rise.

Union need to add some decent support staff to sort out the attack. Bjelica's latest tactical set-up only needs a stronger lead striker than Kaufmann and potentially a more idea-driven partner for Khedira. Union may already have the right plug-in for this assuming Andras Schäfer can remain fit. Werder January acquisitions like Malatini Isak Hansen-Aarøen and (with a permanent purchase) Skelly Alvero carry with them the potential to enhance Werner's foundational 3-5-2 immensely. Disappointing showings this year notwithstanding, the future looks significantly brighter.
 

Mainz-Bochum (2-2, 2-0)


Bo Henriksen's Rheinhessen were kind enough to throw a well-timed wrench into a relegation race that threatened to become completely uninteresting. The final result Saturday afternoon at the MEWA Arena obstinately refused to conform to what some of us tipped. Mainz prevailed over a Bochum side buttressed by the return of Patrick Osterhage and well overdue for one of their usual gritty victories. The Pfälzer bounced back from their thrashing at the hands of Bayern with remarkable resilience. Perhaps this was foreseeable. Dominik Kohr and Leandro Barreiro - not involved last week - came back strong.

Kohr, along with defensive line-mates Andreas Hanche-Olsen and Sepp van den Berg, really turned in a great defensive performance. In a game devoid of many attacking highlights, observers were treated to plenty of crunching tackles from the FSV back-three. The re-tooled front three of Jonathan Burkardt, Jae Sung-Lee and Ludovic Ajorque - by contrast - left plenty to be desired. Burkardt recorded a brace despite a largely anemic offensive performance from his team. One goal came from the spot. A well-executed, yet not particularly well-designed, corner produced the second.

After extending congratulations to Mainz for avenging the hard-luck draw that ended up leading to Bo Svensson's resignation, one doesn't have too many positive takeaways to lend Henriksen's side here. The victory leaves us with a different team in the relegation playoff place over the break than expected. Köln are nevertheless still just one point below the Nullfünfter. Thomas Letsch's 1848ers maintain a six-point advantage over the team that just beat them. The Carnival Club's overall level of football isn't at all better than it was back in Jan Siewert's final days. An okay win. One needs more.
 

Prognosis: Trusting Letsch


It seems odd indeed to be predicting a Bochumer "bounce back". Four straight league defeats since the upset shocker against Bayern? One would feel more appropriate claiming that Letsch's side traverse a crisis. Sometimes the evidence laid before one's eyes suggests otherwise. Spotty officiating hasn't been kind to the Revierklub in the last two fixtures. In this one, Bernardo's foul in the box easily could have been overturned by video review or not given at all. As grating as some of this club's complaining about refereeing decisions this season has become, one starts to feel they have a point.

Letsch's defensive corps remains more or less on the right keel. The attack also receives sufficient support from the wings, especially on overlaps. A rather big issue for the VfL trainer at this particular moment in time revolves around the fact that all three of his lead striker options - Moritz Broschinski, Gonçalo Paciencia, and Philipp Hofmann - happen to be in terrible form. Upcoming matches against Darmstadt and Köln accord Letsch the perfect opportunity to permanently pull away from the relegation pack. Somehow, Letsch has to pick the right one of three slumping strikers.

The columnist trusts he will.

There's time to study each one.
 

The "Burning Question": Round 26

What can we take from the capper?


A fairly fun encounter between a pair of intriguing sides finished this round off. For Dortmund fans, some more-than-fairly distressing news accompanied the start of the weekend. Only one BVB actor made Julian Nagelsmann's national team roster. Such a massive shift in the Nationalmannschaft dynamic cannot help but leave Schwarzgelben supporters thinking as if - after a decade plus of playing second fiddle to Bayern - they've suffered a new and novel humiliation. Is the traditional Westphalian powerhouse headed for a permanent decline in relevance? A tough pill to swallow, indeed.

Germans can hardly muster up enough energy to console our Ruhrpott mates at this point. We know full well that the fact that their team took all three points in a tough contest this weekend means nothing to them. The flat tenor of the yellow-clads in front of a packed crowd at Signal-Iduna on Sunday night generated some collective sighs loud enough to be picked up by the broadcast mics. For long stretches of the 3-1 win over Frankfurt, the players snubbed from Nagelsmann's DFB selection played (appropriately enough) like a bunch of snubbed grumps.

Lineup—BVB—Match 26 (4-1-4-1) 
 

Poor body language permeated the long list of passed-over internationals here. The list of "overlooked" runs longer than one might expect. We're not simply talking about Julian Brandt, and a very perturbed Nico Schlotterbeck here. Recall that squad captain Emré Can's horrible season leaves him well out of the running for an Euro call-up this summer. Karim Adeyemi's all-too-well publicized struggles potentially spell the end of his national team career. Marco Reus and Mats Hummels ponder retirement in general.

Ahem. Does anyone remember that - at this time last year - Marius Wolf was considered worthy of then Bundestrainer Hansi Flick's attention? That odd aberration almost doesn't deserve to be recalled. Within a short span of 12 months, Dortmund have morphed into the "All German Rejects". Cool name for a band. Not so cool for a football team increasingly resembling a listing and sinking ship. Fans of this club have little cause to find joy, not even when Adeyemi, Can, and Hummels all got their names on the scoresheet.

Tracking the BVB 90 

Plenty of sloppiness from both sides in a wild first half enabled Edin Terzic's crew to get a few early chances in. Frankfurt still looked the slightly more dangerous side and were able to open the scoring thanks to a Schlotterbeck misjudge of a ball in the 13th. Schlotterbeck redeemed himself with an incisive diagonal ball on the play that enabled Donyell Malen to set up Adeyemi's equalizer in the 33rd. This served as the juncture that the BVB game really flattened out. Only Malen kept things going until the final burst at the end.

Dortmund added two goals off dead-balls following a very weak second half. Hummels converted Brandt's free-kick on the 2-1 in the 81st. Can took responsibility, hopefully gaining a bit of confidence in the process, for the spot-kick that made it 3-1 at 90+3. The penalty pumped up the xG advantage to a final tally of 2.35 to 0.77. Scratch that (1.6 to 0.77) and one still has a deserved win for the table's current fourth-place side. It remained narrow and certainly not enough to stem the fear of pressure from (covered below) fifth-placed Leipzig.

Are Frankfurt still improving? 

Dino Toppmöller's much more settled tactics continue along an upwardly logical trajectory. Last week's neatly put together constellation even received something of an upgrade. The SGE trainer made only one personnel change. Making no secret of the fact that he held a preference for Ansgar Knauff over Fares Chaibi, Toppmöller went for the German youth international over the Algerian. The formation underwent a massive makeover; one that left one thinking of the old Oliver Glasner 3-4-3s. This observer happened to enjoy watching it in action.

Lineup—SGE—Match 26 (3-4-3) 
 

Niels Nkounkou and Dina Ebimbe both put in decent work as the wingbacks. It seems like an eternity since Mario Götze has been used in an attacking role. The same applies to the enticing midfield partnership of Ellyes Skhiri and Hugo Larsson. Even if the choppy nature of the game sometimes brought the aesthetics down a notch, Götze, Larsson, and Skhiri all furnished their moments. The set-up invariably appeared two or three steps away from clicking properly. Timing issues persisted. No matter there, really. Potential exists here. Toppmöller should keep it together.

It will click soon enough.
 

"Weekly Wortschatz": Round 26

"in die Bande drücken"


Hrumph. It took the columnist some serious time to figure out what 1. FC Köln trainer Timo Schutz was talking about during his post-match presser on Friday evening. In criticizing the intensity of his team in the midfield duels in the Friday night loss to Leipzig, the Effzeh gaffer went off on an epic diatribe directed at his players. The columnist feels sorry in the event that anyone was responsible for live interpretation at the post-match presser. Schultz began by commenting that a 42 percent duel win rate and only two bookings irked him, then proceeded to spitball and spitfire at a rapid clip.

After watching the scene the next morning - with the German subtitles on - the author did his level best to translate. Figuring out what Schultz meant by "throwing people against the cushion" took some extra thought. What "cushion"? The phrase made zero sense literally or idiomatically. Only with eyes firmly closed envisioning Schultz on the touchline did it come. The "cushion" referred to to plush advertising boards encircling the pitch. Köln's trainer found himself so frustrated by the lax attitude of his team that he actually felt like grabbing his players by the shoulders and throwing them against the advert boards.

Whew! Did they play that badly? Sadly, the answer is yes. General pressing off the ball in no way resembled that of a team interested in fighting relegation. Die Geißböcke learned absolutely nothing from Leipzig's rout of them in the reverse fixture. The Westphalian hosts were genuinely lucky that the rout wasn't on sooner here. The half-time score remained level at 1-1 only because Benjamin Sesko made a capital error defending a corner on Sargis Adamyan's first top flight goal in nearly 600 days. Sesko, Dani Olmo, and Loïs Openda all missed chances to restore the lead before the break.

What's not working in the Domstadt? 

As club sporting director Christian Keller was quick to point out, a big problem stems from the fact that the team simply cannot rely upon Danish fullback Rasmus Carstensen to defend properly. Plenty of Köln actors working the back three axes had defending blackouts in this one. Carstensen remained the worst offender, directly culpable on two of Leipzig's five goal. Dennis Huseinbasic and replacement center-half Luca Kilian also strolled passively off the ball and were far too slow on it. A draw-up aids us in addressing a few more problem areas.

Lineup—KOE—Match 26 (4-2-3-1) 
 

Schultz understandably fumes at the fact that his experiment moving Max Finkgräfe all the way up top and giving Leart Paqarada the start didn't end up working at all. The former still hasn't arrived in the cathedral city at all. Directly signed from St. Pauli to serve as Jonas Hector's direct replacement, Paqarada competes for the title of the worst top-tier flop of the season. Other players that have unquestionably failed as fullbacks include the horribly tanking Benno Schmitz and makeshift left-back Dominique Heintz.

Sometimes the problems in a squad's build-up play can directly be traced back to the wide defenders. If the back bow-arcs aren't run confidently, opposing teams sense that they can constantly pounce. We witnessed such meltdowns repeatedly on Friday night. RB fullbacks Benjamin Henrichs and David Raum - neither of whom have looked wholly convincing this season - had an absolute field day facing off against this. Finkgräfe and Faride Alidou stood no real chance of making an offensive impact due to having to track back constantly.

How can it be fixed? 

Interesting to learn that - though not all news outlets corroborate the rumor - Schultz requested that Finkgräfe be permitted to remain behind during the current international break in order to focus on his club duties. The 19-year-old - essentially the only bright spot for this team this year - can surely benefit from some focused drilling in a more clearly defined role. The columnist hypothesizes that this role will be left-back. No more experiments or risks. Schultz desperately needs to shore up this position. The columnist opines that Eric Martel - missing the fundamentals - should have been withheld as well.

Assuming that Davie Selke can use the extra days to regain full-match fitness, there's hope yet that Schulz can put forth a compact, coherent, and disciplined 4-2-3-1 down the stretch. The squad could obviously benefit from Florian Kainz moving out to the left wing while Mark Uth takes over at ten. At this point, however, no Bundesliga journalist can invest any belief in the notion of Uth coming back. The Kölner gaffer still needs a left-winger. Schultz dropped hints that he may try Damion Downs in this tole. It's certainly a better idea than giving Linton Maina more chances.

Facing a red-hot Augsburg side and a Bochum team that (for all its faults) doesn't lack intensity renders it difficult to see this team finding immediate success after the break. Bayern await as the team's third opponent before massive six-pointers against relegation rivals Darmstadt and Mainz round out the month of April. Fun stuff to circle there! Those fixtures can hardly get here soon enough. Provided Schultz continually adheres to a fixed plan, there's even some grounds for optimism ahead of campaign's final three match-days.

This can be fixed. 

That's worth noting.
 

"pure Freude"


Time to coin a uniquely German expression. The Costa Ricans have "Pura Vida" ("pure life"). Why can't we find a way of expressing unbridled joy just because we happen to be incurably dark Teutons? The columnist lifts this phrase from the Sky broadcast team covering Saturday evening's "Top-Spiel". Stuttgart's "pure Freude" ("pure delight") must have been referenced three dozen times or more. There seemed no better way of describing just how much Sebastian Hoeneß's team full of national team players and DFB aspirants simply enjoyed running playing their brand of football.  

All of the VfB players earning call-ups from Nagelsmann (not to mention Maximilian Beier's jump up to senior level) suddenly turned Stuttgart-Hoffenheim into required viewing across the Bundesrepublik. Lots of Germans enjoyed watching this one. No one could have predicted something like that would happen prior to this season. The fact that we're even talking about a "brand of football" associated with Sebastian Hoeneß is crazy in its own damn right. The hell? Considering where we were at the end of Hoeneß' tenure at Hoffenheim, it's totally nuts.

Safe money would have had Sebastian mopping the floor at Uncle Uli's bratwurst factory. Now his team is mopping the floor with everyone in the league. The Swabians delivered a thoroughly brilliant performance against the club Hoeneß failed with. Thousands of traveling Stuttgart supporters made the Schlep to Sinsheim to cheer their sensations on. The atmosphere counted as joy exemplified. Everything blissfully converged into a perfect footballing evening. More insanity as this observer found himself actually wanting to be in the PreZero Arena. Madness!

Time to have a look at "pure Freude".

How does this manifest?

Lineup—VfB—Match 26 (4-4-2) 
 

Predominantly through interesting and creative combinations up the Stuttgart left through Chris Führich and Maximilian Mittelstädt. Silky smooth stuff from the national team duo. The first goal - a certain occurrence given how beautifully the Württembergers began this match - involved that pair, Serhou Guirassy, Deniz Undav, and the official scorer of the 1-0 Enzo Millot. What a sumptuous team effort it was! Undav, Guirassy, and Milot found themselves at the tail end of more gorgeous sequences as the Swabians kept the pressure on for the entire first-half.

Milot could have easily secured a hat trick before the opening 45 concluded. A bad miscue in from Millot in the 43rd didn't stop the goalscorer from running an awesome attack charge at 45+1. Guirassy effectively put this lopsided affair to bed with the 2-0 after Millot picked out Undav. Such a sublime sight to see Guirassy bow to Undav in sincere gratitude for the awesome set-up. Another nice scene came deep into a second half we honestly probably didn't need to play. Hiroki Ito - who also played a great match - recorded an assist on substitute Jamie Leweling's 3-0 in the 68th.

Euphoria. Paradise. Even the home TSG supporters stood up to applaud their guests. Admittedly, that does sometimes happen in Sinsheim. The traveling contingent (usually louder) wins over the many neutrals who go to watch this club. After the nascent Hoffenheim fans mostly disinterested in this young team filter out of the stadium, the Kraichgau ultras eventually cave in and salvage some joy out of their evening. Good for them. Might as well share in someone else's joy if one can't locate any of one's own.

"pure Freude"!

An anti-Matarazzo tactical rant? 

Not this time. Uninspiring football from the Sinsheimers can't directly be traced back to the TSG trainer's match-plan. The former Stuttgart trainer put forth something logical and stable enough. Wingbacks David Jurasek and Pavel Kaderabek functioned well enough on some promising Hoffenheim charges. The new homegrown product given a start in defense - 19-year-old Tim Drexler - shone in a few defensive situations. The hosts weren't exactly the antithesis of Stuttgart's "joy exemplified". They played utilitarian football. It simply wasn't enough against a fearlessly loose team radiating cheer.

Lineup—TSG—Match 26 (3-4-3) 
 

Wout Weghorst and Maxi Beier got looks in at goal. Once Andrej Kramaric, Finn Ole Becker, and Marius Bülter came on for Weghorst, Anton Stach, and Ihlas Bebou on a triple substitution in the 67th, the squad performed much better. One can criticize Matarazzo for sticking with this constellation too long, or indeed not starting Kramaric in the first place, but this remained one of those games in which the unbreakable sky-high morale of the opponent renders practically any and all criticism moot. There wasn't much of anything to be done here. Nothing else to say either.

Except..of course....."pure Freude"!
 

"schnörkellos"


In offering up some commentary on what was an awesome match between SC Freiburg and soon-to-be crowned champions Bayer 04 Leverkusen on Saturday afternoon, the column shall return to what might have been the most awesome word covered in this column this year. Time to revisit Round Two's examination of the German adjective "verschörkelt". Some etymological journey that turned out to be. Diving into his dusty set of old German Etymology books left the author without any clue as to how this word emerged.

A "best guest" hypothesis held that Germans living in the Era of Baroque Artistry turned to one of their old medieval descriptive terms in order to find some other way of describing something overly ornate and frilly. One grows tired of repeating oneself and there aren't really any alternatives to the German-invented concept of "Barok". Hence, "verschnörkelt" emerged. Germans do use the descriptor when referring to everything from the fugues of Bach to the attacking play of Dortmund. Very deeply embedded German concept we have here.

While the term doesn't necessarily always have negative connotations, its antonym always does. "Schörkellos" carries with it a feeling of liberation. One is freed from the never-ending madness of fractal patters that only become more confusing and muddled the closer one looks. One pulls back one's from microscopic fractals to the leaves themselves Before too long, the leaves become trees. Eventually, the forest comes into view. A clearer and cleaner picture emerges. Relief. One has escaped the hell of the devilish details. Straightforward. Clean. Neat.

The only potentially negative usage of the adjective "schnörkellos" that the author can think of would be "no frills"; as in a "no frills" motel. Germans actually don't mind that at all. Just give us four walls and a bed. You can even spare us all the electronics. We didn't travel to remain plugged in. We came to have a look at the forest; to get some relief from the Baroque Era. Let us enjoy something Romantic. Let us breathe for a little while and appreciate the big picture. What sort of uncomplicated picture do we enjoy the most?

Why...duh...football, of course.

Lineup—B04—UEL (4-1-4-1) 
 

Back-to-back comebacks for Xabi Alonso's Werkself in the Europa League provide us with a nice dichotomous view of the difference between "verschnörkelt" and "schnörkellos". The Bayer trainer - whilst sticking to a 3-4-3 with subtle alterations in the league - is know to employ different tactics in his midweek matches. It is such often the case that the Leverkusen offensive engine stalls early on in UEL matches. The approach play - plagued by too many short passes and way-stations outside the box - is almost Dortmund-esque.

That wasn't initially the case in Thursday's second-leg UEL match against Qarabag. A brief spurt at the beginning saw the above tactics initially function in the manner intended. Some quick vertical pressure enabled Borja Iglesias to get four full scoring chances off in the opening four minutes. One could tell that they drilled a few charges in the novel formation. It didn't take too long for the ideas to dry up, however. The air went out of the German team's game. Their limited muscle memory drained, Xabi's lads could only fall back on "baroque" builds.

Not much came of all the gaudy passing. To make matters worse, the German representatives were horribly vulnerable on the counter. Their Azerbaijani guests scored two goals in rather quick succession between the 58th and 67th, including one just after being reduced to ten-men. Xabi kept faith with the initial constellation, even keeping the 4-1-4-1 in place after employing two like-for-like substitutions (Patrik Schick and Alejandro Grimaldo for Iglesias and Piero Hincapie in the 59th. Frimpong and Grimaldo did manage to pull a goal back in the 72nd.

Things nevertheless only really improved when Josip Stansic relieved Odilon Kossounou in the 79th. That change constituted the point at which the team switched to a no-nonsense, more straightforward approach. Granit Xhaka dropped back to serve as a top-key pivot-runner. Frimpong moved ahead to keep an axial line with Amine Adli. Florian Wirtz helped lend the attacking waves just the right amount of flowery creativity in the final third. As it turned out, Wirtz wasn't needed much. All that was needed was the right "schnörkellos" balls in for Schick.

Lineup—B04—80th minute (3-5-2) 
 
 

The Czech star stomped home a Grimaldo pass at 90+3 and headed home a Exequiel Palacios cross at 90+7. Two goals in second-half stoppage time for what increasingly looks like a "team-of-destiny". Granted, there's always some luck involved in dramatic late comebacks such as these. It still speaks volumes for a quality trainer that he knows precisely when to ditch the type of tactics that have gotten bogged down in overthinking and switch to a more forthright, high-octane approach. We ended up getting that from both Freiburg and Leverkusen in the Sunday fixture. 
Sunday's "instant classic" 

The columnist possesses no qualms about trotting out this phrase to describe the SCF-B04 five-goal-thriller. Both Xabi and Christian Streich's teams came out playing up-tempo and straightforward football. Xabi's Werkself, predictably enough, returned to the league 3-4-3. Streich himself tested out a 3-4-3 variant in the second half of Thursday's heavy West Ham defeat. It's possible that the SCF gaffer wished to try out a mirror of Leverkusen's league tactics once his own 4-4-2 became too passive and stale.

Lineup—SCF—46th minute (3-4-3) 
 

With results obviously leaving much to be desired, Streich unveiled something novel at the beginning of the league showdown. Only one personnel change - Merlin Röhl in for suspended midfielder Maximilian Eggestein - nevertheless made it apparent from the release of the team-sheet onwards that Freiburg would attempt to match Leverkusen's quick and slick upfield game. "Snörkellos" football from both sides looked to be on the agenda. A very entertaining affair was confirmed shortly after the SCF formation crystallized.

Lineup—SCF—Match 26 (5-1-3-1) 
 

Some attack this was! Wirtz took advantage of some of the early confusion in the Nicolas Höfler led back ranks to score the opener in the 2nd minute, but the visiting Schwarzwaldverein quickly responded with the equalizer at the ten-minute-mark. Ritsu Doan - accorded a great deal of extra space thanks to the stacked attack - set up Lucas Höler's 1-1. Everyone watching the Sunday early kickoff got treated to a sweet treat of a footballing spectacle. End-to-end action continued unabated as neither side let up. Matters could have swung in many different directions.

The "winning tweak" 

Keeping an eye on the tactical cam proved difficult as one couldn't take one's eyes off the plethora of quick counters and scoring chances. Loosing oneself in the match nevertheless proved equally as difficult as both coaches were clearly calling for some slide adjustments from all of their players. As the match continued to unfold, the feeling that whoever could break the deadlock would retain the advantage for the duration of proceedings. It definitely qualified as one of those "next goal wins it" games. If the author's eyes didn't deceive, Xabi one-upped our beloved retiring coaching legend. 

Lineup—B04—36th minute (4-2-3-1) 
 
 

Leverkusen squeezed up on some late first-half attacking sorties. With zero degree of "squiggling", the Westphalians unabashedly "bum-rushed" Freiburg rookie keeper Noah Atubolu in the 40th. The poor young lad couldn't keep out Adam Hlozek's 2-1 after Grimaldo (unlocked impressively by Wirtz) and Schick pounded him with efforts. Atubolu had to work extra hard to keep the fearless Werkself from scoring a decisive third goal after the second went in. The SCF net-minder stood no chance against Schick's 53rd-minute first time finish off the volley. Again, this crowded shape was discerned on the charge.

A "snörkellos" conclusion 

Bayer's run to the title basically makes for a forgone conclusion at this point. Xabi's crew did get a bit more passive towards the end, allowing Freiburg a way back into the game late. Despite the fact that the Breisgauer were one late Manuel Gulde header away from a draw, the discipline with which the league-leaders closed out the game remained largely impressive. A draw wouldn't have terribly hurt their title prospects (or their bid for an undefeated season) anyway. The author will go so far a to say that an undefeated campaign (in the league at least) is a very strong possibility.

In stark contrast to how things wrapped up last year, we're just not in for a "zig-zaggy" finish to the Bundesliga this time around. Xabi's focus on the league gives him a winning formula; one that dispatches even arguably the best Bayern team in five to six years with total ease. Not too many twists and turns yet to be had. It's a clear and straightforward path to the finish. Doubts about Leverkusen's ability to find a way to conclude the final eight matches without suffering a defeat are only natural.....but, in the column's opinion not correct.

They have a straightforward path.

Perfection is attainable.

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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Full color re-posts of the columns are eventually archived on Peter's website.

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