How German minnows Mainz are topping the Bundesliga

by Sam Rider

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Seven wins out of seven, 18 goals scored, three points clear at the top. Mainz have a one hundred per cent start equalling a Bundesliga record orchestrated by a bright, young manager with 20 something starlets setting the league alight. Where it is all going so right for the O-Fives?

Scan over the league tables abroad in Europe right now and you would be pleasantly surprised to see some of the less fancied sides setting the pace and making the European heavyweights play catch-up. Rennes have leapfrogged the big names to top France’s Ligue 1, Lazio have been all conquering at the summit in Italy and Valencia, lately suffering financially and selling their Villa in the Summer, have taken residence at number one in Spain.

But the standout performance so far comes from Germany where minnows Mainz are leaving the Munichs and Leverkusens trailing in their wake. Unlike the other surprise packages in Europe, Mainz have virtually no table-topping pedigree to speak of whatsoever, making their feat all that more remarkable.

Carnival city building sporting heritage

The city of Mainz, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, straddles the river Rhine.  Its only previous highlight came in qualification to the 2005/06 UEFA Cup via the honourable “fair play” process. Yet their dream ended abruptly against eventual winners Sevilla, losing 2-0 on aggregate in the first round.

This time around fans of the self-professed “carnival club” have refused to stop partying, routinely packing their Stadion am Bruchweg’s 20,000 capacity. This positive atmosphere has spread to the players as well. At the final whistle of their 2-0 victory over 1 FC Koln in September, the celebrating players carried an oversized “1” on to the pitch, a not-too-subtle testament of their intent to enjoy their time in the limelight.

Young coach with point to prove

Which leads nicely on to their real Number One: head coach Thomas Tuchel. After retiring from a less than glittering career following a serious knee injury in 1998, aged just 24, he was appointed U14 coach at Stuttgart, being taken under the wing of his former manager Ralf Rangnick.

He undoubtedly impressed and was offered the Mainz post, taking the reins two years ago. He led them to promotion out of the Fussball Bundesliga in his first season, a ninth-place finish in the top flight in his second and has now guided them to the summit.

Tuchel, 37, employs similar tactics to his mentor Rangnick’s TSG 1899 Hoffenheim who were wowing the 2008/09 Bundesliga in similar fashion until the winter break scuppered their progress. Mainz play a fast, passionate, pressing game, with Tuchel unafraid to tinker with tactics countering opponents’ strengths and rotating his young squad without sacrificing talent or losing momentum.

In total he has used 19 players in his starting 11 affording his charges rest to maintain the team’s high energy in attack and defence. It is no surprise to hear his favourite side are Barcelona, but it is telling that he admires their devotion to winning back the ball above their play when in possession.

In an interview with the Guardian, Midfielder Lewis Holtby revealed how Tuchel’s personal touch of “absolute authority with humanity” has helped unite the squad.

Investment in youth

The South-West Germans policy of utilising youth is certainly bearing fruit up front. Their star performers read like Arsene Wenger’s Carling Cup wish list: Holtby (20), Andre Schurrle (19), Sami Allagui (24), Adam Szalai (22) and Morten Rasmussen (25).

Mainz have been entertaining in victory as well as relentless, scoring 18, and spreading the goals around between eight players including their playmaker Holtby who has been catching the eye of Fabio Capello. The midfielder on loan from Schalke – whose father hails from Yorkshire, his mother from West Germany – remains eligible for England despite representing Germany at every youth level since U16 and being their current U21s captain.

Nevertheless there are yet to be any senior call-ups to Joachim Low’s national squad. Other than Holtby, defender Jan Kirchhoff and top-scorer Schurrle representing the U21s it appears that Mainz’s form is very much due to a sum-of-their-parts approach this season adapted effectively by Tuchel.

Opponents’ underwhelming form

Perhaps their greatest feat so far came at the Allianz Arean. A 2-1 victory on Bayern’s home patch, in the midst of Munich’s beer festival Oktoberfest, which supposedly renders them invincible, is telling of how far Mainz have come but equally how far last year’s Champions League finalists have fallen.
Devoid of their mesmerising wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery the Bavarians have looked toothless, slumped in lowly twelfth, 13 points adrift of the top. It is a trend befalling many in the Bundesliga.

Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg apart, all of Mainz’s defeated opponents are currently floundering in the bottom half of the table whereas Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen have started brightly.
The remainder of the month provides fixtures against the aforementioned clubs as well as seventh placed Hamburg. October will serve as a litmus test to just how far Tuchel’s boys have come. Those in richer veins of form may prove more of a challenge as the season develops.

Financially astute

There may be echoes in Mainz’s assent this season to financial backer Dietmar Hopp’s Hoffenheim and their assault on the top tier two seasons back. However, Mainz have a squad that costs a relatively austere €17million (£14.5million) in wages and is devoid of a billionaire benefactor with pockets as deep as those in Hopp’s lederhosen.

This looks unlikely to be a footballing flash-in-the-pan. Sports manager Christian Heidel and long-serving president Harald Strutz have taken the previously small second division club to amongst the top tier in Germany.

Like Sir Alex, Heidel clearly wasn’t listening when Alan Hansen muttered the irreversible words “you’ll never win anything with kids”. Mainz have bought young, talented players at a snip and nurtured them into national prodigies whilst investing in their academy.

However, this is where their limited funds are exposed. The club was reluctantly forced to accept Bayer Leverkusen’s £6.5million offer for academy product Andre Schurrle, who will move at the end of the season but on the flipside the agreement guaranteed the permanent signature of loan midfielder and exciting prospect Marcel Risse.

In Heidel’s hands you can guarantee those Euros will be spent astutely without breaking the bank to further improve their blistering start.

Wait and see

It is not hard to see how the O-Fives have caught the attention of European football. It remains to be seen if Mainz can cling onto their young and exciting squad for the remainder of the season. The January transfer window may prove the greatest threat to maintaining their imperious assault on the Bundesliga championship and providing the fairytale story of the season.

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  • dexylongshot

    Excellent article, I was reading about Thomas Tuchel a couple of weeks back and Talksport did a slot on him and Mainz around the same time. He certainly look like a future Champions league winner when the big clubs come calling, that’s if he doesn’t do it for The German outfit. I wonder if he fancies taking over from Fabio in 2012?

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