Werder Bremen lost their way intermittently last season but now seem back on track judging by their thrilling performance against Freiburg
Slow, methodical, organised, defensive, weak-minded, strong-willed, aggressive, collective, individualistic, pacy, gung-ho, disjointed, counter-attacking, not-at-all-attacking: a certain UK TV pundit – clue: his cone-stacking abilities are sorely missed in SW6 – could not have picked a better weekend to expertly assert that "in Germany, all teams play the same way" – our hero said the same about Spain, by the way, a point that really cannot be argued. The uniformity of approach of all these Josés and Fernandos currently goes as far as NOT playing the same way, as well, it seems.
In truth, the last remnants of a tactical diktat in the Bundesliga disappeared in the mid-90s, of course, when a diverse gang of forward-thinkers like Bixente Lizarazu, Ralf Rangnick and Erich Ribbeck introduced the joys of a flat back four to an unsuspecting public.
The ensuing years have seen traditionalists and reformists locked in fierce battles (one Germany player told this column in 2002 that 3-5-2 was preferable "because in a 4-4-2, too many of those at the back don't have anything to do", and four years later Paul Breitner was still advocating the return of the sweeper system) while the mercilessly short half-life period of managers has further ensured that no club, let alone the whole league, ever developed something akin to a succinct style.
The exception are Werder Bremen. They had 14 years of Otto Rehhagel, the fine purveyor of "controlled offence" and Goethe aphorisms. Then they tried a host of other coaches, before going back to their Kylie-inspired policy (as in Better the Devil You Know, not Je Ne Sais Pas Pourqoui): Thomas Schaaf is now in his 14th campaign at the Weserstadion.
Last season, Werder intermittently lost their way a bit and nearly went down. Schaaf's rule seemed to have gone stale but despite an internal transfer-embargo due to a lack of cash and plenty of uncertainty surrounding the future of some key players – Per Mertesacker and Claudio Pizarro continue to be linked, mostly by Werder's sporting director Klaus Allofs, it has to be said, with moves abroad – they seem to have found themselves again.
In the turbulent 5-3 win over Freiburg on Saturday they were back to their kamikaze best in patches as Schaaf, whose midfield diamond really is forever, stuck to his sometimes winning but always entertaining formula: overload at the top – forget about defending in numbers and just go for it. Once again they have goals written all over them, like a library of self-help books.
"Our set-up was very attacking and we were playing an extremely risky game," said Marko Marin, who had done well as the creative pivot behind the two strikers Pizarro and Markus Rosenberg. "We were pressing high up the pitch from the get-go. It's obvious that there'll be gaps at the back and that the opposition will create chances." Mertesacker sounded rather more exasperated: "It was Harakiri football, with mistakes that we don't want to have any more."
Werder, as is their wont, so nearly stumbled on to their own sword. Nobody intercepted a cross that bounced off Papiss Demba Cissé's chest into the net on seven minutes and it took the hosts a bit of time to start playing cultured football again. After Clemens Fritz had equalised, however, it was all Werder until the break. Pizarro's goal that made it 2-1 to them was scant reward for their dominance.
Back came Cissé to take advantage of more slack defending, then Schaaf's substitute Marko Arnautovic used his head for a change and nodded home Werder's third. But the Northerners love nothing more than winning matches three times over and duly let Stefan Reisinger equalise again on 84 minutes, only to kill the visitors off with two more goals (Aaron Hunt, penalty; Wesley) in the final 240 seconds, to seal the club's 700th victory in the top-flight.
Wesley found a novel way to steal the headlines after his goal, or perhaps he was just keen to supplement his income: the 24-year-old picked up a camera and snapped Arnautovic celebrating with the fans. One or two newspapers actually ran the half-decent picture on Monday, but the whole incident does make you wonder whether the Brazilian misinterpreted some dressing-room grumbles. What was it they said about the Austrian answer to Mario Balotelli needing to be shot?
"It was a spectacle for the supporters but I would have preferred it to be bit quieter," said Schaaf, whose dour, provincial railway-station officer vibe will never cease to jar with his team's carefree attitude.
The last time Werder started this well (six points from nine) was five years ago, when they ended up in third place.
It is questionable whether their romantic notion of outscoring the opposition is quite as viable in a league that has since made a lot of progress in tactical terms. But there's something utterly charming about their monolithic strategy and they also remain a lazy pundit's dream: unlike all of Germany, they really do play the same way, always.
• If further proof was still needed that playing the same way can be a very dangerous game, it was provided by Mainz on Sunday. Thomas Tuchel's men were 2-0 up against Schalke after 12 minutes; waves of attacks threatened to flush the dozy visitors out of the stadium. But the introduction of Jefferson Farfán and Julian Draxler stemmed the tide after the interval.
Suddenly, the Royal Blues remembered that they can actually play a bit, too. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Benedikt Höwedes and Joël Matip scored on the way to a remarkable turnaround, before the Mainz old boy Christian Fuchs, booed at every turn, capped the afternoon with a great free-kick. To Tuchel's credit, he took personal responsibility for the 4-2 defeat. "We should have played much deeper in the second half; it was very hot," he said. "It would have been better to cede the initiative to Schalke and use the space for counterattacks. That's my fault".
For the Schalke manager, Ralf Rangnick, the unlikely win could not have come at a better time. He was already under severe pressure following an embarrassing 2-0 defeat at HJK Helsinki last Thursday. Rául, who surprisingly turned down the chance to watch plenty of balls sail over his head for less money (that's how they play in Blackburn and everywhere else in England, one highly-placed source told this column) has announced he's staying until the end of the season, too.
• Hamburg's sporting director Frank Arnesen is a man on a mission. His mission? To buy up every Chelsea youngster and reserve player who does not have somewhere else to go. On Monday, less than 48 hours after his new Hamburg had been destroyed 5-0 by Bayern Munich in a "public training session" (Süddeutsche Zeitung) – even Mario Gomez scored – at the Allianz Arena, the Dane bought yet another Chelsea player: the defender Slobodan Rajkovic, 22, recently on-loan at Vitesse Arnhem, will be his fifth import from west London. After the debacle in Bavaria, Arnesen issued a "job guarantee" for the coach Michael Oenning and defended his radical youth policy. But there is a worrying sense that this kind of reform will eventually find its natural habitat in the second division.
• In Gladbach, relief about Stefan Effenberg's failed summer coup – the former Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder wanted to install himself as sporting director – is growing by the minute. Three months after coming through a relegation play-off against VfL Bochum, the Foals are running wild at the other end of the table. An emphatic 4-1 win over VfL Wolfsburg (and Thomas Hitzlsperger) on Friday night catapulted Lucien Favre's team into pole position, but they have Robert Hartmann to thank for staying there.
The referee somehow managed to rule out the Hannover defender Christian Pander's perfectly good goal against Hertha. Hannover are second on goal difference after the 1-1 draw with Markus Babbel's side and on course for a big pay-day in the Europa League group stage, if they can hold off Sevilla in the return leg this week after an exciting 2-1 home win on Thursday. Schalke are unlikely to join them.
• Three games into his career as coach in the Bundesliga and Stale Solbakken has truly arrived – his superior has now also declared a vote of confidence in the wake of Köln's 1-1 draw with Kaiserslautern. The Norwegian's conceptual approach is yet to translate into half-decent performances but the sporting director Volker Finke told Norwegian reporters that the new manager was hired for "two, three years, not weeks."
Finke also dismissed rumours about Lukas Podolski moving to Galatasaray – "we have no interest in selling" – but it's understandable that the 26-year-old would consider escaping Germany – unlike any other player, his status is threatened by the league's pesky new habit of publishing players's personal data like the number of sprints, metres covered, etc.
Results: Gladbach 4-1 Wolfsburg, Augsburg 0-2 Hoffenheim, Stuttgart 0-1 Leverkusen, Dortmund 2-0 Nürnberg, Köln 1-1 Kaiserslautern, Werder 5-3 Freiburg, Bayern 5-0 Hamburg, Hannover 1-1 Hertha, Mainz 2-4 Schalke.