Matchday six in the Bundesliga, and the Saturday evening tie saw northern rivals Bremen and Hamburg square up.
Hamburg began the clash in seventh place on eight points, while Bremen found themselves in the division’s penultimate place on a mere three points.
Meanwhile, neither of these sides had impressed in the midweek round of fixtures, with Bremen humiliated at Hannover, and Hamburg brushed aside by Wolfsburg.
So perhaps the watching world shouldn’t have been too surprised by this match taking a while to get started. Both teams sought to give every man in the same colour shirt a touch of the ball, as each tried tempting the opposition out of position.
As patterns and pace finally emerged, the visitors looked more comfortable initially. Confident first-time passing moves were being strung together, often only thwarted at the final stage by Bremen’s snappy offside-trap.
Regardless of his side’s increasing dominance, Hamburg striker Ruud van Nistelrooy was well off the pace. His teammates looked to feed him playing off the last shoulder, and he wasted his best chance from an inch-perfect cross from Marcell Jansen – who himself wasn’t exactly rampant, but did manage several more penetrating crosses into the ‘keeper-defender corridor that the former Manchester United should have steered in.
Van Niistelrooy’s strike-partner, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, played deeper, and this allowed Eljero Elia to occasionally veer inside (to no great effect).
Part of the reason Hamburg were dominating at this point was because Zè Roberto had a twofold position – left-back and playmaking central-midfielder.
With Bremen’s Wesley seeking space by floating between Hamburg’s banks (occasionally rendering Bremen’s shape the 4-1-3-2 that finished the match against Hannover), Armin Veh happily allowed three of his players to push on and isolate Torsten Frings – the man tasked with feeding Wesley.
Bremen failed to get their full-backs involved from an attacking perspective, or into the kind of position where they could level the numerical midfield advantage Hamburg boasted.
I lost count of the number of times Mikaël Silvestre scooped a soft cross onto the head of either Heiko Westermann or Joris Mathijsen – the former Arsenal man’s intention being to get one of the hulking frontmen laying the ball off to one of several hovering midfielders, but the execution preventing him from ever achieving this.
An alternative tactic from Thomas Schaaf’s team – aside from constantly switching the positions the forwards and wingers attacked from – was to exploit the space abandoned by nominal left-back Zé Roberto.
But the Brazilian, covered ably by Mathijsen, was a menace in the centre of the park, and this meant his side kept hold of the ball.
After some niggly fouls quashed the game’s tempo, Bremen began to exert control of possession via their short goal-kick tactic. Yet as soon as we reached the second quarter of the match, Hamburg’s relentless pressing prevented the home side’s midfield from functioning.
Alas, Veh’s side got cocky – the centre-backs began the bring the ball out, but with Bremen sat deep, now content to play on the break, the home side had the personnel with which to punish their lackadaisical guests.
Initially, Bremen’s problem had been the lack of connection between players when carrying the ball upfield. The slow, confused counter-attacks allowed Hamburg to flood back and cover the angles.
However, on one Heiko Westermann libero too many, Claudio Pizarro carried forward as Bremen attacked the high-standing visiting rearguard in a three-on-three scenario.
Wesley’s clever run across the Peruvian distracted and rendered the covering defenders static, and although Guy Demel nearly blocked Marin’s dart into the box, his eventual cross deflected off the Ivorian and into the net for 1-0.
Bremen weren’t good value for their lead, but the game had a goal, and suddenly burst into life as an actual contest.
And then, not long after Marin’s goal, a Bremen attack was forced backwards, but still resulted in the hosts winning a free-kick. The ball was floated in towards a criminally unmarked Hugo Almeida, and the Portuguese international steered in for 2-0!
Bremen were now comfortable in bringing their widemen infield to nullify Hamburg’s busy centre.
Not long before half time, Fritz went off injured, replaced by Phillipp Bargfrede. Wesley moved to right-back, and Bargfrede slotted on the right-side of centre-midfield.
At the interval, Veh made two changes. Off went the grouchy Elia and the carefree Tomas Rincon (guilty of making too many needless pirouettes in his own half), and on came Jonathan Pitroipa and Gojko Kačar.
The former, a Burkina Faso international, made an instant impact. Up against a dodgy left-back playing in a side willingly inviting pressure, Pitroipa had it easy.
Part of a 4-2-2-2 that went 4-3-3 on occasional scoops over the top, Pitroipa’s direct style was perfect to use against a withdrawn defence.
Bremen did show some resistance in their own half though – Frings, Wesley and Hunt all swamping one Choupo-Moting take and hold off the left-strip of byline, epitomising their furious off-ball pressing.
Such closing seemed worthless though when Hamburg pulled a goal back. Bargfrede needlessly shoved Jarolim, and the resultant free-kick was looped over to Pitroipa. He skipped into the box after easily riding Prödl’s covering slide tackle. He drew the goalkeeper across, before cleverly squaring to let van Nistelrooy bury the chance.
Bremen still furiously pressed Hamburg’s defence, but the away’s side willingness to commit in an attacking sense was to prove more deadly than it had done in the first half.
A cleared header from a poor corner landed at Pitroipa’s feet. After steadying himself just outside of the box, he sent an unstoppable shot into the top-left corner!
At last Bremen began to attack, and Wesley became more pivotal. Floating inside to the right-side of centre-midfield, or jinxing down the channel, Hamburg couldn’t shackle him, so responded by changing system for the third time.
An on-ball 4-2-3-1 – with Zé Roberto and Jansen floating between positions – became 4-1-3-1-1 without it. The latter was deployed to swamp the corridors sought infield by Marin and Hunt, and maintained a midfield-attack bridge.
Veh encouraged his side to continue attacking their opponents, although his hand was forced – Pitroipa only knows how to attack, and Marin was beginning to destroy Demel.
Hamburg were widening the field when bringing the ball out from the back, and would then play several quick passes in a soon-congested centre, before quickly releasing the still-wide Pitroipa.
It was a clever idea – aided by the continued slickness of the away side’s passing. The best chance it produced came when Jarolim played a one-two with the Burkinabè, and squared to Choupo-Moting: the Cameroonian’s shot was clipped over the bar.
It was Bremen who eventually earned bragging rights in this five-goal affair, however. At the death, Pizarro carried another counter, this time feeding Wesley’s canny off-ball run.
The Brazilian showed class and quick feet to square for Almeida, and the Portuguese international made no mistake at the back post.
Schaaf will be relieved his side – still notably depleted in defence – managed to throw off some of the pressure by winning this derby.
However, neither side’s defensive options look good enough to earn their side one of the Champions League spots, and the sooner this situation is addressed by both managers, the better.