Augsburg 0-1 Schalke

The first-half systems.

Schalke struck late winner to eliminate plucky Augsburg from the DFB-Pokal and move into the quarter-finals. This was the fifth consecutive game the Gelsenkirchen side had won in all competitions, and they’ll be disappointed that the winter break now eats into that momentum. The defeat was the first suffered by Augsburg in more than two months, but they won’t be too disheartened as they seek to gain promotion to the top-flight for the first time in their history.

It was a typical opening to a German game – fast and frenetic, with the ball back and fore with no one side particularly in control. Augsburg already had their defence set deep, but Gibril Sankoh looked to step out throughout the game to mop up and kill the ball during its journey from A to B. On top of the deep defence were two restrained defensive-midfielders: Jos Luhukay was playing a 4-2-3-1, and looking to kill the hole in which Schalke might concoct something for their two strikers – one of whom, Raúl, likes to play in this zone whenever Ivan Rakitić is bobbing elsewhere. This tactic worked against Augsburg defensively as it ensured that the home team’s midfielders were always pinned back, creating an occasional gap to the forward-four that meant the only way a side low on quality could reach them was via a long ball.

Whereas Augsburg at least had an attacking tactic, Schalke seemed to lose all impetus and ideas going forward as soon as the stopwatch hit the tenth minute. Initially, they passed the ball about on the floor near halfway, trying to draw their hosts out, before running the ball at the deep defence – exploiting the gap between wide-attacker and full-back Augsburg had left. Lukas Schmitz was rampant within that quality-telling ten minute spell, but Paul Verhaegh gradually began to cork him, and shuttled forward more freely himself down the flank. To be fair, Schalke did start to come back into things five minutes before the break, this time using the opposite flank as the tricky Jefferson Farfán sought to take advantage of the static and deep Axel Bellinghausen. But as had been the case in the previous 40 minutes – the same applies to Augsburg, particularly Tobias Werner, too – the ball into the box was weak.  Continue reading

St Pauli 2-4 Mainz

The starting systems.

Mainz concluded their breathtaking winter campaign by beating relegation-fearing St Pauli in a six-goal thriller.

St Pauli came into this game needing a win to achieve their declared mid-season target of 20 points. Like Mainz, the newly-promoted club started the campaign promisingly before tailing off, only rather more dramatically. Holger Stanislawski’s team had managed just one win in their last eight matches, and faced their guests without ‘keeper Thomas Kessler, red-carded in the defeat at Bayern Munich last week, Markus Thorandt, also suspended after being sent off, and flu victims Deniz Naki and Richard Sukuta-Pasu. Thomas Tuchel, who saw his side suffer a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Schalke in round 16, had the luxury of a near full-strength squad to choose from at the Millerntor – only Bo Svensson and Jan Šimák were ruled out. Although Mainz had dropped to fourth in recent weeks, they knew a win here would – temporarily – take them back up to the silver medal spot.

Former Real Madrid striker Ádám Szalai was heavily involved in the first few minutes, linking-up and laying-off as Mainz launched a series of quickfire attacks. It looked as though the visitors were the only side bothered about keeping warm in the frosty conditions, but Pauli’s Rouwen Hennings soon joined them when he stung the fingertips of Heinz Müller and drew a corner after a run down the chalk. There was plenty of space for the home side to exploit with Mainz pressing high at pace. But St Pauli were cumbersome on the ball, and allowed Mainz to nip in, steal it, and continue their momentum against a midfield temporarily braced in pass-seeking positions.  Continue reading

Freiburg 3-0 Borussia Mönchengladbach

The starting systems.

Papiss Cissé continued to show why Wolfsburg are intent on buying him to replace Edin Džeko, as his brace and fantastic performance helped Freiburg defeat Mönchengladbach. Gladbach remain rooted in relegation trouble, but had they taken some of the numerous chances that came their way in the first half, the result would have been so much different here.

Both sides went into the game affected by injuries to their backline – goalkeeper Simon Pouplin, Pavel Krmaš and Ömer Toprak were missing for the home side, along with attackers Tommy Bechmann and Kisho Yano. Nevertheless, Freiburg knew a win would lift them above Bayern Munich into fifth spot. Gladbach were also shorn of their first-choice custodian (Logan Bailly), along with Brazilian centre-backs Dante and Anderson. Even more significant for a side looking to prevent it being four defeats on the spin was the absence of the super-talented 21-year-old Marco Reus, and Raúl Bobadilla – fined and banned after a stupid red card against Hannover in round 15.

Borussia Mönchengladbach started at a great pace, taking the game to their hosts, and getting their full-backs up the pitch. But this urgency was soon exposed when Freiburg used a restart to draw three Gladbach pressers towards the box, before going long and allowing Cedric Makiadi to carry the ball at the away side’s defence (he was fouled, the subsequent free-kick squandered). Robin Dutt, as is his way, ensured that his side always started short from the ‘keeper, trying to draw their guests on, or enacting patience and looking for the best pass.  Continue reading

Hannover 2-1 Stuttgart

The first-half formations.

A brace from Didier Ya Konan punished two defensive mistakes as Hannover moved into second place. As a result, Stuttgart will be stuck in the bottom three over the winter break.

Stuttgart came into this game as the only team who hadn’t won away from home in the Bundesliga this season, and knew that a win wouldn’t even be enough to lift them out of the drop zone. Hannover, on the other hand, went into the game knowing that a win would give them a new club record of five consecutive victories – and, as mentioned in the introduction, a win would also lift them up to second place. That’s Hannover. In second place. In December. Oh, and they’d be taking that position from Mainz. Yes, Mainz.

Unsurprisingly, it was the home side who started like the team gunning for a place on the podium. They pressed high and hard from the off, and Konstantin Rausch instantly forced a mistake from Phillipp Degen as Stuttgart enacted some of the laziest opposition-sucking keep-ball you’ll ever see.

Mirko Slomka kept his 4-4-2 close together even when they were pressing, and this ensured that Stuttgart’s banks were forced to stand further back in order to get a bit of space.

In terms of attacking, the away side were forced to use the flanks. Arthur Boka, Timo Gebhart and Christian Gentner linked up and carried the ball in turns down the left, looking to feed the last shoulder-lurking figure of Cacau. Hannover were also intent on attacking down the left, but they were only able to surge forward on the break. A better footballing side would have been more comfortable with using the ball to prise open the Stuttgart defence, but Hannover aren’t a technically-gifted unit, and this allowed Stuttgart to creep higher as the game went on and keep them penned in and dawdling. Continue reading

Wolfsburg 0-0 Werder Bremen

The first-half formations.

Wolfsburg and Bremen played out an entertaining scoreless draw, albeit one that will only truly live on in the memory for Edin Džeko’s petulant reaction to being substituted.

Bremen came into this game with a number of absentees, including Claudio Pizarro, Wesley, Naldo and Tim Borowski. Wolfsburg, meanwhile, made do without just two first-choice players – Arne Friedrich, and Grafite.

For two teams struggling in the lower-reaches of the division, this was a refreshingly open and attack-minded encounter from the word ‘go’.

However, one team always has to take the initiative, and that responsibility belonged to the hosts. With the visitors content to let Wolfsburg bring the ball out, they sat back in a 4-4-2, and only applied pressure when the ball approached the halfway line.

Thomas Schaaf kept the home side’s attacking options man-marked whenever this pattern of play occurred. Diego, stationed on the left whenever his colleagues brought the ball out, was picked up by Dominik Schmidt, Mario Mandžukić by Petri Pasanen, Josué by the two foremost attackers, and Džeko by the equally tall Per Mertesacker. Continue reading