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.
It was no surprise when this superb pressing led to Mainz taking the lead. The hosts predictably started from the back, looking to bring the dropping Hennings into play, and egging Mainz to creep further and further up the pitch. Their passes were heavy, the Mainz pressure effective, and when Szalai was fed to burst through a static backline, he intelligently squared with Mathias Hain exposed to hand André Schürrle the simplest of tap-ins. Stanislawski maintaned this dangerous tactic in the immediate aftermath of the goal, and Schürrle very nearly made it two – cutting in from the left-flank, and whistling a shot past the post on his right foot.
St Pauli kept their attacking to the left side of the pitch, looking to cross early for a diagonal dart by either Gerald Asamoah or Marius Ebbers. Although these balls never quite managed to reach the intended target, they did hand Pauli a number of final-third set-pieces because Mainz were erratic in clearing their lines. As lethal as the visitors’ pressing could be, it was occasionally the source of their undoing too. An example of this came in the 17th minute when Niko Bungert zoomed out of position, got spun by the muscular Asamoah (playing higher up the pitch after his side had conceded), and the former German international nearly gave his side a hasty equalizer.
But the visitors continued to defend with great energy and enthusiasm, and this gave them the chance to release Schürrle on the break down the left. St Pauli’s frustrations and lack of tactical discipline grew, and it became a whole lot easier for Mainz to exploit the space and a pair of centre-backs who seemed ill-equipped to interpret the thought patterns and movement of top flight strikers. The youngster nabbed his second goal of the game as the half-hour mark approached, turning in a ball across the box following a corner kick from the left. However, the two-goal margin lasted barely five minutes – a Pauli free-kick into the box was handled, and Matthias Lehmann converted the resultant spot-kick.
Stanislaswski responded by slotting Hennings in behind Ebbers – his direct running game being used in order to alter Mainz’s tactics by making them narrower and less potent on the counter-attack. This made it it three-on-three directly in front of the away side’s centre-back pairing, and gone were the short restarts as Hain was instructed to kick into this zone. But it proved to be St Pauli’s downfall five minutes before the interval when Mainz again broke down the left after mopping up: Christian Fuchs crossed for Szalai’s peel off Ralph Gunesch (again, a misshapen rearguard needlessly playing a white-shirted player onside), and the Hungarian showed his class by converting a cushion-volley over the helpless Hain.
The hosts started the second half looking to get comfy on the ball, and again, invited the sprint-pressing Mainz are so good at. This only served to prove once more how Pauli were thought-free, careless, and just not good enough with the ball on the floor and the heat turned up. Their attackers were sucked deeper and deeper down the pitch as they sought to get involved, and this allowed Mainz to stay comfortably in their system, and do some more attacking of their own. Anyone doubting their credentials as a genuinely good side was left in no doubt five minutes into the half when Schürrle, back-to-goal, back-heeled Lewis Holtby – a constant menace – clean through in the box, and the Schalke-owned starlet was unlucky to see his square last-ditch cleared.
But when Pauli began to re-expose Mainz’s poor line-clearing, they won a number of corner-kicks. But just like the ones squandered in the first half, the second half set were no better, often failing to clear the first line of defence. This attacking phase of play did allow their own back-four to position themselves further up the pitch, but Mainz kept a straight two-pronged forward line on the centre-backs, and Holtby floating just behind to keep Lehmann pinned back. With Marco Caligiuri tucked inside nearer to Elkin Soto, Malik Fathi could drop in as a third centre-back as route one-playing Pauli looked to hold a forward line of four, prising the opposition’s defence apart.
They got a reward from a not entirely unexpected source – Mainz failing to adequately eradicate the danger posed by a ball swung into the box on two consecutive occasions, and the loose ball eventually landed at the feet of Lehmann to power it in from the edge of the box. The goal was deserved based on the preceding ten minutes of play because Pauli had really thrown themselves into a new set of positive tactics. Mainz, with Sami Allagui now technically making it a three-pronged strikeforce (they stood off-ball as a ‘2-1’, the Tunisian the more advanced of that trio), struggled to find a bridge from the initial banks of ‘4-3’ because of Pauli’s vigorous long ball football. Nevertheless, the movement of both no. 9s – Allagui and Ebbers – was vital to their respective sides at this point, and the basis for all attacking moves. Mainz used Allagui to buy time and haul the brown-shirted players away from Müller’s box, while Ebbers did a great job as both decoy and ball-holder.
Mainz still had a tremendous amount of clever movement to feed on the break, but the players tasked with feeding them remained pinned back, or unable to do so when they did shake off their defensive shackles as an equalizer-seeking bunch of Pauli players hungrily closed them down. With Tuchel’s side finding it equally difficult to cover the loose-balls that fell to the Pauli full-backs to whip back in as first-time crosses, the coach changed his system to a 4-2-2-2 – looking to keep an attacking presence, his side’s defensive width, and ensure the centre-backs had a screen. The strikers complemented each other perfectly, and moments after Allagui fed Szalai through one-on-one (the result being a silly dive), the former launched a superb run down the left, drawing four brown-shirted players towards him, before pulling an intelligent pass back for Caliguiri’s dart into the box, and subsequent left-footed finish. The goal not only won the match, but epitomised Mainz’s approach and lethality during their immensely successful winter season.
The combination between Schuerrle, Szalay and Holtby is simply too important to this team’s chemistry and effectiveness. Tuchel likes to tinker with his teams this week and last week are good examples as to why players like Szalay and Holtby should start matches.