A Frank Schaefer tactical masterclass and lacklustre Mainz performance lifted Cologne out of the relegation zone and denied Mainz the chance to leapfrog Bayern Munich into the Champions League spots.
The game looked set for a slow opening period when Cologne’s use of the kick-off saw them punt the ball upfield for a Mainz and Heinz Müller restart. However, slick Mainz, keeping a defensive trio deep despite Milivoje Novakovič being the foremost player for the hosts, used the former Barnsley ‘keeper’s goal-kick well, carving out an early chance from it which André Schürrle wasted. True to (very early) form, Cologne hoofed the ball upfield again, this time getting some success by winning a free-kick about three-quarters of the way up the pitch on the right-hand side. Lukas Podolski curled it into the box, and poor tracking and positioning from the away side allowed Martin Lanig to glance the ball in for 1-0 with just 150 seconds on the clock.
From the second kick-off of the match, Mainz initiated a guarded style of play, continuing to keep Malik Fathi and either one or both of their centre-backs deep. The other Midfielders and full-backs would then feign dribbles forward, before passing the ball back into their own half, content just to amble about and keep possession. However, this general lethargy allowed Cologne to snatch the ball back on several occasions, and all Mainz could do to halt the runners was foul. They didn’t look comfortable with Schaefer’s direct tactics both on the ground and in the air, but luckily for the visitors, Podolski wasted three further free-kick opportunities and a corner inside the opening seven minutes.
By spreading their banks apart (helped by the use of a midfield diamond), Mainz looked to prise the home side open by taking full advantage of the pitch’s width. But there was no real urgency or incision, and they continued to lose possession far too frequently. Once that had happened, this wasn’t the Mainz we’ve become accustomed to – the pressure on the ball, for example, was non-existent. On the quarter-hour mark, Lanig’s bullet-header so nearly made it 2-0. Mainz yet again did a poor tracking job on the diagonal darts from the D to the near post, but the midfielder’s header was straight at the imposing visiting ‘keeper, Müller.
Thomas Tuchel got his players mixing things up as a semblance of desperation began to creep into their play. But on occasional scoops over the top (the Mainz attackers finally starting to make half-decent runs), Cologne’s centre-backs were strong and well positioned. In fact, all over the pitch Schaefer’s side were well-drilled in their off-ball 4-1-4-1 system. Mainz’s talisman and playmaker Lewis Holtby was kept quiet by the midfield ‘1’, Adam Matuszczyk, who man-marked him. When players did make occasional breaches, Cologne copied the Mainz blueprint by scything the pass-target down and settling for defending a set-piece. However, much like Podolski at the other end, Christian Fuchs’ delivery was hit and miss.
Tuchel stuck with the 4-4-2 diamond as the half grew older, but encouraged his full-backs to fly forward more regularly in a bid to inject width higher up the pitch. But this allowed Cologne to get Christian Clemens into the game on the break; zooming down the wing, cutting inside, and scaring the wits out of the clumsy Mainz backline. He was assisted by a fellow Christian, Eichner, who joined him as a flanking option on several occasions (when the attack was in full-swing, and the counter-attack danger minimal). But Mainz continued to foul, and again, luckily for them, opportunities were wasted.
In the defensive phase of play, Cologne were still tactically superior. Even when Mainz tried getting them to rush out by passing free-kicks in the Cologne half sideways and backwards, the rearguard trudged forward no more than a few yards, frustrating the visitors and perpetuating their lethargy. But surprisingly, Mainz got back on level terms in the 30th minute thanks to an unfortunate misdirected header from Matuszczyk. The Polish international was stood directly in front of his defence, whom his headed ball looped over. The marginally offside Schürrle pounced to run the ball at Rensing. His eventual half-volley was parried sideways, but Allagui somehow poked it in past two line-covering defenders.
There was little change from Mainz after the equalizer, but Cologne were now higher up the pitch as a unit, and stationing their midfield wall of four right in the face of the Mainz defence who continued to casually pass sideways to one another. With the ball, it was still the same tactic from restarts for Schaefer’s side – a long, central punt. However, Mainz now attacked and defended these with greater fire in their collective belly, and were closing the half out with a newfound purpose, and possession in more penetrative parts of the pitch. But just as they had scored against the run of play, Cologne did the same to regain the lead moments before the interval. Clemens, again tripped on a burst (he and Podolski still potent down the left wing), curled in the free-kick, the aerially commanding Lanig forced Müller into a save, but the towering and agile Novakovič stood tall to nod in past two markers.
Despite holding a 2-1 lead, Schaefer saw fit to haul off two players at half time (although one presumes Youssef Mohamad had picked up a knock). The Lebanese international was replaced by Kevin Pezzoni, a midfielder, at the back, while Matuszczyk, on a yellow card, was replaced by the more attack-minded passer, Petit. The system stayed the same, but there was more urgency and desire to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Despite the 15-minute interval, the home side obviously sensed blood. Petit sprayed the passes, the wingers came looking for the ball, and rather than joining in with attacks, the full-backs were now looking to launch them, or make one-twos to take passes on the overlap – like their nine other teammates, they were determined to get a third sooner rather than later.
Mainz were still in the same system, but with a flatter forward line – both strikers staying side by side and keeping the centre-backs pushed deep, and Holtby bobbing back and fore to get the ball. However, their own defensive trio continued to stay deep, allowing Cologne to attack the space with numbers. The general theme seemed to be applying pressure down one flank and dragging the bodies across, before switching play to lay on a colleague in the now exposed other flank. They had a helping hand with this in the 53rd minute when Nikolce Noveski dithered, and Sławomir Peszko robbed him, laying on Podolski in the box. Such is the German international’s class, he took his time on the finish for 3-1 despite the white-shirted players flooding back to thwart him and cover the line.
Things went from bad to worse for Mainz six minutes later when Novakovič got his side’s fourth. Peeling into the vacated right-back spot, the Slovenian striker managed to charge down on goal after collecting a scooped-over ball at his feet (despite the presumed thinking behind Tuchel’s insistence that his centre-backs stay deep being to prevent looped balls over the top causing bother). The finish was calm and lethal, sending the home fans wild, and Bundesliga observers into admiration over Schaefer’s tactical nous.
Schaefer wasn’t finished teaching Tuchel a tactical lesson just yet either. He narrowed his side into a flat four-man midfield, forcing desperate Mainz into the channels where they only had one man on either side to lead the attack. Unsurprisingly, the tactical response was swift from the Mainz coach, who made two substitutions, finally ordered his side to play their high-octane pressing game, and altered his system to a 4-1-3-2 – the ‘1’ being the more offensively-minded and ball-hungry Marco Caligiuri. Schaefer had seen it all before, and ensured his two forwards chased the ball relentlessly in the final-third to stifle Mainz’s short restarts, as well as re-widening his midfield to allow the full-backs to act as a net to the overlapping Mainz runner. One of the aforementioned substitutes, Petar Slišković, did manage to pull a goal back late on – a neat left-footed finish, aided by Pezzoni’s poor positional sense, after a brilliant charge forward by Fuchs.