Armin Veh’s Hamburg tore woeful Werder Bremen apart in the north German derby. The hosts had a point to prove after a humiliating midweek defeat to city rivals St Pauli, and couldn’t have wished for better opponents than confidence-deprived, injury-hit Bremen. Hamburg, who left Ruud van Nistelrooy on the bench throughout, came into this game knowing they could move up to sixth spot with a win. Bremen, however, knew a loss could see them end the weekend in the relegation zone.
Thus, Bremen adopted the role of the stereotypical struggling away side from the off – content to let their hosts have the ball, and more concerned with keeping their formation tight (pushing high in a compact 4-1-4-1). Faced with an extremely flat rearguard, Mladen Petrić lingered on the last shoulder, making teasing runs designed to pull someone out of the shape. His side were patient in possession, showing only occasional flashes of penetration through Gojko Kačar’s long and searching balls from the back, or Heung-Min Son’s slipping in of some canny passes.
On the rare occasions in which the ball was their’s to use (Hamburg opting not to go long from goal-kicks), Bremen tried to get their wingers running into the gaps left by the home side’s full-backs. These dribbles were direct, and not supplemented by the green-shirted full-backs. They were kept back alongside the centre-backs, although Mikaël Silvestre still struggled to deal with Jonathan Pitroipa early on.
However, it was all about the left flank for Hamburg with Dennis Aogo essentially playing as a a winger. With José Paolo Guerrero bobbing and showing for passes all over the midfield, Son was able to cut inside, hence Aogo’s determination to plug the left-wing gap. Despite all this movement, Bremen kept their discipline; staying compact and in their banks save for one player occasionally putting pressure on the ball, which Hamburg were using for neat and tidy one-twos designed to lure their guests out. With Son now lurking infield more regularly, and Hamburg lacking the key needed to open the Bremen lock, Thomas Schaaf changed his system. The under-pressure coach went 4-4-1-1, with Marko Marin now playing off Marko Arnautović, and looking to exploit the space left by Aogo.
But with Guerrero now making more runs behind Dominik Schmidt to get on the end of scooped long-diagonal passes, Schaaf was eventually forced into hauling Hunt back over to the right flank in a bid to stifle Hamburg’s body-heavy forays down the left. After a few decisions didn’t go their way, Hamburg started to lose their heads – possibly infuriated too by the fact that despite their infrequent turns in possession, Bremen were quite comfortable. After ten or so minutes in the 4-4-1-1, they reverted back to the 4-1-4-1 system they started with. Although surges forward still never got anywhere near Frank Rost’s box, Hamburg were forced into committing tactical fouls owing to the fact they had so many bodies in the Bremen half. The visitors used these set-pieces carefully: spending an age before getting round to taking them, and then just sideways-passing to kill time, and rile their northern rivals some more. This even extended to Arnautović trudging over to the corner flags, holding the ball up, and passing it backwards. All the while, no one else in green made much of an effort to zoom into the box. Frustrated, the likes of Jonathan Pitroipa began scurrying back to collect the ball in deeper positions, not exactly aiding Hamburg’s bid to break the deadlock.
However, Bremen are at the wrong end of the table for a few reason. And three minutes before half time, sloppy defending and clever play by Petrić allowed the Croatian international to open the scoring.
There were no changes at the interval, and Hamburg stuck by the same system, albeit with Son and Guerrero increasing their interchanging. Bremen, on the other hand, came out in a more familiar 4-3-2-1 (Hunt and Marin playing more infield behind Austria’s Arnautović), and an increased desire to get on the ball. Unfortunately for them, Hamburg pressed the clumsy defence’s attempts to start short, and even when Bremen did get into decent positions in the home side’s half, their touch let them down.
Hamburg soon altered their system accordingly off-ball – a narrow midfield in a 4-4-2 where the forwards applied pressure in the opposition’s half, and the midfield stayed closer to the defence (inviting Bremen to run at them, and narrowing the corridors in which Marin and Aaron Hunt looked to work). It was an intelligent ploy by Veh, who knew winning the ball back nearer to Rost’s goal would allow his full-backs to lead the counter-attacks, thereby hastening the rate at which Bremen’s midfielders shuttled back to help their defence.
Schaaf was still reluctant to let his own full-backs off the leash. But with a three-man centre-midfield, the 49-year-old had enough carilleros to carry the ball into Hamburg’s half. Alas, all tactical changes were rendered redundant in the 63rd minute when Per Mertesacker was caught dithering in the shadow of his own box by the aforementioned pressing forwards, Petrić strolled goalwards, squared, and Peru’s Guerrero had a tap-in.
Schaaf now went back to the 4-4-1-1, removing Arnautović and Hunt in the process (for Sandro Wagner and Tim Borowski respectively). But a change of formation did nothing to change his side’s fortunes. A flurry of aimless balls into the channels for Wagner to chase were bad enough (he had no widemen to support him); the decision-making of the defence even worse. Their brittle confidence was exposed by feeble, overly-safe concession of corners, and then another Mertesacker mistake which allowed Guerrero to poke past Sebastian Mielitz (the young ‘keeper still deputising for the suspended Tim Wiese), who made no effort to cover the angle.
If that was bad enough, worse was to come in the 87th minute. Bremen looked to perform their risky party trick (sprinting out as a unit when run at to play a high offside trap), but someone hadn’t given Schmidt the script. Late substitute Änis Ben-Hatira thus jogged through on goal, easily evading Mielitz’s pathetic attempt at stopping him, and sealed a delightful 4-0 victory for Hamburg.