A decisive second half performance from Mainz saw them defeat inconsistent Hamburg after the home side had taken a controversial lead via a goal that didn’t actually cross the line.
Mainz came into this game knowing a win would lift them above Bayern Munich and into fourth spot. Hamburg knew a win by two clear goals would lift them above Mainz into fifth. As if to spice things up even further, it was the home side who ended Mainz’s spectacular start to the season, winning at the Bruchweg stadium with a late Jose Paolo Guerrero goal back in October. For the visitors, there was no Miroslav Karhan, Ádám Szalai or Sami Allagui – all three ruled out through injury. As difficult to second guess as ever, Thomas Tuchel left Lewis Holtby and Christian Fuchs on the bench. Hamburg, on the other hand, were at full strength (with Ruud van Nistelrooy on the bench), and looking to bounce back after drawing last weekend at struggling Kaiserslautern.
Although Hamburg bossed the ball in the opening stages, Mainz pressed furiously, and maintained a narrow, compact formation. With the very tall Jan Kirchhoff sat in front of the defence, it was clear Tuchel was looking to cut out scoops to either of Hamburg’s two strikers. When Kirchhoff and his side had the ball at restarts, they spread out in a 4-3-1-2, testing the water and drawing Hamburg onto them with a bit of keep-ball in their own half.
With no real recognised striker leading the line, it was strange to see Heinz Müller looking to kick long on several occasions. Everything good Mainz were doing came as a result of snappy midfield interchanges, or harrying the defenders at breakneck speed into errors. With the visitors keeping their defence narrow when the home side attacked, Armin Veh’s side found it difficult to get through. They tried going down both sides, somewhat barging their way through via a series of throw-ins, or drawing the away side into tactical fouls.
The likes of Jonathan Pitroipa were forced to go in search of the ball deeper up the pitch, though this wasn’t necessarily detrimental as given Mainz’s lack of width, the speedy winger was able to pick up pace and scare the opposition into panicky pokes. Pitroipa and his colleagues weren’t given a second to think about what else to do with the ball – Mainz pressed and pressed, narrowed the angles, hurried the passes, and eradicated the very notion of space in the midfield.
The only thing Hamburg could do was use this pressure to their advantage. Thus, they passed the ball about in their own half aimlessly, inviting the pressing, before going back to Rost, and trying their luck via the direct route. In the 17th minute, this idea reaped the reward of the opening goal. The long ball was won by the home side, and knocked out to Mladen Petrić on the right flank. His cross failed to beat the first man, but the clearing header floated to the left side of the box where Marcell Jansen was free to bounce a volley off the underside of the bar and out. Controversially (the ball didn’t cross the line), a goal was given, and Hamburg led!
Sensing blood, the hosts went for the jugular. The passes were forward, urgent and direct, the pressing furious, and the tactics inquisitive – both forwards splitting to one side of the pitch each, looking to pull the Mainz defence apart (not that there was a central attacking midfield player to utilise any such space). The visitors needed to calm things down, and in the 24th minute, began to do so. The centre-backs passed aimlessly across their own D, seemingly killing time. This allowed the Mainz attackers to dart about all over the final-third, keeping Hamburg on their toes, and pulling players out of the tight defensive system. On one such occasion, the ball was eventually scooped out to the right corner flag, where Mainz won a corner. Niko Bungert nearly took full advantage of this set-piece with an outrageous piece of skill – static marking allowing him to attempt a replica of Gianfranco Zola’s famous jumping back-heel goal against Norwich in the late 90s.
With the sting now fully discarded from the Hamburg attacking juggernaut, the ball was all Mainz’s, and an equalizer so nearly their’s – a brilliant first-time triangular passing move involving Elkin Soto and Marcel Risse releasing Andreas Ivanschitz through a huge gap in the mentally slow Hamburg rearguard, but Frank Rost was off his line in a flash. It was now the task of Rost and his ten outfield colleagues to take the sting out of the game, and thus, the full-backs and wingers stood on their respective strips of chalk, and tried knocking it about as four Mainz players zoomed after the ball in the final-third of the pitch.
With so much energy being put into the game by either side, chances and flowing passing moves in probing areas were few and far between. When called upon though, the home side’s attackers definitely had the edge over their Mainz counterparts, with more intelligent movement and more presence being shown. Hindered by some brutal tackling in the midfield by Hamburg, Mainz were never able to establish a persistent and decent bridge between the guys at the back and the forwards.
Intriguingly, Veh made two changes on the wing at half time – Änis Ben-Hatira and Piotr Trochowski replacing Pitroipa and Jansen. However, the former came into the centre of midfield, presumably with the intention of using the space the chalk-peeling Guerrero and Petrić could provide him with. Zé Roberto, meanwhile, was moved to the left side of midfield. Tuchel, meanwhile, tried to inject some more purpose, sparkle, and a formational bridge into his attack, replacing Ivanschitz with Holtby.
This aim was given a helping hand by the defence standing higher, the full-backs being fully integrated into the attacking set-up, and Hamburg hanging deeper. They started short from the ‘keeper, drawing Hamburg bodies across to a full-back, before playing in one of the bobbing midfielders. This tactic paid off when Soto won a free-kick, which was laid off for a deep inswinging cross from the left. The delivery was inch-perfect, the Hamburg marking wasn’t, and André Schürrle turned it in despite the attentions of Aogo for 1-1. However, Mainz’s joy was short-lived.
Two minutes later, Guy Demel was stood off, allowed to swing a ball in, and after the defence failed to deal with the first ball or the hanging ball it resulted in, Petrić fired in for 2-1.
And we weren’t done there!
Two minutes after that, some clever interplay down the right saw Risse put in a floor-cross between the defence and Rost (the on-loan Bayer Leverkusen man had it easy thanks to Zé Roberto and Aogo’s dithering), and presumably acting on no call, Gojko Kačar turned it into his own net. 2-2, and thrillingly, half-hour still to play.
The next 15 minutes were, perhaps predictably, bonkers – end-to-end, full-throttle… the kind of stuff that makes commentators lose their voice. With Trochowski jinxing inside on and off ball, Hamburg looked to stack the centre of midfield, with Demel maintaining the right-sided width. However, it was the home side’s left flank that was having difficulty – Mainz picked out passes down that side freely, regardless of the added cover Zé Roberto was offering the high-flying Aogo. Perhaps the Brazilian was the problem, however, as his instinct always seemed to be to tuck infield. Although this helped crowd out Holtby, it was a tactic that didn’t respond to the influential Risse’s increased wing-bound mobility.
However, Hamburg soon had the chance to seize control of that side of the pitch, when Eugen Polanski was booked for a cynical, scything tactical foul. With right-sided centre-back Bo Svensson also in the book, Hamburg pushed bodies and the ball to their left flank, looking to overlap, draw fouls, and hopefully with all this, a red card. But the best chance they created down that flank came in the 77th minute, when despite a great leap, Petrić could only head over the bar.
However, Mainz were by no means done, and despite the frenetic pace of proceedings, still looked to play their cute brand of one-two football. But when taking the lead in the 81st minute, it was thanks to a well executed counter-attack. Hamburg, perhaps getting cocky as they looked to turn the screw, sent a slow long-diagonal pass across to the left side they were overloading. The ball was easily intercepted, and fed to Schürrle. With the Hamburg defence exposed in the full-back positions (and centre-backs stood on halfway), the attacker picked up pace and homed in on goal. The dink over Rost for 3-2 to the away side epitomised his class, and should Mainz make it to the Europa League, his penetration and quality will be missed (the 20-year-old is joining Leverkusen in the summer).
As if to hit that point home, Schürrle laid his side’s fourth goal on a plate for substitute Florian Heller six minutes later. Burning down the left this time as Hamburg were caught high up the pitch, the diagonal through-pass between the defence and a diving Rost was inch-perfect.
Poor old Veh… already under pressure, his tactical switch at half time cost his side the game, and who knows, maybe even his job.