Mainz took a huge step towards Europa League qualification after overcoming ten-man Borussia Mönchengladbach with a late goal from André Schürrle.
Round 30 began on Friday night with a game between two sides experiencing seasons beyond their wildest dreams. Hosts Mainz came into this match against Mönchengladbach in 5th spot – looking well set to secure a spot in next season’s Europa League, despite briefly flirting with qualification for the Champions League up until a few weeks ago. However, their last win in the league was nearly a month and a half ago. Their visitors, on the other hand, had ambitions of at least finishing in mid-table at the start of the season, but with five games to go, they came into this game bottom of the table. Nevertheless, they thrashed Köln 5-1 last week, giving their survival hopes a shot in the arm (Mainz lost 2-0 to Hannover, perhaps finally ending any lingering Champions League hopes). Thomas Tuchel had several key players missing for this game, including Bo Svensson, Nikolce Noveski, Jan Šimák, Zsolt Lőw, Ádám Szalai, and Heinz Müller. Visiting coach Lucien Favre was blessed in comparison – the only notable absentees being Paul Stalteri and Igor de Camargo. Intriguingly, both coaches seemed to ditch the status quo in naming their line-up’s, picking more offensive formations than was expected.
Despite having the presence of two big forwards up front, the visitors resisted the temptation early on to pump balls forward. They kept their banks compact, and when camped in their own half, had Mo Idrissou and Mike Hanke standing back-to-goal, looking to hold the ball up as Marco Reus made a diagonal dart upfield from the right flank. Mainz took advantage of the deep opposition forwards by pushing their banks high and wide – thus making for a very congested centre, and six initial minutes of very little bar a quick spin and snap-shot from Schürrle. But credit to Gladbach, who looked to play neat little one-two moves on the floor, and nearly reaped the reward for doing so in the sixth minute when Hanke and Reus played a quick one-two, resulting in the latter sprinting towards the D (a gap being there because Mainz were playing two centre-midfielders who looked to bob into space to get the ball, and a wide defence with width-giving full-backs), and being scythed down. Dante wasted the free-kick, however, with a ridiculously ambitious and poorly executed sprint and shot.
When Gladbach risked pushing their own full-backs on moments later, Tony Jantschke nearly ruined things with a panicky infield pass. Elkin Soto took the loose ball, and released Sami Allagui in the blink of an eye to emulate Reus by running at the opposition defence. It was apparent that the side quickest and sharpest on the break would create the golden chances. But if winning the game via a goal on the break wasn’t to be the case, it was Mainz who saw most of the ball and therefore looked the side most likely to; albeit with their outfield players being asked questions by the rigid, corridor-eradicating banks Favre’s players lined themselves up in. After a few nervy moments in defence (the pace of Mainz’s attackers is enough to put the jitters up any side), Idrissou and Hanke began to press the ball higher up the pitch, Mainz defenders now seeing more of it as Dante and Martin Stranzl punted balls as far away as possible from their box. Paradoxically, this seemed to work in the home side’s favour, making the centre-backs shift the ball upfield at greater pace, and allowing the likes of Christian Fuchs to bomb on and use it before Gladbach got comfortable in their compact 4-4-2 again.
The Austrian left-back always had someone to aim for in the box, with the Tunisian striker Allagui constantly lingering on the last-shoulder, looking to get on the end of crosses or scooped through-balls. After both sides had a go at forging chances from long-throws into the box, Hanke and Reus nearly struck again, this time in the 20th minute. Reus, cutting infield undetected (an obvious beneficiary of the fact Mainz’s left-sided duo of Fuchs and Schürrle like to play as high up the pitch as possible), was released by another quick and canny Hanke pass, but Reus’s shot across goal was just inches wide. Hanke, the former Germany international striker, nearly made an impact on goal himself four minutes later, hounding down an aimless punt, but being a bit too physical with Christian Wetklo. Going back to the importance of counter-attacking, Gladbach very cleverly stopped Wetklo’s desire to bowl a ball out to a full-back or punt to Allagui within nanoseconds of catching the ball. One striker stood in the ‘keeper’s path, while the other was primed to hound the subsequent ball-receiving defender into submission.
Despite Mainz’s monopolization of possession, it was still Gladbach creating the better chances when they managed to get forward – thanks, overwhelmingly, to the genius of Reus. When Jantschke bombed forward in the 29th minute, his pull-back cross looked mishit. In actual fact, Reus had dropped off into a sizable pocket of space, one in which he had the freedom to trap the ball before unleashing a shot that went narrowly over the bar. Perhaps panicking, Mainz’s tactical play was no longer corresponding with their formation as the 35th minute mark approached. Soto and Eugen Polanski had dropped deeper in order to find some space, as the centre-backs waited patiently in possession, looking to invite the pressure and draw Gladbach’s banks further up the pitch. But Wetklo’s subsequent punts upfield found Allagui isolated, with defenders swamping him, fully aware beforehand of the obvious idea, and their certainty of collecting any loose balls.
Nevertheless, any side with Schürrle in their ranks is dangerous, and the 20-year-old nearly looped a speculative shot over Marc-André ter Stegen in the away side’s goal in the 35th minute after shrugging off, outpacing and then side-stepping Dante. After that chance, Gladbach reverted to type – set up ready to defend, even when they had throw-ins in their own half, resigned to the fact (or hoping) that they’d concede possession. You’ll notice I’ve made no mention of Lewis Holtby, playing in the hole. Well, there was no hole. Two defensive midfielders and a paucity of corridors meant that the game passed him by, the ball being worked elsewhere. His primary purpose in the first half was to chase back when his side were out of possession, but his overzealous hack in the 43rd minute nearly saw Juan Arango punish him – the Venezuelan’s left-footed 30-yard curled free-kick drawing a full-stretch from Wetklo.
Marcel Risse was replaced for the second half by Ukrainian-born youngster, Eugen Gopko. The mini midfielder slotted into Risse’s position on the right of midfield – wide, and occasionally in line with Allagui and Schürrle. The second half didn’t start at rip-roaring pace, but it was Gladbach who did most of the early running, mainly letting themselves down in the final-third with poor touch or a lack of vision. Yet they kept coming and coming, aided by Mainz’s even worse ability to hold onto the ball all over the pitch. Even Schürrle twice uncharacteristically lost his side ground, wasting two great counter-attacking opportunities with abysmal control.
However, Hanke’s reckless challenge on Polanski in the 53rd minute changed everything. The former Wolfsburg and Schalke striker picked up a second yellow card for his action, and thus received his marching orders. His side now forced to play 4-4-1-1, suddenly the home side’s centre-backs had time to pick their passes, and Holtby had space – albeit quite deep – in which to bob and collect the ball. The red card sparked Mainz into life, and Polanski’s pull-back so nearly gave Schürrle a shot on goal moments after Hanke’s ejection (again, a poor trap let the young German down, and a minute later, he ruined another attack with a poor control – his fourth in the space of ten second half minutes). Sandwiched in-between those forays forward, Reus carried a Gladbach counter – running from right-back to trequartista, and playing a scintillating diagonal through-ball which Arango so nearly beat Wetklo to.
Nevertheless, Mainz had the visitors on the ropes – toying with their compact 4-4-1 by getting their three centre-midfielders to bob hurriedly in and around Idrissou, and the likes of Gopko to dribble infield aimlessly. With this central movement forcing Gladbach to keep narrowing, Marco Caligiuri (nominally a right midfielder) and Fuchs were flying forward into space from full-back. Mainz’s speed merchants ensured that their side always had an overlap on the flanks, and the resultant squared balls into the box saw a series of shots from the forwards well followed by Stranzl, Dante & co. After several failed attempts, Tuchel’s side finally began to mix things up, perhaps realising that no matter how good their balls into the box from the wings were, they were expected. So, Schürrle and Gopko began to make faster and more frequent runs from flank-to-flank, going across the D – thereby making Gladbach’s defenders creep out of their disciplined system. This now gave the Mainz full-backs the option of dribbling infield and seizing on the brief pockets of space.
The two wingers soon swapped sides permanently, with most of the balls into the box coming from Gopko, Schürrle making late back-post darts instead. Gladbach had kept their discipline, and forced Mainz into taking the crossing-balls-in route again. Even when the likes of Holtby and Allagui dropped off and stood in the minute corridor between the defence bank of four and the midfield bank of four, the two lines stayed flat, not budging an inch. When a pass did feed the back-to-goal Mainz playmakers, it was always a centre-back who rushed out to meet it, this being the safer option with the red-shirted player having their back to goal, and therefore less likely to take advantage of a tear in the defence than the midfield.
The game was beginning to resemble something of a cup tie – Gladbach seeing nothing of the ball, and always clearing their lines, despite looking impossibly shaky in doing so. They could have even grabbed an unlikely goal in the 76th minute when the magnificent Reus single-handedly launched a counter-attack, only for the return pass from the more experienced Arango to be overhit, lazy, and the wrong ball needed.
Tuchel responded by going for something resembling broke. His side had reached the 77th minute with just one shot on target to show for it, so on came Petar Slišković for Holtby, with Mainz going 4-1-3-2 – Soto bobbing in the hole behind the strikers. The Croatian striker’s targetman presence allowed Allagui to become more mobile in the midfield zones, the Tunisian now looking to get more involved in instigating as opposed to finishing.
As touched upon earlier, the less emphasis Mainz placed on attacking from the wings, the better chance they had of winning the game. And that proved to be the case in the 85th minute, when Schürrle slammed a right-footed shot from outside the box into the bottom right-hand corner. He was assisted by Polanski from the halfway line – the midfielder spotting the Leverkusen-bound youngster’s dart to a space just off the D from the right-wing. Schürrle had space to control the ball and shoot because three Mainz players had run at the defence towards goal – all expecting the punt into the box. The away side midfielders who had also tucked back into the defence were caught in this trap too, while those who were further up the pitch were looking to close in on Polanski – giving Schürrle the time and space to do what he does best. Mainz kept Gladbach at bay through fair means and foul, and held on for the win.