Sami Allagui bounced back from missing the crucial penalty in the midweek Europa League exit to Gaz Metan by scoring the opening goal as Mainz defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the first match of the new Bundesliga season. The home side, making their second official appearance in their new Coface Arena, played a superb pressing game off-ball, and a slick, passing, dribbling, gung-ho one on it. Leverkusen didn’t quite have a shocker, but, they did struggle to find a consistent rhythm and style, and also seemed unable to cope with the unrelenting pace of the game. After losing to Dynamo Dresden 4-3 in the cup last week, new coach Robin Dutt is already under pressure to prove that he is the man to take the perennial runners-up to the next level; and, to make matters worse, the defender he helped bring to the club, Ömer Toprak, steered into his own net in the dying stages to help seal Mainz’s deserved victory.
Mainz, as is their way, pressed high and hard from kick-off, but Bayer Leverkusen looked prepared and therefore remained assured on the ball, even if they did little with it in the opening few minutes. The pace of the game was still intense four minutes in, as Mainz got on the ball, looking good at working in confined spaces individually or playing neat two-player triangles. It led to the game’s first chance, Andreas Ivanschitz unleashing a powerful daisy-cutter on the turn, forcing fingertips from Fabian Giefer. Despite initially coping, Bayer Leverkusen soon began to look increasingly flustered by the relentless Mainz off-ball pressing in the centre of the park. As a result, the away side spent a few minutes giving the ball away or passing back to Giefer, allowing confident Mainz to stand their defence right in front of the halfway line, keeping their guests penned in.
However, it was Bayer Leverkusen who should have taken the lead in the eighth minute, when – after winning a free-kick caused by Mainz being a little too cute and clever in their own half – Stefan Reinartz was on his own near the back post to head Michal Kadlec’s set-piece towards goal. Unfortunately for the centre-back, Heinz Müller had his wits about him, even if his non-marking defensive colleagues didn’t, pushing the ball out for a corner. That scare laughed off, Mainz were soon back in the driving seat, doing everything at 100mph. In the tenth minute, after Zdeněk Pospěch zoomed down the flank, bringing the returning – albeit to a new stadium – André Schürrle back with him, Mainz won a throw; quickly taken to the ball-wanting/darting Eugen Polanski. Renato Augusto, taken aback, got after him, but could only commit a silly foul. Both he and Sidney Sam seemed unable to cope with their constant and tough defensive workload, although luckily for the attack-minded duo on that occasion, Zoltán Stieber’s sharp free-kick was headed over.
However, despite all this pressure and the chances being created, it was still 0-0. In the 13th minute, we perhaps saw the best Mainz attempt on goal of the lot: Sami Allagui was left alone in the box (the two Leverkusen centre-backs occupied by Polanski’s near post run), but could only head over from a Pospěch cross. Sam nearly made him two minutes later, after Lars Bender showed with his back to goal on the wing, seemingly looking to hold up play, before letting the ball roll through his legs, taking Marco Caligiuri out of the game, and allowing the Bayer right winger to dribble infield and unleash a sharp left-footed drive which Müller was able to hold.
We were nearing the 20-minute mark, and still the intensity of the Mainz players and 30,000 fans had yet to decrease. Bayer, however, were finding ways of working around this. In one move, they sat deep, before winning the ball back via Rolfes, and charging upfield as a narrow unit, playing first-time one-twos this way and that, before looking to play a disguised scoop down the wing for Daniel Schwaab to burn on to (the move broke down after that pass, unfortunately). But generally, there were just lots of occasions when they were allowing Mainz to take charge, showing signs of being unable to cope with the high pressing.
On one occasion, after starting short from Giefer, a loose ball came towards Reinartz in the air, and he headed to no one in particular. Given that Polanski and Elkin Soto were absolutely everywhere in the first quarter of the game, they were always going to get to this loose ball, and that Polanski did, spreading it out to Pospěch – already three-quarters up the pitch, taking advantage of the fact that Leverkusen didn’t have the time to spread out as a defensive unit thanks to Reinartz’s sloppiness, and right-sided attacker Marcel Risse’s desire to veer infield. However, the right-back seemed caught in two minds despite having an age to weigh up his options, and his ball across the box was neither cross, shot or useful in the end.
As much credit as Mainz deserve for their performance in the opening 25 minutes, when, it must be stated, Leverkusen were not doing too badly themselves save for a few lapses in concentration, the hosts did give away a few too many silly fouls. Bo Svensson was the biggest culprit, and it was no surprise when he picked up the first yellow card of the game for a trip on Sam. Moments later, Polanski hacked the same player down from behind. Despite a clever short free-kick attempt by Bayer Leverkusen, Mainz just about succeeded in clearing their lines. But, with referee Michael Weiner blowing up for every Mainz foul (overzealous tackles which probably weren’t deliberate, just the drawback of playing such a relentless pressing game), Leverkusen sensed blood, and enjoyed a brief spell on top, winning more fouls and free-kicks in the process.
But then, disaster struck for last season’s Bundesliga silver-medallists in the 32nd minute. Fabian Giefer, brought into the team after David Yelldell’s horror show against Dynamo Dresden in the cup last weekend, was given a touch as the away side played some keep ball. Allagui homed in, as is his way, and perhaps feeling the pressure, Giefer sliced his pass sideways. The Tunisian was on it in a flash, with no defender near him, punishing the goalkeeper to make it 1-0 to Mainz! René Adler’s return from injury in two months time can’t come soon enough.
Bayer pressed higher and harder themselves post-goal, but this just increased the space for the likes of Caligiuri to burst forward into from the back; or, if the visitors’ pressers forced the centre-backs into a hoof, it just allowed the silky Soto to take the ball under and dictate from the centre. Particularly in the case of the former scenario, the full-backs coming forward, the Mainz wide midfielders took advantage by making darts into the box. In the final five minutes of the half, both Risse and Stieber were fed in there, but they were chaperoned away from goal by the intelligent and muscular figures of Reinartz and Rolfes respectively. Both sides saw similar amounts of possession as the half closed out, exchanging little more than half chances before Weiner blew for a break.
Mainz made a half time change; Bo Svensson, injured and on a yellow card, being replaced by Niko Bungert. But it was another defender, Pospěch, who was at the heart of the action immediately into the final batch of 45 minutes, putting the ball into the box for Allagui, who was just about thwarted as he slid in to steer it beyond Giefer. Helpfully for the away side, Mainz continued to give away fouls in the final-third, and in the 47th minute, Erin Derdiyok curled yet another free-kick over the bar, this time one that had been given in the D.
Despite Bayer playing with more energy, urgency and authority in the opening ten minutes of the second half, Tuchel was still committed to letting his full-backs attack, and this so nearly resulted in a wonder goal in the 54th minute. Stieber and Caligiuri linked up on the left, the latter eventually being released on a dribble. He came inside, shaped his body for a shot, and curled a lovely right-footer that sailed over the joint by mere inches.
Although Rolfes was having way more of a sign in proceedings than he had done in the first half, the Caligiuri chance illustrated the fact that Mainz always looked deadly and lively on the break; encapsulated again in the 57th minute when Allagui took the ball on the chalk, spun his man to go clear, and drew a free-kick. Stieber took it, and despite the angle favouring a cross, the former Aachen man blasted it at Giefer, who took the safety first decision of palming it clear. One minute later, Allagui was at the heart of the action again, as he and Risse ran at the narrow and retreating centre-backs, playing a one-two that the Tunisian attacker easily beat Ömer Toprak too, only to knock it too far past Giefer and waste the chance.
Intriguingly, the next move of the match saw Dutt replace his captain, Simon Rolfes, with a young winger-cum-striker, Nicolai Jørgensen. But it was at the back where change needed to be enacted, as Leverkusen were a wreck. In the 61st minute, Pospěch skipped to the byline, pulled the ball back with red-shirted players queuing up, but the overworked Giefer saved the eventual shot. His outfield colleagues, meanwhile, had been given a new system to find their way in – a 4-4-2 diamond with Jørgensen on the left flank and Schürrle up top with Derdiyok. In the 67th minute, the change so nearly bore fruit. Daniel Schwaab played a long ball through a gap in the centre of the Mainz defence, Bungert and Nikolče Noveski hindered by having an extra man in their immediate vicinity to keep an eye on. Erin Derdiyok got on the end of his right-back’s pass, and would have scored had Müller not been so quick off his line.
The former Barnsley custodian was having a good game – confident at coming for crosses, always talking with his defence, and crucially, making both the simple and difficult saves. In the 70th minute, former HSV and Nuremberg striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting came on in place of the hard-working and tricky Stieber in a like for like Mainz switch. It was end to end stuff, with the ‘keepers the busiest men on the pitch. Despite playing a diamond that offered more midfield width than one deployed by, say, Felix Magath, Dutt seemed just as keen to get his full-backs involved in an attacking sense. However, when this saw Kadlec win a free-kick in the 72nd minute, the decision nearly backfired, as Mainz cleared long for the sprightly Allagui to gallop after. He easily evaded Toprak to go one on one, but could only draw yet another save from Giefer.
Four minutes later, Mainz nearly ruined all their hard work by leaving themselves open to a Leverkusen break. An Ivanschitz corner was cleared, and after Sam had scampered with possession at the retreating Mainz centre-backs, the former HSV man slipped in Derdiyok to round Müller. But, after achieving that, the Swiss striker got his bearings and balance all wrong, attempting a feeble square rather than a decisive blast, ruining a glorious chance to level the scores.
We were in the final ten minutes of the game, but it could so easily have been the first ten. Renato Augusto, of all people, was up and down, here, there and everywhere. Risse, Soto – who is only just back from representing Colombia in the Copa América – and Allagui, meanwhile, seemed to find more energy, despite having already covered miles and miles. Nevertheless, there was a sign that the latter was tiring in the 82nd minute, when, after Risse shimmied inside to unleash a blast at Giefer, Allagui didn’t have the legs to lunge at the rebound, despite being near enough to do so.
The three points were sealed by the hosts with three minutes to play. Caligiuri zoomed and one-two’ed his way upfield, before unselfishly looking to square to Allagui in the box. Alas, before it reached the Mainz striker, Toprak, a Dutt signing, turned the ball into his own net for 2-0! Mainz won their first seven games at the start of the 2010/11 Bundesliga season: could they be about to go on a similarly impressive run again, their energy tanks as full now as they will be at any other point in the season?