Kaiserslautern bettered their 2011/12 goals for tally by 150 per cent as they won their first game of the season against Mainz in the Rheinland-Pfalz derby. Mainz can’t stop conceding goals at the moment, and despite some positive and slice attacking play, couldn’t score enough goals to render their weaknesses at the back irrelevant. Kaiserslautern, though, played with a real energy and determination throughout, and hadn’t looked this sharp tactically all season. The result lifts Marco Kurz’s side out of the relegation zone (meaning that the ‘-burg’ teams, Frei-, Augs- and Ham- now occupy those places), and two positions behind 13th-placed Mainz.
Mainz, set up in a relatively flat-looking 4-4-2, instantly looked to get the ball down the channels, from where they could cross for their two box-bobbing strikers. As per usual, they pressed high and in numbers when out of possession, and even mixed things up with how they used the ball on the wings. For example, in the third minute, Zoltán Stieber halted his charge down the chalk, drew the Kaiserslautern midfield across and onto him, before slipping the ball in to Elkin Soto, who’d nipped into the gap left behind the hosts’ midfield and very deep defence.
Nevertheless, the visitors didn’t have it all their own way early on, as when Kaiserslautern got on the ball, they didn’t mess about, and either passed or ran it into or towards the final-third as hurriedly as possible. Florian Dick was a key player in the opening stages, hitting one or two tasty long-diagonals, and also charging down the flank to good effect before winning a corner from a cross. With Richard Sukuta-Pasu nominally positioned behind Itay Shechter and Christian Tiffert on the left, Marco Kurz had the option of occasionally flooding the centre of the pitch, with Tiffert shifting infield and Sukuta-Pasu covering the channel. His side didn’t really press Mainz when the defenders indulged in melina in their own half, preferring to stay put in their banks of 4-4-2, with the alert centre midfielders and central defenders suffocating the space any Mainz attackers wanted to take the ball in.
Little went on in front of goal during the opening ten minutes, as although Eric Mazim Choupo-Moting and Martin Amedick both had chances from crosses for Mainz and Kaiserslautern respectively, neither effort troubled the goalkeepers. Kaiserslautern were defending vigorously in their own half, giving Mainz no time on the ball or space to take and work it in. It was this energetic approach to defence which saw Mainz’s early momentum fizzle out, and helped the home side go close in the 13th minute. But, although Sukuta-Pasu managed to round goalkeeper Heinz Müller, a well-guarded Shechter couldn’t do anything with the eventual pull-back.
With the cautious 4-4-2s making the game look destined to finish 0-0 with both sides cancelling one another out, Tuchel made a slight change as we approached the quarter-hour mark. Marcel Risse went over onto the left wing, with Stieber going out to the right. And, in the 14th minute, Stieber’s very presence on the ball drew two men across, allowing him to release Sami Allagui down the right. Leon Jessen went to ground far too early and easily, allowing the Tunisian to evade him and pick out Risse with a deep cross. The former Bayer Leverkusen man headed the ball back across goal, however, ensuring that Lautern’s sideways-running centre-backs didn’t have a hope of forming any sort of protective shape. And, standing in between Rodnei and Amedick to head Risse’s assist home was Choupo-Moting. 1-0 Mainz!
The goal silenced the Kaiserslautern fans, and saw Kurz push his team 10 to 15 metres further up the pitch. Now, Shechter was doing the occasional bit of sprint pressing, although his primary role, as target-man, proved less easy for him to perform. Followed out by a defender every time he tried to drop deep and lay on a colleague, the Israeli attacker couldn’t handle the pressure, and regularly lost possession or made a pass that delayed the hosts’ attack and allowed Mainz to settle into a defensive phase of play.
Kaiserslautern had no invention down the flanks or at the heart of the midfield at all, and despite their command of possession after falling behind, it was hard to see how they were going to create decent chances, let alone score. However, a hopeful, harmless-looking route one pass from Dick – located in his own half at the time – in the 22nd minute changed the game, as Sukuta-Pasu’s seemingly innoucous headed contact on the ‘pass’ looped across goal into Müller’s top corner; the former Barnsley custodian stranded after his bid to come and claim the ball failed. 1-1!
The game was extremely open in the aftermath of the equalizer, with the primed-to-counter visiting strikers playing in between the – far-apart – Lautern lines, as the home side became more expansive, enterprising and confident in their passing. Mainz had dropped deeper as a result of seeing their lead removed and Kaiserslautern’s confidence located. And, when a Müller goal-kick was underhit, the high bank of four Kurz had placed on the halfway line had the chance to run at the defence (the Mainz midfield were laid out in a bank behind them). Clemens Walch at last had the chance to stretch his legs, but was stopped in his tracks – eventually – by Zdeněk Pospěch.
Moments later, the same defender was there to cut out another burst of pace down the same wing, this time by Shechter. He broke from a Mainz corner; set-pieces which always looked dangerous due to the presence in the box of Choupo-Moting. The home side, too, also looked good from dead balls swung into the box, primarily because Tiffert’s delivery was/is so good.
As we neared the 35-minute mark, the going-nowhere-but-sideways Mainz centre-backs sought to take a bit of sting out of the game, passing aimlessly among themselves. Although Kurz kept a 4-2 high and primed, the hosts’ didn’t press, and instead, were there to cut out the forward pass when it was eventually made. Mainz only made a few forays forward in the 15 minutes after Sukuta-Pasu’s equalizer, although they always looked the more technically accomplished of the two sides when doing so, and had no shortage of movement in attack.
The home side were guilty of getting too tight to the men in white or being a bit headless chicken in their approach to pressing, and on more than one occasion, this allowed a Mainz player to skin or spin their way into a pocket of space. Risse did this to great effect in the 36th minute, only to slice a rash half-volley over on his right foot from within the D.
Thomas Tuchel’s determination to keep his teasing, pass-assessing centre-backs deep often meant the team struggled to string passing moves together. This was because with disciplined Kaiserslautern staying rooted and compact in their 4-4-2, Soto and Eugen Polanski had to shuttle quite far back up the pitch to collect the ball, thereby isolating the attackers or making them come too deep to be effective too. However, there were some neat tactical touches to overcome this problem, with the wingers jogging and bobbing infield so as to distract the Kaiserslautern widemen and give the full-backs more of a clear path to the final-third.
Stieber didn’t return for the second half, the winger paying the price for an anonymous second-quarter of the match. Jan Kirchhoff took his place on the pitch, although Choupo-Moting took the Hungarian’s place on the wing. Kirchhoff, meanwhile, moved into a defensive midfield position, changing the Mainz system to a 4-1-4-1. This looked to be a good idea by Tuchel, as he now had a bridge between the centre-backs and the centre midfield, meaning players like Soto, Polanski, Risse and Allagui didn’t have to drop deep when their centre-back colleagues were in possession.
The away side started the second half well, with Kirchhoff’s intelligent movement when Bo Svensson and Nikolče Noveski had possession ensuring that gaps were being created through which to prise the home side apart. And, when Allagui sprant back and caught Rodnei off-guard in the 49th minute, uncertain Kaiserslautern temporarily lost their shape, allowing Pospěch to team up with Choupo-Moting before putting in a decent cross which Allagui was inches away from reaching. Nevertheless, the Tunisian and the left-back could have done with more help in the box.
Kaiserslautern had no such problem in the 54th minute, however, as Shechter handed the hosts the lead. Another good Tiffert delivery outswung from the right-sided corner flag was well marked by Mainz, but their inability to clear saw a bit of box pinball before the Israeli striker took charge in the six-yard box and blasted home for 2-1!
When things aren’t going their way, Mainz always have been guilty of conceding too many fouls in their own half, and that proved to be the case once again after they had fallen behind. Tiffert was hacked down on a diagonal infield dribble in the 56th minute, but the midfielder then went on to waste the free-kick which followed. Watching his colleague whistle that set-piece over the bar was the last action Austrian winger Walch saw as a representative of Kaiserslautern on the pitch, as Kurz brought on striker Dorge Kouemaha – who was a fitness doubt during the week – in his place.
Kaiserslautern stayed in their 4-4-2 after this change, with Sukuta-Pasu moving out onto the right flank. Despite retaining the same formation, the home side sat off their guests considerably deeper now that they had the lead, and Mainz found it difficult to break them down. This wasn’t through a want of trying, either, as Soto bobbed closer to and behind Allagui, and Kirchhoff was doing the piano carrying job higher up the pitch. But, even when the away side got the ball into the final-third, Kaiserslautern shirked no tackles: Sukuta-Pasu, for example, was doing more work than anyone, helping to cork the extremely well-served Choupo-Moting.
His side finding Lautern too tough a nut to crack, Tuchel rang the changes in the 67th minute after Risse skied a free-kick over the bar. Eugen Polanski, nowhere near his usual effective self, was replaced by Andreas Ivanschitz, and Allagui went off for Anthony Ujah. However, Mainz’s lack of bodies in the box problem continued a minute later, as a – admittedly poor – Risse cross was met by no one, making life easy for Kevin Trapp. Lesson still not learnt, some cheeky play on the byline by Risse in the 71st minute – a dropped shoulder saw slide-tackling Rodnei easily evaded – allowed the midfielder to fire a sharp shot-cum-cross across the six-yard box, only for no fox-in-the-box to be there to slide it in.
The visitors paid the price for their attacking flaws two minutes later, as Kaiserslautern added to their lead. With possession in the final-third and Mainz having to run back into their own half in droves, the host revelled in the opportunity to stretch and wear down their guests by switching play from right to left. There, on a rare foray forward, was Jessen, who tried a first-time thunderbolt at goal. The shot was chased down, but it bounced into the box nonetheless, where Tiffert was standing to back-header it over Müller and into the net for 3-1!
It could have been the third game in the last four where Mainz have conceded four goals two minutes later, as some agile, technical play in the box from Shechter allowed him to weave his way into a crossing position, with Kouemaha the recipient. Despite the substitute striker getting a decent connection on the header, Müller did well to save and hold onto it. Mainz weren’t looking too bad in attack, with Ivanschitz determined and occasionally incisive. But the Austrian’s colleagues looked extremely porous and erratic at the back, and in the 79th minute, Shechter – who was a real handful in the second half – probably should have had a penalty when Svensson rugby tackled him in the box.
Another former Bayer Leverkusen player came on for the last two minutes, as Tiffert was replaced by Pierre De Wit. Shechter also went off to a hero’s reception, as Kostas Fortounis took his place. The game petered out, with Mainz knowing the game was up and Kaiserslautern, in a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 system, preferring to run the clock down than attack again. They were good value for their win, despite the fortunate nature of at least two of their goals. As for Mainz, they now have to bounce back next weekend against champions Borussia Dortmund.