The warm-up for an important mid-week round…
Welcome to the Match Week Review, where we go over the match week that has passed, naming a player of the match week, three winners and losers, and five things we learned. So let us look back at Match Week 27 in the Bundesliga…
Player of the Match Week
Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen (2 goals in Leverkusen’s 3-1 win over Gladbach)
Not many more superlatives can be tacked onto a player considered one of the brightest young gems in world football, but man, this kid can play. Normally deployed as an attacking midfielder, injury to normal starting striker Kevin Volland convinced Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz to deploy Havertz in that role. If you did not know any better, you would think he had played as a center forward his whole career, and his performance in a Rheinland Derby against Gladbach exemplified that. He played the “false nine” role perfectly, dropping back into midfield at times to support the build up play and make key passes for his teammates, while still making the attacking runs and positioning himself as if he were a striker. Leverkusen’s first goal illustrated this point, where Havertz made the run of an experienced number nine to be available for Bellarabi’s pass before calmly slotting the ball past Yann Sommer. In such a massive game that was incredibly important for Leverkusen’s season, Havertz produced a masterclass performance, it is hard to think of anything he did wrong.
Honorable Mention: Timo Werner (RB Leipzig), Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jiri Pavlenka (Werder Bremen)
Winners of the Match Week
1.) RB Leipzig
Leipzig stuttered last week in a potentially season-ending draw against Freiburg. They needed a good result this week to keep their place at the front of the developing race for the top four, as well as to keep a snowball’s chance in hell at the title. Not only did they deliver, but they did so in style. The Red Bulls, with the return of key players Marcel Sabitzer and Dayot Upamecano, blew away relegation-fighting Mainz in a match that was seemingly not as close as the 5-0 scoreline it finished at. Superstar forward Timo Werner, who had not scored in his last eight games, scored three in a complete striker performance. Sabitzer and Kevin Kampl also shone, and it seemed that all of the chances that did not go in last week were going in this week. This should restore the confidence of Nagelsmann’s team going into four very winnable matches. They need help and other results to go their way in order to fully get back into the title race, but if they continue winning, they should at least retain their place in the Champions League places for next season.
2.) Werder Bremen
I said a week ago that relegation may be all but certain for Werder Bremen, but wait, there might be life yet for Florian Kohfeldt’s team. A massive 1-0 win against Freiburg put them just three points behind Fortuna Düsseldorf in the relegation playoff place and six points away from safety, with Werder having a game in hand. The return of midfielder Davy Klaassen from suspension was a defining moment, as it was the Dutchman who provided the sensational assist to Leonardo Bittencourt for the game’s only goal. Czech goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka was also phenomenal, one of the best performers of the week. Düsseldorf’s dropped points against Köln has massively changed Bremen’s fortunes, as even having to contend with the relegation playoff (which has the very intriguing potential of being a Nordderby against Hamburg) gives them a chance at survival in the top flight for one more season. Things do not get easier, with Gladbach being the next opponent for die Werderaner, but winnable matches against Schalke and Eintracht Frankfurt present them with a great opportunity to continue their great escape.
3.) Hertha Berlin
I said when the season restarted that Hertha needed to reverse their current trend and quickly. With two convincing victories, including a dominant performance in the Berlin Derby, Bruno Labbadia has truly reversed Hertha’s fortunes. Now with a fairly safe 10 point gap between them and the relegation places, Labbadia can afford to start looking further up the table, being only five points away from a potential top six place. Vedad Ibišević once again proved to be the key player, recording a goal and an assist while leading the line for die Alte Dame, also effectively bringing fellow forwards (and goalscorers) Matheus Cunha and Dodi Lukebakio into the game. A Europa League place might be a tall order, but with matches remaining against Leipzig, Dortmund, Leverkusen, and Gladbach, they could play a significant role as kingmakers in this season.
Losers of the Match Week
It is hard to imagine how a match could have been more of a disaster than their 4-0 loss to Dortmund last week, but their 3-0 loss to Augsburg this week is sure giving it a challenge. Schalke went behind in six minutes thanks to a great free kick from Eduard Löwen, and they never really looked like they were going to get back into the match. David Wagner’s team has always had some issues with scoring goals, but with star attacking midfielder Amine Harit missing out due to a ligament injury, the Schalke attack went from sputtering to nonexistent. A knee injury to Suat Serdar pushed things from bad to worse, and die Knappen simply lacked ideas once Serdar was substituted. Even with Augsburg largely conceding possession for most of the match, they still looked the more likely team to score. Schalke’s defense, trying to survive without Jean-Clair Todibo and Ozan Kabak, struggled when Augsburg played on the counter, with the second goal emphasizing this. Salif Sané was caught in a positional no-man’s land, and Jonjoe Kenny lunged in too quickly, which left Sarenren Bazee with a pretty easy chance to finish. Schalke are now winless in their last nine matches, scoring only two goals and conceding 22 goals in that span, and they are slowly being pulled away from the Europa League places and toward mid-table.
2.) Fortuna Düsseldorf
Düsseldorf were 2-0 up and in control against their Rheinland rivals Köln, and it looked like they were about to pick up a crucial three points in their bid to stay in the top flight. They were 2-0 up until the 88th minute, when Anthony Modeste headed in a cross from Dominick Drexler to pull one back for Köln. No problem, right? Just a consolation goal, surely Düsseldorf could hold on, right? It was only four more minutes to a potentially season-defining three points. But they could not hold on. In the 91st minute, Jhon Córdoba got on the end of another Drexler cross and headed it into the goal, leveling the match. In a match that Düsseldorf probably deserved to win, they lost two points at the death, and this has consequences for their season. Had they won, they would have moved to only one point from safety, following Mainz’s loss to Leipzig, and would have maintained some distance from Werder Bremen in the first full relegation place. Now, they remain three points behind Mainz but are only three points ahead of Bremen, and with Bremen’s game in hand, it is very possible that Düsseldorf could be dragged down into the full relegation places. They must still play Bayern, Dortmund, and Leipzig, so the road to safety is not easy. Düsseldorf are still in serious danger.
3.) Eintracht Frankfurt
I am very ready to say that, despite their game in hand, Frankfurt are in the relegation fight. Four points ahead of Fortuna Düsseldorf and with several “six pointer” matches against lower half teams coming up, things could go from bad to worse very quickly for Adi Hütter’s team. Goals have been a consistent issue, especially when compared to the free-scoring front three of Haller, Jović, and Rebić that die Adler had last season, but the defense has become an even bigger issue, with eight goals conceded in their last two matches. Martin Hinteregger is really the only defensive player to cover himself in glory in those two games, and even then, he scored a very unfortunate own goal against Bayern. The good news for Hütter is that, especially when compared to Düsseldorf, their remaining matches are fairly winnable. They only have two matches against teams currently in the top half (Wolfsburg and Schalke), and still have to play two of the teams currently in the relegation places (Paderborn and Werder Bremen) and against just-outside-of-relegation Mainz. Wins against bottom half teams should open up some breathing room between Eintracht and relegation, but losses could see them dropping even further.
Five Things We Learned
1.) David Wagner’s job is in danger:
No wins in nine for Schalke, a slow descent from the European places, and seemingly no plan on how to survive without Harit and Serdar, it seems that Wagner’s managerial issues have been exposed. The end of his tenure at Huddersfield was characterized by his team slowly losing momentum to the point of reaching near-collapse, and it seems his Schalke team has now reached that point. It is hard to see the differences between Wagner’s tenure and that of his predecessor, Domenico Tedesco, and Wagner was likely saved from the relegation fight that Tedesco suffered through due to the individual talent that he had at his disposal. With the impending COVID-induced financial issues at Schalke well-known, it is possible that the club’s hierarchy consider the merits of a complete rebuild, ditching Wagner for the manager that would see them through that period.
2.) Leipzig are so much more than a team full of Football Manager talent:
Leipzig are the youngest team in the Bundesliga, and their starting XI is normally littered with young talent that shines on a weekly basis, but in their 5-0 win over Mainz, arguably their three best performers (or three best performers not named Timo Werner) were some of the older members of the squad. 26-year-old Marcel Sabitzer, 25-year-old Yussuf Poulsen, and 29-year-old Kevin Kampl all made significant contributions, with Poulsen and Sabitzer both scoring and assisting and Kampl assisting. This veteran experience coming through with strong performances is a major difference between this Leipzig team and the teams of the past few years, which had always been talented and high-scoring but lacked the crucial experience and maturity needed to contend for a title. Now, 26 and 25 do not sound like the ages that fit the definition of “veteran players”, but relative to the rest of the Leipzig team, they definitely are. Those three were three of the four oldest players in the starting XI for Leipzig against Mainz, the fourth being left back Marcel Halstenberg, and they each bring significant Bundesliga experience and, in the case of Poulsen and Sabitzer, time with Leipzig. Players who fit that mold are always important for title contending teams, and after a season of young starlets like Werner, Christopher Nkunku, and Dayot Upamecano occupying the headlines, the older players deserve to get their credit when it is due.
3.) Werder Bremen are not dead yet:
I called them nearly dead and buried last week, and I was definitely wrong. Three critical points picked up against Freiburg, combined with Düsseldorf’s draw against Köln and Mainz’s loss against Leipzig, gives Bremen a lifeline in at least finishing in the relegation playoff place. With a game in hand, as well as important matches against Eintracht Frankfurt, Paderborn, and Mainz coming up, Florian Kohfeldt can see a realistic path to safety. Goals still remain an issue, and their defense is not always going to be saved by Jiri Pavlenka as they were against Freiburg, but anything is possible at this point. Given the state that Bremen were in before the hiatus, even giving themselves a chance at survival through the playoff would be a massive deal.
4.) “Home field advantage” no longer matters this season:
Points four and five are related, but we will start with the first of the “new normal” observations. Without the backing of home fans, “home field advantage” is seemingly worthless now. Home teams have lost 10 of 18 games since the season restart, with only two of the three wins by home teams since the restart coming from Dortmund and Bayern. Some home teams have sputtered into poor performances in big matches where the home atmosphere could have possibly carried them to a different result. For example, the result may not have changed, but given Union Berlin’s home wins over Dortmund and Gladbach in the past, it would have been interesting to see if they could have added Bayern to the list of big names beaten at home had the Stadion An der Alten Försterei been full of fans. The lack of fans in the Westfalenstadion for the upcoming Der Klassiker match this week could have an impact on the result, and while playing these matches behind closed doors is necessary, it is unfortunate that this aspect of football has been removed.
5.) The piped-in crowd noise is weird:
For several matches this week, the television broadcast played recordings of fan chants for the home team fans. This was done as a way of adding to the television viewer experience and making the match seem less like a training match. I am unsure of whether this was done by the clubs themselves or by the TV broadcaster, FOX Sports in my case, but it was definitely weird. The weirdness may have come from my first encounter with it, in Leipzig’s 5-0 win over Mainz, where the home fan recordings continued unabated despite the home team’s dire situation, but its continued use in the Köln-Düsseldorf match was also weird. I did not mind it at first, as it definitely made the match feel more like a proper, normally-attended football match, but after a while it felt more unnatural. You began hearing the same chants at regularly occurring intervals, and the tapes continued despite the events that occurred on the pitch. Slight turns upward from the broadcast cameras would reveal the empty stands, which made the sounds of fan chants even more jarring. I appreciate the desire of television companies to make these matches seem more normal for the viewer, but in their attempts at doing so, they just highlight how abnormal this situation is. With some discussion around television companies using green screens to project the images of fans in the stands, it sort of feels like we are about to reach the “jumping the shark” moment of all this. At some point, we all just have to recognize how abnormal this situation is, stop trying to make it seem normal, and just accepting this behind-closed-doors football for what it is: the game we still know and love, just different.