Mainz 3-2 Bayern Munich
‘What’s nice about Mainz is that they always try to play football’, said the co-commentator with the odd intonation, not long after Andreas Ivanschitz had accepted Bayern Munich defender’s Jerome Boateng’s charitable offering of a fabulously deep one-man defensive line to stay onside and put the team from Rhineland-Pfalz in central western Germany ahead on Sunday. The Luxury Player has never shied away from stating the blindingly blatant, and was of the opinion that Mainz owed their lead to a very sensible decision to play football and not, say, basketball, which would have seen them starting with a measly five players, all of whom would have been soon sent off for persistently handling the ball.
The funny thing is that playing football did upset Bayern this past weekend. Mainz, far from scaling anew the heights reached last season, were languishing near the bottom of the table at kick-off, but chose nevertheless not to be cowed by the might of Bayern. Bayern of course had just lost only their second match of the season, against Borussia Dortmund one week earlier, which would have seen them keen to return to winning ways, but were perhaps physically weakened by the exertions of their midweek Champions League victory over Valencia. More damaging to their chances were arguable the absences of Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield and Arjen Robben in attack coupled with the presence of the aforementioned 19th century novelist Jerome K. Jerome Boateng on the right side of defence, who at times this campaign has seemed determined prove that his football can be as chortle-inducing as his writing.
Early on in the season this blog published a post in which it was suggested that enterprising sides stood a good chance of unsettling the Bayern defence. That was after the second round of Bundesliga matches, which had seen the Munich team lose their opening fixture at home to Borussia M’gladbach and sneak a last-minute victory away at Hamburg, a match that the home side should have won. After that match Bayern of course went on to win 8 out of 10 matches in the domestic league before Mario Götze’s strike for Borussia Dortmund on the 19th of November.
Still, though the Luxury Player may be a dilettante, he is a dilettante with convictions, and bravely stepping out from behind the parapet to condemn the Bavarian club, now that they have lost two games on the trot, this blog declares its original position to have been spot on. As the game wore on Bayern’s defence’s morale started to wither and the mistakes began to pile up; towards the end of the first half Daniel van Buyten passed the ball into touch whilst under no discernible pressure. His central defensive colleague Holger Badstuber was to do the same on at least one occasion in the second. One lovely shot on target aside, Jerome Boateng’s attention seemed to be with his two boating colleague; the defender was withdrawn in the second half.
Perhaps of greatest significance was the loss of rhythm provided by Bastian Schweinsteiger. This blog has argued that for all his talents Toni Kroos is probably not a natural number 10, which is the role he most often seems to play. Schweinsteiger’s vision and range of passing relieve Kroos, whose talents seem better suited to being deployed alongside Schweinster’s than in front of them, of some of the pressure of probing the defence required of a player in his position. In addition the resurgence of Ribéry, and the contributions of the occasionally fit Robben have provided no shortage of ideas from the flanks, meaning that Bayern have been able to do without a locksmith whose best work is chiefly performed in the final third.
Perhaps the one whose star who shone most brightly in the match was not Ivanschitz, who scored the first goal and lay on the third, or Marco Caligiuri, who scored a remarkable second and tormented Boateng and Van Buyten time after time, but the captain Elkin Soto, who time and again intervened in midfield in such a way as to rob Bayern of almost every attempt to gain momentum. At least twice he skilfully stole the ball from Ribéry as the Frenchman threatened to sprint into space, and he handily won his battle with Toni Kroos. But not only was he both strong and nimble in the tackle, his distribution was the model of accuracy and simplicity. Much in the same way that Didier Deschamps used not only to disrupt the opposition’s attacks but also keep the ball moving sensibly when his team were on the front foot, so Soto’s contribution was confined not only to the defensive third but also to the attacking one. Schweinsteiger he may not be, but he revealed that the game is can be decided by the team with the midfielders most comfortable and confident in possession, and the Kroos-Luiz Gustavo-David Alaba axis, for all their talent, looked out of their depth at times. Indeed it was no doubt a mistrust of this trio, in particular the young Alaba on whose shoulders too much responsibility has been thrust too soon, that sowed the seeds of doubt amongst the defence, and perhaps their occasional misjudgements on the night should be considered in this light.
“Neuer saw that one all the way” said Eurosports commentator after the Bayern keeper stopped a shot from distance by Caligiuri. “He did. That’s what makes him Germany’s number one,” replied his colleague with the funny intonation. In the spirit of such unstartling revelations and simplistic leaps of logic, this blog declares that Mainz beat Bayern because they played better football.