Monday, 15 June 2015

Di Santo's economy is vital if Werder want to go the distance

Last season, Werder Bremen managed on averaged just 12 crosses per game. Only Hertha Berlin managed less. It was a good job then that their top striker, Franco Di Santo needed so few chances to score.

The Argentine took a fraction over two shots per game during the 2013/14 season and collected 13 goals from his 26 appearances. Di Santo is right up there with Bas Dost, Shinji Okasaki, Patrick Herrmann and Max Kruse as Bundesliga strikers that don’t take many chances to score. It is no wonder that the player’s agent is playing it cool regarding his future and that at the moment Di Santo is holding off signing that new contract.

Werder are trying to restructure their squad on a shoestring budget. A series of unwise investments in the transfer market and the continued legacy of the redeveloped Weserstadion have forced the club to downgrade its expectations from being Champions League hopefuls to happy to settle for a place in the Bundesliga.

It is likely that Nils Petersen and Eljero Elia will be shunted off the wage bill this summer. The club also got as hefty transfer fee for the 20 year old Davie Selke who has moved to RB Leipzig. The transfer is both a loss and a win given how talented yet unproven is the German Under 20 international.

Since Thomas Schaaf left the club in 2013, Werder have appeared without purpose. In truth, this was the case before Schaaf left but his sheer longevity exuded a degree of certainty, much like the old man sat in his office meticulously preparing a ledger that, in truth could have been committed to spreadsheet years earlier.

While Schaaf's departure after 14 years as coach at the Weserstadion may have seemed like a necessary decision to rejuvenate the club, the opposite happened. Football under Schaaf's replacement, Robin Dutt, was moribund.

Dutt tried to change the playing style from the gung ho all out attack under Schaaf which was no longer appropriate for a club that lacked the attacking élan to pull it off. The result was a season of yawn stifling football as he tried to introduce a more defensive approach. After one season it was hoped that Werder would kick on with a new found sense of stability at the back. They didn't. In fact they were rubbish and Dutt was sacked in October 2014.

Under Viktor Skrypnyk, Werder have found some shape. They're hardly the swashbucklers of old but more pragmatic. Skrypnyk has been at the club since 1996 and he has developed a compact style of play. Clemens Fritz may not be at the peak of his powers but has responded to a more disciplined system of play. Fin Bartels who transferred from St Pauli last summer has taken full advantage of his opportunity to play in the first division and does so with great energy and vigour.

Then there is the jewel in the Werder midfield, Zlatko Junuzović. The Austrian had a breakthrough campaign, last season and his six goals and 12 assists have helped Werder keep away from the relegation trap door. The prodigious dead ball specialist has signed a new contract  and his set to be at the centre of the action next season.

But their best player is probably the January centre half signing, Jannick Vestergaard from TSG Hoffenheim. The occasionally error prone defender moved to Bremen with the intention that he would be a regular in the Werder back line. He has risen to the challenge and been a stand out player. The Dane is only 22 so has his best years ahead of him. He should make up the third in a triumvirate that can form the back bone of the Werder side, next season along with Junuzović and of course, Di Santo.

Should the Argentine choose to stay then Werder have a platform. If not then sporting director Thomas Eichin will be on the look out for a replacement without a great deal to offer by way of compensation. If he fails then they may come to regret letting Selke go to Leipzig and Werder are in for a tough season.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Is it time to end the Bundesliga Relegation playoff?

Few neutrals who watched Hamburg’s last ditch Relegation playoff survival at Karlsruhe on Monday would argue that it was cracking stuff. It was drama that outstrips anything drafted by even the sharpest Hollywood writing team.

The end of season Bundesliga Relegation Playoff pits the third from bottom of the first division against that third placed second team in a two legged game to decide who plays in the 1st division next season. For the second year in a row, Hamburg were the top tier club and once again they prevailed, this time thanks to an extra time winner in the second leg at Karlsruhe.

But there was a controversial turning point in the second leg when the referee, Manual Grafe,  gave a free kick to Hamburg deep into injury time for a marginal handball. HSV consequently scored and forced the game into extra time.

The result left a bitter taste in the mouth for the KSC players and supporters who felt hard done by. Many neutrals (at least on my Twitter timeline) were also left frustrated that a team as consistently dismal as Hamburg are still in the top flight. As exciting as it was it's difficult to escape the feeling that this play off appears to be rewarded a bad football team.

There have been seven relegation playoffs since its return to the calendar in 2009. Five of those games have gone the way of the first division club. You could say that two of these clubs, TSG Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach have gone on to make a significant contribution to the Bundesliga after their brush with death. Borussia have certainly produced a brilliant side that hopefully will grace the Champions League next season.
But the downside is that second division clubs are being prevented from progressing in the top tier. Of the five losing contenders, only Augsburg were able to bounce back from playoff defeat in 2010. Bochum, Kaiserslautern, Greuther Fürth and now Karlsruhe have worked hard and played well to earn their third place finish only to find all their good work undone by a two legged match.

Moreover, there is a danger that smaller clubs are being denied the experience of playing in the first division. KSC had a relatively young squad who, no doubt would have struggled had they been promoted but the experience would have been of great value to the players, coaches and the club. The same could be said for last season's losers, Greuther Fürth, who would have bounced back after one season down in the second division and might have made more of a fist of things second time around.

You may argue that the Bundesliga 2 teams should pull their finger out and win these game. And of course you would be right. But often these teams are made up of younger less experienced players than their Bundesliga 1 counterparts. It seems unreasonable to put their entire season on the line against more experienced professionals.

Besides, it seems unsporting to give bad teams another chance. HSV have been dogshit for the last two seasons and there's no reason to think that they won’t be just as bad next season. I think KSC deserved their chance and it’s a shame that their fantastic season was effectively decided by a questionable call from a referee.

So perhaps it's time the DFL did away with the playoff. As entertaining as they are for the neutral, they have often rewarded bad teams and bad football. The desire to extend the season for a little while longer is tempting but a four team second division playoff would be just as fun and more sporting. Especially if you seeded the higher placed teams at the end of the season. It also has the virtue of sending the crap teams down and not leaving them with the illusion that they have actually achieved something at the end of the season.