Bundesliga MD 20 Preview: Mainz against Bayern
Mainz is firmly embroiled in a relegation fight this season. An analysis of what they have to do better to ensure staying up is actually not all that difficult. Already in our preview of the reserve fixture we identified the hurriedness of their game as one of their biggest problems.
Although then coach Sandro Schwarz had worked hard to improve this, he ultimately did not succeed and was dismissed in November. His successor became Achim Beierlorzer, who just a week earlier had still been coach of Cologne where he was released just one day before Schwarz was released at Mainz.
11 games, 8 defeats, 3 victories – Beierlorzer’s predecessor had left him with a bleak legacy. Beierlorzer followed this up with three wins in eight games, but also five defeats – including three in a row in the last three games. The question of what exactly has improved under him is therefore difficult to answer.
One thing you could mention is match luck. Under Sandro Schwarz this was often missing. Need an example? On the Bundesliga’s second matchday, the team from Mainz lost 3-1 to Gladbach – the expected Goals (xG) by fbref.com gave the game a score of 1.2-1.5. On matchday 5, they lost away to Schalke with 2-1 – xG: 1.2-1.1. Then followed defeats against Wolfsburg (xG: 0.7-0.5) and Union (xG: 2.0-0.9). On the other hand, there were also a few somewhat lucky victories such as the ones against Hertha Berlin (xG: 1.8-2.2) and Cologne (xG: 1.3-1.9). All told, however, calling Mainz an unlucky team seems like a fair assessment to make.
Under Beierlorzer it seemed at first as if their fate had taken a turn for the better. Already in the first game under him, Mainz managed a 5-1 victory against Hoffenheim – xG: 2.1-2.2. Only the defeats against Leverkusen and Freiburg deviated more significantly from the gap in xG.
All their season’s matches taken together, Mainz has conceded significantly more goals than their xG against tally suggests. 33.4 xG against are way below their 44 actual goals conceded. An inquest into the causes, however, leads less to a verdict of bad luck, but more to the hectic pace of play already mentioned.
Beierlorzer too has not yet found an adequate solution to this problem. Shortly before Christmas, he spoke openly about his team’s major issues: “We need consistency, more aggressiveness, better tackling. And also more straightforwardness and determination in handling the ball.” Too timid, too hesitant, too little determination – that sums it up in a nutshell. The team seems to be uncertain in their offensive game, although with 27 they have scored the second most goals in the lower half of the table behind Augsburg with 31.
14.6 attempts per game is also the fifth best value in the league. But despite a much smaller sample size, we had already noticed a trend developing at Mainz before the reverse fixture last Summer, which the much more substantial data pool available now has confirmed: 46% of all shots at goal come from outside the penalty area. Only Dusseldorf has a higher proportion with 49%. The league average is 37.1%.
Comparing the xG value of 26 with the total number of shots (278), Mainz’s probability of scoring a goal with a shot is around 9%. To put that into perspective: Düsseldorf (7.6%), Paderborn (10%), Bremen (9.6%), Cologne (9.9%), Hertha (10.7%) and Union (9.9%) are on a similar level. Only Augsburg (13.2 %) is a clear positive outlier in this respect.
So these statistics do not bear out the theory that Mainz is catastrophic in attack. On the contrary: Managing to convert about the same percentage of shots as the competition despite primarily shooting from range rather serves to prove the high quality of these attempts. Dusseldorf, for example, has a similar shot distribution to Mainz and comes out with a potentially decisive 1.4% less in the calculation of the probability per shot.
This evaluation indicates that there is still unused potential for Mainz to realize, one that they could possibly use if they were able to calm their game down and play with greater patience. But if it were that simple, one of either Schwarz or Beierlorzer would have remedied the issue long ago. Nervousness, hecticness and a decision-making process that has already led to many individual mistakes and conceded goals characterize Mainz’s game.
Tactically Beierlorzer will also have paid careful attention to the negative experience Schalke made against Bayern last Saturday. Most recently, he established a system of two lines of four – against the ball often in a 4-4-1-1 midfield press. Against Bayern, this could look like something like this:
An important question will be how Mainz can put pressure on Bayern’s creative build-up players. One possibility would be to for the ball-side wide players to push up. In this graphic the outside left midfielder advances and the three remaining midfielders shift across to fill the void. Similar to Schalke, however, Mainz could then run into trouble if Bayern shifts the play across.
Therefore, it is also conceivable that Mainz will start in a classic 4-4-2 formation: a 4-4-2 that primarily blocks the passing lanes to the center, but exerts little pressure on the opposition’s defenders during build-up. Of course, Mainz could also push up from this compact formation, but if Bayern repeat what they did against Schalke, it will be difficult for Mainz to effectively challenge them in midfield. A good idea might be to allow Bayern to build up and then try to direct them out to the wings to take away speed and deprive them of options.
The most destructive option for Mainz would be to go with a back five. A back five does not necessarily have to be destructive if the wing-backs actively put pressure on the opponent’s wide players, but in many games against a back five Bayern have managed to make this formation look passive and destructive. The advantages are obvious: a back five allows for a tight center and a provides ample width in defense. But there are also major disadvantages: It would be harder to close down and challenge Bayern’s defensive midfield, and the necessity for a holding midfielder to drop in between the center-backs to escape the opposition’s cover as shown in the graphic would be nullified. In other words, the ways for them to link up with their offense would automatically become shorter. Doubts are warranted as to whether Mainz has the energy and discipline to defend aggressively in a back five formation. In 2016, they managed to do this once in the Allianz Arena with an outstanding performance in a 5-2-3 or 3-4-3 formation – but that was a while ago.
Mainz wants to be able to occasionally beat a side like Bayern again in the medium term. A clearer pressing with more ball wins higher up the field and above all the resurrection of their once so feared transitional game, which used to radiate danger due to the well defined movements and passing lanes – that is what Mainz is aiming for. Beierlorzer has been entrusted with taking this step. But he obviously needs time. Time that could jeopardize the mission of staying in the league. But the crucial games against direct competition are yet to come. Starting at the end of February, Mainz will play against Paderborn, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Union Berlin, among others. They should ideally be quite a bit further advanced in their development by then.
In the case of Bayern, things look a little different as far as their development is concerned. They too are nowhere near where they see themselves. But they complain at an altogether different level. In the Bundesliga, they deliver performances that do not reflect the team’s true potential often enough. For example in the reverse fixture against Mainz, where a 6-1 scoreline indicated a far more convincing victory than the course of the game had long suggested.
Step by step, however, Hansi Flick wants to take Bayern closer to the limit of their potential in order to be able to play a more important role in the Champions League than in recent times. The comebacks of Lucas Hernández and Kingsley Coman will be helpful in this regard. The game against Mainz may come too early, but with a view to the following weeks, their impending return is a blessing for Flick.
The top match at home against Leipzig on Matchday 21 will probably already feature on the edge of his mind. In that game, Bayern for the first time this season will have to at least come close to realizing their aforementioned potential. In this context, the games against Mainz and Hoffenheim should be seen as a warm-up program where a major focus of Bayern should be not to suffer any serious injuries before the clash with Leipzig.
Especially away from home, Bayern have often had a hard time against Mainz. Last season’s narrow 1-2 victory is a good example. The record is nevertheless impressive: 10 wins, 1 draw and only 2 defeats speak for themselves.
At the weekend, the biggest danger is that the team might already think about the DFB-Pokal mid-week and Leipzig next weekend. Mainz will compete with high intensity and test Bayern in order to feel how much they will allow. The deeper Bayern will be able to push their opponents into their own half, the more likely they are to have a quiet afternoon.
To do so, they need a similarly good performance in midfield as against Schalke. Flick can certainly be expected to put his faith in Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcántara in the engine room in midfield again. The three harmonized well together and made Bayern’s possession game look rather refined. At the same time, however, they still have potential for improvement.
Kimmich and Thiago in particular have to be more careful not to take up positions in the same vertical channel. Moreover, the way they advanced upfield after their team’s initial build-up play was not yet ideal. All too often, Goretzka was not given enough support for making late runs into the box. But it is crucial also for gegenpressing that the two holding midfielders close the gaps to the front in possession as quickly as possible.
The outcome of the game at the weekend will probably depend less on these details, but all the more on Bayern capitalizing on their chances as quickly as possible. Mainz is so far down the table not just because they lack match luck. So far, they have been missing both calmness and cleverness to break away from the relegation places more clearly.
It does not appear too bold a thesis to make that they will need some luck in addition to a passionate and tactically disciplined defensive performance to get something out of the game.
On paper the fixture is not really a watershed moment for either team. But it can indicate to both what the way forward may hold for them. In the case of Mainz, if they should be able to snatch points away from the reigning champions, it would definitely give them a proper boost to their confidence. In the case of Bayern, the same is true if they are able another commanding victory. They would be ill-advised to keep all eyes on the game against Leipzig right now. The stumbling blocks Mainz and Hoffenheim are too dangerous for that.