There is a peculiar feel about the upper echelons of the Bundesliga as the season draws closer to one third completion, with the likes of Union Berlin, Freiburg, Hoffenheim and Bo Svensson’s Mainz hardly the usual suspects for title glory at such a stage of a season.
Mainz’s statement-making 5-0 win over Cologne on Friday night – a club record win in Germany’s top-flight – thrust them into the top three, even if just for one night, but with 18 points from 11 games, they are not there by fluke.
Only in 2010/11 did they ever have a better record after 11 games of the season, with 24 points placing them second under Thomas Tuchel. They concluded that season in fifth with 58 points – a viable target for this term given coach Svensson’s track record.
When he inherited a hopeless-looking situation in December 2020, nobody – not even those within the club, and arguably not even Svensson – believed he could pull off a minor miracle. With just six points from 14 games of the season, Mainz looked doomed, and history had already condemned them. Yet by picking up 33 out of a possible 60 points, Svensson’s Mainz completed a minor miracle by avoiding the drop, beating Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig along the way.
Last season, the 05ers had a worry-free year, remaining free from relegation worries throughout and finishing in a comfortable eighth place with 46 points.
His impact goes beyond the numbers, though. While he initially set about steadying the ship, winning nine games by just a single goal, he slowly instilled a playing philosophy which has made Mainz one of the most thrilling teams to watch. The parallels with Jürgen Klopp’s Gegenpressing can be seen, with Mainz playing a high-intensity game which starts from the very back, with aggressive yet fair defending and a hounding mentality; not only shalt thou not pass, thou shalt not even have time to consider it.
Klopp and Tuchel are two of Svensson’s predecessors at Mainz, with both going on to lift the UEFA Champions League and countless titles with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, and Svensson has already acknowledged their influence over him, not least due to the fact they both cut their coaching teeth on the very same bench. “I remember a lot from both, in technical and human terms: how to deal with people, lead a team,” said Svensson. “The way Mainz play, I was able to learn from both of them.”
Not only did he soak up what he saw from Klopp and Tuchel, Bo selector is outstripping them with an average points per game of 1.58 over his 69 games in charge, of which 31 have been wins. Klopp averaged 1.51 while Tuchel – Mainz’s most successful coach to date – averaged 1.43.
To do that, Svensson has adapted their styles both to his own beliefs and to the players he has, bringing the best out of them and, not least in the case of Anton Stach, making them candidates for a place in Germany’s FIFA World Cup squad. It was no coincidence that Bundestrainer Hansi Flick was in attendance on Friday night.
The powerful press is just the start. With possession regained, lightning transitions pave an efficient path to goal and suit the strengths of the likes of Karim Onisiwo, Jonathan Burkardt, Leandro Barreiro, Aaron Martin and Dominik Kohr, all of whom have also taken huge steps forward under Svensson.
The tirelessly battling Onisiwo got his reward against Cologne, earning the penalty which Marcus Ingvartsen tucked away for his fourth goal in as many games, then drawing the foul which earned a free-kick which Martin curled in. The proverbial cherry was placed on top by turning in Burkardt’s assist for Mainz’s fifth.
Watch: Ingvartsen on an "amazing feeling"
“It was a really fantastic game,” Onisiwo told DAZN. “I’m so pleased that we were able to play the way we’ve been wanting to play for a long time now, and really entertain our fans. We knew it was long overdue that we picked up three points at home, but we need to keep our feet on the ground because after these three wins, we’ve got to go to Bayern next weekend… but we’re looking forward to it.”
Indeed, Svensson rarely rests on his laurels and while the third blow of the referee’s final whistle was still echoing, he was already thinking about how he can further improve his team. “I don’t like it when we’re not reproducing our power, energy and positioning on a regular basis,” he said earlier this season. “These are the components that make us who we are.”
Back on the training ground, the message appears to be getting over and Mainz are slowly discovering the consistency Svensson seeks. Three wins in a row, including victory over Lübeck in the second round of the DFB Cup, with 10 goals scored and none conceded have propelled the 05ers right up the form table. A 1-1 draw with Leipzig preceded a run which takes Mainz nicely into a trip to Munich on Matchday 12, for a genuine top of the table clash, a third of the way through the season.
That will be the acid test for Svensson’s high-flyers, though as he approaches his two-year anniversary at the helm, there are few around whom he still needs to convince, and even fewer now doubting that his team have what it takes to mount a challenge in the top half of the season.
In this most anomalous of seasons, Mainz are part of a collection of clubs on course to create quite an upset. Exactly how big that upset will be remains to be seen over the final two thirds of the campaign, but you would not want to bet against the city of Mainz being back on the European map in 2023.
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