Munich - When does a surprise package become less of a surprise? As far as the Bundesliga goes, the answer at the moment and not for the first time is: when it's 1. FSV Mainz 05.
Success on a shoestring
In the wake of successive 13th-place finishes in each of the last two campaigns, the club from the modestly-sized capital of Rheinland-Pfalz had the pre-season pundits split, with more than a few predicting another battle on the fringes of the relegation zone.
Instead, Mainz go into Matchday 20's away game at VfL Wolfsburg seeking the victory that would lift them above their hosts in the standings and into the top six. That bare fact speaks volumes for the quality of the work continuing to be done on limited resources by head coach Thomas Tuchel and his staff.
An inevitable corollary of the over-achievement of Tuchel's first two Bundesliga campaigns – ninth place and a club record points tally in 2009/10, then a further improvement to fifth and a UEFA Europa League berth – was that the cream of his tightly-run collective would find themselves heading, sooner rather than later, for bigger and more lucrative shores, leaving the coach with yet another rebuilding job.
Koo heed's pal Park's advice
It's just part of the accepted reality at Mainz – and the team's latest reincarnation has a distinctly far-eastern twist to it which, judging by the coach's degree of satisfaction, is only set to grow further. Last weekend's 2-0 home victory over SC Freiburg made it two wins out of two in 2014 and three on the trot all-told, and the all-important goals came courtesy of a South Korean double-whammy. got the ball rolling with a deflected strike in the 24th minute and second-half sub marked his home debut by put the icing on the cake with a fine curled finish to seal the points inside the final few minutes.
For both players it was the first Bundesliga goal in Mainz colours and Park was “over the moon about it. I don't care where I play, I'll go wherever the coach sees fit!” A left back by trade, the 27-year-old Seoul native was deployed in midfield against Freiburg, as he had been at Stuttgart the week before as well, and to great effect. “Joo-Ho's incredibly valuable to us at the back, I wouldn't want to pigeonhole him in any one position,” Tuchel subsequently noted. “He can operate as a holding midfielder as well. For a coach, his versatility's a gift.”
As is his adaptability, with Tuchel similarly impressed by the speed at which Park slotted into his new surroundings after arriving from FC Basel last summer: “The lad took to the Bundesliga like a duck to water.” 19 league appearances to date, 18 of them from the start, bear ample testimony to that. And from now on, he will have the regular on-field company of compatriot and close friend Koo, freshly prised away from upcoming opponents Wolfsburg.
The South Korean national team skipper, who turns 25 at the end of February, had long been in the sights of the FSV tactical supremo and soon after putting pen to paper on a four-and-a-half-year deal, he revealed that the feeling was mutual. “I'd wanted to come to Mainz for quite some time,” he explained, having “often heard from Joo-Ho that it's a great team and the fans here are very good as well”.
Team spirit to the fore
That emphasis on the collective is appreciated in turn by Tuchel, who stressed that his new signing “defines himself as an absolute team player. He's quite willing to put in a shift at the coal face at the expense of any personal glory”. A prerequisite at Mainz, given their notoriously hard-running style, but it's by no means the only string to Koo's bow, with the coach giving special mention to “his eye for goal and ability one-on-one in an attacking situation”. The former of those qualities was more obviously on display at Augsburg, where he hit the net eight times over the course of an 18-month loan spell in 2012/13. “I know he likes operating as the playmaker and I think that's his strongest position,” said Tuchel, clearly indicating that Koo's inspiration in the forward department will be every bit as valued as his perspiration there and elsewhere around the pitch.
With Japanese goalgetter , another new face this season, likewise revitalised and flourishing in the role both he and the coach agree suits him best, unfashionable Mainz are well on course for another season in which they leave any number of more illustrious names in their wake. The skill, attitude and likeable character of the club's far-eastern recruits is now an integral element of the revamped team and the impression they have made has even given Tuchel light-hearted pause for thought as to his own career curve. “Our East Asians are fantastic,” he said. “If they're all like that, I definitely need to get a job in charge of a national team somewhere over there.”
See the talents of the Bundesliga's Asian connection for yourself on the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: