In the wake of his side's 4-2 win at 1899 Hoffenheim last Saturday however, even the 1. FSV Mainz 05 head coach was moved to admit: “I'm not sure whether I can actually analyse this match. I can only tell you what happened.”
What happened was that, having been thoroughly outplayed for over an hour and belatedly fallen two goals behind early in the second half, Tuchel's charges rattled in four without reply inside the final 25 minutes, to leave the hosts reeling and hoist themselves into an unlikely position in the standings. On 41 points, Mainz are not only on course for a UEFA Europa League berth next season but, as it stands, even fourth place and a tilt at the qualifying stages of the UEFA Champions League does not look in any way beyond them.
Tuchel was not, admittedly, in a particularly celebratory mood as he reflected on an extended opening phase in which “we fell well short of our own standards in every area”. He did nonetheless concede that “the team really deserve a huge compliment for the way it turned out. They obviously kept believing, which I have to admit I didn't after we went 2-0 down”. A concentrated effort of will hauled the visitors back into the contest and when threw himself at 's waist-high cross to head them 3-2 up with quarter of an hour to go, the turnaround was complete.
Okazaki on song
It only remained for Okazaki to put the icing on the cake with his own second goal in the dying seconds, taking him up to 11 for the season. That leaves the summer signing from VfB Stuttgart now just two shy of his namesake Shinji Kagawa's tally of 13 for Borussia Dortmund in 2011/12, the record campaign high to date for a Japanese player in the Bundesliga. “I was very focused on scoring today, so it was great to manage it,” said Okazaki after hitting the net for the first time since late January. “At the end of the day, that's what I'm judged on.”
There is of course far more to the versatile 27-year-old forward's game than that but under Tuchel, he has certainly been used far more consistently in his favoured position spearheading the attack than was the case at Stuttgart, where he often took up a wide midfield berth. Meanwhile, as of the turn of this year, the man more often than not serving up the ball in the hole behind him has been another Far Eastern import long admired and now finally on the books at Mainz. , signed from VfL Wolfsburg over the winter break, has added a new dynamic to the mainz midfield with his box-to-box athleticism and flexible interplay with the two frontmen typically deployed by Tuchel.
Koo and Park integral to new-look Mainz
The South Korean national team skipper emblematically demonstrated his value to the side in the recent 1-0 win at Bayer 04 Leverkusen – now potential direct rivals in the battle for European places – and looks set to play a pivotal longer-term role in a side the coach seems to be constantly in the process of remoulding. Unfortunately it is a matter of necessity, the price of success invariably being the departure of a raft of players to bigger clubs with far greater financial clout.
Another South Korean, , is simultaneously proving one of the finds of the season both for Mainz and in the Bundesliga as a whole. Signed from FC Basel 1893 last summer, the left back has been a virtual ever-present from the word go, shifting as required into a more advanced midfield slot with seemingly consummate ease.
The club are unquestionably getting more than their money's worth from their new Far Eastern triumvirate who, like the rest of their equally buoyant team-mates, can now hardly wait for the visit of FC Bayern München this weekend. The all-conquering ensemble from the Bavarian capital are seeking an 18th consecutive victory in the league and should they achieve it and other results go their way as well, they would become the first team ever to wrap up the title in March.
Needless to say, Mainz have no particular wish to see their home Coface Arena serve as the backdrop for that particular moment of Bundesliga history. Contemplating the upcoming scenario after his points-clinching performance at Hoffenheim, Okazaki was every bit as clear-eyed as his coach: “I'm not sure how, but we've managed to get ourselves up into fifth and hopefully we can build on this. But let in one against Bayern and it's all over, so we'll have to play much better than we did today.”
Relive FC Bayern coming unstuck against Mainz back in 2009 on the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: