Matchweek 30 of the Bundesliga once again served up plenty of talking points…
Does mentality actually beat quality?
As early as 2014, when SV Darmstadt 98 were vying for promotion to the second division, coach Dirk Schuster said that “mentality beats quality.”
Almost two years on, the Lillies have seen two successive promotions and are now on course to secure their Bundesliga status following a 2-0 win over FC Ingolstadt 04. The victory was only Darmstadt’s second home win of the season – an indication of how the club has ferociously battled and fought against stronger opposition on the road.
Keeping Darmstadt in the Bundesliga is one thing; securing a mid-table position – they are currently 11th with four games left – would be a spectacular achievement. But what to say about Schuster’s proclamation which has been repeated by 1. FSV Mainz 05 coach Martin Schmidt? Compare Darmstadt to Hamburger SV or VfB Stuttgart – both traditionally-laden clubs clearly lack in the winning intensity which is central to Schuster’s coaching philosophy. Second best, or a half-baked job, is seen as unacceptable.
Psychology in football remains the most complex of layers in terms of performance. For lots of former athletes, the lack of interpersonal skills are a problem. Finding the balance within a squad of individuals is a delicate process. Young coaches like Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel, Mainz’s Schmidt and Julian Nagelsmann have brilliantly bridged the nexus between academic, analytical and easy-going.
One aspect of Pep Guardiola’s management, which is grossly underrated, is his copious appetite to win. In the end, he’s a pragmatist and looks to find the best solution from the players at his disposal. Bayern’s next opponents in Europe are Atletico Madrid – the “mentality monster” as Matthias Sammer said – the perfect example, roared on by the intensity of Diego Simeone.
The best talent in the world can always be bought – but a winning mentality can’t be. European football this year – Leicester, Atletico, struggles of bigger Bundesliga sides versus Darmstadt – suggests Schuster and Schmidt might be on to something.
Hoffenheim, the league’s in-form team
Although TSG 1899 Hoffenheim will have been aware of Julian Nagelsmann’s talents – he was lined up to take over in the summer – the club couldn’t have realistically expected such a transformation in the last 10 games. The youngest coach in Bundesliga history, aged 28, has overhauled the fortunes of the club who were joint-bottom when he stepped into the job.
Coming in as a quick-fire replacement for Huub Stevens, who left his post for health reasons, Hoffenheim have collected 20 points from an available 30 in the Bundesliga. Just three Bundesliga teams – FC Bayern München, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer 04 Leverkusen – boast a stronger record in the past 10 games.
Hoffenheim’s resurgence has even transformed the lower half of the Bundesliga table. The likes of Hamburg and Stuttgart have been sucked back into the relegation battle which will come to a gripping conclusion next month. Kevin Volland looks back to his best after a slump in form, while youngsters such as Nadiem Amiri are rewarding their coach for showing trust. A 2-1 win over Hertha Berlin was their fourth win from five games.
Regression to the mean cannot be ignored, but Hoffenheim, it seems, are just performing to expectations. This is a supremely talented group of players at a club which has one of the best football structures in the Bundesliga. If any club was primed to break into the chasing pack for Europe, it should be Hoffenheim. With an all-rounder like Nagelsmann at the helm, they should be more than capable of unlocking their potential in the medium-term.
The Gundogan question
After months of speculation, it appears that Ilkay Gundogan could be set to join Manchester City. Reports in the German media, including those of the respected Süddeutsche Zeitung, pointed to a move across the English Channel for around 30 million euro – although Dortmund haven’t received an offer for the player whose contract expires in 2017.
When asked for comment before Dortmund’s 3-0 win over Hamburg, sporting director Michael Zorc pensively hinted at an announcement in the coming days. Zorc’s refusal to address the issue seems ominous. The yellow-and-blacks still reckon they can convince him to stay, but the German international has shown no intention yet that he intends to extend his stay at the Westfalenstadion.
The trouble for Dortmund in replacing the midfielder, if he decides to join Pep Guardiola next season, is that he’s essentially one of a kind in European football. Even if there was a logical replacement, the Bundesliga club wouldn’t be able to afford him. Whether Dortmund, safe in the knowledge that they will return to the Champions League, decide to reinvest 30 million back into the squad
Gonzalo Castro, though, is flaunting the sort of class that he showed at previous club Leverkusen before completing a move to Dortmund last summer. There’s little doubt of Castro’s ability to perform competently in the Bundesliga, but making the step into the Champions League is a risk. The club might revisit former target Oliver Torres of Atletico Madrid, a classy midfielder who would be a major asset in the long-term. The jury is out on players linked from other Bundesliga clubs, like Mahmoud Dahoud and Marc Stendera.
If a replacement isn’t available, Tuchel may need to alter his tactical approach. Dortmund won’t be able to rely on a unique player like Gundogan to penetrate defensive lines on his own anymore. A compromise could be to find a player who brings out the qualities in others – i.e. Castro. Of all the star names Dortmund have lost in the last five years – Lewandowski, Götze, Kagawa and Sahin – Gundogan is arguably going to be toughest to replace, should he leave for the Premier League.