Mainz 05: The Charming Carnival Club Storming Through the Bundesliga
Following a shock-victory over FC Bayern, Mainz are now on a club-record 10 match unbeaten streak. What is the secret behind the charming carnival club's unlikely success?
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For the first time since October 2018, FC Bayern have gone four consecutive matches without registering a win. The once all-conquering giants of German football are at the risk of going without a title for the first time in over a decade; falling into disarray off the pitch, and lacking a cutting edge on it.
Having relinquished top spot over the weekend, all the attention from the German media is currently focused on the distraught performance of the record champions. It’s no secret that the current storylines coming out of FC Bayern are presenting themselves as a PR windfall for the national tabloids. H
However, on the German Football Weekly, we do things differently.
We would rather give our attention to those who deserve it: 1. FSV Mainz 05.
Situated at the Rhein and the capital of the state Rhineland-Palatinate in South-West Germany, 1. FSV Mainz 05 provided the next footballing highlight over the weekend in what has been a spectacular post-World Cup Bundesliga campaign. Following their 3:1 victory over Bayern, Mainz have extended their single-season unbeaten streak to a club record 10 Bundesliga matches in a row.
No team in Europe’s top 5 leagues is on a longer unbeaten streak, and since the start of the Rückrunde (the second half of the campaign in Germany), only Borussia Dortmund have taken more points than Die Nullfünfer.
This is the story of how, in the space of two years, a club went from the brink of relegation to chasing European football, achieving unprecedented heights by putting their faith in pragmatic football, and the development of player personalities above all else.
An Academic Steering in Success
The role the manager plays in the success or failure of a football club, and his direct impact on results on the pitch, remains one of the most difficult aspects to accurately assess within the modern game.
Is a new manager the direct cause for a burst up the table, or did the club hit such a rock bottom that simply the moral boost from a fresh face was enough to see performances rise?
Was Thomas Tuchel’s new tenure the reason for FC Bayern’s dramatic drop in performance, or did the combination of freak results, distracting external noise, and an untimely fixture against the best team in world football cause the Rekordmeister to slip into complete disarray? Even with the data-driven analytical revolution coursing through the world of football, the role, and impact, of the manager on first-team results remains one of the few aspects almost impossible to accurately predict.
However, there are still instances where it is simply impossible to avoid accrediting a manager with a fundamental role in shaping a club’s success. At Mainz 05, that is clearly the case.
When in early 2021, Bo Svensson took over the coaching role at the Carnevals Verein, the then 41-year-old Danish manager inherited a first-team setup that seemed to be on the brink of total collapse. Mainz looked destined to drop into the second-tier. With half the season gone, Die Nullfünfer had already sacked 2 managers, flown out of the Pokal competition, and picked up only one win across the first 15 top-flight matchdays.
Nevertheless, Svensson - a former player for the club who featured under the likes of Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel - was aware of what had made Mainz so special in the past. Even better, he was also conscious of what he could immediately change to get them back on track.
Whereas Mainz was historically a side built around young and ambitious footballers who had to work twice as hard compared to their more seasoned Bundesliga opponents to even have a chance of scraping by with a point, the complacency from a sustained period in the topflight had seen the club slide away from their roots.
This was the first issue Svensson addressed when he joined the club in January. The Danish manager used the transfer window to off-load talent that considered itself too important for the reality of an uphill relegation battle. Despite being the club’s top goalscorer, an isolated and self-centered Jean-Philippe Mateta was sent to Crystal Palace, while former Spanish youth international Aarón Martín saw himself loaned out to Celta Vigo.
The media took these transfers as a sign of Mainz throwing in the towel, but in reality, it was Svensson doing what he does best - focusing, above all else, on bringing together the fitting personalities to build a competitive roster.
Though a fine footballer throughout his playing career, defining Bo Svensson to his mere footballing accolades does a disservice to the multi-faceted, and uniquely personable manager who has led Mainz 05 up the table.
Svensson’s father, a trained architect who designed nature reserves, would regularly take a young Bo to museums or the racecourse on weekends. There was also deliberately no television at home to force the aspiring footballer to spend time outside or delve into other hobbies. Instead of wasting his days away on the couch or falling into the wrong crowd on the streets of Copenhagen, Bo was drawn to the stacks of books on philosophy and existentialism filling the shelves around his father’s home.
Even after a long career at the highest level, this fascination with education, the human experience, and the search for meaning remained with Svensson. Were it not for Kasper Hjulmand pleading with a soon-to-be-retired Svensson to join his Danish coaching setup at Mainz in 2014, the former centerback would likely not be the one leading Mainz’s European charge, but instead, wrapping up his university degree where he hoped to become a professor.
Having spent a formative portion of his playing career under the tutelage of Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, and having coached at the esteemed RB Salzburg academy, Bo Svensson’s managerial credentials are perfectly aligned with a club of Mainz 05’s stature.
However, what has clearly afforded him an X-factor above all the other potential candidates is his ability to connect with, and get the best out of, each and every individual at the club. As Svensson mentioned in an interview with the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung earlier this season,
“The best thing about the job? That I can support any individual, player, or employee in becoming even better or happier?”
From the striker starting every fixture to the 3rd choice goalkeeper unsure of where his next contract will come from, there is a sense that each individual is valued and appreciated at Mainz. Bo is creating an environment in which the end product far outweighs the sum of its parts. This is what paved the way for Mainz 05’s unlikely escape in 2021, and what has now seen them establish themselves as a true competitor for one of the hotly contested European places.
The epitome of “Bundesliga Football”
Developing an outstanding team atmosphere, and pushing every individual to their limits both as a footballer and personality has proven a stable base for Mainz to remain in the topflight. However, this alone doesn’t tell the story of how a side estimated to have the 4th smallest wage bill in the division can currently be leading a charge for a spot in European competition next season.
It’s impossible not to notice the impact of Jürgen Klopp and the Red Bull education on Svensson’s tactical outlook.
Die Nullfünfer typically play a style of football that is extremely combative and direct. They take few risks in possession, and swarm as a unit to win back the ball.
Even by the modern Bundesliga’s unique standard for placing little weight on controlled possession phases, Mainz 05 are still an anomaly. This season, Mainz 05 have held the lowest average possession in the German top-tier, and amongst all 98 clubs in Europe’s top 5 leagues, nobody turns over the ball on more occasions than Die Nullfünfer.
What is then keeping Mainz’s game from descending into complete chaos? They are able to implement an effective assessment of risk as they execute their tactics.
Svensson’s side is clearly coached to progress the ball up the pitch quickly, creating an environment where turnovers primarily appear in attacking zones where the opposition is in no position to directly create a goal-scoring position.
This is again highlighted in the numbers. Every fifth pass Mainz have attempted this season is over 25 meters long, while the defensive third - an area of the pitch where the opposition can directly create a goalscoring opportunity after winning the ball - is almost non-existent in possession phases.
A Seamless Character Fit & A Giant French X-Factor
Implementing a high-energy and unmistakably direct approach requires the right personnel.
In central defense, the veteran leadership of 31-year-old Stefan Bell remains key to maintaining a sharp defensive line. The Mainz Academy graduate is the longest-serving member of the squad. He even made his first-team debut in 2012 alongside none other than Bo Svensson himself.
In midfield, the relentless energy and endurance of Leandro Barreiro, and Jae-Sung Lee continue to overwhelm Bundesliga opposition on a weekly basis. It feels like only a matter of time before Barreiro becomes Mainz’s next multi-million export, while the fact that Lee only made his topflight debut at 29 years of age remains a perplexing reality to wrap one’s head around.
At center-forward, a long-term injury to German youth international Jonathan Burkhardt has been unfortunate, but his scoring quality has been offset by Karim Onisiwo and Marcus Ingvartsen enjoying career-high goalscoring campaigns. In addition, a certain Ludovic Ajorque can be considered an excellent winter arrival who has proven himself as a fundamental X-factor in Mainz’s ranks.
A 29-year-old French forward signed from RC Strasbourg, Ajorque is an eye-catching sight who has already done enough to warrant his €6.00m price tag. Standing at 196 cm, Ajorque is the tallest outfield player to feature in the 2022/23 Bundesliga, and it is this unrivaled height that has made him such an influential player for Mainz’s game in the new year.
While Svensson always had players willing to compete for aerial duels, in Ajorque, he now has an outlet that is consistently winning these contests, and allowing Mainz’s direct passing game to bear fruit.
Ludovic Ajorque is winning over 5 aerial duels more per game than any other Mainz forward with at least one start in the 2022/23 Bundesliga
Combine this unique aerial quality, with Ajorque’s goal threat, defensive presence, and ability to open spaces for teammates, and one quickly begins to see why Mainz 05’s unbeaten streak has almost directly coincided with the arrival of the giant Frenchman.
With 5 matchdays to go, FSV are in a stellar position to qualify for only the second European groupstage in club history; a crowning achievement on a campaign filled with unprecedented highs.
However, anybody who knows Bo Svensson will know that this is just the lucky by-product of the ethos which Svensson strives to implement in the day-to-day processes required to sustainably run a football club.
That the foreseeable future will continue to see Mainz faced with the constant task of re-inventing the playing roster remains a fact. However, with the structure and guidance implemented under Bo Svensson’s reign, the club from the carnival region of South-West Germany have the blueprint in place to continue to fight above their weight and extend a decade-long spell in the German topflight.