Article by Ben Griffis
The 2020/21 Bundesliga has been a roller coaster for Mainz. After taking 6 points from their first 14 games, former player and academy coach Bo Svensson took the reins and has steered the club to what will be a historic escape from relegation.
Svensson started his tenure the day after a 5-2 defeat to Bayern in Munich, on January 4th. After 3 losses, a win, and a draw from his first 5 games, Mainz only lost 1 of the next 10, coming into this match in 13th place. Mainz’s 6-game unbeaten streak since February 28th was up for a test against the giants of the Bundesliga. A win would put them in 12th place, 2 points behind Hoffenheim but with a game in hand.
Bayern were one win away from clenching the title. They were also experiencing an unbeaten streak of 8 games since February 20th and sat 10 points ahead of 2nd place Leipzig with 4 matches to go. While Bayern were the favorites on paper, Mainz were always going to be a tough match given their run of form and desire to stay as far away from the relegation spots as possible.
With an incredibly strong defensive performance, Mainz kept a clean sheet for 93 minutes—until Lewandowski scored his customary goal in essentially the final kick of the game—and slayed the giants 2-1 at the Opel Arena. A welcome surprise but not a shock given Mainz’s form since early February, they continue their great escape and force Bayern to delay their title party.
Mainz’s Buildup and Attack
Mainz’s buildup employed a lopsided shape, skewed towards the right side of the pitch, which is where most of their attack went. Hack and St. Juste stayed central and deep, while Niakhaté pushed up slightly to where a left back might be in a back 4. This allowed Mwene to push higher, so there wasn’t much distance between 3 players on the left wing (Niakhaté, Mwene, Quaison). Latza helped link play between these players.
While Mwene pushed up, da Costa stayed slightly deeper, in line with Latza and Barreiro. Da Costa stayed wide in open space for a switch of play if the left wing became too congested. Bayern’s Alphonso Davies had the pace to keep the switch from being too effective.
Burkardt scored after 3 minutes after Bayern didn’t clear a cross from the left wing properly. A great turning strike resulted in a knuckleball which swerved away from Neuer at the last second. Just 3 minutes in, Mainz were ahead because of their attacking tactics—quick movement of the ball up the left side of the pitch before peppering the box with crosses and trying to win second balls. In fact, these crosses almost led to two additional goals through deflections that hit Neuer’s post.
Mainz won most second balls in midfield, which helped them counter often in the first half. This led Bayern to commit many fouls in the first half, one of them resulting in Mainz’s first goal from a set piece this season. Mwene delivered a great free kick from the left side of the pitch and Quaison beat Müller for a relatively open header in the center of the box.
After going 2-0 up in the 37th minute, Mainz committed fewer players forward during attacks. They still played quick passes, but chose to be more cautious about a counterattack and keep players back for an easy defensive transition when needed. Passes became more direct as well, with Onisiwo getting played into space from deep to run past Bayern’s center backs.
Mainz defended in two different shapes during the match. In the first half, they defended in a 5-1-3-1 shape, with Barreiro sitting behind Latza and the tucked-in forwards, roaming around to follow Bayern’s side-to-side passes. Quaison and Burkardt dropped into midfield as Mwene and da Costa dropped in as fullbacks. Onisiwo stayed isolated up top for clearances and to press Neuer and the center backs.
In the second half, Mainz changed to a 5-4-1 shape, with the previous midfield 3 dropping back to join Barreiro close to the back 5. While the 5-1-3-1 shape was effective at limiting Bayern’s chance creation, the 5-4-1 was almost more successful. Bayern found it increasingly difficult to string any passes together to break this 9-man wall at the edge of the box, resorting to crosses after passing side-to-side. Mainz defenders kept their shape while Bayern urgently passed the ball side-to-side. This is not a simple task, as showcased by the many successful teams like Barcelona, Liverpool, and Bayern who can break a team’s defensive structure with quick sideways passes before transitioning to piercing vertical balls to an open man in the box.
Mainz rarely pressed Bayern players before they crossed the halfway line, but did rush toward Neuer occasionally when he came out of the box. One player would rush out from their defensive position on the edge of the box to meet the Bayern player who had just received a pass. While this can be risky, there were still 8 other players in a sturdy shape to proactively plug any holes. Rushing out to players forced Bayern to continue playing quick sideways balls and made sure their passers had no time to pick a dangerous ball. This pressing pattern, along with a strong defensive organization behind the presser, was crucial to stifling Bayern’s talented players and ensuring their shots were poor and their passes were not progressive. While Bayern averaged 16.7 shots per and 2.83 goals per game in the Bundesliga before this game, Bayern’s 17 shots in this match netted only 1 goal. That statistic clues us in to how strong Mainz were as a defensive unit and shows us their Catenaccio-like tactics worked.
Bayern’s passing statistics also shine a light on the effectiveness of Mainz’s structure. Bayern attempted 648 passes, with 54% aimed at the middle third and just 37% at Mainz’s third. For comparison, Mainz aimed 36% of their passes in the middle third and 49% in Bayern’s third. Bayern simply could not get past Mainz’s wall.
Bayern’s only goal came from one of the very few Mainz defensive errors. Center back Alexander Hack attempted to head the ball back to Zentner when Lewandowski was pressuring him instead of heading it out of danger or clearing it. The header was weak, and Lewandowski pounced with essentially the last touch of the match. Mainz should have had a clean sheet, and it should irritate Bo Svensson that they didn’t record one—and rightfully so.
The last note about Mainz’s defense is that it completely faltered in the previous match against Bayern. Mainz went into halftime with a 2-0 lead in both matches. In the first meeting in Munich, the last game before Svensson took over, Mainz let in 5 goals in the second half. In this match, they let in 1, but should have let in 0 if not for a poor decision from Hack. That is testament to Mainz’s performance today and to Svensson’s ability to turn the club’s performances around in the last 2 months.
Bayern’s Buildup and Attack
In the first half, Bayern built up in much the 4-2-3-1 shape they lined up in. Goretzka pushed up and roamed around, as did Müller. Müller and Sané would rotate positions occasionally to get Müller into a position to pick out a pass from the right wing, something he can do better than anyone. Kimmich dropped to sit above the center backs and dictated play during buildup, venturing up during the attack. Alaba and Boateng were very high, and of course, Neuer stayed outside the box if needed.
Pavard and Davies were wide and high, but Pavard often drifted centrally to sit above Boateng while the ball was on the left wing. I believe this was to make better use of Pavard’s ball-striking ability, but when Bayern realized their chances were minimized and that this left their right flank open to counters, Pavard stayed wide.
In the second half, Bayern used two different shapes to attack with. In the first part of the 2nd half, Nianzou joined Alaba and Boateng instead of Kimmich, who acted as a roaming playmaker. Pavard and Davies started deeper but pushed up high when the ball was near the box. The 4 forwards formed a triangle, but Choupo-Moting would push up with Lewandowski fairly often. Müller had a relatively free role to pick up good positions, but couldn’t capitalize on them.
The second shape Bayern used in the 2nd half was very aggressive, signaling their desire for a few goals. Nianzou dropped to where Alaba had been, and Kimmich sat in front of him and Boateng. Kimmich connected the defense with the front 7, all of whom were trying to get open and find passing lanes near the box. Bayern understood they were not winning any second balls, so instead of long balls into the mixer, they tried to overload the edge of the box to draw Mainz defenders out of position. While having a few chances, none were of very high quality. Lewandowski’s goal was due more to Mainz than Bayern, although the relentless pressure on Mainz’s box for 45 minutes certainly had a role to play and must be acknowledged.
Bayern had little defending to do, illustrated by their 65% possession. A lot of their defending was transition defending, aided by Davies’ pace and Boateng and Alaba’s defensive ability and awareness. However, in the midfield, many Bayern players were outplayed in transition and resulted in fouls. Not that Bayern played dirty, but that their transition lacked cohesiveness and Mainz found it simple to play around their players.
When Mainz had longer periods of possession, Bayern defended in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with all players but Lewandowski dropping deeper. Bayern played a very high line, with Boateng, Alaba, and later Nianzou playing almost at midfield.
Bayern pressed Mainz intensely when they had the ball, and even more intensely just after losing possession to win it back quickly. Especially in the first half, when Mainz was attacking Bayern’s right flank, Goretzka would shift over to help defend and to press Mainz’s midfielders Barreiro and Latza.
In the second half, Defending was quick and simple for Bayern. Most Mainz balls were easily cut out or ushered back to Neuer, and a defender stopped the few runs made into Bayern’s half.
The major weakness in Bayern’s defense was clearing crosses. In the first half when Mainz were bombarding their box, Bayern defenders had difficulty effectively clearing them downfield. Mainz’s first goal is an example of poor clearances. In the second half, however, there were few defensive weaknesses. This may have been because Hansi Flick shored up the defense at halftime, or because Mainz had few attacks in the second half.
Mainz played a very solid game and successfully stifled Bayern’s ability to create chances with a superb defensive performance. They attacked quickly down the left wing in the first half and caused problems for Bayern. A botched clearance led to Burkardt’s goal, and Mainz’s first set piece goal of the season added to their tally before halftime. After the second goal, Mainz sat back and defended Bayern’s attacks using almost catenaccio-style tactics, limiting their chances to approach the box by placing 8 to 9 men behind the ball and defending as a unit. The only defensive error of the match, a poor header back to Zentner from Hack, gifted Lewandowski a consolation with the last kick of the game.
Bayern had the majority of possession, but spent that time swinging the ball from side to side looking for an opening. They have many players with the ability to connect for dangerous plays, but Mainz’s pressure and defensive sturdiness nullified that ability. Bayern were further unable to handle Mainz’s high tempo to move the ball up the pitch in the first half and resorted to fouling the opposition when the defenders realized they were beaten.
Had Bayern been able to break down the wall of Mainz defenders, they would celebrate a 9th consecutive title, but those celebrations will have to be put on hold because of a dominant Mainz defensive display. This was yet another victory for Mainz and Bo Svensson, who were tipped for relegation even as recently as January.
The Opel Arena, Mainz, where the match took place.