Bundesliga 2019/20: Koln vs Mainz – tactical analysis
After this weekend’s round of fixtures, Jonathan Harding, Author of “Mensch” put an incredibly apt tweet out. It read, “Very on-brand for the Bundesliga’s most entertaining game of the weekend to be Cologne vs Mainz”. This comment perfectly sums up the league’s unpredictability as a competition, and that the best games really do come from where you least expect them too. For both Mainz and Koln aren’t like a Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, and are hardly big crowd-pulls on their own, let alone as a pairing, unless of course, you are a fan of either side, and neither have had a reputation for playing the most exciting football this season.
Achim Beierlorzer was of course sacked by Köln after a barren start to the season, and instantly moved to Mainz where he has had a little more success. However, both teams really have had Beierlorzer’s mark on them with a direct approach to their possession game. Markus Gisdol, Beierlorzer’s successor, has done remarkably well at Köln thus far, however, the football they are playing is still an extension of what they were doing under Beierlozer with direct football mixed with effective counter-attacking.
They started this game well, going 2-0 up, and frankly, they should have been clearer. Yet there was a significant drop off in performance in the second half, that coincided with a significant increase in the performance levels of Mainz, and this game finished 2-2 – a result Gisdol will be disappointed with. A win here would have had Köln just four points off of sixth place, and 13 points clear from the drop zone.
Lineups and formations
The line-up above shows Köln in a 4-1-4-1. Ellyes Skhiri is down as a single pivot, however, in reality, he was joined so frequently by Jonas Hector, that for much of the game Köln operated with a double pivot. Consequently, Mark Uth would push up to support Jhon Córdoba, almost as a shadow striker, on the right side. 17-year old Jan Thielmann would invert a lot from the left-hand side, and play similarly close to Córdoba, giving 19-year-old Noah Katterbach autonomy over the left-hand side. So arguably it was more of a 4-2-3-1, for however much formations matter.
Throughout the game Köln looked to stretch the pitch as wide as possible, as we can see from the image below, to pull Mainz’s compact shape open, which I will go into detail on later.
By looking at Köln’s pass map we can see how they loaded the centre of the pitch and focused much of the play down the right-side where Uth could link-up with Córdoba with close support from Florian Kainz in the first half and Dominick Drexler in the second half too, as Thielmann was substituted following a difficult first 45.
Mainz played a 4-2-3-1 where Robin Quaison endured a relatively quiet afternoon operating on the left flank with Karim Onisiwo operating as the lone forward. Jean-Paul Boëtius sat just behind him in the number 10 role, however, was essentially given a free role to work across the width of the pitch and drop deeper if he saw fit.
Mainz’s build-up play
Over the course of the game, Mainz had slightly more possession than Köln, however, were still direct in looking to get the ball forward, and they sought to play inside Köln’s half, rather than to build from deeper areas in their own half. From goal-kicks, Köln looked to prevent them from playing out on the floor by keeping a high line. This is a tactic Mainz used themselves to stop Köln from doing exactly the same as well.
But other than looking to play from the keeper like this, Mainz had the majority of possession in the centre of the pitch, which isn’t anything unusual. If we look at their pass map below, compared to the one shown earlier of Köln, we can see a difference in the percentage the teams played in each third, with 35% of Köln’s possession coming in their own third compared to just 21% from Mainz. Correlating with this we can see how the average positioning of all of Mainz’s players is far higher than Köln’s. Yet despite this, Köln had a much more intense press, which I will discuss later.
Their higher positioning as a team would also go some way to explaining why Mainz had a 75.36% completion passes to the final third, attempting eight more than Köln and with a 21.5% higher completion.
Mainz were intelligent with their build-up and looked to have their two deeper central-midfielders drop into the half-spaces either side of the centre-backs. In doing so they initially looked to bring Köln’s press out of the central areas, and to increase the gap between the lines, to allow central passing. But in truth whether or not Köln’s players were pulled out, this movement still created forward passing lanes, with the central-midfielder vacating their space in the midfield.
Mainz left this space vacant until the central-midfielder, Pierre Kunde in the example above, was ready to play forward, with either an open body shape or a clear forward passing lane as a cue.
As soon as it was clear they were ready to play forward, Quaison would drop into this space, looking to bring the full-back marking him with him, whilst Aaron Martin overlapped and looked for the ball over the top, where there was now space to attack behind the Köln defence.
If the central-midfielders didn’t drop into these areas, then Mainz would work the ball around Köln’s congested centre if a forward pass through the middle wasn’t on. Aaron Martin would drive inside with the ball before laying the ball back to centre-back Moussa Niakhaté.
As he did this Boëtius would loop a run around into the now vacant left-flank where he could receive in space, which the image below illustrates. If he took his marker with him, preferably a centre-back, then again there was a forward channel for Mainz to play directly into with Onisiwo ready to receive the direct pass either to feet or run in behind as the ball was played in the gap.
Both Mainz’s full-backs would spread high and wide allowing their wingers to play in the half-space. Kunde would drop into the backline frequently to join the centre-backs. His positioning meant the wing-backs could therefore push up and it created interesting forward passing options, again with the aim to create space behind Köln’s defence. In the below example right-back Bote Baku drops back in as Kunde receives possession, and in turn, Dong-Won Ji recognizes this and immediately moves forward as Baku drops back. If Katterbach wasn’t pulled forward, like in this example, it meant an easy pass to Baku, however, if Katterbach could get drawn out even slightly, there would be space to hit their right-winger in the half-space behind Köln’s defence.
How Köln attacked against a narrow Mainz defence
As the title suggests, Mainz stayed particularly compact horizontally. During build-up Köln looked to have their wide players get closer to Córdoba to secure the ball when they played directly into the frontman. 15.14% of Köln’s passes over the course of the game were long, compared to 7.44% from Mainz.
Due to Mainz’s narrow shape, Köln left their wide players very wide in the final third to ensure either stretch the Mainz defensive line horizontally or at least provide time for good quality crosses from these areas.
Köln obliged and on the whole their delivery from the flanks was good with 60% of their crosses accurate. Gisdol obviously recognized the space that was being left on the flanks and put an emphasis on exploiting this in the second half, as nine of their 10 crosses came in this period. It was also notable how the majority of crosses on the break were aimed at the winger on the opposite side of the pitch as Córdoba kept Mainz’s centre-backs busy in a physical battle and the winger looked to hit the space behind the opposition full-back.
Gisdol’s decision to bring on Dominick Drexler proved the right move too, as Thielmann had a quiet first half. Drexler completed two of his three crosses, one of which led to Köln’s second goal scored by Kainz, who was afforded so much space on the left-wing. He would stay as wide and deep as possible to give himself as much room to attack the Mainz full-back, and in the example below he was able to steal a march on his opponent and score.
Kainz was a threat throughout the second half and even after his goal was still afforded this kind of space outside of the Mainz right-back.
Köln didn’t look to have two players in a vertical line on the flanks, at least not initially. As mentioned Katterbach looked to push forward frequently and if Thielmann or Kainz initially stayed inside, before then moving down the line from Katterbach, they were able to open up an inside passing lane to Córdoba. We can see below that Ketterbach has possession and Thielmann reacts by moving down the line. Further inside Köln have players loaded centrally.
Katterbach reacts by duly playing the pass inside to Córdoba’s feet and the forward has options very quickly around him to play too, whilst now he has wingers wide of their full-backs too, presenting potential passing opportunities behind the Mainz defence should these wingers cut behind.
Köln have an excellent counter-attacking weapon in the form of Córdoba who is big, strong and has bags of pace. Mainz didn’t press too high, perhaps aware of this threat, however, there were still times when Köln looked to catch them on the quick break with the ball over the top, and Mainz kept a high line.
Mainz goalkeeper Florian Müller played high throughout their possession phase, making the pitch smaller, ensuring that Mainz were encouraged to continue to play as much as they could in the opposition half, but most importantly his positioning meant he could act as a sweeper-keeper and prevent these types of opportunities.
They gained slightly more success getting the ball directly into Córdoba (not necessarily aerially by any means), and having the likes of Drexler, Uth and Kainz quickly offer support. Disappointingly for Köln, there was a lack of clinicality in these attacks and they weren’t able to work good quality chances despite times where they had the opportunity to overload the last man, like in the image below.
Earlier I mentioned how Köln had a more intense press and the stats back that up with their 6.53 PPDA showing their dedication to winning the ball back quickly. I showed an image of them camped outside the goalkeeper’s area as Mainz looked to play out from a goal-kick, and this led to Mainz’s defence pushing up as Müller adjusted to play a long pass instead. Mainz really wanted to get good quality possession as close to the Köln half and playing the ball long didn’t suit this, and Mainz had 49% possession in the first half.
In the second half, Köln weren’t as good at stopping this. Müller played six long passes the entire game, with five of these coming in the first half. Albeit he completed every single one, as he did with his short passes too.
If Mainz weren’t able to play from Müller initially, they would push high before one of their defenders would swiftly drop back to pick up the pass and catch Köln’s forward line cold. As the ball was played wide, Köln would push one of their wide midfielders forward to deal with this, maintaining their compact shape, and ensuring Córdoba was able to continue preventing the Mainz centre-backs from getting on the ball.
Of course in response to this, Mainz dropped their shape to stretch the Köln press. Córdoba would stay close to one of the centre-backs with one of his central-midfielders pushing up to occupy the other.
The press of Kainz on Mainz’s left-back meant Köln’s press could potentially get stretched here so Kainz had to continue his press, angle his run to leave Aaron Martin in his cover shadow, and get close enough to Mainz’s left centre-back to ensure Córdoba could then move into the centre to prevent the central pass from Müller, as we can see in the image below.
In the second half Köln pressed more in a 4-1-4-1 as both Uth and Hector supported Córdoba in the press flanked by their wingers either side of them. They continued to frustrate Mainz in terms of preventing central play, keeping a tight shape as a front three as we can see below, as Uth goes to press Niakhaté.
They were incredibly aggressive in pressing the ball-carrier therefore ensuring there was no way for them to play inside to their pivot, like in the image below, and with their left-back also man-marked it meant Skhiri could push over, leaving his man in the middle of the pitch and cut off the forward passing lane in the half-space.
Because of the numbers committed forward in this aggressive press, it presented excellent counter-attacking options as soon as the ball was won and we can see how Uth immediately had two excellent options after winning the ball back in this instance, whilst Córdoba is free centrally, thanks to the wide split of Mainz’s centre-backs, albeit of course, he needs to get back onside in this example.
And yet despite their success in preventing Mainz from building centrally, Mainz’s first goal came from Sebastiaan Bornauw heading the ball into the centre of the pitch where Onisiwo was able to pick up the ball with no one around him and Kunde was able to dance through the centre of the pitch almost unopposed to score the second too.
Köln will still be getting over having thrown away two points in this game, but credit is due to Beierlorzer’s Mainz for sticking to their possession-based gameplan throughout and capitalizing on the good chances they got. And yet even though Köln should have put the game to bed at 2-0 up, Mainz had chances they didn’t take too – Boëtius had a glorious chance in the 12th minute, and Quaison could have won it for Mainz right at the death too.
It was interesting to see Mainz take this ball-playing approach, particularly after they had surrendered so much possession in their last game before the break against Fortuna Düsseldorf, and their possession average for the season is minimally over 45%. Mainz’s progression over the next few games will be worth keeping an eye on, as will Gisdol’s Köln who will still hope to gatecrash the Europa League qualification spots.