Our next opponents: The Mainz defensive paradox

Fourth against fifth: On Saturday, 25 September (kick-off: 15.30 CEST), Bayer 04 entertain Mainz who are level on points. The team from Rhinehessen perhaps have the best defence in the league – and nevertheless their coach is not completely happy with their approach to defending.


Bo Svensson accepted the apology from Christian Streich with a smile. The SC Freiburg head coach described FSV Mainz 05 as serious European contenders ahead of their clash last Saturday – and then backtracked after the final whistle: "Mainz can use everything – but not stuff like that from another coach. Talking about Europe on matchday five, which would have really annoyed me, if it had come from somewhere else – that's exactly what I did," said Streich. His opposite number Svensson was relaxed about it. "He just wanted to praise us for the great season so far."

And the Dane has carried on with his team seamlessly from the brilliant second half of last season. After the goalless draw against Freiburg, Mainz have ten points – already three more than in the whole of first half of last season when there were serious concerns about possible relegation before Svensson took over and made Mainz the fifth-best team in the second half of the season. They are now level on points with the Werkself in fifth place. They did have a couple of problems in the DFB Cup: Mainz twice came from behind to level against the Regional League side from Elversburg before finally ended up winning 10-9 after a dramatic penalty shootout.


Mainz do not have a long injury list at the moment. But the two players who are on it are very much missed by Svensson – both on and off the pitch. Moussa Niakhaté, captain and key defender in the impressive Mainz defence, suffered a thigh injury in the away game at Hoffenheim and will be sidelined for several weeks. The same applies to experienced forward Adam Szalai who suffered an injury to his left knee at Freiburg on Saturday. The Hungarian underwent an exploratory operation on Tuesday and will now be out of action for around six weeks. Both players were regular starters under Svensson and Niakhaté is actually indispensable.

He has been replaced by Alexander Hack in a back three – and he has impressed his coach: "Hacki has done well as we can expect from him," said the coach about the defender who may very well start at the BayArena on Saturday. It remains to be seen who will take the place of Szalai up front to play alongside Jonathan Burkhardt. Svensson has two different options here: The slight favourite is probably the athletic Karim Onisiwo, who started in place of Szalai at Hoffenheim and came on for him at Freiburg as a substitute following his injury. However, Marcus Ingvartsen may be in a position to make his first start for Mainz. The technically-gifted Dane, brought in on loan from Union Berlin just before the end of the transfer window, scored at Hoffenheim two minutes after coming on to become the fastest Mainz player to score his first goal in the Bundesliga. This will be the second meeting with Bayer 04 for Ingvartsen this term: He was in the starting line-up for Union in the 1-1 draw on matchday one.


There was a clean sheet even without Niakhaté – for the fourth time in five league games. No other Bundesliga side have had as many shutouts and the two goals conceded by Mainz this season is the least in the league along with VfL Wolfsburg. The stats are anything but coincidence with FSV giving so little away. The 3.2 expected goals against is the lowest number in the league. No team presents their opponents with so few good goalscoring opportunities as Mainz with a total of 46 shots on their own goal just behind FC Bayern (43), the leaders in this category.


Given the great defensive stats, it appears a little odd that Svensson has recently been less than happy with his team off the ball. Although his side only gave away one decent chance in the game against Freiburg, he complained: "In the first half, we were not intense enough in our pressing and closing down," and that's why he was "not completely satisfied with the approach to defending." The fact his players are sometimes late in challenges is shown in the stats: No other team has committed more fouls than FSV over the first five matchdays.


Under Svensson, Mainz are definitely no longer candidates for relegation. His clear playing philosophy fits in perfectly with the team and, thanks to him and the return of Martin Schmidt and Christian Heidel to the management, the necessary calm has returned to the club. The quality of the team is definitely enough to finish mid-table. And up to now Svensson has brought more and more out of his team than was expected, making Christian Streich's prediction perhaps not so far-fetched…

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