Time is of the Essence – Werder Bremen’s Race Against the Clock

For the first time in over four decades, Werder Bremen find themselves stuck in the second division. Following the club’s shocking but thoroughly merited relegation from the top flight, this giant of the German game will embark on only their second-ever 2. Bundesliga campaign this year. Last time out, die Werderaner bounced straight back, comfortably winning the league after a record-breaking season. Under Otto Rehhagel, they then went on to establish themselves as one of the best, most scintillating sides in the Bundesliga, eventually winning the title in 1988 as the club experienced a veritable golden age.

Unfortunately, this current iteration could hardly be more of a far cry from the glorious Werder of yore. Gone are the days of signing players like Rudi Völler, and new coach Marcus Anfang is certainly no Rehhagel. While this is unquestionably a dark chapter in Bremen’s proud history, it does present the opportunity for a much-needed reset. This squad has desperately demanded an overhaul for years and there’s no better time for it than now. There is a slight problem, though, at least according to a sizeable chunk of the fanbase.

That problem is the man tasked with overseeing this rebuild, the same man perceived by many as the very architect of the club’s downfall – much-maligned sporting director Frank Baumann. Most people that follow the Bundesliga – myself included – were convinced that relegation would signal the end of Baumann’s time in charge. Instead, he received a vote of confidence from Werder’s hierarchy. A contentious decision, to say the least, but the die is cast and now it’s on him to build a competent squad that can contend for a promotion spot.

To give the 45-year-old some benefit of the doubt, he’s never had much to work with as the club has massively struggled to make ends meet in recent years. Werder are in dire straits financially, therefore it’s no surprise that they will look to rake in as much cash as possible this window, even if that means getting rid of some of their best players. Case in point: the sale of Milot Rashica to Norwich for €11m was, in many ways, more out of necessity rather than a concerted effort to get him off the books. The same rings true for the expected departures of Ludwig Augustinsson, Felix Agu, Jiri Pavlenka, and Maxi Eggestein, all players who Werder would doubtlessly have preferred to keep under regular circumstances. Even Maxi’s brother, Johannes, could be on his way out which is sure to cause quite a stir among the supporters. Coming off an impressive 20-goal season at Austrian side LASK, it was naturally assumed that he would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Bremen’s relegation, but Markus Anfang recently admitted that the younger Eggestein doesn’t fit into his tactical plans.

On the incoming players front, Baumann hasn’t yet given fans much to get excited about. In Lars Lukas Mai and Nicolai Rapp, he brought in two players Anfang will be quite familiar with from his Darmstadt days, while Brondby’s Anthony Jung is an experienced head who could become an important cog in this side, but I’m sure most supporters would agree that the team is still lacking a real X-Factor, a statement signing.

Fredrik Aursnes could definitely be that statement signing. His club Molde and Werder had reportedly all but completed the necessary paperwork for his €1m move to the Weserstadion, but the negotiations have stalled in recent weeks because the Norwegians don’t want to let him go just yet as their domestic season is currently in full swing. If Werder do manage to secure his services, he most likely won’t be ready to feature in time for the start of the new campaign.

Fortunately for Bremen, they have a decent batch of young players coming through, so maybe they won’t have to be quite as busy in the transfer market as originally believed. As a matter of fact, a year in the second tier could be just what the doctor ordered for the likes of Romano Schmid and Jean-Manuel Mbom, both of whom showed glimpses of real promise last term. There’s also Eren Dinkci, who was thrown somewhat into the deep end in Bremen’s desperate bid to stay up, but he actually offered something a bit different and refreshing when he got on the pitch. He’s been pretty prolific at the youth level and he’s a local boy, so there’s no reason for him not to be in Anfang’s plans.

Moreover, Park Kyu-hyun has made quite the impression since arriving on loan from Ulsan Hyundai a couple of years ago – and not just because he drinks 14 raw eggs a day! Werder clearly see something in the left-back because they were desperate to finally make his move permanent, and with Agu and Augustinsson potentially on the way out, there’s a decent chance that he’ll feature in the first team this season. There’s more that we could get into, players like Nick Woltemade, Kebba Badjie, and Abdenego Nankishi are all highly-rated youngsters, but I’d be surprised if they played more than a peripheral role this season.

Jean-Manuel Mbom could be one of Bremen’s breakout players this season (Frederic Scheidemann/Getty Images)

While die Werderaner definitely aren’t spoilt for choice in terms of top-level talent, they do have several decent young options at their disposal. But are they good enough to get them back into the Bundesliga? Well, no; I certainly don’t think so. The good news for Bremen fans is that there’s still plenty of time left in the window to make some moves. With the additional funds that will be procured through the seemingly imminent sales of the aforementioned names, the club should eventually have some room for maneuver. But this is where Baumann and the well-founded concerns about his ability come into play. Simply put, the man doesn’t have a great track record and failure to acquire some floor-raisers that’ll actually make this frankly awful team better could prove to be costly, not just for him but for the entire organization.

The upcoming 2. Bundesliga campaign is shaping up to be a particularly strong, highly competitive one and Bremen can ill afford to get off to a bad start lest they want to get dragged into a mid-table maelstrom or, worse, become the next Nürnberg and flirt with back-to-back relegations. So, then, here’s the bad news for Bremen fans: the season kicks off in…19 days and there are still some glaring holes that need to be plugged. Who’s going to play right back? Is there enough cover on the wings? Where will the goals come from if Füllkrug get injured? Who’ll start in net if Pavlenka gets sold? What’s the latest on Sargent? Will he stay or will he go? Baumann will have his work cut out over the next couple of weeks to get this roster finalized.

The man tasked with putting this squad to good use and making it competitive is Markus Anfang, undoubtedly a very capable coach at this level with a satisfactory CV, but given that time is very much of the essence right now, there is perhaps cause for a bit of alarm looking back at his previous job. It took his Darmstadt side quite a while to get going last term, finishing the Hinrunde in a lowly 14th with just seven wins to their name.

That being said, the thing to remember with Anfang’s teams is that once they click into gear, they become a real problem. Sadly at Darmstadt, it only began to click after the winter break which was ultimately their undoing. The Lilies actually ended up being the third-best team of the Rückrunde, losing only twice and winning six of their last seven games. The damage had already been done in the first half of the season, though, and despite their incredible resurgence, they only ended up in seventh.

Exciting, in-your-face football has always been the hallmark of Anfang’s style and a front-foot approach will undoubtedly be a sight for sore eyes given the sheer level of dross that Bremen fans were forced to watch in recent seasons. But of course, there’s more to football than just offense. Indeed, Anfang’s main failing as a coach, his kryptonite, has always been his utter inability to establish a solid defensive structure. At Köln, one of the chief reasons why he was dismissed despite comfortably sitting at the top of the standings was his team’s obtrusive incapacity to keep it tight at the back. At Darmstadt, too, his side’s defensive work left a lot to be desired: only five teams conceded more goals than the Lilies last season.

Baumann has shown – at his peril – that he’s willing to give his coach time, yet Bremen’s mission statement is to bounce back immediately and if Anfang’s philosophy doesn’t find fertile ground in this squad, then surely Baumann won’t, for his own sake, hesitate as long to pull the trigger as he did with Kohfeldt. On the flip side, there’s no doubt that if Anfang gets it right from the start, we could potentially be looking at real promotion contenders. But any prospective success entirely hinges on whether Baumann can sort this roster littered with deadweight out on time. The clock is ticking!

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