Since Christmas, the Bundesliga season has been marked by inconsistency among many of its contenders but Werder Bremen have been enjoying a revival.
While FC Bayern have raced clear in search of a fifth successive league title, one-time hegemony challenger RB Leipzig have struggled to find a strong vein of form in 2017. Dortmund, also, have not done quite enough to emerge from the league’s chasing pack.
Looking further down the table, the likes of Hertha, Köln and Frankfurt, who found themselves in the European places for so much of the Hinrunde, would sit in the bottom half if the season had begun at the turn of the year. Thus, the league finds itself with a handful of new form teams.
Dieter Hecking has shaken things up at Borussia Mönchengladbach since replacing André Schubert. The Foals sit second in the Rückrunde table. Hamburg look a team transformed since Christmas, with Markus Gisdol recently earning a new contract. A chief factor in that is certainly how impressively his charges have regrouped in recent weeks. But perhaps most impressive of all are their Nordderby rivals, Werder Bremen.
You read that right: Bremen. The Northerners were high-profile underperformers as the season begun awfully under Viktor Skrypnyk. They currently find themselves eight games unbeaten under ‘new’ coach Alexander Nouri. With wins coming in recent weeks against Leipzig, Freiburg and Schalke, accounting for half of their six victories in that time-frame, Bremen can genuinely look up the table for the first time in a while.
Back in the summer, Bremen’s approach in the transfer market was lauded – including here at Bayern Central – as they managed to make profits while seemingly improving their squad. Marquee signing Max Kruse, touted as the ‘potential jewel in the crown’ of Bremen’s new-look team, was injured early on, however. Three high-profile losses, meanwhile – including an opening day walloping away to Bayern – were enough to see Skrypnyk replaced. As starts go, that is more than a little troubling.
German-Iranian coach Nouri, who like Skrypnyk was promoted to first team duties from within, has therefore actually been in the role for the majority of the season. While results were patchy before the turn of the year, performances in many of Bremen’s Hinrunde games gave the club a renewed lease of life going into the winter break.
Like his counterpart over at rivals HSV, Nouri has clearly made full use of his chance to have a longer period of time to work on training his squad. In 2017, the team are yet to lose by more than a goal. They gave Dortmund, Bayern and Mönchengladbach tough games despite emerging without a share of the spoils.
A huge contributor to this revival of sorts has been Danish midfielder Thomas Delaney. Delaney’s departure to Bremen from Copenhagen was announced in the summer, with the midfielder linking up with Bremen in January. Since then, the 25 year-old inspired the beginning of Bremen’s revival with a goal in the first of the eight-game unbeaten streak, a 2-0 win over Mainz. He has since gone on to bag a hat-trick in the rout of Freiburg at the beginning of April.
Praise has been won elsewhere on the pitch, though; Delaney has added much-needed bite to the Bremen midfield. He is regularly in the right position to make a nicely timed interception or an important tackle. His passing is solid, if not particularly exciting. Frankly, his presence in the team is perhaps the most palpable change of any since the winter break. That he may be sidelined for at least the next few weeks due to injury is a big blow for Nouri.
Serge Gnabry, of course, has emerged as one of the club’s key performers since his summer move from Arsenal. It is quite easy to see why the youngster drew interest from Bayern in the same window. With ten goals to his name, he is the club’s top scorer this season, and even away from that, he is the focal point of much that has been good about Bremen all season.
Gnabry, too, has actually missed games in recent weeks due to injury, but it is fairly evident that he is one of the team’s top performers this season. This should – and no doubt will – continue upon his eventual return.
In a similar bracket to Gnabry in terms of importance is fellow attacker Max Kruse. Yes: Kruse’s return to Bremen is clearly a result of a difficult spell in Wolfsburg for the former Gladbach sharpshooter, but the effect he has to his side is immense. It is perhaps more evident than even Gnabry’s.
Kruse has been a touch more creative – creating 32 chances this season to Gnabry’s 31, despite having played five fewer games – and more accurate in front of goal. Bremen have also picked up just 0.9 points per game on average when he has has missed out for various reasons – with Kruse, that figure is 1.5 points per game.
Okay: in many of the games Bremen have won or lost points, Kruse may not have been decisive. However, given Kruse’s good performances and the link between his place in the team and points, it is safe to say he has gone a lot of the way to becoming the talismanic figure sporting director Frank Baumann envisioned back in the summer.
New signings Niklas Moisander and Lamine Sané have been impressive at the back for most of the season, which is a relief for a fanbase who for years saw Assani Lukimya regularly turn out in the green and white. This has been important, as Bremen’s goalkeeper remains somewhat of a problem position; Bremen fans have found out first hand why Hamburg were not too upset to lose Jaroslav Drobny, while Felix Wiedwald remains wildly inconsistent. To his credit, however, the 27 year-old has improved since Christmas.
This improving defence has been the foundation upon which Nouri and Bremen have built. Having focused on being difficult to beat, his squad now tightly oiled and filled with a new belief in consolidating Bundesliga status for the next year, Bremen can already look towards a new target.
Admittedly Bremen are still just eleventh despite their current incredible upswing in form. However, as we have seen from many of the pundits in recent months trying to sell the Bundesliga to different audiences, the difference between European football and relegation is relatively thin this season. With Bremen hovering right between the two, and just five points behind Freiburg, who currently occupy the all-important sixth place, there is certainly a slim possibility that Bremen could reach the Europa League.
Whether that is actually positive or detrimental is, of course, up for debate. The club do occupy second position in the league’s current form table – behind Bayern, of course – and carrying the momentum forward would certainly make the possibility somewhat likelier. Regardless of what happens, the club’s form through the spring certainly makes hopes of a return – of sorts – to their glory days seem a whole lot more possible.
The next step towards that? Just the small matter of a local derby against fellow form table high-riders HSV. If recent signs are anything to go by, we will have a real game on our hands when Sunday’s early game rolls around.