Kaiserslautern coach Marco Kurz has gone 16 games without a win and his side is rock bottom in the Bundesliga. Sunday's defeat to Schalke was hardly a shock, but its nature raised eyebrows at the Betzenberg.
Goals win football games, and FC Kaiserslautern can't score any. That's the reason that the last-placed team in the Bundesliga has gone 16 games without a win. This poor form would appear to be the very embodiment of consistency, but something seemed different in Sunday's 4-1 defeat against visitors Schalke.
The German press noticed it too, with sports news agency SID concluding their match report by saying that "the limited lads from Lautern appeared resigned [to defeat] at times."
Lautern's limitations in attack have been well documented, but the usually resilient side still boasts the best defense in the bottom half of the table. The Red Devils had not been picked apart and humiliated in a way reminiscent of fellow strugglers like Freiburg, Hertha Berlin, Cologne or even Hoffenheim this season, until Schalke came to town.
Coach Marco Kurz has enjoyed unwavering support from the players and backroom staff alike in recent weeks, and almost 48,000 fans flocked to the Betzenberg to cheer for a Lautern win on Sunday. It would have been the Red Devils' first triumph - home or away - since rivals Freiburg visited the stadium on October 22.
"We were lacking determination, even though the game started perfectly for us," Kurz said after the match, referring to Lautern's third-minute opening goal. "Then, at some point, we lost faith in ourselves. We will only get off the bottom with points. We need to pick ourselves up, and we will. If we want to stay in the top division, we need to perform differently."
The last bastion, overrun?
Schalke's fourth and final strike on Sunday, a three-on-one breakaway against a dejected defense, was probably the softest goal the Red Devils have conceded all season. And without their regimented, disciplined back four on top form, Kaiserslautern's already slim chances of Bundesliga survival can be written off.
Captain and talisman Christian Tiffert has stood steadfastly by his coach in recent weeks. When asked about a missing "plan" of attack after last week's goalless draw with Stuttgart, he modestly insisted "the coach has a plan - but it's up to us to execute it."
Ever the optimist, Tiffert said "it's not over yet" after Sunday's match, though he was unusually evasive when asked whether he expected to play under a new coach in the crucial match against Freiburg next weekend. "Fundamentally, I don't think so, but then I'm not a clairvoyant."
A change of message?
Lautern chairman Stefan Kuntz - whose 75 goals for Kaiserslautern as a player are precisely what his side is now missing - retained his customary calm after the defeat, simply saying "it's still the case that Marco Kurz is our trainer, and if that changes we will say so."
Taken in isolation, these are the considered comments of a level-headed leader, possibly less worrying than the dreaded vote of confidence that often heralds a coach's imminent departure.
Kuntz issued the exact same statement after the Red Devils 0-0 draw in Stuttgart last week; except then he also explicitly told journalists that he did not expect the situation to change. One week before that, he was adamant that "the coach is staying."
Kuntz also described his team's performance on Sunday as "the low-point in our season," an analysis that's difficult to contest.
Last chance saloon?
Whatever Kuntz and the rest of the Kaiserslautern board decide, they must know that next week's match against fellow relegation candidates Freiburg is a do or die affair. Putting the mathematics of their plight to one side, should the Red Devils fail to win in Freiburg it would mean that they had played all 17 of their league opponents without beating any of them.
Kurz and Kuntz enjoy a solid working relationship, but the chairman admits football "changes every day"
The good news for Lautern is that Freiburg is a team in the same postal code as them, not a star-studded title challenger like Schalke. The bad news is that their southern neighbors are unbeaten in three games, staging their own mini-revival in a bid to escape the drop zone.
Finding the Freiburg net will of course be necessary, and it's difficult to say who could do so. Club top-scorer Itay Schechter has three to his name, all of them scored early in the season when the newcomer's physicality took opposing defenders by surprise. Defender Florian Dick, who grabbed a pair from set pieces against Augsburg, is their best marksman in the second half of the season. Captain Tiffert usually looks most likely to make something happen, yet the industrious winger has just two to his name in the current campaign, and 27 in a career spanning over a decade.
Even if Kuntz chooses to dismiss his friend Kurz from the coaching spot, Lautern's lack of attacking options means the club would probably still face relegation this summer - unless the 49-year-old chairman plans on dusting off his boots and taking to the pitch himself.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Darren Mara