Once the very definition of continuity in German football, Werder Bremen are entering a new, unsettled era. But fans are more likely to see another battle against relegation than a return to past glories.
Following the humiliating 3-1 defeat by Saarbrücken, Werder Bremen is struggling to fend off depression.
The noises coming from the club during the summer break were positive to the point of parody. In their first full season following the departures of coach Thomas Schaaf and sports director Klaus Allofs, everyone was at pains to stress that things at the club are really, really hunky-dory.
In an interview with kicker magazine, veteran striker Aaron Hunt praised the sense of a rejuvenation under new coach Robin Dutt, saying the team had recovered its "voracity." Dutt, for his part, raved to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper about the squad’s "desire for harmony" and "openness for new things."
Sports director Thomas Eichin arranged a testimonial for Schaaf, who was hustled out of town after 14 years of service once Werder had narrowly escaped relegation last season.
Bad-boys Marko Arnautovic and Eljero Elia, both suspended for misbehavior during last campaign’s run-in, have been forgiven and brought back into the fold. Dutt even told Bild newspaper Arnautovic had a "good soul" – an unusual choice of words for a man who once said one of his favorite qualities in women was silicon-enhanced breasts.
"I give everyone a second chance, and Marko Arnautovic knows that he’s starting from scratch with me," Eichin told Bild. "Besides contracts need to be honored."
The second part of Eichin’s statement reveals the unpleasant truth behind the new lovey-dovey Werder Bremen. What used to be the second-best team in Germany and a ruthless scoring machine has no choice other than to play nice.
Sporting and financial decline
In a very low-key announcement this summer, Bremen’s financial chairman Klaus Filbry reported that the club lost money last season for the second time in row. The good news was that Werder’s debts were half what they were the previous year. The bad news is that the club has very little room for financial maneuvering.
Werder’s rise to the top during the first decade of the new millennium was based on the club’s ability to find and develop talent, selling players at a profit and reinvesting the proceeds in new talent. Johan Micoud was replaced by Diego who was in turn succeeded by Mesut Özil. Miroslav Klose and Ivan Klasnic were brought in immediately after Ailton and Claudio Pizarro departed. Players, it seemed, could be plugged into Schaaf’s system at will.
But Allofs’ nose for a bargain deserted him toward the end of his tenure, and Werder signed a series of costly flops – one of the Bremen’s most expensive transfers ever, Carlos Alberto, played a grand total of two matches for the club. Bremen haven’t qualified for Europe since 2010 and are no longer a top address in Germany for ambitious young players.
The team Allofs assembled last season before moving to Wolfsburg was arguably the worst he’d put together in his thirteen years at Bremen, and the club is now stuck with making the best of what it has. On paper, the squad has lost even more quality with the summer departures of defender Sokratis and rising midfield star Kevin de Bruyne.
So Eichin and Dutt are pinning their hopes on a resurgence by Arnautovic and Elia, and they’re turning their focus, as team managers do during times of austerity, to the youth ranks.
A cast of unknowns
Füllkrug, Hartherz, Aycicek, Wurtz, Trybull and Yildirim – those are some of the names who going to have to take big steps forward if Bremen are to regain their status as a perennial contenders for international competition.
But there’s reason to be skeptical. Bremen’s stand-out players during their best years were never homegrown, and as a team from a small city in a region with relatively low population density, Werder doesn’t have a huge pool of potential talent upon which to draw.
It’s blatantly obvious where the team needs to improve. Bremen conceded 66 goals last season - second worst in the Bundesliga. Down the home stretch, Schaaf had to resort to extremely defensive formations to eke out the points required to keep Werder in the top flight. Bremen can score, and they can play defense - just not at the same time.
Dutt needs to get the back four linked up properly with the forwards again, and his cause would be helped greatly if playmaker Mehmet Ekici could live up to the promise he had when Bremen brought him in from Nuremberg in 2011. After years of no-holds-barred, sometimes hara-kiri offensive football under Schaaf, fans are hoping for a bit more control when Bremen push forward.
Dutt had success playing that sort of football when he coached Freiburg from 2007 to 2011. But he was a bust when he moved to Leverkusen, failing to last a season at the club with its Champions League aspirations. And as a congenial Southern German, Dutt may also find the climate in the stern and often sarcastic north a bit cool for his liking.
Bremen need to come out of the blocks quickly. Their first two matches are very winnable affairs against newly promoted Braunschweig and minnows Augsburg. Then they have to face Dortmund, Gladbach and Frankfurt.
Now that Werder have bowed out of the German Cup in the first round for the third year in a row, they must avoid getting off to a poor start in the Bundesliga too. Otherwise negative comparisons with the Allofs/Schaaf era will be inevitable, and every speck of positivity in Bremen will be blown away like a hapless seagull in a North Sea gale.