When Bo Svensson took over at FSV Mainz 05, Die Nullfünfer were in the relegation zone. Now, four months on, Mainz sit in 12th place, currently on a eight match unbeaten run in the league. The former Mainz player has revolutionized the team, changing tactics, lifting spirits, adopting a back-three formation and making Mainz one of the most effective, functional teams in the league. To make matters all the more interesting, Svensson is doing all of this in his first big job in management. So with that, here is a tactical analysis of how Bo Svensson turned FSV Mainz 05 around.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-1-2
Since Svensson’s arrival, Mainz have played several variations of a 3-5-2 and 3-4-3. The most prominent of those is adapting the 3-4-1-2, with an advanced number ten in front of a midfield two. In this formation, the 05’ers have a great mix of width and centrality, to which they can hurt their opposition in any direction. When defending in their own half, the formation is likely to take the shape of a 5-3-2 or 5-2-3. However, Mainz also press well from the front, and when they do so in either formation, their press is likely to evolve to a 3-4-3, with the attacking midfielder in the 3-5-2 joining the front line. Before examining more of these tactics, we first delve into their regular personnel.
Robin Zentner has been Svensson’s keeper of choice, improving as the season’s gone on to accumulate a save percentage of 70%. Mainz’s back-three has also been very settled, with French defender Moussa Niakhate emerging as one of the team’s standout players in recent months. Stefan Bell is also a standout team, while Dutch defender Jeremiah St. Juste has developed well since Svensson’s arrival. Together they play a key role in Mainz’s build-up and their defensive structure. Wing-backs Danny da Costa and Philipp Mwene have also been regulars in the team, helping Mainz to deliver 18 crosses per game, despite having the lowest amount of possession in the league.
Part of their low amount of possession has been their relative inability to get on the ball in central midfield, with Dominik Khor, Danny Latza and Leandro Barreiro Martins not exactly pass masters. Mainz have showed some signs of improving their passing and possession under Svensson, but the quickness of their attacks and the eagerness to break lines through the centre of the pitch is the most important aspect to their play. In doing so, they often completely bypass the central midfielders and go straight to an inverted winger or attacking midfielder instead.
Once in the final third, the 05’ers are very purposeful, and use skillful players like Jean-Paul Boetius and Robin Quaison in advanced roles to unlock the opposition defense. Up front, Svensson has several options – including Bundesliga legend Adam Szalai, long-time Mainz player Karim Onisiwo, and relative newcomer Jonathan Burkardt. None have fully convinced, and Robin Quaison remains their top active scorer in the league, with a mere 4 goals. Jean-Philippe Mateta was the team’s top scorer prior to being loaned out to Crystal Palace, but the side haven’t particularly missed him, even if they lack another natural goal-scorer.
So with those names, the lack of goals, and the lack of possession, you might be wondering how Mainz have achieved so much success. Well, let’s get into more of this tactical analysis.
Despite having the lowest amount of possession and worst passing percentage in the league, Mainz are not a long-ball team that just like to lump it up the field and hope for the best. They play out from the back just like most Bundesliga teams, and can be a very efficient possession based team when they want to be. When building out from the back, the centre-backs will often circulate the ball and look for the right moments to play forward. The central midfielders will remain high in between the lines, rarely ever drifting deep to pick up possession nearby. The wing-backs on the other hand will sometimes drift closer, and receive the ball in wide areas out from the back. But instead of driving the ball forward at speed, the wing-backs will often return the ball to the centre-backs immediately. The team will then look to progress through vertical spaces, as players higher up interchange and find open pockets of space.
On occasion they will also look to go long, which suits the centre-forwards well since they are tall, imposing aerial threats. In short, Mainz have a bit of a mixed bag in possession. They are actually quite good and have relatively sound principles to play out from the back and make the most of what they have, but that hasn’t stopped them from being at the bottom end of the possession spectrum.
Despite having the lowest amount of possession in the league, Mainz have been a fairly efficient attacking side. They lack a natural goal-scoring presence who can hammer home the goals, but they consistently create chances to score. With now 28% of their attacks coming down the middle, Bo Svensson has also significantly increased the speed in which Mainz attack. They can hurt opposition teams down the wings through their high-flying wing-backs, or they can progress through the middle of the pitch through quick one touch layoffs and passes. Jean-Paul Boetius is one of the team’s better chance creators and dribblers, and can be a particularly dangerous player as he floats around the pitch and works his magic in tight areas.
Mainz create a particularly high number of through balls relative to their possession and league position, right up there with some of the best teams in the league. But it’s no secret that Die Nullfünfer lack not only a solid goal-scoring presence, but also a regular chance creator. Szalai’s footwork and ability on the ball often lets him down, while Karim Onisiwo and Boetius struggle to finish off chances. Danny da Costa delivers a high number of quality of crosses into the box, but again, Mainz can’t finish them off. Boetius has the most assists in the team, with only 4. Despite that, Mainz often do look like a top half team. Through trying to play quickly and attack in all kinds of directions, they certainly excite the fans watching at home; even if they could be more clinical.
A final note on Mainz’s attack is just how flexible it can become in attack. The 3-4-1-2 can become 3-4-3, 3-1-4-2 or 3-2-5 all in the same game in different situations. The wing-backs will often go forward at once, and Leandro Barreiro Martins is an intelligent mover and shaker in the team that likes to go forward and create space for himself in the right-half-space. This usually requires someone like Dominik Kohr to hold a more defensive position, as Jean-Paul Boetius is already expected to play a significant role to the team’s attack. The players will then interchange and move around as they please, as the team continues to look for space to attack centrally before playing out wide and delivering a cross.
Above all else that Svensson has gotten right since his arrival, Die Nullfünfer have made significant strides in their defensive aptitude and in their press from the very front. Regardless of formation, they often press in a 3-4-3 shape, with the attacking midfielder in a 3-5-2 pushing up alongside the front-players. The wing-backs and central midfielders will also remain high, with the entire team staying compact and close together. They look to shuffle their opposition out wide through the inverted wingers cutting off passing lanes into central areas. Once there, they press particularly aggressively in wide areas, using the touchline as an extra defender as Svensson and his staff scream for the team to press faster and harder. The wing-back, central midfielder and centre-back will often form a triangular unit to stop the opposition from advancing in wide areas, and once they win the ball they have a natural outlet in the half-space from their inverted wingers.
The high-pressing mentality and overall aggression extends to all areas of the field, as Mainz have picked up the most fouls of any team this season. This is slightly unsurprising given that they also have the least amount of possession, but watching any Mainz game will quickly make you realize just how rough they actually are. This can be a positive in stopping the opposition from gaining any sense of momentum, but can also be a major issue as they give away set-pieces and don’t defend them well enough. Svensson’s team have conceded 10 goals from set-pieces this season, joint-third worst with the often criticized Borussia Dortmund, and six penalty goals, joint-fourth worst in the league. But beyond their failures in conceding and defending set-pieces, Mainz have certainly made major strides in defense.
They’ve won the most interceptions in the league this season by quite some margin (14.8), and the second most tackles to only Eintracht Frankfurt, with 17.4 to Eintracht’s 17.5. Every single one of their players has a defensive role to play, and it’s no wonder why Jean-Paul Boetius has become a favourite under Svensson. His energy levels are remarkable, popping up all over the field to put in a defensive shift, despite being an attacking midfielder. Attacking midfielders are growing in their importance to pressing in the modern game, and Mainz are not the only team to use a high-pressing mobile number ten rather than a slow-moving creative one (see VFL Wolfsburg).
Dominik Kohr also stands out at the heart of the midfield with his 3.6 tackles per 90, the 5th most in the league of players with 10+ appearances. Central midfielder Levin Oztunali also stands out with 2.9 tackles per 90, 15th in that category, while Edimilson Fernandes has won 3.2 interceptions per 90, the third highest in the league of 10+ appearance makers. Leandro Barreiro Martins doesn’t put up such insanely high numbers, but puts in an excellent defensive shift as well, leading the team in number of pressures. Latza and Boetius come second and third in that category, continuing to illustrate Mainz’s attempts to force their opposition into wide areas, away from goal. With many of their top defensive performers and intense pressers coming from midfield, Mainz have several options to continue on with their high-pressing mentality and defensive solidity in central areas. It’s clear what Svensson wants to emphasize with his team, and it’s paid off. The team have completely steered clear of relegation, through this improved defensive desire and intensity.
FSV Mainz 05 have completely turned things around under the influence of Bo Svensson. Just a few months ago they looked destined to go down to the 2. Bundesliga, but now they don’t look in any danger whatsoever. Bo Svensson has improved the quickness of the team’s attack, their build-up, and most importantly, their high-intensity press from the front. With all of these things in conjunction, Mainz look like a top half club and one of the most efficient teams in the league. Now that they’re safe, they can begin to prepare for what life might be like next season and aim for a top half finish at the very least. With Bo Svensson in charge, they must feel as though the sky is the limit.