Mainz 05 are growing steadily and impressively, from Bundesliga regulars towards Europa League qualifiers. Ali examines their chances in 2016/17.
Automatic qualification for the Europa League was another huge step in the right direction for Mainz 05, a side that have been developing with impressive results for the last few years. No longer the also-rans of the Bundesliga, Mainz are now considered to be regular challengers for the European places and made that leap at the end of the 2015/16 campaign after a disappointing exit in the qualifying rounds the season before. As Augsburg can attest, being in the Europa League is a blessing and a curse and Mainz will have to be on top of their game to balance Thursday night and Sunday afternoon commitments.
Boss Martin Schmidt is a bit crazy; team bonding exercises in the freezing conditions of the Alps are not uncommon if you look through his managerial past, but his methods have developed a team spirit which helped Mainz in their European quest last year. A stuttering end to the season meant they missed out on the Champions League, but realistically that was always going to be a step too far. The Swiss boss will be confident that he can build on his side's stellar season and have another good year, but things will be much more difficult this time around.
Chief among Schmidt's problems are the departures of manager (in the Director of Football sense) Christian Heidel (Schalke 04), captain Julian Baumgartlinger (Bayer Leverkusen) and goalkeeper Loris Karius (Liverpool). Those three have been crucial in the recent development of the club, with Baumgartlinger in particular providing a focal point on the pitch and a captain's presence which will be hard to match. The tough tackling midfielder is highly rated by many inside the game and it was only a matter of time before a Champions League club snatched him from the smaller setting of Mainz. Leverkusen are building a very exciting project which Baumgartlinger clearly wanted to be a part of, but he will be missed in Rheinland-Pfalz. Karius is an outstanding goalkeeper and will replace Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal as soon as his hand is repaired, but Mainz have been fending off advances for a number of years now. It was just a matter of time before he left. Heidel will be a huge loss for Mainz, however, although again one they could have seen coming. His transfer dealings were the key factor in Mainz's progress over the last few years, signing many young or unheard of players and developing them into stars, before selling them on for a tidy profit. Shinji Okozaki can thank Heidel for being a Premier League champion, for example. Without his leadership and transfer nous it will be much tougher for Mainz to build a successful squad.
They have, however, done a good job this summer. Bringing in Christian Clemens on a permanent transfer from Schalke is certainly a good bit of business, as is the signing of Jhon Cordoba from Granada. The two played key roles in Mainz's attack last season and by making their deals permanent, Schmidt knows he has an attack he can rely on. Much of the rest of the squad has stayed together too, with the defence remaining a solid unit and Yunus Malli staying in the Rheinland capital for at least another year. Adding a number of options at holding midfield, in a Spurs-style attempt to replace one player by buying three, could pay off. They have added Jean-Phillipe Gbamin and Jose Rodriguez to strengthen the central midfield area, but both are young and will rely on the experience of Danny Latza and Fabian Frei alongside them to really make an impact. It would appear Mainz are continuing along their favourite route: buy cheap and young players, develop them, sell them on. If they have chosen well again this time then there is no reason to suspect they can't repeat their 6th place finish from last season. The only concern is in goal, where Karius will be tough to replace, whilst new captain Niko Bungert will need to step up to carry the team in the same way Baumgartlinger managed.
Really, then, it all comes down to how well Mainz can deal with the extra burden of the Europa League. They have bought well and seem to have filled all the gaps left by their departures, but they still have a relatively small squad of experienced, first team quality players. That could hurt them if they take every competition seriously (which their fans will demand they do) and their European adventure could hurt their chances of qualifying again next year. Having said that, Schmidt is a good motivator and team spirit seems unlikely to be a problem. It could prove to be the next giant step on Mainz's ever impressive route to the top.
Key Player: Jhon Cordoba
The striker was the main attraction during his first half season in the Bundesliga and will be crucial if they are to sustain their levels of achievement this time round. His pace and finishing caused defences plenty of problems towards the back end of last season and if he can fire, the team will do well.
Surprise Player: Suat Serdar
The young midfielder started in the Pokal clash with Unterhaching at the weekend and could be an exciting prospect to break into the first team this season. The German youth international could be another one vying for Baumgartlinger's vacated spot in holding midfield.
Ali's Prediction: 6th
Falks' Prediction: 11th
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