FEATURE | Ole Werner’s got Werder Bremen cooking, but will Niclas Füllkrug make Germany’s World Cup squad

Ole Werner wanted a return to football. The pristine gardens and gentle breeze amidst the baking midday sunshine were not enough to keep him away. Thousands of miles from home, the Preetz-native found himself working relentlessly as a gardener in the foothills of Sydney, where he would spend his days “trimming grass and hedges.” Australia was an opportunity to pause and reflect, and ponder over ways of getting back into the game he so dearly loved. A qualified banker too, perhaps he had imagined a life away from football. But the allure of the Saturday afternoon buzz was simply irresistible. Having been starved of it with a playing career cut short, Werner was out to avenge for what he deemed past failures. Fortunately for him, Holstein Kiel came calling, before success in the Baltic city led him to his first footballing venture outside of his home region, to Werder Bremen, where something special seems to be brewing.

It wasn’t exactly the smoothest of starts for Werder Bremen on their journey back. Following the club’s first relegation since 1980, the club started the season in an entirely drab manner, with real moments of quality under then-manager Markus Anfang only fleeting at best. Five wins in 14 instantly put pressure on the coach in what should have been Bremen’s redemption season. Promised a joyful season full of triumph as a means of counteracting the failures before, Bremen thought their season had just got a whole lot worse.

Anfang was forced to resign after public prosecutors’ investigations uncovered that the Werder coach had been using a forged Covid-19 vaccine certificate, leaving the club mired in yet more internal chaos. Inspired by Manchester United’s Stone Roses inspired songbook, the club turned to Ole Werner, successfully luring him away from his beloved Holstein Kiel. Though the circumstances hadn’t changed. Werner had to produce in an even shorter amount of time, with those at the club desperate to avoid seeing Bremen fester and establish themselves as a second-division side.

Werner would easily have been forgiven for taking his time, and by implementing his methods slowly but surely. If you had asked Werder supporters the question upon Werner’s appointment of where they would realistically like to be in about a year’s time, their current 5th place position would have appeared entirely reasonable. In the second division that is. The 2. Bundesliga is notoriously competitive, and Bremen fans would not have been arrogant enough to assume their bounce-backability at merely the first time of asking. But the man tasked with it all had different ideas.

Less than a year on from the anxious confusion over where the four-time German champions were heading, Werner has Die Werderaner faithful miraculously dreaming of Europe once more. Bremen’s delightful start to their first season back at the highest level has supporters basking and reminiscing in past glories, whilst simultaneously conjuring up images and healthy doses of nostalgia of the night the club defeated Real Madrid at a raucous Weserstadion. Stylish Scandinavian pairing Daniel Jensen and Markus Rosenborg, combined with Boubacar Sanogo’s Ivorian flair, dazzled the European giants that night, with head coach Werner having so far rekindled the sparkling attacking spirit with his own radiant frontline.

Calmness and clarity are fortes of his and he offers a stark contrast to so many of his colleagues often susceptible to paralysing bouts of overthinking. Werner has cultivated an image as a coach who keeps things simple, for after all, where is the need to mess with a winning formula? “He didn’t overload the team with new ideas” uttered Clemens Fritz, head of scouting and first-team football, “he just selectively changed things”. Exuding such confidence in their head coach is none other than the same Clemens Fritz whose 288 appearances for Die Grün-Weißen have afforded him legend status in the Hanseatic city he calls home. Perhaps he knows a thing or two about getting Bremen to the top.

Werner usually sets up his impressive Bremen side with a sturdy 3-5-2 formation characterised by synergy and selflessness. Incredibly well-rehearsed in their tactical subtleties, Bremen’s first-choice eleven know their personal roles in the team to a tee, and usually fulfil them with immense precision. An intense pressing system immediately strikes into action whenever opposition full-backs take to the ball, with his two midfield 8s of Romano Schmid and Ilia Gruev springing into life and scuttling towards the opposition full-backs to impose relentless pressure on their build up play. Bremen’s devastating frontline pairing Marvin Ducksch and Niclas Füllkrug are also never fooled by the opposition’s positional changes, unabatingly pursuing opposition centre-backs, leaving Bremen with a pressing system that constantly breathes on the opposing backline.

Despite an abundance of solid defensive nous, Bremen’s defence this term has been tolerable at best. But it’s the other end of the pitch where Werner has really highlighted his coaching credentials. Having exceedingly satisfied the locals’ intense passion for wondrous attacking displays, it’s the combination of Marvin Ducksch and Niclas Füllkrug leading Bremen’s charge towards the summit of Germany’s highest level. Ducksch was signed by Bremen in the summer of 2021, originally as a planned replacement for Füllkrug who was persistently struggling with injuries. Werner’s tactical aptness brought the two together, with the pair scoring a combined total of 39 goals in the 2. Bundesliga season that saw Bremen return to the top flight.

It’s become a pairing that scintillating duo Claudio Pizzaro and Ailton would be proud of, with the former having become the Bundesliga’s all-time top foreign goal-scorer (before the impounding Robert Lewandowski took the mantle), and the latter having netted 88 times in 169 during their vintage Werder years. For those associated with Werder Bremen to be resuscitating such memories of distinctly happier times, so clearly feels like affirmation of Ole Werner’s model, with the Bremen coach suddenly creeping in to discussions of who Germany’s next big thing might be when it comes to coaching.

Niclas Füllkrug, Germany’s number 9?

Whilst many established internationals will lament the timing of this winter’s World Cup, particularly those who are not on the greatest of form, there exists a different type of player who is instead enlivened by the opportunity. Befittingly with 8 goals in 9 appearances, and currently sitting top of the Bundesliga goal-scoring charts, Niclas Füllkrug has catapulted himself into the conversations of who will lead the line for Germany as the tournament gets under way in just over a month’s time. Füllkrug’s spectacular start to the season is heartening to see to say the least. For a player who has so often promised so much to have thus far experienced a career ravaged by injuries, a life in football has not always been easy. But he is now beginning to reap the rewards.

Caveats must be applied to the seemingly impressive numbers, though. 3 of his 8 goals have come from the penalty spot, whilst the Bremen marksmen ranks only 18th in the league for touches inside the opponent’s box. As Flick will presumably prefer more of a typical box player, fears linger that Füllkrug may struggle to replicate such goal-scoring numbers away from the Bremen system. It remains questionable as to whether Füllkrug really possesses the level of technical quality required to play at international level, particularly amongst Germany’s heightening array of technicians. On the one hand, he’s certainly worth a try. On the other, Germany’s next game is their World Cup opener versus Japan.

Accusations of elitism are often elicited when dismissing players from mid- to lower-table clubs from the international picture. But this is international football. You have to be elitist. It’s about picking the best players in the country who are most likely going to win you a World Cup. It shouldn’t be unreasonable for a coach to think they are more likely to get that from players who consistently perform at the top level, and players who regularly play in the Champions League – in a competition full of players who will constitute the same players as those who will be at the World Cup – rather than someone who has netted regularly for 9 games, having only just returned to the top flight.

It’s understandable that fans are so distraught at insipid elitists who continue to overlook their club. Locked out, ignored, and disregarded, if being picked for your national team really is anything like a meritocracy, then what more has he got to do? Those are the familiar cries from supporters of every club, and in every country. But the reality remains that form is only one such mechanism in which a player’s suitability to their national side can be measured.

But the clamour for Füllkrug’s inclusion offers a potential solution to Germany’s enduring centre-forward problem. And perhaps that’s his most convincing offer. Long gone are the days of Miroslav Klose and Mario Gómez, but if it’s an old-fashioned centre-forward Flick’s looking for, then Füllkrug must surely make the squad. But if Flick desires an all-round striker of the highest technical quality, then he should look no further than Dortmund’s 17-year-old dynamo, Youssoufa Moukoko. The ability to knit together counter-attacks, added to his sublime passing and finishing quality, Moukoko appears the better fit for this Germany side, despite his relative inexperience. Though Füllkrug could board the plane too.

Füllkrug’s involvement or lack thereof in Germany’s squad for this winter’s World Cup in Qatar will certainly not define Bremen’s season. Bela Rethy, commentator for German TV channel ZDF, has commented on Werder Bremen’s style reminding him of the club’s glory days under the great Otto Rehhagel in the 1980s and early 90s, when the club won two Bundesliga titles and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Whilst those lofty heights will prove incredibly difficult to reproduce, it should not get in the way of Bremen’s marked improvements. If you cannot enjoy the journey in football, then really what is the point? Werder Bremen are going places, and really, after a decade of painful mediocrity, that’s all their fans could ever ask for.

James Westmacott

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