Werder Bremen don’t have to look far for reminders of their glory years. Frank Baumann was the captain of their legendary Bundesliga-winning side of 2004 and now has a seat in the Weserstadion director’s box as the club’s sporting director. It’s given him the perfect view to watch Werder’s astonishing decline this season. The glory years are long gone.
Rather than challenging for titles as Werder Bremen did a decade-and-a-half ago, they are currently concerned merely with staying in the Bundesliga. Florian Kohfeldt has just three games left to save the club’s top flight status, with three points to make up Mainz in 15th place and safety from the drop.
One of those games will see Werder Bremen host Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga champions-elect who will clinch an eighth successive title with a win. Considered one of Germany’s most historic clubs, a club that became accustomed to challenging for honours and playing in Europe and producing some of the country’s best young talent (see Mesut Ozil), Werder Bremen haven’t been so far from the top since 1981, when they were last relegated.
This is still a team with some recognisable names. In Davy Klaasen and Nuri Sahin, Werder Bremen boast a central midfield pairing most Bundesliga clubs would relish. Milot Rashica, American Josh Sargent and Leonardo Bittencourt are also three relatively young players who have bright futures ahead of themselves.
So what has gone so badly wrong? Why are Werder Bremen staring relegation in the face this season when last season they appeared to be heading in the right direction, finishing eighth, missing out on Europa League qualification by a single point, and making a run to the quarter finals of the DFB Pokal? If they are to survive this, what lessons can they learn from what they have experienced?
The idea behind the promotion of Kohfeldt from the club’s under 23 side in October 2017 was that he would take the attacking philosophy he’d steeped Werder Bremen’s young players in, and instill it at senior level. There have been signs of success in this regard. Werder Bremen certainly are not the worst team to watch in the Bundesliga, but their mental weakness has cost them dearly this season, dropping more points from winning positions than almost any other side in the division.
Defensive frailties have become apparent over the course of the 2019/20 season, with Werder Bremen failing to sufficiently replace key figures. Max Kruse, for instance, left for Fenerbahce last summer having been the club’s top scorer for two straight seasons, leaving a void that is still unfilled.
Injuries have also cost Werder Bremen dearly with Theodor Gebre Selassie, Ludwig Augstinsson and Niclas Fullkrug all missing periods of the season. There’s no doubt bad fortune has played a role in the club’s recent struggles, but nonetheless they still haven’t done enough to come up with alternative ways to salvage the situation.
Baumann has backed Kohfeldt all the way through the season and with just three fixtures left to play and the potential for a relegation play-off, it’s almost certain he will last all the way to the end of the campaign. At any other Bundesliga club, Kohfeldt would surely have been dismissed long before now.
That Kohfeldt is still in place at the Weserstadion illustrates how there remains a believe at the club that the 37-year-old is one of Germany’s best young coaches. “Florian works very well with the team, the problem isn't tactics or organisation,” Baumann said after a particularly damaging defeat to Hoffenheim earlier in the season. “Florian is a top coach, that won't change.”
That reputation has taken a battering outside Werder Bremen this season, but within the club there remains a train of thought that they will emerge from these troubles and be better for it under Kohfeldt. More than once, the faith Mainz showed a young Jurgen Klopp in the early days of his managerial career has been referenced, especially by those who prefer to see the bright side of Werder Bremen’s situation.
Talking of Mainz, Werder Bremen’s clash with them on June 20 could prove to be the defining moment in the season for both clubs. Just three points currently separate them, with the former on the right side of the relegation cutoff and the latter on the wrong side of it. Lose that game and Kohfeldt will almost certainly drop through the hatch door.
Werder Bremen are, on the basis of their membership numbers of 40,000, the ninth biggest club in Germany. The hope was that last season’s relative success would provide a springboard to bigger and better things. That hasn’t materialised, and right now Kohfeldt and his players are solely concerned with staying where they are. Meanwhile, the club's leadership, even in this situation, have one eye on the future. Which might have been part of the problem all along.