Thomas Schaaf is a true one-club man. The 51-year-old has been with Werder Bremen since 1972 and began coaching in 1999, making him the Bundesliga’s longest-serving head coach. It’s clear that Bremen is the only club for Schaaf — but is Schaaf the only coach for Bremen?
The House That Schaaf Built
Thomas Schaaf’s tenure as Werder Bremen coach has been a fruitful one. Since taking over in 1999, he has rescued Bremen from relegation, led them to a league championship, two DFB-Pokal titles, and a Europa League final. Among these honors was also a domestic double in 2003/04, as well as a string of Champions League appearances. Schaaf’s Bremen were one of the most successful Bundesliga sides of the 2000′s. Yet with the dawn of a new decade, the club found themselves slipping from being perennial top-three contenders into the void of uncertainty. The past two seasons saw them finishing 13th and 9th, respectively, and for the first time in some 30 years, Bremen were shut out of European competition for two seasons running.
Unlike many other struggling Bundesliga clubs, Bremen have stuck loyally with Schaaf, even as a steady parade of once-key players have left the club and new signings failed to impress. Since Mesut Özil was sold to Real Madrid, Bremen have been hard pressed to find a creative playmaker to fill the gaping hole he left behind. The versatile Wesley, signed from Santos for €7.5 million, struggled in this and every other role assigned to him on the pitch. And Schaaf’s most recent experiments with fielding winger Marko Marin as a playmaker were uncomfortable at best.
Compounded with the coach’s high-pressing tactics and a shaky defense, it was but for the grace of Claudio Pizarro that Bremen managed a decent start to 2011/12. The 33-year-old striker has been a one-man Peruvian life insurance policy, scoring over 55% of Bremen’s goals last season and assisting half a dozen more.
Following a good Hinrunde, the team went into the winter break sitting comfortably in 5th place with 29 points. It all went downhill from there: from January to April, Bremen won only two of their 17 matches, picking up a meager 13 points in the process to finish 9th in the table.
A Change Is Gonna Come
Schaaf recently signed a new contract with Bremen that will run through 2014, but the same cannot be said of his players. After losing Özil in 2010, Torsten Frings and Per Mertesacker in 2011, this summer now sees the departures of Tim Wiese, Naldo, Tim Borowski, Marko Marin, Markus Rosenberg, and Claudio Pizarro among others. Though financially necessary, this mass exodus combined with a lack of European football has effectively sent Werder Bremen back to the drawing board as they prepare for the 2012/13 campaign.
Sporting director Klaus Allofs has been disappointed in the transfer market of late, as the combined €20 million invested into buying Mehmet Ekici, Marko Arnautovic, and Wesley have yet to pay dividends. With Wesley offloaded to Palmeiras for €6 million, what remains is to see whether Ekici and Arnautovic can find a way to figure into Schaaf’s plans for his team.
Meanwhile, Allofs’ latest endeavors this summer have included securing the services of Sokratis and Assani Lukimya, as well as Euro 2012 stand-out Theodor Gebre Selassie, to shore up the defense. In the wake of Tim Wiese’s departure, two new keepers have been added to the squad to back up Sebastian Mielitz in goal. And up front, Eljero Elia and loanee Nils Petersen come in to fill some of the recently-vacated attacking positions.
With Pizarro gone south again to Munich, Bremen and Schaaf can no longer rely on the prolific striker to rescue them. But this loss may actually be a blessing in disguise. Although Pizarro was rightly lauded for his goalscoring heroics last season, his departure means that Schaaf will have no excuse left to cover for deeper weaknesses in the team, which now must be addressed.
This will be a healthy step forward for Bremen. Over-reliance on any one player is deadly; a sustainable model for success demands squad depth enough to cover for the contingencies of injury and fatigue. Bremen are now a team in transition. With this slew of recent departures, Schaaf and Allofs have been handed a perfect opportunity to reassess and rebuild the team on a new generation of players.
The Klaus and Thomas Show
Through this time of transition, Schaaf remains a steady presence at the helm of the green-and-white ship. Schaaf has been with Bremen since 1972, a truly life-long affair, as he progressed from youth player to first-team player, to youth coach and assistant coach, before finally taking over from Felix Magath as head coach in 1999. All told, the 51-year-old has been with his club for 40 years and is currently the longest-serving coach in the Bundesliga.
His loyalty has brought the club great success, but Schaaf and his staff have also made their fair share of setbacks. The last-minute nature of some of Bremen’s recent dealings in the transfer market (e.g. Özil’s departure on August 17th, 2010 and Wesley’s arrival on August 20th) threw a monkey wrench into the process of integrating those players in time for season’s start. Furthermore, though they were losing key players, Schaaf and Allofs still set ambitious standards for Bremen each year, aiming for trophies and Champions League play with somewhat unrealistic optimism.
And despite Allofs’ rather public disagreements with supervisory chairman Willi Lemke and president Klaus Fischer, Schaaf has stood by his sporting director. Schaaf made clear that his own presence at Bremen was dependent on Allofs’ contract being extended. The long-time manager had his way in the end, and so the Schaaf and Allofs show goes on.
There has been frustration from supporters at a certain lack of accountability on the club’s part to acknowledge mistakes made. The attitude of determined optimism has perhaps unwittingly crippled Bremen, and the lessons of the last two years will be as good a tonic as Pizarro’s departure. Following the bitter disappointment of finishing outside the top six for a second year running, Schaaf and Allofs both acknowledged that Bremen’s priority next season is to get the new team settled in, and then to challenge for a European berth.
Mr. Werder Bremen
Schaaf’s loyalty to Bremen ensured not only his place in supporters’ hearts but also his place at the club, even through the lowest points of the last few years. After a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of rivals Hamburger SV in February 2011, 250 Bremen supporters confronted the team when they returned to the Weserstadion. Allofs afterwards acknowledged the supporters’ concerns and criticism, but was emphatic that this demonstration was not to do with the coach.
“We are in a difficult situation,” said Allofs, “but Thomas Schaaf’s position is not in question.”
If ever Bremen wanted a complete overhaul from the bottom of the team roster to the head coach himself, then the shambolic 2011/12 Rückrunde was surely the perfect opportunity. Yet Bremen chose not to go the route of many other clubs, opting to remain under Schaaf’s guidance rather than take a chance on a new manager along with a new team.
While this choice may come under question should Bremen find themselves finishing midtable again next season, the club’s commitment to Schaaf is a commitment to stability, and a long-term vision of success. Getting on the coaching carousel is a gamble at best, and a recipe for disaster at worst. VfB Stuttgart, for instance, had four different coaches in the space of 25 months between November 2008 and December 2010, and twice flirted with relegation in that time.
The Green-Whites have stumbled of late, but Schaaf’s record speaks for itself and two mediocre seasons do not offset the fact that this coach is tremendously qualified for his job. The objective for Bremen now is not instant silverware; it is rebuilding, and aiming for sustainable success. Trophies and titles will come around again, but as competition for European places heats up in the Bundesliga, Schaaf will be a source of sorely-needed stability for a transitioning Bremen side.
Written by Guest Author June Pan
Follow the author on Twitter: @mimsicality