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Werder Bremen facing relegation from the Bundesliga; what has gone wrong for 2004 double winners?
No club has spent more seasons in the Bundesliga than Werder Bremen but that could soon change as they face the prospect of relegation from Germany's top flight. Adam Bate examines what’s gone wrong for the 2004 double winners
Last Updated: 19/02/20 2:20pm
Hamburg famously had a clock that recorded their continuous presence in the Bundesliga as the sole founder member of the competition never to be relegated. That was finally dismantled last summer following their relegation from the top division the previous year. "A constant look into the rear mirror doesn't help," said HSV chairman Bernd Hoffmann.
The following month, when Werder Bremen hosted Fortuna Dusseldorf at the Weserstadion on the opening day of this season, the mantle passed to Hamburg's great rivals in the north.
That game marked the 1867th Bundesliga match for Werder Bremen. That is now more than HSV, more than Bayern Munich and, indeed, more than any other team in the country. The 2004 double winners have missed only one season in the top flight.
But that could be about to change.
Six months on from that season opener - a 3-1 home defeat - Werder Bremen are second bottom having lost eight of their last 10 matches. Confidence is shot, hope is fading, and the fear is that it will not find it easy to return if they do drop down. For Christoph Bahr, reporter for local newspaper the Weser Kurier, the club's demise has come as a shock.
"Nobody expected relegation," Bahr tells Sky Sports. "The goal was Europe."
That is what makes it all so surprising. Hamburg had flirted with the drop for years, but Werder Bremen were in Europe last season and missed out on a return by just one point. Now they have the worst defensive record in the Bundesliga and are struggling in attack too. Thrashed 3-0 by RB Leipzig at the weekend, they are five points from safety.
So what has gone wrong? In hindsight, the problems began before a ball was even kicked. The sale of experienced forward Max Kruse to Fenerbahce robbed them of a reliable scorer and they banked on Niclas Fullkrug, returning to the club where he had begun his career, to replace him. A major injury just weeks into the campaign soon put paid to those plans.
"Kruse was the captain and the best goalscorer," says Bahr. "Fullkrug should have filled the gap, but he has long been prone to injury. His cruciate ligament tore after four games."
Injuries have continued to pile up.
"There have been an unusual number of injuries, up to 10 potential regulars missing. It is partly bad luck but it is partly the medical department. Many injuries have happened during the rehabilitation phase. Due to these many failures, Werder have not been able to recover.
"There have been a lot of problems."
Where once there was confidence there is now uncertainty, where once there was harmony there is now discord. History can be a strength but the weight of those big-club expectations are beginning to feel like a burden. It is telling that their home form is the worst of any team in the league, having lost their last five in front of their own supporters.
In Bremen, everyone has an opinion.
Frank Baumann, the club's sporting director, was part of the team that won the title under Thomas Schaaf just 16 years ago. He has publicly lamented the fact that the players are "not being brave enough in possession" but the criticism is coming from many sources. Club legend Dieter Eilts summed up some of the concerns in a hard-hitting newspaper column.
"The midfielders don't even ask for the ball," claimed Eilts. "Everyone is extremely concerned with looking after themselves first instead of helping others. This is very noticeable. Self-confidence is lacking. Many players feel that they don't really want the ball at all. And whoever is in possession of the ball at Werder is often the poorest pig."
That reflects the lack of confidence that has spread like a virus since a run of four defeats in a row prior to the winter break saw them slump into the relegation zone. If the shaken belief is understandable, the frustration in the city is that they have been allowed to sleepwalk their way into this predicament. Weaknesses are being spotted belatedly.
The ongoing presence of Claudio Pizarro is seen as symptomatic. The now 41-year-old striker's return for a fourth spell at the club was welcomed back in 2018 - a sentimental move that played well with supporters. Now it appears indicative of their issues.
"Increasingly, it was noticed that the squad lacked speed," says Bahr. "The average age of the squad is also too high, which has certainly contributed to the many injuries."
Attempts were made to provide young coach Florian Kohfeldt with some support in the January transfer window with Kevin Vogt and Davie Selke bringing much needed physicality. But they have arrived to find a team that is bereft. "Both have played well so far but it has had little effect on the team," adds Bahr. "But the uncertainty is now too great."
Werder Bremen have scored only eight goals at home this season, the lowest total in the league, but the worry now is that even chances are proving beyond them. Teenage forward Josh Sargent is a willing runner who was wasteful in front of goal in the early months of the season. But more recently, the forwards have found themselves starved of service.
"Back then, the problem was that many of these opportunities were not being taken," argues Eilts. "These opportunities no longer exist. Werder just doesn't develop enough danger in the last third and therefore doesn't get a clear chance of scoring."
What can they do to change things? The club is backing Kohfeldt to turn things around. The former youth-team coach and assistant assumed control in October 2017 and steadied the ship before guiding the team to a top-half finish in his first full season in charge.
"The last chance to change something now would be a change of coach," says Bahr. "At the moment, however, the management of the club is firmly behind Florian Kohfeldt."
Remarkably, supporters have not turned either.
"Overall, the Werder fans are very loyal and patient," adds Bahr. "They keep cheering on the team, even if hardly anything has worked this season. Before the recent game against Union, hundreds of fans even lined up and cheered the arrival of the team bus. There are hardly any whistles inside the stadium, but of course all fans are very afraid of relegation.
"The fans are obviously happy that Werder has been playing longer in the Bundesliga than HSV. They are rather proud too of the successful times and the titles that the club has won.
"But now there is a particular concern that, if relegated, Werder might not make it back to the Bundesliga. Formerly large clubs like Kaiserslautern have diminished in significance after suffering relegation. They serve as an example and a warning of what could happen."
For Werder Bremen, the clock is ticking.