Some goals Werder Bremen conceded in the 4-0 drubbing at Internazionale last month were so soft that Italian football paper Gazzetta dello Sport rechristened the team "Werder Crema." It was a charitable assessment; Gazzetta easily could have reached for a stronger Italian word.
To be fair to the Bundesliga side, it was missing stalwarts like Brazilian defender Naldo, captain Torsten Frings and Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro that night. And Inter's 4-0 halftime lead against Tottenham Hotspur (it finished 4-3) on Wednesday showed just how good Samuel Eto'o and his colleagues are this season.
And yet, there was something depressingly familiar about the manner of the capitulation by Thomas Schaaf's men in the San Siro. Seasoned Werder watchers could see the same structural problems that have dogged the club over the years. Once again, midfield and defense did not work in tandem. There was either enough space between the lines to park a fleet of buses, or the back four would push too far up the pitch. Werder often plays a ludicrously high line and suffers the consequences when fast strikers are released with a smart through ball.
"We've made it far too easy for them," the 49-year-old Schaaf lamented.
A month ago, Werder had one point from six in the Champions League, and domestically, things weren't much better. A decidedly mixed bag of results had it marooned in mid-table.
Bremen prides itself on its steady hand and strong nerves. Last year, it was in a similar position after losing five in a row. Other clubs might have fired the manager, but Schaaf, who's been in the job since 1999, was simply allowed to buckle down and work things out. Thanks to the combined attacking talents of Pizarro, young German international Marko Marin, Portuguese striker Hugo Almeida and the mercurial Mesut Özil (now at Real Madrid), Werder turned around its season and finished third.
But this time, sporting director Klaus Allofs felt that stronger, more radical measures were needed. In an unprecedented move, he froze half the players' wages for October. It was mostly a symbolic gesture -- the contracts don't allow for a deduction of payments; all Werder realistically could do was to delay the transfer of the total sum by a couple of weeks -- but it seemingly did the trick. The players responded with seven points from nine in the league and kept their Champions League hopes alive with a 1-1 draw against Dutch champions Twente Enschede on Wednesday. The Germans could count themselves unlucky, too: Pizarro had a last-minute winner wiped out for dubious reasons while Theo Janssen's strike for the home team had come from a marginally offside position.
The players will get the missing money with next week's paycheck. Normal service will surely resume in the Weserstadion. Werder will steadily climb up the table and perhaps qualify for the next round in Europe as well. The northerners will then insist, with some justification, that their calm crisis management worked.
But there are problem here. First, the populist trick with the wages will certainly have a negative long-term effect. Schaaf and Allofs have routinely blamed lack of effort for defeats, and the temporary pay cut has inextricably linked money to performance in the minds of supporters. The widely held, simplistic view that professional footballers are essentially overpaid and might do better for less money has actually held back German football for decades, as clubs were too wary to pay top dollar for superstars. Bayern Munich's success with highly paid imports like Luca Toni, Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben was beginning to change public perception, but Werder's action threatens to set the clock back a few years. It doesn't bode well for the rest of the league.
It's also questionable whether "lack of effort" can really account for Werder's maddeningly inconsistent performances. True, a lethargic streak can sometimes be detected in midfield players like Aaron Hunt, Tim Borowski, Philipp Bargfrede and Daniel Jensen, who all prefer the ball to do the running. And Bremen's offensive lineup can't function without the willingness of the midfielder to cover the gaps.
"Going forward, all of us work hard. Tracking back, less so," Pizarro told RAN magazine. "That's our problem."
But shouldn't Schaaf have found a way to address this recurring malaise by now? Pizarro spoke admiringly of the manager's offensive practice sessions -- "We're trying to get to the goal as quickly as possible" -- but had no similar compliments when it came to defensive cohesion.
The last time Werder won the league, in 2004, it conceded 38 goals in 34 matches. In the last four seasons, it allowed an average of 44 goals. The championship-winning sides gave up an average of 35 goals in the same period. It's not surprising Werder hasn't been able to mount a realistic title challenge, despite its glittering array of excellent attackers.
"We are very good to watch but it's not easy for the strikers," Pizarro said. "If you're scoring three goals but concede four, it's not ideal."
Pizarro added that, far too often, Bremen has to chase matches because it finds itself trailing 1-0 or 2-0. The enormous effort required to win games in this fashion is another explanation for its failure to win the championship and to go beyond the quarterfinals in the Champions League. Last season's kamikaze-like 4-4 free-for-all with Valencia in the last 16 of the Europa League was a perfect example of all that's wrong with Werder.
In fairness, the club is punching above its weight in financial terms. Bremen is one of Germany's poorer cities and the $84 million renovation of the Weserstadion restricts opportunity in the transfer market. Allofs has been a genius at buying cheap, brilliant players like Diego or Özil and selling them for a big profit. Yet there is a suspicion that this team could be so much better with a manager in charge who spent more time drilling defensive movement rather than lecturing his players.
It's a cheap shot to blame the staff's attitude for deeper, more tactical problems that have prevented Bremen from solidifying itself as the No. 2 team behind juggernaut FC Bayern. Sadly, it's also one that hits the spot, as far as the average Bundesliga supporter is concerned.