Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Is Saunders The Mainz Man?

Raphael Honigstein's consistently fascinating Guardian column on the Bundesliga recently offered a pen picture of Mainz's intriguing coach, Thomas Tuchel. It got me mulling over what is required to succeed in football, and what it told us about our very own manager

At first glance there's little comparison between Tuchel and Dean Saunders. Their backgrounds appear completely different; a well-decorated international who spent his playing career at some of the top clubs in Europe against a modest player forced to retire at 24.

Yet Tuchel's endearingly humble approach to earning his coaching spurs is more similar to Saunders' path to The Racecourse than you might think. Humility is, admittedly, not something Saunders has been regularly accused of, particularly in the first year or so of his time as Wrexham boss, but he also paid his dues, working under Graeme Souness and John Toshack, and certainly developed a constant system of play.

One possible difference, although I'd have to have a more intimate knowledge of Tuchel's apprenticeship to know for certain, is that Saunders has had to deviate from his theory. He arrived at Wrexham with a similar approach to Tuchel, valuing the technical abilities and superior physical attributes that youthful Premiership loans and cast-offs could offer. At least, that was the plan, but as they were raw talents, some of whom would not blossom, Saunders found that, like the kids he brought in, the idea didn't have legs in the long term.

Perhaps Tuchel hit that wall and had to adjust his plans. Maybe the fact that he's working with higher quality players means he never did. However, it was certainly a wall Saunders hit. To his credit, he learned from the disappointment and recovered from the poor fare his side subsequently put out for the closing couple of months of his initial season and the whole of the 2009-10 season.

With hindsight, the foundations of Saunders' new philosophy were laid last season, although it wasn't really discernible at the time. The sound defensive foundations he laid were reassembled when last season's record-breaking defence was dispersed, but it was no longer based on such ferocious pressing. Wrexham certainly still work hard when they don't have the ball, but their defensive shape is the real key. When we lose the ball we drop into position superbly.

It's very hard to find the space to break a disciplined rearguard and the idea is that with three attack players still poised to capitalise when we get possession back, we are able to break with speed, Mainz style.

Of course, that's where the plan has broken down rather. Adrian Cieslweicz's first run in the team this season is surely an attempt to inject pace into the side, and we have been counter-attacking more effectively as a result. However, the Altrincham match showed that, although we're very hard to beat and are likely to take points off the teams at the top of the table, we also find it hard to cut loose against sides we would hope to thrash.

There are two possible solutions: either we'll find new thrust when Saunders pairs the pace of the returning Andy Mangan with Cieslewicz for the first time; or a new man will breathe life into the attack.

If neither of those possibilities occur, Saunders might find his fate at the end of the campaign is the same as that which awaits Tuchel: having made a big stride forward, he'll have fallen short of the tantalising dream which dangled just beyond his reach for the first half of the season.

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