A replacement for Özil? Stop the Hunt now, Werder Bremen have one in their ranks.
After the Mesut Özil transfer saga, the talk in Bremen has now moved to who will replace the attacking midfielder’s place in Thomas Schaaf’s team? On Wednesday night, one player in particular made enough noise out on the pitch to out-do the post-goal foghorn that adorns every Werder Bremen goal.
Aaron Hunt, known by most English football fans for being ‘that racist one’, gave a performance not too dissimilar to the ones Bremen fans were used to observing when Özil was still at the club. For all the talk of Hatem Ben Arfa ending up at the ‘Weserstadion’ via Newcastle, it turns out that Thomas Schaaf may have had the replacement under his permanently tickled nose for around seven years now.
Hunt was the main performer in a very entertaining match, his passing and movement reminiscent of Özil’s. Playing in the same position as the recent Real Madrid signing, he showed the characteristics and attributes that made Özil so potent and dangerous during the Bundesliga season.
The Hunt steps up
Playing at the tip of the midfield diamond, just behind strikers Claudio Pizarro and Hugo Almeida, he was given free reign to move where he felt most effective.
Playing behind two strikers rather than one offers greater opportunities to find the incisive pass, as strikers do not have to make space for themselves. Two strikers can work together to pull centre-backs apart for a pass to be made. It is this same formation that won Wolfsburg the Bundesliga title two years ago, entirely down to the attacking trio of Grafite, Džeko and Misimović.
Playing with two strikers also occupies the two centre-backs, giving the player in the advanced midfielder role more time and space to create something. This, of course, is only the case if a team does not recognise this and place a deeper-lying midfielder to hassle this attacking midfielder. Sampdoria did not look to do this.
It is for these two reasons that the most creative players in the past two Bundesliga seasons have all played behind a front-two in a diamond midfield. It is to be remembered that it is in this role where Diego, formerly of Werder Bremen, got his expensive move to a top European club after performing in that role.
Hunting for width in a naturally narrow system
Just like Mesut, Hunt was happy to provide the width and change the predictability of a rigid diamond midfield and move out to the channels as well as offering a more conventional wide position. This was one of Özil’s strengths, his ability to stretch the play when needed, creating space for other players in the middle of the pitch, as well as shifting central midfielders out of position.
By playing a diamond midfield, the formation is inherently narrow. Narrowness makes a team easy to defend against as a defence can remain compact and cut the space between the defence and midfield. Hunt, and anyone who plays at the tip of the diamond has a significant role in breaking down a defence through their movement. Hunt did this well, for when Sampdoria’s defence was narrow, he looked to isolate a full-back, drifting them wide, providing opportunities for strikers to drop deep into the space vacated (1) and for midfielders to drive forward (2 & 3).
Sampdoria’s 4-4-2 struggles with the midfield diamond
Sampdoria’s shape played into Werder Bremen’s plans, as well as allowing Aaron Hunt an opportunity to parade his game. Bremen, setting out with a very close-knit trio in the middle, did not afford Sampdoria space in the middle of the park. Sampdoria strangely did not adapt their strategy given its obvious failure throughout, continuing to look to play direct balls to the deeper-lying Antonio Cassano. When the ball made it to his feet, Cassano was hounded out by suitable glam-rock lookalike Torsten Frings.
Werder Bremen were able to dominate possession, a stat that tends to indicate who had the stronger midfield and thus who controlled the match. Sampdoria’s static 4-4-2, with only three bands, made it easy for Bremen’s fluid midfield to move in between the gaps left in the lines – allowing them to move the ball comfortably and have time to turn and consider their options in dangerous areas. Bargfrede, Hunt and Borowski were all looking to find these spaces, looking to create triangles to intersect the straight lines of the Sampdoria midfield. With Cassano and Pazzini not looking to close down Bremen’s midfield, it gave Frings so much time on the ball, able to pick out the right pass.
This dissection of Sampdoria’s straight-lines played directly into the hands of Hunt, who has a good eye for a pass, as well as good reading of the game. Accompanied with a reasonable understanding with the two strikers ahead of him, this made him the game’s most dangerous player. With the ball at his feet, he looked composed and knew what he wanted to do before the ball was played to him, all strengths shown time and time again by Özil.
His quick mind, escorted with swift feet, make him an ideal player for the role in Schaaf’s seemingly preferred formation. With forwards dropping deep and midfielders pushing forward, Bremen’s game is based around creating triangles and one-two’s. Hunt’s football intelligence is up to scratch too, knowing when to drift wide and create space for other players to work with – something that lesser players would struggle with, making the system predictable and easy to defend against.
Both left-footed, both play in the same position and both are acutely aware of their similar family history – the similarities between the two continue past the shallowest of similarities. Bremen fans may have been left worrying after the departure of Özil, but with the intelligence and technical ability shown by Aaron Hunt on Wednesday, they needn’t stress too much.