Few coaches can compare their longevity to that of the Pope, but as at least five Pontiffs will have come and gone during Thomas Schaaf’s time at Bremen, Werder’s current boss is one of them.
‘‘The show always goes on,’’ Shaaf cautioned to Eurosport before last week’s visit to Bayern Munich. ‘‘When the Pope steps down, there is always another one to replace him. One day Arsene Wenger won’t be at Arsenal. It’s the same for me.’’
Today is Pope Benedict XVI’s last day at work, but Schaaf will be on the bench for the 633rd time for Werder when Augsburg visit on Saturday.
The man who has been at Bremen since training with the club in his early teenage years is the epitome of a one-club man.
But all is not well in the Church of Schaaf.
Though only two coaches in the history of the Bundesliga have beaten Bayern Munich more often than the 51-year-old , no one expected a result in Munich. The manner of the team’s defeat was significant: had they tried, Bayern could have racked up a cricket score, instead they took their foot off the accelerator and settled for a tennis one (6-1).
Schaaf, who took over the first team in 1999 after playing more than 250 games for Bremen, is the longest serving coach in Germany and it’s hard to find a person in football with a bad word to say about him.
After saving Bremen from relegation, he led them to a famous league and cup double in 2004, five years of Champions League football and a German Cup triumph in 2009.
But right now it’s grim up north.
Few Bundesliga teams were busier in the transfer market than Bremen over the summer and because Schaaf is closer to an English-style manager than any other coach in Germany, his decisions are coming into question.
First the good news. A mass clear out of big earners meant that decks could be cleared. No one in Bremen is mourning the loss of madcap keeper Tim Wiese (recently fined by Hoffenheim for ‘‘inappropriate behaviour’’ while dressed up as a prisoner at a party) or new Portland Timbers recruit Mikael Silvestre.
Naldo and Tim Borowski were talented, but blighted by injury. Marko Marin, who has seems to have disappeared at Chelsea, was maddeningly inconsistent. The real loss was the evergreen Claudio Pizarro, who banged in 18 goals in 29 matches last season.
But what of the replacements?
The talented Kevin de Bruyne, on loan from Chelsea, has gradually become a key man. The Belgian was the only player who looked up for the fight in Munich, where he scored and played for long periods as a lone centre forward. But the 21-year-old seems homesick: he gave up taking German lessons after a couple of months and has said the Bundesliga won’t be more than a quick stop off in his career. Another top performer in green is Nils Petersen. But the 11-goal forward is also only on loan from Bayern, and would like nothing more than to push for a place in the Munich team.
Over the winter, Bremen’s new sporting director Thomas Eichin, who cut his teeth managing a German ice hockey club, resisted an €8 million offer for Marko Arnautovic from Dynamo Kiev, but revenues have tumbled since Werder fell out of the Champions League and the skilful Austrian could be sold this summer
Meanwhile some summer signings are starting to look misplaced. At more than €5 million, Dutch World Cup star Eljero Elia was Bremen’s record signing , but after no goals and a mere three assists all season, he was dropped for the first time by Schaaf in Munich.
The real problems are at the back.
Defender Assani Lukimya hasn’t reproduced his Fortuna Dusseldorf form. Aleksandar Ignjovski was so poor at right back in the previous week’s home defeat to Freiburg that Theodor Gebreselassie played there at Bayern despite nursing a broken bone in his hand: Schaaf was rewarded with an own goal from the Czech international.
Indeed, Bremen fans witnessed a tale of defensive woe against the runaway league leaders. After Sebastian Prodl’s silly red card, Schaaf was forced to send on new signing Mateo Pavlovic, whose only experience playing for Bremen was a match against Eintracht Braunschweig reserves four days earlier.
The ensuing hammering in Bavaria means Bremen have conceded 47 goals this season – only Wiese’s Hoffenheim have a worse defence.
Schaaf’s own comparison with Wenger is apt. Arsenal and Bremen have more than Per Mertesacker’s offbeat defending in common: both last won national titles in 2004 and have since been known for some breathtaking attacking and keystone cops defending.
There’s enormous mutual respect between Wenger and Schaaf, whose paths first crossed when the German played for the Werder Bremen team that beat Wenger’s Monaco in the 1992 Cup Winners Cup final.
And, as with Wenger, there is no real doubt over Schaaf’s future.
Fearful that he would join former sporting director Klaus Allofs at Wolfsburg, Bremen recently offered to extend the coach’s deal beyond 2015.
Humble and realistic, Schaaf’s reply was typical of a man that doesn’t fit the mould of a typical top-level coach.
‘‘Why extend? It would only cost the club more money if they wanted me to go.’’
Short termism may rule elsewhere on the football map, but Schaaf is at the helm in Bremen for a third decade. Unless the club takes a massive leap of faith, don’t be surprise if he is still there for a fourth.
Eurosport2 has live Bundesliga action on Friday with Frankfurt against Moenchengladbach (20:30). Then on Saturday don’t miss Dortmund v Hannover (15:30) and Leverkusen v Stuttgart (18:30). On Sunday there’s Hoffenheim v Bayern and Dusseldorf v Mainz.