Last season was one that 1. FSV Mainz 05 fans will not forget in a hurry, as their 10th season in the Bundesliga ended with the club securing a spot in the UEFA Europa League for the 2016/17 season.
They head straight into the group stage of the competition after finishing in sixth place in the 2015/16 Bundesliga season, surpassing the expectations of a mid-table finish after losing players such as Johannes Geis and Shinji Okazaki in the summer window prior to the campaign. Manager Martin Schmidt will now hope that he can guide the club through to the knockout stages of the Europa League, with the club's only previous appearance in the competition resulting in a disappointing exit in the third qualifying round in 2011, when they were unceremoniously dumped out on penalties by Romanian outfit CS Gaz Metan Mediaş.
This season the club are without Loris Karius and Julian Baumgartlinger after they completed moves to Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen respectively in the summer transfer window, and with the two being key members of last season's squad it will be interesting to see how Die Nullfünfer cope without them.
2015/16 represented a surprising success for the O-Fives
The first couple of months of the 2015/16 season was a mixed bag for Mainz, who just couldn't seem to find any consistency with their performances in Schmidt's first full season as manager. An opening day loss at the Coface Arena to newly promoted side FC Ingolstadt was certainly not the start that fans were hoping for, although a 2-1 away win against Borussia Monchengladbach the following week calmed any fears that may have appeared off the back of the season opener.
Turkish attacking midfielder Yunus Malli netted the club's first hat-trick of the season in a 3-1 home win against Hoffenheim, and the 24-year-old would go on to become Mainz's top scorer for the season with 11 goals registered in the Bundesliga. Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto would also go on to net a Bundesliga hat-trick for the club in October, his coming in a 3-3 draw away to Augsburg with the third strike coming in the third minute of injury time to snatch a point at the death.
The winter break saw Mainz sitting in 8th position in the Bundesliga table, and manager Schmidt delved into the transfer market to bring in Giulio Donati, Emil Berggreen and Karim Onisiwo. Berggreen however would unfortunately suffer a serious knee injury in one of his first training sessions for the club, ruling him out for the remainder of the season and leaving Schmidt to rely on Colombian Jhon Cordoba in the striker role.
The first two months after the winter break provided some memorable results for Schmidt and his men, with five wins from a possible seven including victories against Schalke 04, Bayer Leverkusen and best of all Bayern Munich, and at the Allianz Arena no less. The 2-1 win over Pep Guardiola's side would be the only home loss suffered by the champions in the Bundesliga all season, and it was results like this that earned Mainz their spot in the Europa League group stage for 2016/17.
Mainz ended the season in sixth place, with a total of 50 points leaving them just five short of fourth placed Borussia Monchengladbach who qualified for the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League. Several players were on top form throughout the season for Die Nullfünfer, with captain Julian Baumgartlinger leading by example for much of the campaign whilst Christian Clemens and Jairo Samperio were also crucial to the club's success.
However, it was to be the German turned Turk Yunus Malli who took centre stage as Mainz's player of the season, with his 11 goals and four assists from attacking midfield earning him a place in Turkey's squad for Euro 2016. Malli's agility and dribbling ability gave several teams in the division problems when they faced Mainz, with his hat-trick against Hoffenheim early in the season a particular highlight as he gave fans a glimpse of what was to come.
The only downside to the season from Malli's point of view was that he began to fade during the second half of the campaign, only netting three goals after the winter break compared to the eight that he managed during the first half of the season. If the 24-year-old can repeat the kind of form he showed in the first half of the campaign throughout the entirety of the upcoming season, then Mainz will have a tough task on their hands if they wish to keep hold of their star man.
What are the club's main objectives for this season?
The first thing that will be on the minds of Mainz fans this season is their upcoming Europa League campaign, and who could blame them after being dumped out of the competition before even reaching the group stages back in 2011. What this does mean however, is that the club's fixture list will become more congested than it was last season, and the further they make it in the Europa League, the worse it will get. This will of course mean that Schmidt will have to use his full squad in order to avoid players becoming injured or fatigued over the course of the season, but even then if he prioritises the Europa League over the Bundesliga then his side may begin to suffer if the club reach the knockout stages, which will take place after the winter break in Germany.
Despite reported interest from Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, Mainz have been able to keep hold of Malli so far and will hope that the attacking midfielder is still on their books when the transfer window shuts on August 31. This could mean just as much to the club as signing a new player would, with Malli still just 24 years of age, meaning he will continue to improve as the upcoming season unfolds. He will be one of the key players in Mainz's bid to enjoy a successful season domestically as well as in the Europa League, with Die Nullfünfer hoping they do not slip down into the bottom half of the Bundesliga next season due to the rigours of competing in Europe.
You would expect that mid-table is a realistic target for the club in the Bundesliga this season, with the losses of Loris Karius and influential captain Julian Baumgartlinger no doubt weakening the side a touch when compared to last season. Mainz will hope for a good run in the Europa League this time around, and they will hope to reach the round of 32 at the very least if they are to consider their continental adventure a success. They will find out who they will face in the group stages of the competition on August 26, when the draw takes place in Monaco.
Who have Mainz bought and sold during the transfer window?
There have been two notable departures so far in the transfer window for Mainz, with goalkeeper Loris Karius joining Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool whilst captain Julian Baumgartlinger signed for Bayer Leverkusen in order to play Champions League football. The club received an estimated €6 million and €4 million from the two deals respectively, with the latter perhaps commanding a lower transfer fee than expected when you consider the impact that Baumgartlinger had on Mainz's 2015/16 season.
The sale of midfielder Christoph Moritz to FC Kaiserslautern for €250,000 is the only other outgoing transfer that commanded a fee, with Dani Schahin, Elkin Soto and Henrique Sereno all leaving the club on free transfers after their respective contracts at the club expired. Jhon Cordoba and Christian Clemens did initially return to their parent clubs after their loan deals finished, however Mainz would opt to re-sign the two on permanent deals for respective fees of €6.5m and €2m after the two played a part in the success of the 2015/16 season.
Danish goalkeeper Jonas Lössl signed from Ligue 1 side Guingamp as Karius' replacement, with the 27-year-old costing Mainz around €2.5m. Other incoming transfers include Jean-Phillipe Gbamin, Gerrit Holtmann and Jose Rodriguez, who left RC Lens, Braunschweig and Galatasaray in order to join Schmidt's side.
A recurring theme of the transfer window for Mainz, in terms of incoming players, has been the youthful outlook of their signings. With the six new players boasting an average age of 23, there is a clear strategy in place to sign younger players that can improve as the season progresses, with the new players adding to a squad already possessing young players such as Malli, Muto and Jairo.
Pre-season form frustratingly inconsistent for Mainz
Mainz's pre-season schedule served up fixtures against opponents of greatly varying difficulty, with the opening match being a 5-0 victory against seventh tier RWO Alzey, and later games including a 1-0 loss to Europa League holders Sevilla and a 3-0 defeat to fellow Bundesliga side FC Koln.
The club's pre-season campaign got off to a thumping start, albeit against lowly opposition. Following the fixture against Alzey, Mainz ran out 7-0 victors against sixth tier side FV Biebrich and subsequently won 6-0 against American third tier side Colorado Springs Switchbacks. The first decent test of pre-season for Schmidt and his side would be against Mexican outfit Leones Negros, who held the Germans to a 1-1 draw before the O-Fives won 3-2 on penalties to keep their 100% winning record.
Next up was the game against Europa League holders Sevilla, who fielded a particularly strong side including players such as Yevhen Konoplyanka, Iborra and Coke, with the latter's brace in the final against Liverpool securing the trophy for the club, although he has since left to join Schalke 04.
A 2-1 win against Swiss side Servette Geneve got Mainz back on track results wise, with winger Pablo de Blasis finding the net for a fourth time in six outings at the time of the game. However, the next pre-season fixture would result in a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Serie B side Novara, a disappointing result when you consider how far the Bundesliga club were into their pre-season schedule at this point.
The highlight of pre-season for Mainz however was undoubtedly the 4-0 win over Liverpool, with Malli and Muto both coming off the bench to each net their first goal of pre-season against what was a mixed Liverpool side, with Klopp opting to play several first-teamers as well as a few reserve players after their impressive win against Barcelona.
The penultimate game of pre-season however will be the one that concerns Mainz fans the most, with a 3-0 loss to Koln severly denting any progress the club may have made beforehand. Losing so disappointingly to a fellow Bundesliga side when both clubs were at the same point in pre-season may be a cause for concern, and the following 5-0 thrashing of third tier side FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt will have done little to calm any nerves.
Time will only tell if the inconsistent pre-season form will carry over into the Bundesliga season, but fans will be hoping that performances such as the victory over Liverpool are repeated and not performances such as in the defeat to Koln. The manager has attempted to manage fans' expectations, stating that Mainz will not be "as good as - Liverpool but not as bad as - Köln" come the opening day of the season.
Where do the squad's strengths and weaknesses lie?
A big bonus for Mainz this season is that they were able to retain the services of most of the players that helped them achieve last season's sixth placed finish, with Malli, Muto and Jairo remaining at the club in addition to the permanent signings of previous loanees Clemens and Cordoba. This means that the dressing room will not be greatly affected as the squad has not undergone a complete overhaul during the summer, and although captain Baumgartlinger has now moved to Bayer Leverkusen, you would think that their team spirit will remain strong for the upcoming season.
Another strength within the Mainz squad is that it is a youthful one, which will suit the energetic high-pressing style of football the club implemented so well last season right down to the ground. This is no accident of course, with Schmidt and his scouting staff actively seeking out younger players in the transfer market in order to ensure that Mainz are able to continue the same style of play this season.
Of course, an obvious hole has now opened up in the central midfield area of the pitch for Mainz after the loss of influential captain Baumgartlinger, who was one of the club's top performers last season alongside fellow departee Loris Karius. Although the two may be difficult to replace, it is not an impossible task and players such as goalkeeper Jonas Lossl and defender/defensive midfielder Jean-Philippe Gbamin could be the men to fill those shoes. At the ages of 27 and 20 respectively, they have plenty of room to improve and could prove to be very capable replacements for the two if they are afforded time to adapt to the Bundesliga.
Who will be the key men for Mainz this season?
Mainz are certainly not a one man team, and there are a number of players in their squad that you should keep an eye on throughout the season. The first of which is of course last season's main man Yunus Malli, who gained his first cap for Turkey in November 2015 after greatly impressing during the first half of the Bundesliga season. His ability to both score and create goals is one that can help to set Mainz apart from some of the clubs towards the bottom half of the Bundesliga table, and if he can improve the consistency of his performances then the 24-year-old will likely be in for another impressive season for the O-Fives.
Away from Malli is the 23-year-old Spanish midfielder Jairo Samperio, who was another of Mainz's most impressive players during the last campaign. Jairo netted seven times and made five assists in the league last season from the wing, and also created 31 chances over the course of the season, second only to Danny Latza and Yunus Malli. Given that the Spaniard is only 23 years old you would expect that the best is yet to come from Jairo, who signed for Mainz from Sevilla back in 2014 for a fee of around €2 million, a bargain price in today's market for a player of his quality.
Finally, a man who could be in for another impressive season is 'new' signing Christian Clemens, who spent the 2015/16 on loan at the club before being signed from Schalke in time for the upcoming campaign. Clemens is another source of creativity for Schmidt's side, creating 31 chances last season with three of those chances being converted into goals by his team-mates. The midfielder can also chip in with the odd goal, scoring five from wide areas last season which left him as Mainz's fourth top scorer behind Malli, Muto and Jairo. Securing the 25-year-old's signature on a permanent basis was a very shrewd piece of business from those in power at the club, as Clemens is another relatively young player who will improve more and more with regular football.
Martin Schmidt must ensure last season's success is not eclipsed by potential failure
Martin Schmidt is currently the man at the helm in Mainz, a position he has held since previous manager Kasper Hjulmand was sacked back in February 2015. He took over with Mainz in 14th position and in danger of being dragged into a relegation scrap, but by the end of the 2014/15 season the Swiss boss had guided his new side to a respectable 11th placed finish, before looking to make his mark in his first full season.
And make his mark he certainly did, achieving a sixth placed finish and European football for Mainz via the effectiveness of his tactics. Schmidt employed a high octane style of play not too dissimilar to that of former Mainz boss Jurgen Klopp, with his players instructed to press high up the field and allow the opposition as little time on the ball as possible. Several teams caught off guard by this play style during the season, with perhaps the biggest scalp that of Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, who were defeated by a 2-1 scoreline at the Allianz Arena no less. Schmidt knew that allowing world-class players such as Thomas Muller and Arturo Vidal time on the ball was like asking to lose, and unsettled the Bavarians by sending at least three players at a time to press their backline, cutting off the supply to the midfielders in the process.
Similar to the engines that Schmidt tended to in the garage that he managed for ten years, the 49-year-old requires players who can run and run and then run some more if this style of play is to be implemented as he wishes. The signings of young players such as 20-year-old Jean-Philippe Gbamin and 21-year-old Jose Rodriguez shows that the manager wants enthusiastic players who have the right attitude and work-ethic for his team, with the room for growth in the future an added bonus for the club.
One thing that Schmidt must be now be wary of however, is that teams in the league will no longer be surprised by his side's high pressure approach to the game, and will adapt their tactics accordingly to match it. The Swiss tactician will have to have a few tricks up his sleeve in order to ensure his team do not become one-dimensional, because being found out early on in the season is the last thing that Mainz fans want, especially now that the club have the added distraction of European football in addition to the Bundesliga. Getting the best out of his players will be crucial to Mainz's success this season, with the form of players such as Malli, Muto and Jairo over the course of last season in part thanks to the man management skills that Schmidt possesses.
Can Mainz achieve their objectives this season - both continentally and domestically?
Over-achieving two seasons in a row would certainly be impressive, but you have to think that due to the added distraction of Europa League football, Mainz fans may have to settle for a season slightly worse than the last, finishing around mid-table in the Bundesliga. That isn't to say that excitement will not lie elsewhere however, with their Europa League journey undoubtedly a source of great anticipation as fans hope that Schmidt can guide their club to the knockout stages of the competition for the first time.
Despite the losses of Karius and Baumgartlinger, holding on to last season's star man Malli could prove instrumental to their campaign this time around, although if the Turkish midfielder has another impressive season they may face trouble retaining his services once again next summer. The return of Japanese striker Muto will also be a welcome one, with his knee injury back in February ending his season early and preventing him from continuing the impressive form that saw him score seven goals in the first half of the campaign.
Mainz begin their season with an away tie in the DFB Pokal, facing fourth division side Unterhaching on August 21. The club's Bundesliga season will get underway six days later, with a tough game against Thomas Tuchel's Borussia Dortmund awaiting them at Signal Iduna Park.
Gaining a fan's perspective on the upcoming season
VAVEL reached out to lifelong Mainz fan Angela Roemelt in order to gain her perspective on the upcoming season, as well as a brief look at her thoughts on last season's exploits. You can find her on Twitter @Angelaroemelt, and you can also browse her blog if you so wish via aroemelt.blogspot.co.uk.
Q: So firstly, what do you think was the main factor in last season's success?
A: Although I'm not a fan of Martin Schmidt I must admit he had changed the team's spirit. Whenever a game was lost or drawn he instilled that mountaineer's attitude: let's go on.
I do mountain hiking myself and that's just how you reach summits. Not by looking back how far you've come or looking up how far you still have to go. Also he's absolutely unconcerned with stardom. It was his first full season with Mainz 05 and I believe him getting the team fully into his hands was the main factor.
Q: What were your expectations going into the 2015/16 season, and was it a surprise to see Mainz ending the season so high up in the table?
A: I was definitely surprised. After exiting the cup early I expected a typical 05 season which would end with us somewhere around 8th position.
Q: Following on from that, what are your expectations this season in the Europa League and in the Bundesliga?
A: Playing Europa league will be a new experience for team and fans. I'm cautiously optimistic. Schmidt has disclosed his preparation plans for the season and they were tough on the players. They should know what awaits them. Much depends on whom we draw as opponents. We're all keen on Manchester United but that might end our tour d'europe early.
We have nothing to lose in the EL. As for Bundesliga I don't expect a season as amazing as the last. Much depends on injuries or hopefully the lack of them. I think we might make the EL qualification again, with some luck.
Q: Are there any players in particular that you would tip to have a good season, despite them perhaps not getting as much attention as players such as Yunus Malli etc?
A: I'm very keen to see Jonas Loessl play. I have a soft spot for players coming from Ligue 1. I expect Gaetan Bussmann to work hard for a starting place, too. And I rate our Spanish fraction highly. I liked how Jose Rodriguez tried to play a very volatile 6 - Liverpool, and you should never underestimate Pablo de Blasis.
Q: What did you make of the club's pre-season form? Do you think it will carry over into the Bundesliga or was the players' fitness the main focus?
A: The pre-season program was rather crowded this year. With the US and Italy the team had two very different locations. Equally different were the sparring partners. If you play teams as different as Geneva, Liverpool, Köln and Erfurt it's hard to say what the pre-season form is really like. I believe Schmidt and Schroeder did it on purpose.
Maybe but even the players know now how strong they really are and thus have to be focused even with an allegedly easy team like Unterhaching to play come Sunday. If we manage to not exit against an underdog this year, Schmidt's plan should come together. I like the way sporting director Rouven Schroeder started his term with us, by the way.
Q: And finally to round things off, do you think that losing Loris Karius and Julian Baumgartlinger will have a negative effect on the team? Or do you think they have been adequately replaced in the transfer window?
A: With a club like Mainz who can't afford to buy names already well known it's always hard to know if an experienced player has been replaced adequately. We don't buy names, we make names. Of course, neither Curve nor Loessl have the experience with the Bundesliga that Karius had, but I'm optimistic we won't be talking about Karius for much longer. We also have very good keepers with our second team, so I'm not afraid for that position.
As for Baumgartlinger I think we will see a newly positioned team in which his role will be distributed to several players. He won't be missed much once the new system kicks into gear.