Prior to his memorable stint at Werder Bremen, Albion’s new gaffer carved out a successful, if injury-hampered playing career as a centre back mostly hopping between Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. Three separate stints at his hometown club of Strasbourg preceded his defining loan move to Bremen at the beginning of the 2003/04 season; a move which would land the then 27-year-old Frenchman an unlikely domestic double in his debut season under club legend Thomas Schaaf.Embed from Getty Images
Now, Thomas Schaaf is probably a name you haven’t heard before – don’t worry you’re not alone – but after casting an eye over his league and cup-winning tactics, the similarities between his and Ismaël’s approach at LASK and Barnsley is uncanny.
Schaaf, a true one-club man at Bremen during his playing days, blew the Bundesliga away with an unconventionally gung-ho attacking style which accentuated the talents of what was a good, rather than great squad. He didn’t need a team of Ballacks or a Pizarros to achieve the perceivably unachievable – he needed the ‘right’ players.
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
After inheriting a Bremen team under serious risk relegation in 1999, Schaaf performed miracles over the coming seasons. He propelled the team from 13th to 7th in his first full season, before recording back-to-back 6th places between 2001 and the spring of 2003. But it was the 2003/04 season where his Bremen side truly came alive.
At the centre of Schaaf’s genius was his tactical setup. His tactic of choice was as unorthodox as it was brave, opting to set up in a 3-3-2-2 formation. Seriously, 3-3-2-2.Embed from Getty Images
In front of the experienced Andreas Reinke in net, Schaaf opted for three centre halves, anchored by Ismaël himself. At an intimidating 6’3, Ismaël was a huge physical and calming presence at the heart of the Bremen defence, a defence which, statistically, ranked 2nd best in the Bundesliga in their title-winning campaign – the season prior to Ismaël’s arrival it ranked 12th out of 18 sides.
To Ismaël’s left was the impressive Serbian, Mladen Krstajić, a rangy left back-turned-centre back whose quiet ascendancy from the domestic Serbian league prospect to Bundesliga heavyweight won many plaudits. Canadian Paul Stalteri, a shorter and more mobile right back who, like Krstajić, transitioned into a centre half and marshalled the right side of the defence behind the marauding right wing-back, Inter Milan loanee, Ümit Davala.
Davala, and his left-sided counterpart Fabian Ernst, bombed up and down the flanks. In many ways, they were typical modern-day wing-backs a decade ahead of their time. Between them in the centre sat Frank Baumann – a classically imposing screening midfielder who was just at home at centre half. He gave, not only Davala and the devastating Ernst the freedom to roam forwards, but much-needed balance to a midfield accommodating two more creative central midfielders ahead of him to influence the game in the opposition’s half.
These midfielders came in the shape of the reliable Krisztián Lisztes, and the supremely talented Johan Micoud. Micoud, in particular, was crucial to Schaaf’s plans. He was the creative link between the industrious defensive players and the deadly forward tandem of Ivan Klasnić, who would later sign for Baggies favourite Gary Megson at Bolton, and the Bundesliga player of the season, Aílton.
Bremen, in this set up, were incredibly exciting. In 16 of their 34 league games, they scored at least three goals, and they were only shut out three times all season. Their 79 league goals that season was the most by any Bundesliga side since a Lothar Matthaus-inspired Bayern Munich in 1987/88. So where were all these goals coming from in the 3-3-2-2?
Based on some rudimentary research, the simple answer is Aílton. 28 goals in 33 games speaks for itself, although his goal threat was not news to Bundesliga defenders. He’d already racked up 58 goals in the last four campaigns combined. What was new though, was how he was scoring.Embed from Getty Images
Aílton’s iconic free-scoring season was underpinned by devastating left-footed finishing, often latching on to whipped, low crosses from the left or swiftly breaching stretched defences on the break. More interestingly though, Bremen’s Brazilian benefited from two players in particular, whose form skyrocketed in that season: Fabian Ernst and Ivan Klasnić.
Previously, both players had been pretty toothless in attacking areas until this point in their Bremen careers. Ernst’s 135 Bundesliga appearances had resulted in only 11 goal contributions from either left back or left midfield. Meanwhile, 23-year-old striker Klasnić had played 35 games in two injury-hit seasons for Die Werderaner, but only started six of them.
However, Schaaf somehow found a way to maximise these underperforming talents. Ernst and Klasnić both recorded 11 league assists in 03/04, only a certain Michael Ballack for Bayern assisted more often (12). Klasnić also popped up with 13 goals, taking his personal goals and assists tally to 24, and Werder’s strike partnership to an eye-watering 60. 60 in a 34-game season. For reference, the famed Gayle (25) and Rodriguez (27) partnership amassed 52 goals and assists combined in our 46-game 2018/19 Championship season…
But what has Bremen’s eighteen-year-old success got to do with Ismaël’s current project at Albion?
Well there are more reasonable comparisons between these two seemingly unrelated sides than you might think…