Song of the Unsung Midfielders is a series celebrating, well, midfielders who are unsung in the Bundesliga. The fußball laborers in a semi-anonymous state, orchestrating the dance between coordination and chaos that is football. I have a weakness for these players, as they toil away in large heatmap territories in the heart of the pitch. This series will celebrate their work and bring attention to these conductors – these conduits – for the paths of that silly round ball. Expect some data, but mostly expect a tonal treatment.
My favorite relatively unknown midfielder is FC Augsburg’s (FCA) Daniel Baier. He caught my eye last season for the long corridors of influence he carved out on the pitch as the single holding midfielder on a side that barely escaped relegation – again. The scope of Baier’s corridors across the pitch was a marvel, as was his ability to find community both with the back four and with front four+1 of FCA’s beleaguered, yet fascinating squad. I think Baier’s somewhat stocky physique even further impressed his play on my mind; to see that body and build ceaselessly roam the pitch gave him realness to me. I mean, it’s not as if Baier is “overweight” or anything, he doesn’t pass the old guard eyeball test of looking like the pitch influencer and conduit that he is. This matters.
It matters, because I spent most not seeing him when watching FCA play last season, or even this season. Sure, his side’s monochromatic kits don’t help distinguish individual footballers (all black, all green, all white!, but there is always something almost invisible in his movement and passing work. A run here. A smooth quick pass there. A dribble and dump-off pass here. A pivot and pass there. Beyond these intermittent TV sightings, Baier’s heatmaps, passing chalkboards, and count stats show his deeply steady and significant impact on the pitch. He’s there. And all over the midfield.
For example, last season Baier was in the Bundesliga’s top 25 for attempted assists: 22nd for attempted assists from open play (32), 12th for attempted assists leading to “shots on goal” (35), and 8th for attempted assists from set pieces (25). What’s remarkable is that Baier pulled off this feat as a deep-lying holding midfielder in FCA standard 4-1-4-1 formation – no other equivalent midfielder, positionally, was even close to Baier’s tally.
A year later, FCA remains (quite successfully, it turns out) in the Bundesliga, currently sitting at 8th place (behind Hertha on GD) on a nine match unbeaten run in the Bundesliga. Meanwhile, Baier remains as the single holding midfielder in the league’s (currently) longest standing 4-1-4-1 formation:
For a season and a half, this formation has defined Augsburg with Baier as its lynch pin, connecting play between the back and front. The 4-1-4-1 grants FCA ample space for racing about the pitch, especially along the flanks. Indeed, Augsburg is a running side. Recently, however, FCA’s 4-1-4-1 identity has taken a bit of hiatus with Arkadiusz Milik playing atop a 4-2-3-1 (-ish) formation, as Sascha Mölders has been battling back from injuries since early November (he’s back in training right now). Nonetheless, the work of Baier remains just as invisible, yet effective as ever.
Within the stretched symmetry of Augsburg’s 4-1-4-1 (Pep Guardiola, perhaps, nods in agreement), the position of the holding midfielder is paradoxical: this player is both the heart of the side, yet is alone – isolated – as if detachment and distance is required for bearing the burden of linking the community of defense (the back four) and the community of offense (the four attacking midfielders + striker). Atop, Mölders and Milik cannot know of this two-fold job of linking the two communities; they can only wait for ricocheting balls to rebound into the net, or headers to thunder. Milik and Mölders cannot know of Baier’s communal, yet lonely work.
Because fußball is a sport of dynamic movement and interaction, reality is far from lyrical. Fullbacks overlap with wingers. Naturally, Baier gets his nose mixed up in all the vertical and horizontal reaches of the pitch. Really, we know he’s not alone. Baier’s territory is actually quite crowded. Quite. Perhaps the most congested area of the pitch, given FCA’s penchant to sit just south of 50% possession per match. But paradoxically, Baier is alone in the crowd. His function is singular. Consider: is he defense or offense? When I do catch glimpses of him on the pitch, he’s in this liminal space between both defense and offense – something moving as a defender, sometimes as an attacker. Sometimes he’s transitioning between the two in a quick second.
No big deal, you might counter. Sounds like you’re describing most elite footballers these days. Sure, perhaps I am. However, even an attacking midfielder is usually mostly doing attacking. That is, there’s a more singular purpose for the play of this position. With Baier, it’s hard to say what is singular purpose within the attack/defend play binary we perceive football through. Baier slips through our binary. A third option here just sounds lame to describe Baier’s function: “midfield play.” Ha. The problem is that midfield play at any given moment is always oriented toward a singular end, whether attacking or defending. In discrete moments, football’s teleology is binary. I’ll concede that Baier is no different, it’s just that he’s always slipping between the sides of the attack/defend binary. Perhaps this indeterminacy partially explains Baier’s mostly ghostly presence on the pitch.
But he’s there and he does stuff.
Take a look at this gallery of heatmaps and passing chalkboards from FC Augsburg’s nine match upbeaten streak (beginning on Matchday 13 till the present). In general, you’ll notice that Baier on average occupies his side’s defensive half of the pitch, which shouldn’t surprise you given his place in FCA’s formation; however, there’s certainly an attacking “directionality” about Baier’s actions. (All heatmaps and chalkboards courtesy of Squawka.com.)
Matchday 13 (win vs. Hoffenheim):
Matchday 14 (draw at Hertha Berlin):
Matchday 15 (win at Hamburger SV):
Matchday 16 (win vs. Eintracht Braunschweig):
Matchday 17 (draw at Eintracht Frankfurt):
Matchday 18 (draw at Dortmund):
Matchday 19 (win vs. Werder Bremen):
Matchday 20 (win at VfB Stuttgart):
Baier here, Baier there. A bit of Baier everywhere in the midfield – and beyond. If any location tendency emerges for the FCA midfielder, it’s a bit of a leftward pull on the pitch, yet he has matches where he’s rightward bound. Finally, here are canvases for arguably his best match of the season (a Matchday 11 win vs. Mainz 05):
What I love about this Baier-themed gallery is the variety of action and passing. From match to match, there’s no telling what distribution of color we’ll find – same with the passing patterns, which seem equally unpredictable in ways I’m not accustomed to seeing from other midfielders, besides a one-off match or two of irregularity.
Look, it’s fair and easy to say that FCA isn’t in the Bundesliga right now if not for Baier. My aforementioned discussion of his contribution of “key passes” alone supports my claim, let alone the underlying lattices of action and corridors of influence he carves on the pitch. For my money, Baier was clearly the unsung hero of FC Augsburg survival in the Bundesliga.
So we come to this season – a season of safety at the very least for Augsburg, who have almost exceeded last season’s points total (i.e. 31 this season versus 33 total for all of last season). FCA haven’t lost in the Bundesliga since a road trip to mighty Bayern on November 9th. It’s been good times in Augsburg. FCA shoot more than they concede and, thanks to caning VfB Stuttgart this last weekend, Augsburg even have a positive goal differential (+1!). Meanwhile, as usual Baier has been doing his unsung thing, but this time, he’s become the unsung dude on his own club, as players like the André Hahn (sensational right now), Tobias Werner, Halil Altintop, Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker, and the recently returned (on loan) Dong-Won Ji overshadow the ghostly Baier. Heck, Baier doesn’t even lead FCA in assists, an honor currently belonging to Werner (5). Nor does he have any goals (Hahn has 9 and Altintop 6). Moreover, Baier’s “key passing” numbers (“only” 1.6 per match, 30th in the Bundesliga) are even down from a season ago (1.8 per match), thanks to Werner’s resurgence.
But don’t be fooled. Baier is there. He’s doing his work, starting every match as usual, seeming indestructible inhabiting that mildy stocky physique of his. After all, Baier is 5th in the Bundesliga in total touches this season (1553) and you’ll find him lurking in the top 25 in other important categories, like final 3rd passing. He’s there. It’s just that the burden of Augsburg’s success is more equally distributed among the squad this season than it has been the past two seasons.
So don’t miss Baier, our inaugural unsung midfielder. Try to find him – he’s ghostly, but he’s indispensable to one of the Bundesliga’s most endearing narratives of success this season.
Header courtesy of tz.de