‘Song of the Unsung Midfielders’ is a series celebrating, well, midfielders who are unsung in the Bundesliga. The Fußballers who labor in a semi-anonymous state, orchestrating the dance between the coordination and chaos that is football. I have a weakness for these players, as they toil away in large heat-map 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.
Much of the time, the kind of midfielders I crush on are ghosts. You see their names on the slanted television starting-XI graphics, but you hardly hear their names called out in German or English. You can go entire halves of play without a name uttered. But, the ghosts are there: empirical evidence of presence is confirmed through match data in the likes of ball touches, passes, kilometers covered, and – don’t forget! – those garishly splotched Grün und Rot heat maps. At this point, you suddenly realize that a midfielder like 1.FSV Mainz 05’s Johannes Geis exists. And – gasp, my gawd – he touches that damn ball an awful lot.
Johannes Geis. Sometimes I accidentally mumble Geist to myself when trying to pick him out from the buzzing red squares of Mainz 05ers scurrying on the pitch. Geist. Something like “spirit”, “ghost”, or “mind” in English – only add a “t” to Geis and you’re there in the realm of the ghostly and the unseen.
Just who is this Geis? Well, he’s a 20-year-old German dude from Schweinfurt (“Pig Ford”!), with a stylized ‘do, kissy blonde girlfriend, teenage grin, small black-lined tattoos, engines-worth of life, and a touch of Wayne Rooney on his face.
Geis is young. but he’s also the kind of phenom-type German blue-chipper from the country’s fabled youth system to which we’ve been accustomed as lovers of German Fußball. From the U-16s onwards, the Schweinfurt youngster has become a national-team fixture at every level. After bouncing around three “TSV” clubs in his boyhood, Geis got his big-leagues chance with SpVgg Greuther Fürth in 2008. Yes, he was on the unlucky 2012-13 Fürth side that only lasted a single season in the Bundesliga. I’ll be honest, I had only the vaguest memory of Geis’ name from last season, let alone anything he actually did on the pitch – I have a fuzzy image of the green Fürth kit, topped with a dyed blond bob of hair.
In 28 appearances a season ago, Geis managed 4 goals – fairly impressive stuff from a defensive / holding midfielder – including a sensational debut strike against 1.FC Nürnberg during the 256th incarnation of the Franconian derby.
The goal against Der Club stands out. As well it should, not only for the aesthetics and space-bending involved, but also as a signal sent by its creator. With this goal, and perhaps with his 4 assists for Mainz 05 this season, Geis signals to us that, make no mistake, he can dazzlingly break character from his ghostly defensive midfielder role. These scoring and assisting moments tantalize us with the hypotheticals, the day dreams, and the fantasies of Geis as a modish false nine or simply as an attacking midfielder. Here, fuel your fantasies for two 2 minutes and 12 seconds:
In these clips, Geis passes the ball like an American quarterback, aerial-style, pinpoint deliveries to his streaking wide receiver down the seam into the end zone. Touchdown. Quarterback Foot – just trying out a nickname for the blonde boy. In these moments, Geis reminds me of Nuri Sahin circa 2010-11, arguably the Bundesliga’s best player that season.
If you fantasized about a “Free the Geis/t!” movement for a couple minutes there, pause, then consider an irony: without his deep-positioning as a defensive or holding midfielder, Geis doesn’t have the pitch-space to make those aerial passes, nor does he have the pitch-space from which to coil his speed on a beeline run toward the opponent’s 18 yard box. Geis needs space; his game is premised on it.
However, it’s not as if Mainz’s tinkering coach, Thomas Tuchel, hasn’t had the same fantasy about Geis. Indeed, the keen-eyed, bearded boss has gifted Geis with 5 appearances as an attacking midfielder this season. I won’t lie and claim to know how Geis fared in these 5 appearances, since I didn’t watch these matches closely, but it’s telling that Tuchel has kept Geis in the defensive midfield for 19 appearances this season. In the dizzying carousel of rotating Mainz starting formations, you’ll usually find Geis as a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1:
From his double-pivot perch, Geis plays the role of tackler and ball distributor, as he’s M05’s 2nd most prolific passer (about 47 passes per match on average). Geis has a crunchy side, too, as he leads Mainz in tackles and comes out as a top 15 tackling dude in the Bundesliga. I don’t know what to make of this feat – does it mean Geis, as an aggressive youngster, is still figuring out positioning? Are these smart tackles? Are these desperate tackles in which somebody burned him? Tellingly, he’s not nearly as proficient in making ball recoveries or interceptions. But, boy, does he tackle, which offers coaches and supporters security insurance, as deep-lying midfielders are commonly called upon to chase down wayward gazelles.
Yet, Geis isn’t all ankle-crunching ferocity. Far from it. He can pass the damned ball. Remove the goal-keepers at the top, and Geis is the Bundesliga’s 2nd most accurate “long ball” passer, just after Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka. Geis is such a long-baller that his average pass length is 25 meters long (!) – a distance I haven’t seen any other Bundesliga players come even close to this season.
Geis’ ability to make these quarterback-like passes is probably the reason why he leads Mainz in “key passes” per match, as well as “shot assist” attempts (he’s also among the Bundesliga leaders in both categories). In this regard, Geis is Mainz’s primary author of scoring chances in Tuchel’s utterly flexible, low-possession, low-passing, and shoot-on-the-go philosophy. It’s not an overstatement to assert that Geis makes the Tuchel philosophy work.
My favorite Geis moment this season was his December 21st labor at HSV on the Hinrunde’s final matchday. This game is symbolic for two reasons, I’d argue. First, the 2-3 road win for Mainz 05 foreshadowed the diametrical trajectories for both clubs involved: upwards for M05, and shockingly downwards for HSV. The match was a roller coaster affair with Mainz trailing twice before an Okazaki goal in extra time stole all 3 points. Second, even through Geis didn’t register anything gaudy like an assist or goal, he was a consummate ball distributor in the Mainz 05 fashion, especially as the match wore on. He completed 74 passes – many of a high degree of difficulty, such as long aerial balls – for an 87% completion percentage, an accomplishment few other footballers anywhere could replicate, given the distance Geis’ passes traveled. The complete passing chalkboard from this match looks like this:
Observe the large number of red circles from which Geis made his passes in Mainz’s own defensive half. Sure, because Geis is a holding midfielder, he will necessarily possess the ball in this half of the pitch, yet I’m still staggered by his ability to create offense from this “wrong half” of the pitch. Indeed, Geis’ passing during the second half is a study in the art of the effective longball:
Many of Geis’ passes during this second half against HSV have a remarkable verticality as they travel up the pitch. Given the game state in the 2nd half, as Mainz was chasing the lead, it’s not surprising that Geis and his teammates would be anxious to get the ball up the pitch; nonetheless, Geis executes here under the pressure of chasing the lead. You can almost experience the forward motion conveyed in all the long green passing lines in this chalkboard.
After looking more closer at Geis on the pitch – video footage, X/Y coordinates, etc. – I’m amazed that I don’t notice him more often when I’m watching Mainz play. I have the same sensation when watching Daniel Baier, during what is probably his career year. With Geis, I know he’s there and I know he skilled, but where is he? Ghostly. Even still.
Though I don’t know how much longer Geis will be ghostly. His status as an unsung lad will be short. I mean, he’s raging through this stage right now. Can you blame him? Those “quarterback passes” and brilliant volley shots hint at a decidedly “Sung Midfielder” status we’ll probably be conferring on the blonde lad very soon in the future. It’s pretty much already happening. This last matchday (28), Geis further underscored his own self-authored grand teleology of leaving the ghostly ranks far behind with his wonder volley of a goal against FC Augsburg in his crew’s 3-0 dismantled of the Bavarian upstarts.
But for now, Geis is unsung – certainly across wider Europe and even across Germany. Sing him n0w. Your reward? Boasting to your mates that you were there first and that you knew better than to disbelieve ghosts.
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