‘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.
To paraphrase words said about a preacher in a holy text: what good can possibly come from Nazareth? The same damning rhetorical question could be uttered about Werder Bremen. Indeed, what good can possibly come from that northern club during these troubled days? Outside of Franco Di Santo spontaneously combusting into goals, the answer is nothing. Nothing except a certain midfielder: Zlatko Junuzovic.
Say hello to the Serbian descent, Austrian national (and international!), who anchors the beleaguered Werder midfield. I know, not the most promising endorsement, but bear with me.
From what the internet’s collective memory reveals, Junuzovic, 27 years old, was actually born in what is now Serbia. In a former life, Junuzovic found joy in 74 matches with 19 goals for Austria Wien. (Not to be confused with Rapid Wien.) Plus, he’s been an Austrian national team participant at the senior level since 2006, earning 32 caps. The man is surprisingly experienced. Yet what do you know about him?
So here we here are in throes of Junuzovic’s third season with Werder Bremen. If our augury methods are to be believed, Werder has already stamped a one-way ticket to relegation. The remaining season is nothing but Sisyphean formalities for the green-clad boys. Although HSV and VfB are currently doing everything in their twisted powers to occupy the relegation zone, make no mistake: Werder Bremen is the worst club in the Bundesliga right now: 2 wins, 4 draws, and 5 losses with a -10 GD. I mean, come on, have you seen Werder Bremen’s listed starting XI? (Bundesliga 2 world-beaters, folks.)
And yet. And yet here we are, witnessing the proudly storied club riding a 3 match winning streak and looking positively mid-tableish during the process. Our auguries point to mythical forces like “the new coach effect.” (Viktor Skripnik!) Or they point to quasi-known Argentines, like Franco Di Santo, who kicks against the goads of statistical regression. Or they point to one Zlatko Junuzovic: the conductor of Werder’s flawed symphony.
Aamzingly, four Werder boys have played every or nearly every minute of every match so far. Junuzovic is one of these boys. His 5 assists are his statistical glory, good for 2nd most in the Bundesliga.
Think about his assists like this: imagine you are a central attacking-ish midfielder feeding balls to the glorious scoring talents in the Werder attack (Di Santo, Elia, Selke, Galvez, or the iconic Fin Bartels). Making matter even worse, Werder possesses the 3rd-lowest ball possession rate (45%) in the league. So you’re boys don’t even see the ball a whole lot. Nor is your squad terribly skilled in the dribbling / making something up department (3rd-lowest dribbling rate in the Bundesliga). Oh, and overall your boys complete 68% of their passes, again – you guessed it – the 3rd-lowest rate in the Bundesliga. Yet somehow you (Junuzovic, that is) have 5 assists and your 2.5 key passes a match is the 7th highest average in the Bundesliga.
It’s all slightly miraculous.
It’s not easy creating scoring opportunities in such circumstances, but someone must do it. With his 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes, Junuzovic is basically creating two and a half scoring opportunities for teammates each match. However, there’s a catch, depending on your school of thought. Let’s just say that Junuzovic cashes in on his corner kick-taking responsibilities. There’s a seedy side to every play-maker, eh?
In case you didn’t connect the dots, the corners account for exactly 50% of Junuzovic’s key passes. But come on, how else would anybody create half their chances on this Werder side? Besides, there’s still something like a chance and half a match that Junuzovic creates through open play. For a side like Werder, who often loses low-scoring duds, a single open play attempted assist could be the difference between points or no points.
Then there’s the matter of Junuzovic’s wild west passing completion numbers: dude only completes 73% of his passes, which, last time I checked, is not exactly shiny for a ball-distributing midfielder. But that’s the thing. Junuzovic isn’t exactly a ball distributor in the way more high profile midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara, Ilkay Gündogan, Luis Gustavo, Christoph Kramer, or Daniel Baier are in the Bundesliga. You’ll find these guys playing more shorter ground balls passes; in contrast, Junuzovic is a deliciously more direct American quarterback-style (i.e. aerial) passer. Indulge yourself in a couple of passing chalkboards:
What’s interesting in this particular match is Junuzovic’s assist (the blue vector) coupled with the length of the balls he passed. Strikingly, Junuzovic “only” completed 64% of his passes in this match, yet was certainly “Man of the Match” material. In fact, you can see that many of his failed passes are longish balls into attacking 3rd territory, so even if a teammate doesn’t recover the ball, the opponent is at least pinned back. Finally, I highlighted Junuzovic’s activity along Werder’s left side of the pitch where he usually roams.
Next, in a 1-2 loss to VfL, Junuzovic displays a spectacular range of passing influence on the pitch:
In this match, Junuzovic completed a higher % of passes, yet still managed a key pass from open play, as well as distribute the ball around both sides of the pitch. Plus, notice how far afield he’s wandering from his usual left-ward territory, which is more customary when Junuzovic takes up a central role. That’s some unsung work.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Junuzovic is that he’s – perhaps – a midfielder trapped in a forward’s body. His goal highlight reel is surprising brilliant. Junuzovic is crafty, opportunistic, and skilled. Don’t miss his legendary piece of work at the 48 second mark:
Forgive me for latching my jaws into the selection bias that’s embedded into highlight reels like this (after all, only successful goal attempts are shown), but Junuzovic looks like a bona fide forward / “False Nine” type in this video. He’s delightful: joyful, exuberant, a bit arrogant, lucky, crafty, and … fun. Mind you, Junuzovic features as a midfielder for Werder, not a forward, so it’s worth thinking about the goal-scoring experience lurking dormant in his boots as he trudges through joyless Werder transitional play.
Furthermore, Junzovic betrays a lack of midfield pedigree, perhaps, with defensive miscues. For example, he’s dribbled past by opponents at a high rate (5th highest in the Bundesliga). Of course, it’s difficult to contextualize this trait. Typically, it’s more commonly found in high attacking midfielders, who are left behind during swift transitional play. Is Junuzovic slow this his hips? Out of position? Heading in another direction? I don’t know. Yet more consistent marking abilities are expected from midfielders.
So who is Zlatko Junuzovic?
Given Werder’s struggle just to stay afloat this season, perhaps we’ll never know the answer as Junuzovic’s craft is buried within the agonized pitch actions that compromise Werder fußball. I am tempted to say things like, “Junuzovic’s style is too undisciplined for a possession side like Bayern,” but I don’t even know what Junuzovic’s style is. To what extent is Junuzovic’s current identity contingent on Werder’s football? Perhaps he’s an attacking midfielder in the mold of a Mkhitaryan? Perhaps he’s more like a Max Kruse? Perhaps he’s just Zunuzovic?
These questions are tricky in a fluid and collective sport like football, in which there’s a dance between unit and individual, between control and chaos, and between automation and intention. Currently, Junuzovic occupies a space amid these tensions, as Werder seemingly occupy a space between Bundesliga 1 and Bundesliga 2.