“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 coordination and chaos that is football. I have a weakness for these players, as they toil away in large heat-map territories through 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.
For the entire Rückrunde, I struggled to find an appropriate subject for my final S.o.t.U.M piece of 2014-15. The options were thin. Candidates had one of two problems: 1) the “unsung” midfielder is no longer unsung – he’s a star – e.g. Gonzalo Castro, or 2) he’s too obscure to be anything more than baseball’s version of the proverbial replacement-level player (in fairness, I won’t name names).
Which leads me to the subject of this piece, Mr. Pirmin Schwegler of 1899 TSG Hoffenheim. Our latest unsung midfielder.
The 28 year old Schwegler is Swiss, hailing from Eittiswil, a picturesque tiny place of about 2,000 inhabitants, west of Lucerne and Zurich. You might remember him from his time in Eintracht Frankfurt’s midfield, where he played from 2009-13 (his longest stint with a club). Previously, he played 46 matches for Leverkusen from 2006-09; before that, he played a season at Young Boys (Switzerland) from 2005-06 and Lucerne from 2003-05. So much for the basics. Want more? He’s got an oldish personal site. Check it out. (Is there an odd genre begging for a critical treatment more than the personal pages of footballers? Seriously.) He looks like a good guy.
If this series has a proverbially “unsung” hero it’s Schwegler. He will not turn into Johannes Geis or Zlatko Junuzovic. Nor will Schwegler even become a Daniel Baier, the boiler man of his side, its engine, its long-standing general. No, Pirim Schwegler is our unsung midfielder. Ontologically, Schwegler’s being is that of the unsung itself. He is not in transit to greatness. He’s even not a club kult hero. He’s just a journeyman plying his trade in Germany’s midfields.
Give this man a round of applause, dear readers.
I’ll quickly get to my main point. Schwegler is a dandy in the midfield. The idealized Victorian gentleman in top hat, strolling cape, and possibly cane. But here’s the catch: this dandy does the midfield’s dirty excavation. He’s Hoffy’s henchman in blue, their ankle-stamper.
Why dandy? Well, have you ever taken a close look at Mr. Schwegler? I mean, come on, kiddos!
An ankle-stamper has never looked so suave on the job. But he does the job. Schwegler is one of the double-pivots in Hoffenheim’s 4-2-3-1 shape, serving along side Eugene Polanski:
In terms of raw numbers, both Schwegler and Polanski average roughly the same quantity of defensive actions per match; e.g. attempted and successful tackles, interceptions, and blocks.
The pivots even average close to the same number of passes per match (40 for Polanksi and 39 for Schwegler). Polanski is slightly more accurate (75% completed) than Schwegler (72% completed). However, Schwegler has managed to attempt twice the number of Key Passes (i.e. passes leading to scoring attempts) than Polanski. So I’m not surprised to see that Schwegler has 4 assists this season to Polanski’s zero. Yet Polanski has scored 5 goals to Schwegler’s 1 goal. The former shoots more than the latter. Go figure.
Trust me, I almost wrote this post about Polanski – perhaps because the Pole manages to score goals occasionally – however, Schwegler consistently caught my eye. Let me explain why.
He’s very good at committing fouls.
Is there another more unsung skill? Schwegler commits 2.6 fouls per match. 6th most in the Bundesliga. (For context, HSV’s Valon Behrami leads the league with 2.9 per match.) But here’s the fun bit. Despite all that physical contact, Schwegler is nowhere close to the Bundesliga’s most yellow-carded players. In fact, he’s 69th on that list per minutes played with 5 yellows total. By contrast, Luiz Gustavo leads the Bundesliga in this dubious tally (11 yellows).
Schwegler’s small tally of yellows – despite his high rate of physical contact – could mean a number of things. That Schwegler is exceptionally skilled in challenging for the ball. That he’s good at conning the ref. That he’s simply lucky at not getting caught. Or a bit of all of the above.
Regardless, Schwegler’s ability to get away with a very physical game is useful. Dare I say, unsung? I’ll illustrate. During Hoffenheim’s May 2nd home draw against Borussia Dortmund, Schwegler basically knocked the diminutive Pole, Jakub Blaszczkowski (Kuba) out of the match by halftime. It’s rare when I notice patterns in midfield challenges (and the attendant highlights) during a match. But this is exactly what happened that day. Repeatedly, the highlight clip showed Schwegler decking Kuba. Indeed, the chalkboard of fouls committed (by Schwegler) and suffered (by Kuba) chalkboard from the match is worth a couple chuckles:
Note the proximity between defender (Schwegler) and attacker (Kuba). BVB’s Polish attacker seemed to spend most the 1st half writhing around the grass in pain after he got the “Schwegler treatment.” But he wasn’t the only BVBer to suffer this fate:
Nice challenge, Mr. Schwegler. Are those shaved legs? Anyhow, for at least 45 minutes Schwegler played a key role is plain ol’ disrupting BVB’s attack. The referee kept wagging his finger at Pirmin, but the Swiss midfield continued his hard man work. By halftime, Kuba was knocked out of the match.
During this futile draw for Dortmund, I was struck by the juxtaposition between Schwegler’s ceaseless dirty work (ironically clean, since Schwegler earned no cards) all over the entire midfield while looking like such a well-groomed, dandified, dapper gent the entire time. Which brings me back to my main point. Schwegler is Hoffenheim’s hard man dandy.
Schwegler denies my/our football cliches of the hard man. I’m sure you know the stereotype: dude from a Balkan state (e.g. Serbia), buzzed short hair, ample face stubble, a scar or two, definitely tats, and ‘-ic” ending in the sir name. And then there’s Mr. Schwegler with his Wall Street face, ‘do, fashion know-how, boyish looks, and Ivy League cut. Here, I’ll give you a slideshow:
I’m not trying to say something profound here. Just an acknowledgment of something offering up a little delight, because god knows we need more of that in football and sport.
Lest I sell short my newest “unsung” hero by pinning his value to defensive physicality alone, I should say that Schwegler does what you’d expect a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 to do: distribute the ball. Schwegler is Hoffenheim’s 4th leading passer in attempts per match (after Süle, Polanski, and Firmino) with 39 per match. He completes 72% on average with a high range of variance, however. For example, during the same match in which he knocked out Kuba, Schwegler completed 89% of his passes:
As a deep-lying double-pivot, Schwegler passes mostly from his holding midfield territory in this example. In this match, the degree of difficulty of Schwegler’s passing isn’t as challenging as, say, Roberto Firmino, but Schwegler is not simply playing tons of square passes. There’s even a Key Pass registered.
At the other end of the spectrum, Schwegler’s passing work – whether because of increasing difficulty, tactical duties elsewhere, or god knows what – sometimes resembles a 50/50 proposition:
Schwegler will certainly never be confused with Thiago Alcantara, or even Daniel Baier, but he is serviceable as a passer in the way that an “unsung” player should be, I would submit.
However, as a Bundesliga.com mini cottage industry of videos demonstrates, Schwegler is certainly more than serviceable as a FIFA legend:
So I praise Pirmin Schwegler as our newest unsung midfielder. And he’s worth praising for his delightful combination – dialectic? – of hard man dirty work and dapperness. He’s as paradoxical as he is real. Which is to say that he’s there most Hoffenheim matches, holding the Plastik Blues’ attacking midfield, like a net holding trapeze artists. Do you notice him?
He’s there, the dandy. But don’t let his looks fool you. This coiffured man brings the kampf to the pitch.
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