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.
Nil-nil draws have a stylized quality about them, I reminded myself when Hertha Berlin and Borussia Dortmund played out a dull 0-0 draw at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on matchday 20.
Stylization is useful in that – through exaggerated gesturing, posing, and performing – it can reveal something more clearly. Fashion especially, and art in general, sometimes take advantage of this possibility. Fußball matches too. Through exaggeration, stylization makes something paradoxically surreal, yet recognizable, like, I dunno, these hipsters:
What do stylized hipsters and stylization have to do with Hertha and BVB’s nil-nil draw, and the subject of this article, Vladimir Darida? Well, enough to bear mentioning.
Disclaimer: I’m not asserting that Darida is a hipster. Oh no! Don’t make any false connections, readers. Although he’s definitely a bit waif-like, he’s no hipster:
Maybe a hipster’s footballer, but not a hipster playing football. Let’s not conflate things.
One more thing I should make clear, if you follow the wider Bundesliga outside Bayern and Dortmund, Darida is probably not an unknown and unsung toiler. You know of him. You also probably know that he’s having a career year and is arguably the on-pitch driving force behind Hertha’s stunning success this season. I concede this point!
However, if you only care about Bayern and Dortmund, or don’t follow the Bundesliga, Darida is an unsung name. And one you should remember. He’s the sort of midfield creator and worker that teams and fans crave.
In the quasi-traditional speak associated with football positions, Darida is something like the #8 or #10 (central midfielder or attacking midfielder). Of course, like many professional footballers, his role is hybrid or fluid, given the dynamic shapes and positioning of contemporary players. In general, his sphere of influence looks like this on the pitch:
Which brings me back to stylization and that dull 0-0 draw between Hertha and BVB …
During the first half of this match, especially, the static play meant that Hertha’s shape and positioning was pretty easy to see. That is, the match’s dull character stylized Hertha’s formation. Each player’s role was discernible in one of those satisfyingly clear ways.
There is Darida.
He starts in the “central center” midfield. He moves up the pitch in a precise line toward his marking assignment. BVB play a pass. Darida drops back into a tidy small circular zone. He waits for the next markee to pick up. Again, another precise line toward his target. Then back to that tidy circle. Yet each time he sprints out in that precise line as if the match depended on it.
His sprints were committed, yet unconscious, as if his body itself is a metonym of footballing muscle memory.
Derida’s work that matchday was so stylized that my mind created a heatmap of his movement, which looked something like this:
Darida’s operating base is the center circle, then he sweeps out to each flank as needed. His territory requires much sprinting to-and-fro both to receive passes and play on the next ball, or to close down an opponent’s passing lane. It’s mostly seemingly joyless work, but totally necessary work, given how Hertha is both able to move the ball with their isosceles and scalene passing triangles and pin opponents back to their half of the pitch. Mostly, it seems, Darida makes this all possible.
After the match, I looked at a chalkboard of Darida’s sprints on Bundesliga.de to confirm my sense of his labor, and I found this chalkboard:
I also discovered that no other player in the Bundesliga ran as much as Darida (13.07 km) that matchday.
The things required for a nil-nil draw.
However, this Dortmund match is not an anomaly. Darida routinely puts in the most or almost the most running each match. But it’s not plain ol’ running, it’s running that works both defensively and offensively. In this example, Darida’s sprints indicate a heavy defensive load:
Darida consummately works from the center of the pitch in both directions.
But make no mistake, Darida isn’t simply machine cog or pulley. After all, much of his time is spent in the attacking half of the pitch. Darida isn’t a stranger to glamour, as demonstrated on what is currently his signature from the 2015-16 season in a match at Werder Bremen:
The crisp turn, the first touch, and the intention. A bolt from the blue kind of goal(azo).
However, Darida has scored more than one goal this season. He also “corked” in this lovely piece of work against Mainz 05:
The run, the slightly mazy dribbling and the speed on that ground ball. Lovely.
So far in 2015-16, he’s scored 6 goals for Hertha and 1 assist. On the surface, the 1 assist looks suspect; however, assists sometimes result from random placement or being assigned a role where you simply hammer dozens of crosses into the box (like Darida’s teammates, Mitchell Weiser, who has 4 assists). Indeed, Darida is the guy making the pass before the assist – he leads Hertha with 1.1 Key Passes per match. Yet, I’d argue that not even Key Passes are Darida’s main contribution. No, it’s more like the pass (or two!) before the Key Pass when his value is most keenly felt.
My point is illustrated in a Bundesliga Rückrunde preview piece on StatsBomb, which observed that Pal Dardai’s Hertha has gone from a league-last 42% of possession a season ago to a greatly improved 49% this season, while the team’s passing completion rate has improved from 75% to 85% during the same time – an improvement the article directly attributes to Darida and defensive midfielder Per Skjelbred. Notice the decrease in red, which indicates better pass completion, from 2014-15 to 2015-16:
Moreover, Darida leads Hertha in passes per match (56), demonstrating his centrality in shepherding BSC around the pitch. His completion rate of 82% is notable given that the Czech midfielder isn’t simply playing square balls. Many of his passes have range, pointing all over the pitch. Here’s the first example in a match against 1.FC Köln in September:
Here’s another example from December match against Mainz 05:
And finally, here’s an example from the January match against Werder:
Running, passing. Sounds like a midfielder, right?
However, perhaps the statistic that impresses me the most about Darida is that he’s played 1,921 minutes so far this season – 2nd most on Hertha after Marvin Plattenhardt – which is astonishing to consider now that you’ve seen just how much work Darida does on the pitch. I mean, his job description probably has clauses about “wear and tear” littered all over it. But fear not. Darida doesn’t stop.
The fact that Darida labors for Hertha itself is remarkable. A season ago, Darida was an “up-and-comer” who put in 53 appearances (9 goals) at SC Freiburg, and before that, 61 appearances with Czech side FC Viktoria Plzeň, where he gained Champions League and Europa League experience.
During his time at Plzeň, Darida was selected for the Czech Republic’s Euro 12 team, appearing twice in the tournament. Given Darida’s youngish age (he’s 25), he’s viewed as something like the rising Czech star – a hope that will be tested when his Czech Republic face Spain, Croatia, and Turkey in Group D during this summer’s 2016 Euros. Given his international exposure, the likes of AC Milan, S04, and BVB were rumored to want him back in 2013, for example, or last summer when Darida left the relegated SC Freiburg and surprisingly signed for Hertha, who themselves were fresh off a 15th place Bundesliga finish and only 1 point away from the relegation zone.
Upon signing Darida, Hertha sporting director Michael Preetz explained: “Darida is a young but experienced flexible player who will bring fresh impulse to our team.” Fresh impulse, indeed. Thanks to a deeper embedding with coach Pal Dardai’s coaching system and the signings of Darida and Vedad Ibiševic, Hertha was transformed.
Darida’s unsung days are numbered to expire this summer, if his play during this Bundesliga season predicts anything at all.
But I don’t think he’ll notice. His being is trained on the midfield crescent he automates with his precision.
(Header image credit: Tobias Schwarz, AFP / Getty Images)
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